Monday, 16 February 2009

Borrowed goods

An enquiry from one of Chambers’ readers raises the question of how English deals with the words it absorbs from other languages – words such as zeitgeist (from German) or ravioli (from Italian) that are adopted by English speakers to fill a gap in the language. These are sometimes called ‘loan words’ (as though they were hired out for a few nights only, although in practice they never get sent back to the owners with a thank-you note and a bottle of wine).

The presence of loan words in the language raises some interesting questions for users. Do we treat them as we would any English word, pronouncing them with Anglo-Saxon vowel sounds and sticking an ‘s’ on the end to form a plural? Or do we respect their heritage by using them as they would be used in their original surroundings?

In practice, there is usually a point after which it seems affected to continue treating the word as an exotic species. Insisting on writing Zeitgeist with a capital (to respect the convention for German nouns) or pronouncing ravioli with a thick Italian accent only serves to advertise to the world you are a bit of a twerp.

But for some words, aspects of their behaviour in their original language persist even after they have been thoroughly assimilated into English. This is particularly true in respect of their plural forms, and it gives English one of its many peculiarities. Because we take in words from so many languages, we have some interesting ways of creating a plural other than by the simple addition of an ‘s’: formula becomes formulae; phenomenon becomes phenomena; graffito becomes graffiti.

The Chambers Dictionary often accepts such foreign endings either as the standard plural form or as an alternative to pluralizing by adding an ‘s’. Here are ten of the more exotic ones:

cognomina (plural of cognomen; Latin)
drachmai (plural of drachma; Greek)
gardai (plural of garda; Irish)
groszy (plural of grosz; Polish)
ibadat (plural of ibadah; Arabic)
kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz; Hebrew)
knaidloch (plural of knaidel; Yiddish)
maloti (plural of loti; Bantu)
periboloi (plural of peribolos; Greek)
shofroth (plural of shofar; Hebrew)

Ian Brookes

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