23

Is there a general rule for whether, for, example, foreign nouns and adjectives used in English should be inflected for gender, number, and case as they would be if the entire text were written in the source language? If not, what form should the foreign words take? Might the rules be different for gender, number—i.e., plurals—and case?

Should the English surrounding the foreign word be made to correspond with the foreign gender, number, and case?

Examples:

  1. The data tells us that the earth is getting warmer.

  2. I hadn't realized that my bananas would be flambé.

  3. I have no desire to read another poshloe book by a novyĭ russkiĭ.

  4. I, too, said na'aseh v'nishma at Sinai.

  5. I asked a khosheve rabbi this question.

Related:

  • 4
    How would English be made to correspond to case? – Azor Ahai Oct 5 '16 at 21:09
  • 15
    This is English. There is no general rule. – Hot Licks Oct 5 '16 at 21:46
  • 17
    Youre begging the question by asking about 'a general rule for ... foreign nouns and adjectives used in English'. If the words you're asking about are assimilated into the English lexicon (eg 'data), they're now English words: look them up in a dictionary like AHDEL or Collins to see how to handle them. If they're not, you must treat them as coded quotes. Put them in italics in the original form. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 5 '16 at 21:56
  • 2
    This is a more elaborate version of cacti or cactuses ... appendices or appendixes ... which you can probably find in questions already here. – GEdgar Oct 5 '16 at 22:59
  • 1
    Another related question: Should nouns borrowed from Japanese be pluralized? – Andrew Grimm Oct 7 '16 at 8:22
30

The answer is, unsatisfyingly, that it depends. Most native speakers aren't fluent in the borrowed language and so won't know the grammar principles there.

Sometimes things are borrowed exactly, like Latin sayings, and stand alone with no possibility of declining, like 'ceteris paribus'

Sometimes a simple thing, like a plural, if easy, is declined, like Greek the singular for criteria is usually said 'criterion'. But sometimes that strict adherence to a foreign grammar is lost and 'criteria' is used for singular, 'criterias' for plural.

Depending on how unnatural or infrequent the foreign word is, the foreign manner may be preserved or not: 'My fiancée' for a female to be married is correct English not because English has grammatical gender like French but English allows an alternate lexical item (ignoring for the moment that it is a difference in spelling only). But 'The banana was flambé' is grating in English, so 'flambéd' is preferred, despite it sounding very unFrench.

The principle is that someone who has heard the foreign word repeats it to an English speaker. However clear that foreign word is spoken (by native speaker or not), the English speaker will assimilate it as best they can, ignoring what just doesn't work in English, and preserving possibly what does work.

So, for an arbitrary foreign word slipped into English, what form should it take? You probably want to preserve what you can and drop what just sounds bad. And then English speakers will do with it what they may. Early on, 'data' was plural, but nowadays, since 'datum' is almost entirely unheard of, different groups continue to use 'data' as plural (rarer) and others use it as a mass noun (taking a singular verb).

So there's no hard and fast rule; try to conjugate as much as you can, but once it is firmly in English, then English rules will apply.

  • 4
    I am reminded of a case of the principal happening in reverse. About 10 years ago, Japanese pop star Namie Amuro had a song that contained the phrase "sexy na diva". The words sexy and diva were obviously borrowed from English, but she (or the songwriter) inserted the particle "na", which is required after certain kinds of adjectives in Japanese. – Charles Burge Oct 6 '16 at 1:12
  • 4
    Note that flambéed is much more common than flambéd. – 200_success Oct 6 '16 at 5:35
  • @CharlesBurge "diva" is obviously English? – Michael Kay Oct 6 '16 at 15:20
  • 4
    Sure, I would say diva is an English word. Yes, it's borrowed from elsewhere, but so are a plethora of other English words. It's a word that pretty much any English speaker knows, and uses without thinking about its origins. I had tried to keep my original comment brief, but Namie Amuro in particular is known for peppering many of her songs with English words and phrases. Regardless of whether English recently borrowed the word from Italian or some other source, I would bet that Amuro perceived it to be an English word. – Charles Burge Oct 6 '16 at 16:50
  • 1
    @Hellion We're all in different states of transition. I can't stand criterias, but I also can't stand 'data' used as a plural. And the Saxon scholars of 1065 decry the presumptuous elitist ruin of the language by the Norman overlords since. – Mitch Oct 7 '16 at 14:13
11

You must, as always, write for your audience.

If you are writing for a technical journal where your audience is multi-lingual, then you should strive to get it absolutely right. That goes without saying.

If you are writing for the general public, then you would probably need to base your choices on the common usage for each word and phrase.

The use of data in your first example is problematic. If you are writing for a technical journal, you should use "the data tell us", since this is a plural form and your audience will expect you to use it. However, not everyone (in the UK) will know that data is the plural form of datum and so, when writing for the general public, it is common to put "the data tells us", and treat data as a mass noun.

As a corollary, very few native English speakers will know that fora is the plural form of forum (unless they have studied classics), so forums has become the accepted form in everyday English. You should only use fora if you have a justifiable expectation that your audience will know what it means.

In everyday BrE, we would probably use flambéd as the adjectival form instead of flambé, i.e. "I hadn't realized that my bananas would be flambéd." However, you would expect a good restaurant to get it right on their menu:

Bananes flambées (flambéd bananas)

I can't comment on your other examples since I have no knowledge of Russian, Hebrew or Yiddish.

Wherever possible, always get advice from the publishers that you are writing for and follow their house style guide.

  • If you are writing for a technical journal, the first example isn't correct, it should say "the data tell" – Azor Ahai Oct 5 '16 at 21:12
  • Good point. I'll update my answer. – Mick Oct 5 '16 at 21:15
  • 2
    @Azor-Ahai Brandon Jernigan, Talent Operations Director, University of North Carolina, in an article at American Journal Experts says: 'It is often taught that data (like media or spectra) is a plural word (the singular is ‘datum’). In most contexts, the word data refers to specific numerical results and should therefore be treated as a plural count noun, with a corresponding plural verb form.... However, this rule is not strict; it depends on the scientific context.' – Edwin Ashworth Oct 5 '16 at 21:47
  • @EdwinAshworth I think Mick summarized it well in his edit. – Azor Ahai Oct 5 '16 at 21:53
  • 1
    'The use of data in your first example is problematic. If you are writing for a technical journal, you should use "the data tell us", since this is a plural form and your audience will expect you to use it.' is over-prescriptive. Brandon Jernigan, I would suggest (that's being polite), is more qualified to pronounce here than Azor-Ahai (who hasn't bothered to add supporting evidence). – Edwin Ashworth Oct 5 '16 at 21:59
6

Other parts of the question have been discussed extensively but I haven't seen much about the grammatical case so let me contribute in this area.

On cases

There's a more general problem with this approach that even in languages with cases, the case to be used does not necessarily correspond. So if you loan a word from, say, Russian into Czech (and those are close!), you may still need to decline it in a case that would not be natural in the original language in the same context because in its original form there's just no way for it to work. "About", for example, is expressed in Russian using accusative case with the preposition про, in Czech it is o with a locative. What's worse, accusative pro exists in the latter but means something else (for), and accusative o is something yet else (sparsely used). So using the Russian accusative would either mean breaking the preposition–case correspondence or constructing a nonsensical sentence.

I'm not a native speaker of English, and neither a language expert, so don't take me literally on this, but as far as I know, it actually has cases, subjective and objective. If you apply the above rule here, it tells you that you should convert the nouns to one of these, which will most probably be identical to each other anyway (and in many cases you can't use objective / oblique case anyway simply because there is none in the original language).

I can offer a direct example hinting against forcing foreign declension in English, or generally, forcing the use of a case which does not exist in the target language. My language is one of the few ones retaining a vocative. While there is a discussion whether foreign names should ever be declined at all (which usually ends in a case-to-case resolution) and some could not possibly be given a vocative because they don't fit into any existing paradigm (then they are automatically left in nominative), it is virtually never appropriate to use the vocative form of my name to address me in a language that doesn't have it. Subjectively, it would feel as taunting.

In conclusion, I would say don't use declension in English. Even if you may be perfectly certain what the correct form of the word is, it does not mean it will automatically be appreciated by speakers of either of the languages, and for the reasons outlined above, it's not justified anyway.

  • So is the solution to put foreign words in the nominative, or in the case corresponding to their role in the English sentence? (I think "don't use declension in English" miplies the first, but I'm not sure.) Then, what gender do you choose? Masculine by default? Or neuter, if the language has it? Or the correct gender--but not case--in the foreign language? – SAH Oct 7 '16 at 2:59
  • 3
    @SAH The solution I suggest is to use the cases of the target language, i.e., subjective (nominative) or objective (oblique). And if the language does not have oblique case use the unmarked word (which is usually a synonym for nominative, unless it also lacks that) everywhere. Use the case that would be appropriate for a native word or phrase in that place in the target language. I specifically did not address gender because I think it's more tricky, and because others did, but I'll try to say something below this comment. – The Vee Oct 11 '16 at 9:54
  • With genders I'd say quite the opposite, but only valid for English (which has mostly dropped its gender distinction): use the gender of the other language, unless it really sounds wrong. For example, you wouldn't say a girl is красивый. Put the красивая in feminine because girl is (in Russian). If you are declining a borrowed noun at all you need to use its gender quite inevitably as well. But here the rule would likely be much harder to formulate generally because of observations like in the comment of Zeus above: "the English 'book' sounds masculine for a Russian". – The Vee Oct 11 '16 at 10:06
  • (Not mentioning borrowing words between languages both of which have genders and they don't agree on the particular word.) You'll need to investigate and respect how your sentence will be perceived not only gramatically but also linguistically and culturally – which pretty much summarizes my original answer as well. Many examples have a regular solution, some have a clear one that's not easy to explain unless you're fluent, the rest may not be possible to resolve. – The Vee Oct 11 '16 at 10:09
  • "Some have a clear one that's not easy to explain unless you're fluent" -- Try me – SAH Nov 1 '16 at 19:46
5

The difficulty is in deciding when a 'foreign' word becomes a 'loan' word and a 'loan' word becomes an 'english' word. The process can be very rapid as in the case of garage which appears to have become an english noun with an english verb derived from it less than a decade after the French first coined it. On the other hand flambé (which is probably slightly older) is still listed in dictionaries with an acute accent and treated pretty much as a loan word, if not a fully fledged foreign word.

This means that we have been talking about cars being garaged (rather than garagé) for about a century but we're still arguing about the past tense of flambé. This is almost certainly because 'garage' was a really useful word for large sections of the population (not just people who had cars) while flambé remains a word used mainly by people with the wealth and prediliction to enjoy fine dining and by the people who cater to them.

  • 3
    The French verb is “garer”. Your car would be “garée” in French. The English verb “garage” was created from the imported noun “garage” following the common noun-to-verb conversion pattern in English. – Stéphane Gimenez Oct 6 '16 at 8:17
  • I'll be a bit bolder and more direct than Stéphane Gimenez: "garagé" simply doesn't exist in French. If you're looking for the French word, it's "garé" (or "garée" or "garés" or "garées"). – Olivier Grégoire Oct 6 '16 at 9:21
  • 1
    Though 'loanword' seems (as is often the case with these important linguistic terms) to be rather loosely defined, Wikipedia is, I'd say, following standard practice in considering that a 'loanword' is an English word. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '16 at 10:32
  • @StéphaneGimenez (and Olivier Grégoire) My apologies, my french was never that good! – BoldBen Oct 6 '16 at 18:45
4

In general, English tends to be relaxed about inflectional endings, compared to some other languages. In some cases, like the ones you cited, inflectional endings get lost when a term is borrowed into English. In other cases (e.g. emojis and typhoons), speakers have applied English inflections that were not present in their languages of origin.

In cases where the inflection actually makes a difference to the meaning (e.g. fiancé vs. fiancée), I would definitely recommend retaining the inflection. (However, I've seen enough sloppy treatment of this word pair that I would hesitate to declare it prescriptively "wrong" to merge them in English.)

In other cases, it's simply completely impractical to obey the inflectional rules of the language of origin. Sauna is now considered a thoroughly "normal" English word now, but if it weren't, good luck applying the appropriate Finnish inflections to it within an English sentence!

Ultimately, the answer to your question is situational. Let's consider your example of the four forms flambé, flambée, flambéd, flambéed.

Google nGram of flambé, flambée, flambéd, flambéed

This is a crude context-insensitive analysis, but we can still draw some conclusions:

  • Flambée enjoyed a brief surge in the late 1940s, presumably due to post-WW Ⅱ cultural exchange. It seems to have declined recently, though.
  • Flambé has surged in the last two decades. Assuming that it doesn't reflect a sudden rise in popularity of masculine foods relative to feminine foods, this suggests that the word is losing its inflection in English.
  • Flambéed is an English innovation; it is nonsense in French. It has clearly been rising in popularity in the last two decades. This also points to the word being more fully adopted into English.
  • Flambéd just hasn't caught on, in contrast. I would conclude that the rise of flambéed without the corresponding rise of flambéd means that English writers tend to repeat what they see, without fully analyzing why the inflectional endings are the way they are.
  • 2
    Many English speakers are unaware of the correct inflection. I've seen 'blonde' used for a man, when the French masculine form is 'blond'. Because the adjective was imported to describe women, it's the feminine form which is in general use. – Kate Bunting Oct 6 '16 at 9:03
  • Kate Bunting If 'blonde' is considered acceptable when modifying 'man' etc nowadays (I haven't checked for some time now), it is confusing to refer to it as a 'feminine form' in English. (Blond/blonde was one of a very few adjectives used in English [and the only one I know of] that inflected partially for gender, with 'blonde' referring almost solely to women and 'blond' to anyone). – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '16 at 10:24
  • @200_success What about "flambées," which would be the correct French, or "flambés" almost? – SAH Oct 6 '16 at 12:47
  • I was always taught that blond is the only English adjective that is spelt differntly according to gender i.e. blonde woman, blond man. There are probably many others..... – jamesh Oct 12 '16 at 10:48
  • @jamesh Well, we definitely say "brunette" for a woman. I haven't seen "brunet" for a man in awhile but I would write it myself. – SAH Nov 1 '16 at 19:45
4

English tends not to inflect words for gender and case, and therefore we don't tend to inflect loan words either. Adjectives don't inflect for plural nouns in English either, so that too affects how we treat loan words. But English does inflect plural nouns, and so the pluralisation of "foreign" nouns is a hot topic, well covered elsewhere. (It's particularly problematic when people collectively forget that the foreign word was originally a plural form, as in criteria, agenda, and data).

1

If you want the correct inflection for, say, Hebrew words, what about the more egregious and common examples of "two paninis" and "one panini", or "one spaghetti"?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.