Foreign language influences in English

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According to one research, the percentage of modern English words derived from each language group are as follows:
Latin (including words used only in scientific / medical / legal contexts): ~29%
French: ~29%
Germanic: ~26%
Others: ~16%

While many words enter English as slang, not all do. Some words are adopted from other languages; some are mixtures of existing words (portmanteau words), and some are new creations made of roots from dead languages: e.g. thanatopsis. No matter the origin, though, words rarely, if ever, are immediately accepted into the English language. Here is a list of the most common foreign language influences in English, where other languages have influenced or contributed words to English.

  • Celtic words are almost absent, except for dialectal words, such as the Yan Tan Tethera system of counting sheep. However, English syntax was influenced by Celtic languages, starting from the Middle English; for example, the system of continuous tenses (absent in other Germanic languages) was a cliché of similar Celtic phrasal structures.
  • French legal, military, and political terminology; words for the meat of an animal; noble words; words referring to food — e.g., au gratin. Nearly 30% of English words (in an 80,000 word dictionary) may be of French origin.
  • Greek words: scientific and medical terminology (for instance -phobias and -ologies), Christian theological terminology.
  • Norman words: castle, cauldron, kennel, catch, cater are among Norman words introduced into English. The Norman language also introduced (or reinforced) words of Norse origin such as mug.
  • Italian - words relating to some music, piano, fortissimo. Or Italian culture, such as piazza, pizza, gondola, balcony, fascism. The English word umbrella comes from Italian ombrello.
  • Indian - words relating to culture, originating from the colonial era. Many of these words are of Persian origin rather than Hindi because Persian was the official language of the Mughal courts. e.g.: pyjamas, bungalow, verandah, jungle, curry, shampoo, khaki.
  • Arabic - Trade items such as borax, coffee, cotton, hashish, henna, mohair, muslin, saffron; Islamic religious terms such as jihad and hadith; scientific vocabulary borrowed into Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries (alcohol, alkali, algebra, azimuth, cipher, nadir); plants or plant products originating in Tropical Asia and introduced to medieval Europe through Arabic intermediation (camphor, jasmine, lacquer, lemon, orange, sugar); Middle Eastern cusine words (couscous, falafel, hummus, kebab, tahini). See also: List of English words of Arabic origin.


Counting in English is based on two different methods. The numbers from 13-19 follow the Germanic way of counting, while numbers from 20 on follow the French way of counting (with some simplifications). In Germanic languages, the numbers are read in a mixed way. So for 14 the German word is vierzehn which literally means four-ten (English: fourteen). However, in the 18th century the Germanic way of counting was still used as can be found e.g. in Sing a Song of Sixpence. Nowadays, numbers of 20 and higher follow the French way, except 21, 31, 41, 51, 61, 71 and 70-99. E.g. French: vingt-quatre, English: twenty-four. However, numbers ending with one do not follow the French way. Numbers ending with one in French are bound with "et", e.g. French vingt-et-un literally means twenty-and-one. Numbers between 70 and 99 are built by multiplication and addition (French: quatre-vingt-dix-neuf literally means four-twenty-ten-nine (4*20 + 19)(compare: "Fourscore and seven years ago", or "threescore and ten").). Although the terms septante (70), octante (80) and nonante (90) are officially recognized by the Académie française, they remain rarely used by most French speakers, except in Belgium (and its former African colonies), Switzerland, parts of French-speaking Canada (Acadian French), Jèrriais, and some parts of France. However, octante (80) is now rare in Belgium where it has been supplanted by quatre-vingt and in Switzerland where it has been supplanted by huitante.

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Further reading[edit]

  • Pyles, T. & J. Algeo (1993). The Origins and Development of the English Language. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.

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