Words in English public website
Ling/Engl 215 course information
Rice University
Prof. S. Kemmer

Native and Borrowed Words in Discourse

The choice of a large number of native or borrowed words can lend a speech or piece of writing a particular emotional coloring. Choosing many native English words and few borrowed ones can give a speech a sense of strength, solidity, and general group solidarity.

Consider Winston Churchill's exhortation to the British to fight on to victory, during World War II. The words in blue are borrowed words. All of the other words are native. Of 75 words, exactly 68 are native (almost 91%), an extremely high percentage for English.

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.
--Winston Churchill, speech to Parliament, June 4, 1940

Note that even some of the borrowed words in blue, such as air, cost, and streets, have the characteristics of native words (short, morphologically simple, frequent, used in spoken language, learned early); they are words that have been in the language many centuries and thus are highly 'nativized' (although still borrowed words).

Most written texts have many more borrowed words than native ones. Oral texts typically have more native words than written texts do, but usually only informal conversations on non-specialized topics have high percentages of native words. The following is an oral text about economics. The informality of the oral speech yields the relatively large number native words, but still the number of borrowed words is about 30%, about 4 times as many as the formal Churchill speech above.

Bernanke replied: "I think people are quite unhappy with the state of the economy and what's happening. They blame with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess. And they're dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can't blame them."

© 2013 Suzanne Kemmer
Last modified 24 Aug 13