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Can loanwords damage language integrity?

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A Japanese resident has filed a lawsuit against one of the country’s prominent broadcasters for causing him “psychological pain”. The reason? The 71-year-old claimed NHK was excessively using words derived from foreign languages.

According to The Japan Times, Hoji Takahashi demanded ¥1.41 million (£9,250) in damages from the broadcaster, and although the court made the decision not to hear his case, the story was picked up by Japanese newspaper Nikkan Gendai. It sympathised with his point of view and added that more and more areas of life in Japan were witnessing the infiltration of these loanwords, including both business and politics. Given how gravely the claimant took the adoption of these words and phrases, one has to question how Takahashi would fare if his mother tongue was English: a language where the majority of words are derived from foreign tongues.

Indeed, almost a third of the words used in modern English are French in origin, as a result of the French invasion of 1066. The same amount is derived from Latin and only a little over a quarter of the words we use today have evolved from the Germanic family of languages like Old English and Norse. Meanwhile, English is known to increasingly infiltrate other languages, particularly when the subject is technology. For instance, the term computer ‘mouse’ is also used in French and Portuguese, among other languages.

Nikkan Gendai took issue with foreign language loanwords creeping in when a Japanese word would have worked just as well. A few of the words used by NHK that the newspaper was particularly upset by were ‘toraburu’ (from ‘trouble’) and ‘risuku’ (from ‘risk’). Both it and Mr Takahashi claimed that the broadcaster had a duty to choose Japanese words over these loanwords in order to help preserve not only the country’s language, but also its culture.

Commenting on the case in a post on Language Log, Victor Mair noted it was strange Takahashi had waited until now to file a complaint, when loanwords of English origin have been commonplace in Japan for decades. This was a sentiment echoed by Mark Schreiber of The Japan Times, who says that being educated in post-war Japan would mean that the 71-year-old had plenty of exposure to loanwords during his own school years. The writer asks why Takahashi waited so long to sue someone for his “suffering”.

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We take for granted the number of loanwords present in the English language today, but if we were to stop using them entirely we would find it incredibly difficult to communicate with one another. Indeed, in modern English it is only really our function words that resemble the Old English spoken centuries ago and that remain untouched by outside influence.

Imagine no longer hearing words like ‘café’, ‘garage’, ‘souvenir’, ‘genre’, ‘chef’, ‘squirrel’, ‘cabbage’, ‘brochure’, ‘governance’, ‘honesty’ or the hundreds more that come from French. Or if we could no longer use ‘cot’, ‘bottle’, ‘jungle’, ‘shampoo’ or the dozens of other words that have a Hindi or Urdu origin. Of course, there are also numerous words of Japanese origin that are commonplace in modern-day English, such as ‘tycoon’, ‘Satsuma’, ‘futon’, ‘tsunami’ and ‘Zen’, among others.

Invasion, war, expanding empires, revolution, liberation, tourism and – most recently – digital communication have all resulted in words from one language infiltrating another. This is something that has been happening for centuries, and it will only continue to do so. Indeed, thanks to the internet, loanwords from one language are more and more likely to slip into another. However, Language Log’s Victor Mair claims that while languages have always influenced each other, they usually manage to retain their identity.

While one could take the view of Mr Takahashi and worry that their native language and culture is under threat from foreign influence, they could also take the opposite view; that as foreign words enter your language, so yours enter others. This means that your culture is having an influence abroad; helping to increase its influence and preserve it on a wider scale for future generations.

What do you think about the increasing use of loanwords? Do you think it puts the integrity of a language at risk?

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