Loanword Typology: why?
(a longer, but still preliminary position paper is available
here, dated from June 2003)
How likely is it that a word with a given lexical meaning will be
borrowed from one language into another language? At the moment, this
question can be answered only on the basis of impressionistic
observations, such as "body part terms are unlikely to be borrowed", or
"terms for new artifacts are often borrowed". But it would be
interesting to know more about the likelihood of borrowing for
particular lexical meanings, for a variety of reasons:
(a) In assessing genealogical relatedness between languages, it is
important to separate inherited material from borrowed material.
Loanwords point to historical contact between two languages (there must
have been speakers with sufficient knowledge of both languages at some
stage), but not genealogical relatedness (i.e. descent from a common
ancestral language). But which words are the most likely to be
inherited? Linguists often assume that there is a set of words that are
highly stable, unlikely to be replaced by borrowings, meaning shift, or
new formations, but this notion needs to be made more precise to
enhance the validity of conclusions based on it.
(b) The likelihood of lexical borrowing depends on the type of contact
situation. A language of a population conquered by war may be likely to
borrow military terms from the conquerors' language, and seafaring
populations may contribute marine words to languages spoken inland. An
invading population may borrow terms for local flora and fauna even if
it is technologically and economically superior to the indigenous
population. Once such generalizations have been securely established
(on the basis of attested examples), it will be possible to draw
inferences about the history of a population from the loanword patterns
of a language.
(c) Borrowing patterns may be influenced by non-social, strictly
linguistic factors, such as semantic complexity, abstractness, or
taxonomic level, as well as syntactic factors such as word-class status
(noun vs. verb vs. adjective; content word vs. function word).
Generalizations in this area are interesting for linguistics-internal
reasons because they may provide insights about the nature of language
The idea of the proposed project is to study lexical borrowability
using the classical methods of linguistic typology:
(i) establishing a world-wide sample of languages (ca. 30-40 languages)
(ii) surveying the types of loanwords found in these languages, on the
basis of a fixed list of lexical meanings (ca. 1400 lexical meanings,
based on the list used in the Intercontinental Dictionary Series)
(iii) attempting generalizations across the languages of the sample
In practical terms, prospects for success seem to be greatest if each
language is in the responsibility of a single author, who is a
specialist of the language and its history. The author would provide a
list of all (known and suspected) loanwords among the 1400 lexical
meanings of the fixed list, as well as information on what is known
about the historical circumstances under which these words were
borrowed. The author may of course discuss additional loanwords (beyond
the 1400-word list), but the fixed list is important so that
quantitative generalizations across the sample languages can be made.
The concrete outcome of this project will be an edited volume,
consisting of the 30-40 chapters on the sample languages, plus an
introduction and a generalizing chapter by the project leaders.