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From which language has English borrowed the most words?

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Wikipedia has a pie chart and an article to go with it. –  RegDwigнt Mar 29 '11 at 8:20
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@RegDwight Ugh. 3D pie chart. Are they even allowed on Wikipedia? ;-) –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '11 at 15:04
    
@KonradRudolph: What's wrong with 3D pie charts? –  Martijn Mar 29 '11 at 15:24
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@Martijn They are completely taboo for professional charts. The 3D effect does not add any useful information and in fact makes the information harder to read reliably from the graph. In fact, Wikipedia contains that information. Note that there’s nothing wrong with adding effects for aesthetics as long as they don’t detract from readability. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 29 '11 at 16:21
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@Martijn: Pie charts are evil in general (1) (2) but 3D pie charts are even worse. They only should be used with max. 2–3 different elements like in this example. –  Martin Scharrer Mar 29 '11 at 17:15
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1 Answer

up vote 41 down vote accepted

I initially thought it was French, but actually it's a draw between French and Latin. There have been many studies on this topic, which came up as you would expect, with different percentages, but the conclusion remains the same.

There is a paragraph about this topic in the Wikipedia article, and another dedicated Wikipedia article that lists English loanwords by country and language of origin. One interesting conclusion in the first article is that if you consider only very common words, the Anglo-Saxon proportion is more important, which is a clear indication of English's Germanic substrate.

You know, if you had asked the question a couple of centuries ago, it would have been French alone. The reason why Latin has caught up is because many scientific and medical terms are coined after Latin. Remarkably, the second largest contribution of Latin is actually the result of the introduction of Christianity from the 7th Century onwards and the Roman occupation comes only in third place.

The French influence really began with the Norman invasion of 1066; but that was only a start, as it was followed by a continuous influx of French immigrants in England throughout the Middle Ages and even after. Indeed, a few of the early Norman kings rarely set foot in their English kingdom and couldn't speak English. Saxon English nearly became an underground language. However, many of these immigrants came without women, and once they'd intermarried with the locals, after a few generations their descendants could not speak French any more.

All considered, this was only too fair because the Norman people were actually of Scandinavian origin and they had made French their language for the same reason: Norman armies had landed on French coasts with very few women. The date of the establishment of the French Dukedom of Normandy is 911. Compare this to 1066. A mere 155 years had turned the North men into the Normans.

Other notable contributions to English are Celtic (see below), Old Norse (due to the Viking invasions), Greek, Dutch (with William and Mary and the Dutch wars) and a variety of other languages especially from the former colonies.

Language origin specialists theorise that the proportion of loanwords in a language is a function of both the length of exposure to and the social status of the borrowed language. For this reason, there are comparatively very few Celtic words — whiskey being one of the most prominent ones. One clue to this apparent oddity is the double meaning of Wilisc in Old English, the Saxon word for Celt (⇒ Welsh): it means both "foreigner" and "slave".

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Are we talking about borrowed words, or derived words? Because, in the latter case, the question becomes a bit difficult to answer, as French itself derives from Latin! (example: et cetera: borrowed from Latin, magnification: derived from the Latin word magnus) –  nico Mar 29 '11 at 11:34
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@nico, the question is about borrowing. That makes more sense. Otherwise, why stop at Latin ? If you go back to Proto Indo European, you probably hit the 99% mark. As you might have gathered by now, I'm very fond of etymology and there is always an origin behind an origin ("origin" is probably not the right word in that context). But in the context of English sources, most studies are about direct borrowing. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 29 '11 at 13:38
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@nico: And another problem with ignoring the derived/borrowed distinction is that a significantly large number of Latinate words are actually English creations — they use Latinate roots and suffixes, but do not exist at all in Latin/French. It is not clear if the pie chart considers completely English-derived Latinate words to be Latin or Germanic (but probably Latin). For example, acid is a Latin/French borrowing, as well as the suffix -ic, but the word acidic was an English creation, not borrowed from Latin or French. –  Kosmonaut Mar 29 '11 at 14:53
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"We (English) don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." James Nicoll –  mgb Mar 29 '11 at 15:55
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It's worth remembering that labels like "Old French", "Middle French", "Modern French", "language d'oc/d'oïl", are essentially labels made up 'a postiori'. People of the 1000s that we would nowadays think of as speaking "Old French" didn't give such a label to their language (most probably didn't even think of it as being "French" rather than "Latin" or just "language"), and there wasn't a magical point where speakers suddenly started saying "ooh my goodness we're loosing our case system, we'd better start calling our language 'Middle French'".... –  Neil Coffey Mar 30 '11 at 5:37
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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 26 '12 at 21:16

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