English and loan words
Posted: 25 August 2008 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Just came across this in McWhorter’s The Power of Babel

Out of all of the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, however, no less than ninety-nine percent were taken from other languages.  The relative few that trace back to Old English itself are also sixty two percent of the words most used.

I know that McWhorter is given to exaggeration at times, but is this one of them?

He also argues that there is no other language with as many loan words.  Reason?  Three “earthquakes” he says,

1. The Viking invasion of 787 adding to Old English, Old Norse.
2. The Norman invasion of 1066 who were the Vikings again (Norsemen), but now they’ve learned French.  They introduced some 7500 words.
3. The Latinate layer added because English began being used as a language of learning.

thus earthquakes 2 and 3 make the Romance languages more accessible to English speakers and German and Dutch and related non-Romance languages all the more difficult.

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Posted: 26 August 2008 04:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Power of Babel, so I’d have to see how he footnotes these statements and arguments, but I would say the 99% number is an exaggeration--but not by much. If he doesn’t categorize the Viking/Old Norse words as Old English, as you seem to indicate in your description of the argument, then 99% is probably correct. But most would say the Viking words are Old English, putting the percentage around 96-97%. In any case, it’s only a few percent of the modern English words that trace back a thousand years, but the words that do tend to be among the most commonly used.

There is a distinction to be made between Old English, the language spoken in England from c.500 to c.1100, and words that are inherited from Anglo-Saxon roots. Old English is a broader category, including the Viking words, some Latin roots (mainly ecclesiastical terms), and a sprinkling of words from Celtic and other source languages.

I suspect that a careful reading of the text would show that McWhorter honors the distinction.

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Posted: 26 August 2008 12:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Percentages get smaller if you increase the denominator of the fraction.  Since the invention of dictionaries, the number of English words has greatly expanded.  The vast majority of these words are rarely if ever used.  As Dave points out, our oldest words are among our most common.  I expect that as a percentage of the few thousand words that make up the entire vocabulary of the average person that our oldest words are greater than 1% of the total.

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