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Today we take some time to talk to you about a conworldy topic: loan words in your conlang.  What words are likely to be borrowed?  What kinds of situations cause borrowing?  And how does grammar work for loan words?  Also, we talk about Kebreni, our second feature of an Almean language.

Top of Show Greeting: Lojban

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Featured Conlang: Kebreni




A friend just posted this on my Facebook wall: a list of measure words in English! Everything from a murder of crows to a stand of flamingos to a blessing of unicorns (because it’s Unicorn Appreciation Day, of course!), and even some obviously contrived creations like “a brace of dentists”.

Now I wonder what the measure word for conlangers would be….

Michael from California

31 Responses to “Conlangery #59: Loan Words”

  1. Andrew J Smith

    Technically, “katana” is just the Japanese word for “sword,” in the same way that “tarte” is just the French word for “pie.” Despite the differences between a French pie and an American pie (notably the top crust), the concept is still understood as “a pie” in French, but not in English. Similarly, “katana” and “sword” are understood by the same concept in Japanese, but are separated in English. It doesn’t matter what type of sword, or maker, in Japanese, it is still a sword. In other words, it seems that English makes more specific differences in its usage than other languages; though I cannot attest outside of English/French/Japanese. That naturally applies to other loan words as well ….

    Also, modern French uses “un double sens” (a double sense) or “une équivoque” (an equivocation) to represent the English term “a double entendre.”

    • admin

      Thank you for the French correction. For Japanese katana, I wonder, is it simply “sword” or something a little more specific, like “single bladed sword”?

      • Roman Rausch

        According to the Japanese Wikipedia, katana (刀) is a single-edged sword (technically a sabre), but this is of course the only kind there was in Medieval Japan. The word ken (剣) is normally used to denote the double-edged variety, but it can also cover any type of sword. What’s called ‘katana’ in the West, would be nihontō (日本刀) in Japanese.
        But I guess it all also depends on how much you are into this stuff. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if a Japanese person calls a European sword ‘katana’.

        • admin

          Interesting. Chinese has the same split, except that 刀 (dao4) also refers to knives (in fact, I believe that “knife” is the primary meaning, with “single-edge sword” as secondary).

          I would imagine that someone familiar with European swords would call them 剑/剣, seeing as most European swords I know of are double-edged.

          • Panglott

            WWJDIC lists “dagger, knife” as an archaic reading of 刀 in Japanese, following the single-edged sword meaning.

            Although I think it’s more common for people to use a kanji compound word for a more specific kind of sword or knife, in which the reading is often ‘toh” (compare “dao”). So 牛刀 gyuutoh “butcher’s knife”; 軍刀 gundoh “military sword, sidearm”, 小太刀 kodachi “short sword”.

  2. Roman Rausch

    – I find it fascinating how with the eastern spread of Buddhism, Indo-European words came as far as Japan, so that we have, for example J. daruma as a cognate of L. firmus etc. (*dher-) even before Europe’s direct contact with Japan.

    – Also worth mentioning is the irregular cutting down of long loanwords because they cease to have any inner structure. In Japanese, it’s anime, in English words like veggies, carbs, prep or even conlang.

    – If you replace the infinitive entendre by the noun entente ‘understanding’ (as in Entente Cordiale), the French phrase would make sense.

    – Is it really loaning in Firefly? I thought they were all bilingual.

    – I’ve heard of this Japanese word bakkushon which supposedly combines bakku from E. ‘back’ and shon from German schön ‘beautiful’ to describe a woman which appears beautiful judging by her back, but turns out to be ugly when you get to see her face. It’s probably an urban legend, though, like these things often are…

    • admin

      The linguistic situation in Firefly is not really well explained. It appears from context that Chinese has some sort of prestige to it, given that most writing you see is in some form of Chinese (some characters and some of what looks like Bopomofo, though unfortunately I can’t read Bopomofo). I think every major character says at least a full sentence in Chinese, implying that they all have some level of skill, but there’s not much significant dialogue. I think the most Chinese I heard in a scene was in a flashback of Simon and River talking to their father, but it was a very strange and not-very-natural-sounding bit of code-switching.

      • Anthony Docimo

        I think the first time I saw Firefly, my thought on the Mandarin was (quite sadly), “well, that’s one way of avoiding having to go ‘BLEEP’ every time there’s a cuss word”.

        then I noticed words like “meimei” (little sister), and it pulled me into investigating the language…almost as effectively as National Geographic.

  3. Carsten B.

    Just a nitpick: “a piece of cake” would not be “ein Stück Käse,” but “ein Stück Kuchen” in German. Käse is ‘cheese’.

    As for the gender of loan words, I find that occasionally, the borrowed word has the same gender as the closest native word if there already is one in German (e.g. der Computer ~ der Rechner). I really don’t know if that’s just coincidence or actually a tendency. It would be an interesting thing to research I suppose.

  4. Sören E. Worbs

    I agree with Carsten. “Ein Stück Kuchen” is the correct sentence.
    In german there are always a lot of disputes and fights about loan words. In school we are taught that there are three kinds of loan words: “Fremdwörter” (~foreign words), which did not yet adapt to our grammar, “Lehnwörter” (~ loan words) which did already adapt, and “Lehnübersetzungen” (calques), which you did already explain in the podcast. We are taught that we sholud not use so many “foreign” words. It seems some are still afraid of a foreign infiltration of their language. I like the english-speaking attitude much more 😉
    Icelandic is, as far as I know, a language which does borrow hardly any words from other languages.
    Oh and I like your Podcast so much. I’ve just dicovered it a couple of days ago and it brought my conlangs to new level 🙂

    • Carsten B.

      Yes, because words like “pink” totally destroy the deep structure of the language! Also just think of the superalienation! German will be dying out before long, having been completely replaced with English! (j/k, but unfortunately there’s really people who seriously argue that way.)

      • Anthony Docimo

        (the following is humor…based on a semi-obscure joke)

        ah, but “pink” is where it starts…before long, everyone is as color-blind as Homer.

    • Wm Annis

      I should really know better than to try to produce spontaneous German these days. Frau Phillips was an excellent teacher, but even her instruction can’t fight the entropy of decades of neglect.

  5. Anthony Docimo

    Could a loaned measure word be used as the noun for an object normally classed within the measure or classifier?

    Such as, from Mandarin’s zhī mao (cat), it is _zhī_ (and not _mao_) which becomes the word for cats in the language which is borrowing.

    ps: a Coinage of Conlangers, maybe?

  6. AlucardNoir

    Interesting podcast, but I must unfortunately disagree with William, by his definition of a loan word English doesn’t exist; and what I mean by that is that, Albion had a Celtic language when the Romans arrived, and after they left and Britain was conquered again and again and I think again the language continued to change. I mean is royal still a loan word today, if so, isn’t king one as well? And the funny thing about English is that is is a language whose substratum , superstratum and adstratum are all languages derived from PIE of from languages derived from PIE, where dose the word loaning stop and were dose the language start, at PIE ?(in this case)

  7. Chickenduck

    Regards loaning in Japanese – it’s worth mentioning that the mixed script nature of Japanese adds an extra level of complexity to how this works psychologically for native speakers.

    They have in effect two kinds of loans, the Chinese borrowings (written in kanji) and the English or other modern language borrowings (written in katakana). Using katakana effectively “quarantines” these borrowings as being “not quite originally Japanese”, whereas the Chinese ones for Japanese people as subconsciously being closer to being “real Japanese” (even without going into details of the different readings). Same thing happens in Korean and Vietnamese, where you have tons of Chinese loans that entered from when they were still mainly writing in Chinese characters. Often, your average Korean or Vietnamese speaker wouldn’t realise how many of them are loan words at all.

    But it is very true that Japanese has mountains of these “katakana words”. I’ve heard a few people say that when they started learning Japanese, their Chinese classmates had an advantage, but later the English speakers get the upper hand as all the English-derived katakana words come into play.

  8. Teagan

    I haven’t read the other comments but RE: word usage in Firefly/Serenity, since it’s set in the 2500’s, I assume that the swears aren’t loan words. Instead, the two main languages, English and various dialects of Chinese, have basically merged over the long trip to the new system and after arriving there, and have produced a daughter language. English and the Chinese languages are probably still studied by themselves in some places. And there may be some places that use more English or more Chinese words. The language is presented as mostly English for the English speaking audience.

    • admin

      But, the presentation in the TV show clearly shows code-switching and a few loanwords. This suggests widespread bilingualism rather than a creole language. Also, it’s not “the Chinese languages” — you only ever hear Mandarin in Firefly (most of it bad Mandarin, but hey!) — and to be honest, I would expect it to be this way if the majority of colonists came from the US and the PRC — since the PRC is currently very heavy-handed in promoting Mandarin over “local dialects”. Also, I would expect bilingualism to persist at least for a few generations — the fact that it is present presumably hundreds of years after colonization is interesting.

      You could say this is all a translation convention for some English-Chinese creole, but unless Joss Whedon were to confirm that in an interview or something, it’s hard to draw that conclusion from the depiction in the series. There are even bilingual English/Mandarin signs to be seen.

      I should say that there are some interesting semantic shifts in Firefly. The fake swearing (aside from the Chinese) seems to come mostly from euphemism creep (with ruttin’ especially), and I love how galaxy has somehow shifted to mean solar system (/ star system).

      • Anthony Docimo

        >the fact that it is present presumably hundreds of years after colonization is interesting
        I think the syndicated episodes open with the on-screen date somewhere in the 2400s.

        At the very least, we’d expect as much difference between Firefly’s Mandarin & our Mandarin, as between our Mandarin and, say, the Mandarin spoken when they learned Japan was going for isolation.

        >, and I love how galaxy has somehow shifted to mean solar system (/ star system).
        That’s got historical precedent, whether Whedon knew it or not — in the 1800s all the way to (at least) the early years of Doctor Who, universe is the word used where we now would say galaxy.
        though I don’t think the ‘verse is just one solar system, that’s not language-related.

        • admin

          ISTR the date being 2517, though a screengrab would make it more certain. I don’t know what you mean by “the ‘verse”. The word Verse as used in the series is most likely analogous to Universe. However, it is fairly clear that the series takes place in a single star system, which they usually refer to with the word “galaxy”. If you pay attention to the openings of the episodes, Shepherd Book’s (I don’t recall the actor’s name) narration uses “solar system”, while Malcom Reynolds / Nathan Fillion uses “galaxy”, though both are clearly referring to the same thing.

          • Owen

            The contraction of “Universe” down to “‘Verse” is part of the Old West parallelism Firefly draws on. Not sure if it is authentic or just Hollywoodese (see also Pirate speech) but it is the cultural stereotype that in the Old West there was a deep sense of piety and conservatism and that anything outside one’s immediate purview was spoken about with an almost glib offhandedness. That would explain why Reynolds especially is often very reserved with his speech while Book (Ronald Glass) being a presumably educated man, was much more poetic and flowery with his words (echoing the priests and preachers who would come out West from New York or Chicago armed with The Good Book).

            I think the use of Chinese was simply an assumption that “in the future” we’d all be speaking a mishmash of English and Mandarin (Chinglish? Similar to Blade Runner which had its CitySpeak which was English, German, Hungarian, Chinese) and not much else. Remember also that the Chinese were the servants and laborers in much of the Old West, and I think Whedon just pulled that out of the “Cowboy” manual along with most of his background dressing.

          • admin

            It always surprised me how few Asians one sees in Firefly despite the heavy Chinese influence on culture (the trappings of a Companion very much remind of “movie China”, and one of the arts Inara practices is apparently calligraphy). I think it may be something to do with the particular group of actors they were drawing from. Whedon certainly has no problem with Asians — in Dollhouse it seems you see a realistic number of Asian faces for a show set in LA.

  9. Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets

    Hi! First comment from me on this podcast, as I’m slowly going through all of them. I just wanted to react to George’s last comment in the outtakes, about curse words usually not being borrowed. I want to point out the counterexample that is Dutch. Although Dutch has perfectly serviceable curse words (usually related to blasphemy or diseases. Sexual organs are also a big source of curse words), in the last years it has seen an inflow of English curse words, borrowed wholesale, and used (especially by the younger generation) instead of the Dutch curse words that are often seen as “quaint”.
    The most common curse word is shit, which has actually been in the language for a few decades already. More recently, damn and fuck have made inroads here. I hear bitch as well quite regularly.

    But then, when it comes to borrowings Dutch is weird, and its borrowing patterns make no sense. I have seen people here (in the North of the Netherlands, next to the German border) thanking others by saying merci, which is the French word for “thank you”! The first time I heard that I did a double-take. I hear younger people use thanks as well, complete with the dental fricative, despite Dutch lacking it. By the way, in Dutch borrowings are usually pronounced as closely as possible to the pronunciation in the original language, even if it means using sounds that don’t exist in Dutch phonology. Only very old borrowings (i.e. 3 generations old or more) get adapted.

  10. Skałosz B.

    An interesting type of lexical borrowing is ‘loan contamination’, where native words are modified to sound closer to words in another language (the mechanism appears similar to hypercorrection). Polish has a few examples of this: native Old Polish words like wiesioły, włodza (‘cheerful’, ‘rule/authority’) were changed to wesoły, władać to resemble their Czech equivalents: veselý, vládnouti more. This isn’t the typical wholesale borrowing that you usually see because the words keep some native phonetic and morphological features but they nonetheless exhibit irregular phonetic substitutions (the loss of palatalization, the Czech metathesis outcome -la- > Pol. -ła- rather than the native -ło-) due to the strong Czech influence on Old Polish writing.

    I think you could find examples in English as well. At the moment I can only think of spelling ‘improvements’ like debt (because of Latin debitus) but as far as I know quite a few such ‘improvements’ have influenced English pronunciation.

  11. Daeiribu

    One little nitpicky thing about Japanese – when you try to pronounce it “natively”, don’t forget the palatal nasal! (In words like “anime” and “ninja”)

  12. Daeiribu

    I’m not sure if this is a good “loan word” example, but it came to mind when you started talking about re-analyzing things.

    The French word for “unicorn” is “licorne”. Here’s how it got that way:
    They had “unicorne” which got re-analyzed as “une icorne”, which, taking the definit article would be “l’icorne”, which got re-analyzed AGAIN, becoming “licorne”, as in “la/une licorne”.

  13. Daeiribu

    Sorry about posting in pieces like this. Next time I’ll try to listen to the whole thing before posting…

    I disagree about not borrowing curse words, and present to you the example of Latvian. The prevailing opinion among its native speakers is that Latvian doesn’t really have much vocabulary to go with when it comes to curse words, so Latvian people are more than happy to curse in Russian, English or German (depending on the person), and these words do get incorporated into what is otherwise completely Latvian grammar.

  14. Rhamos Vhailejh

    In response to the feedback section, when I was 14-ish I came up with a measure word for a group of people as being “a dumb of people”. That’s still one of my favourite terms that I’ve ever coined.

    Also, in response to Mike in the outtakes section, the term “limited connectivity” actually means that you are connected to your network, but you’re not getting an internet connection for whatever reason. “Limited connectivity” makes it sound like “Oh, well if I’m connected a little, then it should be working, but just slow, right?” But no, that’s not actually what it means. lol. It says “limited” because you *are* connected to your *network*, but it’s not full connectivity because there’s no *internet* going *through* that network and reaching you.


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