I wanted to see a cage match on this question, which started in the comments to this answer. We were left with these opposing assertions:

PGmc was never homogeneous. Most English expressions "borrowed" since Old English (OE), also trace to Proto-Indo-European (PIE) with analogous Germanic cognates. Heretical as it seems, a straight line through Germanic stock is an arbitrary designation of English, which "borrowed" more from PGmc than any other source.


PGmc was probably quite homogeneous at some point: it obviously developed far and wide, but at the starting point when it first separated itself enough to be a thing of its own, it must have been quite homogeneous. Yes, all IE languages have borrowed extensively from their neighbors (most of which have been IE also). There are lots of English borrowings that have analogous Germanic cognates, yes. But there are also lots of words which have not at any point since PIE been borrowed in any ancestral stage of what is now English from any other language: they are purely inherited.

The latter, if true, seems to argue that modern English does have a core that was inherited. The former makes the more facile (but perhaps correct) argument that no modern language can claim direct inheritance; only different proportions of "borrowing" from an evolving patchwork of languages.

What are the strong arguments on each side?

closed as off-topic by Fattie, Marv Mills, Chenmunka, ScotM, Drew Jun 13 '15 at 3:18

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    This kind of question belongs on Linguistics. – curiousdannii Jun 11 '15 at 0:05
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    @ScotM: Ach ... could you join in a "violent agreement?" I guess I'd settle for a "spirited discussion," even one that is friendly. – feetwet Jun 11 '15 at 0:23
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    But it's very straighforward. English inherited from Proto-Germanic; that's the reconstructed parent language for all Germanic languages. Now, to the extent we also have words from extant (not reconstructed) Germanic languages in English -- like blitzkrieg, ersatz, and schadenfreude, we have also borrowed from them. Diagrams for PIE (including Proto-Gmc) descendants and borrowings from 4 roots are available here – John Lawler Jun 11 '15 at 0:27
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    +1 Talking about how we talk about our language: When we say inherit, which make a lot of sense to me, we describe one form of semantic acquisition--usually traceable to PIE through Proto-Germanic. When we say borrow, we describe another form of semantic acquisition--also usually traceable to PIE through French and other Romance languages. Of course, we also seem to borrow more freely from remote languages with no connection to PIE now. Although we want to maintain the distinction between these three types of acquisition, is there any value in articulating the common ground? – Shiny Penny Jun 11 '15 at 0:55
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    migrate question to Linguistics – Fattie Jun 11 '15 at 3:08

It depends on how you look at ‘inheriting’ and ‘borrowing’.

Allow me to start off by quoting from ScotM’s comment above:

I would say that the inheritance is a discrete form of one generation borrowing from a former generation.

This is arguably a logical way of looking at it: after all, we all acquire language by emulating others and using words that we hear others use around us, and in that sense, we all do in a way ‘borrow’ our entire lexicon (and grammar) from others. I would argue, though, that acquisition would be a better term for this.

In that case, inheriting and borrowing become two distinct ways of acquiring new words (two more are deriving and inventing), which I personally think makes more sense. The difference between the two is simply whether we acquire the word as a word in our own language from the community of speakers that we acquire our lexicon and grammar from in general (inheriting); or whether we acquire it from speakers of a different language as a word in a different language (borrowing).

That’s usually a relatively easy distinction to make, though there are of course many cases where you learn a word as a word in your own language by hearing it used all around you; but you and everyone else is still aware that the word is native to a different language (like, say, smorgasbord in English). Still, I would say English speakers who learn the word smorgasbord from their linguistic community nowadays are inheriting an English word, because they are not taking a Swedish word out of its native context in Swedish, as heard used by Swedish speakers, and applying it to English: they’re simply using a word that their own, English-speaking community uses when speaking English.

Contrast this with a scenario like the expat community in China, where certain Chinese words are in frequent use, but always with the distinct knowledge that these are local, Chinese words that are currently being added to the variety of English spoken in that community—they are not words used by the wider English-speaking community, and speakers are still acutely aware of their Chineseness. For example, when taking pictures, many foreigners living in China take over the Chinese practice of saying 茄子 qiézi ‘aubergine’ instead of ‘cheese’; but they do so knowing that they are ‘humouring’ the local practice, and that when they’re not in China, they should say ‘cheese’, which is the inherited picture-taking word.

(There are grey areas as well, of course: ‘language’ is notoriously ill-defined, and dialects and sociolects constantly borrow from each other as well—but is it really ‘borrowing’ when Brits start to use apartment instead of flat more and more commonly, for example?)


That’s looking at it from the perspective of each individual user of a language ‘borrowing’ or ‘inheriting’ a word. Another perspective is from the language or the word itself, and that’s different. The history of each word in a language goes back much, much further than any individual speaker (excepting brand new words, like fleek, which have not been part of the English language very long at all), and it makes sense and is useful to make a similar distinction between inherited and borrowed words in the language as well as in each individual speaker.

The difference is that once a word is borrowed into one language from a different language, its status will always be ‘borrowed’. Once its been in the language for a while, new speakers learn the word in an inhereted manner, and from their point of view, it will be an inherited word; but from the viewpoint of the language itself, it was borrowed at some point, so it’s still a loan word in origin. This is similar to how migrations work in many places: you may have been born in a particular community, but your great-grandparents moved there from somewhere else, so you’re still a blow-in, as our Antipodean friends call it.

Of course, the further back in history you have to go to see the borrowing, the less sense it makes to call something a borrowing. Nobody will think it odd to call smorgasbord or joie de vivre loan words, both being still quite un-English sounding and having been part of the English lexicon for only a bit over a hundred years. But some may find it strange to consider get or egg loan words, though they were borrowed (from Old Norse) no more than a millennium ago. And even most linguists will find it a stretch to call seven a loan word in Modern English, though it is almost unanimously accepted that Proto-Indo-European borrowed the word (*septḿ̥-) from Proto-Semitic some five or six thousand years ago.

Even so, there remain a group of words that do not, at any stage of the language that we have any kind of access to (i.e., back to Proto-Indo-European), appear to have been borrowed from a different language; words that have been acquired by speakers of the language stages that led up to Modern English entirely through inheriting, never through borrowing. These are the words that historical linguists call truly inherited words.

  • +1 A well articulated discussion of the distinction between inherited and borrowed words:-) It astutely and honestly addresses my perspective: The more ancient a borrowing event--as in egg and seven-- the more likely a word is to be legitimately classified as inherited rather than borrowed. When we examine the fine details of these ancient borrowing events, they are obscured by three factors: 1. Our limited documentation; 2. Our necessary generalization of their complex heterogeneous milieu; 3. Our useful bias toward "independent stream" analysis. – ScotM Jun 12 '15 at 14:19

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