Why does English have words like “pièce de résistance” and “coup de grace”? They are clearly not of English origin. They are borrowings from French, as many know. It might seem a perfectly reasonable question to ask why we continue to use these foreign terms rather than simply using their English translations. After all, these terms can be confusing and difficult to pronounce to those who are not familiar with them. However, we must then ask the question of what words do count as truly English. “Garage” was borrowed into English from French in the twentieth century, and “zeitgeist” from German not long before that. In fact, going further back in time we find an ever-increasing number of borrowings appearing in English, taken from a wide variety of languages. There are obvious imposters such as “saga”, borrowed from Old Norse, but there are also much more subtle ‘foreign’ lexical items like “knife” (Old Norse), “beef” (French), “sky” (Old Norse) abundant in English. And it doesn’t stop there. Even the personal pronoun “they” has an origin outside the famous Anglo-Saxon linguistic stock (“they” is Old Norse as well!). The lesson to be learned here is that languages influencing each other is a natural, common process and is responsible for a great deal of the linguistic innovation that today’s languages exhibit. And this innovation is of course what makes them so much fun!
My essay “Language Contact in Shetland Scots and Southern Irish English” (English Today, Cambridge University Press, vol. 31) gives a brief description of two instances in which contact with other languages has had a lasting impact on English. I look at two different dialects of English, the dialect of Scots spoken in Shetland and the variety of Irish English spoken in Southern Ireland. Shetland Scots has been noticeably influenced by contact with Norn, a now-extinct Norse language that was the predominant (if not sole) language of Shetland when the first Scots arrived by boat. Southern Irish English went through a long period of contact with Irish Gaelic, holding the status of a minority language in comparison with Gaelic for much of that time. The primary marks that Norn has left on Shetland Scots are in its vocabulary, which still today contains unusual lexical items found in no other variety of English. Most of these loanwords have to do with the sea and with nautical matters, attesting to the main contact between Scots and Norn having taken place aboard boats or during trade. Southern Irish English, on the other hand, is rich in syntactic constructions unique in the world’s Englishes. These fascinating grammatical shibboleths, which include sentences like “I’m after me/my dinner” (meaning “I’ve just had my dinner”), have direct counterparts in Irish Gaelic. Ultimately, I attempt to show that language contact is a fluid process, the effects of which on the languages in question are unpredictable and can vary widely. I also emphasize that linguistic change in general is not something to be feared or prevented, but rather cherished and preserved as a record of the interactions of our ancestors.