Beyond word ownership

Cristian Ispir
2 min readDec 18, 2023
From a 9th-century manuscript which includes explanations (glosses) in German of Latin terms, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 299.

The trouble with loan words is that they are never on loan, never to be returned to their rightful owner.

Loan words are different from foreign words in that they are adapted from their original language into the language of importation. Unlike espresso, which is a foreign word in English, rickshaw is a loanword from the Japanese jinrikisha (人力車).

Words enter one language from a donor language in different ways. But why do we say they’re loan words?

It is unclear who coined the term loanword, which occurs equally in French (mot d’emprunt) and German (Lehnwort) in exactly the same way.

Does a language own its words? Remarkably, no linguistic institution has ever sought to patrol the words going out, only those going in. There are no regulations around word exports, only imports. And I think they’re both equally important. For instance, I think English should have thought twice before allowing French to adopt (rather than borrow!) the word steak with the Gallicised spelling ‘steack’, which is the worst kind of hybrid, neither English nor French. At least rosbif has a fully baked honesty about it. And don’t even get me started on expresso…

Unlike people, word migration doesn’t play a zero-sum game. Languages spawn and sprawl, reach out and back in, they cross borders when they have to and set up palisades of their own when they must. But they never go on loan, they never let themselves be borrowed. They give themselves away freely, so that other languages can enrich themselves and return the favour one day.