Linguistics Loanwords
Yoonjung Kang
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0027


When two languages come into contact, words are borrowed from one language to another. Lexical borrowings, or loanwords, are by far the most commonly attested language contact phenomenon. Thomason and Kaufman 1988 (cited under Borrowability) states that “[i]nvariably, in a borrowing situation the first foreign elements to enter the borrowing language are words,” and, based on a cross-linguistic survey of lexical borrowings in forty-one languages, Haspelmath and Tadmor 2009 (cited under Borrowability) states that “[n]o language in the sample—and probably no language in the world—is entirely devoid of loanwords” (p. 55). Loanwords are studied from many different perspectives, touching upon different subfields of linguistics, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, and semantics, as well as sociolinguistics and historical linguistics. Loanwords are not only recognized as the most common of language contact phenomena but also occupy an important position in general linguistics due to the evidence they bring to our understanding of the grammatical structure of language and to the theory of language change and historical linguistics. Some major questions that arise in the study of loanwords include: (1) Definition—what are loanwords? How are loanwords different from or similar to codeswitches? (2) Borrowability—why are words borrowed? Are certain types of words more likely to be borrowed than others? (3) Emergence and evolution—how are loanwords introduced? How do loanwords evolve over time? (4) Adaptation—why and how are loanwords adapted phonologically, morphologically, and semantically? (5) Lexical stratification—to what extent do loanwords adhere to the same types of restrictions as native words? What do loanwords tell us about the structure of the lexicon? (6) Role of extralinguistic factors: how do extralinguistic factors, such as orthography, sociopolitical context of borrowing, and language attitude affect loanwords?

General Overviews

There is no textbook devoted solely to loanwords, but introductory books on language contact often provide substantial discussion of loanword phenomena. Matras 2009 examines the distribution of lexical borrowings across different lexical categories and the characteristics of structural adaptation. Winford 2003 discusses different social contexts under which lexical borrowing takes place and also provides detailed examples of structural adaptation that loanwords undergo. Thomason 2001 focuses on the interaction of social factors with the borrowing of different linguistic structures. Bowden 2005 and Haugen, et al. 2003 are encyclopedia entries that provide a short and succinct overview of the topic. Clyne 1987 and Hoffer 1996 provide an overview of the field from a historical point of view. Haspelmath 2009 is an introductory chapter to a handbook of cross-linguistic comparative study of loanwords and provides an excellent introduction to key issues in the study of loanwords.

  • Bowden, John. 2005. Lexical borrowing. In Encyclopedia of linguistics. Edited by Philipp Strazny, 620–622. New York: Taylor & Francis.

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    This short 995-word encyclopedia entry provides an overview of topics covering various issues, including the motivation of lexical borrowing, the borrowability of different word types, and the adaptation of borrowed words.

  • Clyne, Michael G. 1987. History of research on language contact. In Sociolinguistics-Soziolinguistik. Vol. 1. Edited by H. von Ulrich Ammon, Norbert Dittmar, and Klaus J. Mattheier, 452–459. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    Provides an overview of research on language contact prior to Weinreich 1953 and Haugen 1950 (both cited under Definition), which the author considers to be the beginning of American sociolinguistics. In the pre-1953 era, research on language contact played a vital role in the debate over the nature of language change in historical linguistics.

  • Haspelmath, Martin. 2009. Lexical borrowing: Concepts and issues. In Loanwords in the world’s languages: A comparative handbook. Edited by M. Haspelmath and U. Tadmor, 35–54. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    Provides an overview of issues related to the definition and classification of loanwords as well as the motivation behind lexical borrowing.

  • Haugen, Einar, Marianne Mithun, and Ellen Broselow. 2003. Borrowing. In International encyclopedia of linguistics. Edited by William J. Frawley, 242–249. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Consists of two parts: “Overview” and “Loanword phonology.” “Overview” provides a historical overview and the context of the development of contact linguistics from the 19th century to the 1980s. “Loanword phonology” discusses the phonological transformation lexical borrowings undergo as they are integrated into the borrowing language.

  • Hoffer, Bates L. 1996. Borrowing. In Kontaktlinguistik/contact linguistics/linguistique de contact. Vol. 2. Edited by Hans Goebl and Peter H. Nelde, et al., 541–549. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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    Provides an overview of major works in contact linguistics in the 20th century. The author takes Haugen’ 1950s article on borrowing (Haugen 1950, cited under Definition) as “the beginning of the current interest in the topic,” with much of the earlier work dealing mainly with the topic from the perspective of historical linguistics.

  • Matras, Yaron. 2009. Language contact. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511809873E-mail Citation »

    An introductory textbook on language contact that examines multilingualism both at the individual level and the community level. It devotes a chapter to the discussion of lexical borrowing, touching upon borrowing and adaptation of nouns, verbs, and adjectives/adverbs, drawing upon examples from a wide range of languages.

  • Thomason, Sarah G. 2001. Language contact: An introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

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    Provides a survey of language contact situations, taking into account the interaction of grammatical and social factors that give rise to a variety of linguistic outcomes, including introduction of new words, sounds, and grammatical structures, creation of new language, and attrition or loss of language.

  • Winford, Donald. 2003. An introduction to contact linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    Chapter 2 is devoted to the discussion of lexical borrowing. It provides discussion of different types of social contexts under which lexical borrowing takes place and also discusses the range of structural adaptations that borrowings undergo, drawing examples from a variety of language contact situations.

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