Sally Thomason at Language Log has an entry on Native American languages that resist borrowing words even for objects imported from the majority culture, like automobiles, for which the word in Montana Salish (also called Flathead and Kalispel-Pend d’Oreille) is p’ip’uyshn—literally, ‘it has wrinkled feet.’ Other Salishan languages use comparable formations; my guess would be that they were borrowed rather than independently created.


  1. Interesting. I assumed the reasons these languages did not borrow words was political: to maintain some kind of linguistic integrity of endangered languages. But from the article it doesn’t seem that that’s the case. I wonder why they would choose to resist borrowings from other languages, especially when there’s nothing in particular about the language itself keeping them from doing so. Compare Chinese, which really doesn’t lend itself to borrowing from other languages (because it’s so strictly syllabic that the sounds of other languages are not easily reproduced), although you can borrow from Japanese (because of the kanji).
    The cool thing about this is that the literal meaning of the neologisms that stand for new concepts in Chinese is immediately obvious — you can see how they are constructed. The not so cool thing is that people are tempted to actually translate them literally. So people will say that a railway train is a “fire chariot” and a computer, a “lightning brain.” It creates an artificial sense of retrogressiveness in the language. In practice, it’s not like you parse the word “diannao” (computer) every time you use it; you can use the word quite effectively without thinking about its etymology, even though that etymology is fairly transparent (though not as transparent as some might think, since meanings did change over time — somebody once etymologized “diannao” for me as “electric brain,” which overlooks the borrowing of the word “dian,” still used for lightning, to mean electricity as well).
    Similarly, as a native English speaker, you can use the word “computer” in its conventional sense without having to think consciously about the fact that it essentially means “adding machine.” So it’s interesting that people (both Chinese and Western) ascribe great significance to the apparent etymology of newly coined words, and nobody seems to find it weird to insist, for example, that a “nation-state” is really a “country-family” (guojia). (That’s even a weirder example, now that I think about it, because it’s really a borrowing from the Japanese “kokka”).
    And don’t get me started on the practice of translating personal names, which is really weird and colonialist. Hi, my name is Like a Plum Blossom, and these are my friends Strengthen the Nation, Auspicious Snow, Many Younger Brothers, and Literary Fragrance (all actual people I know). Sheesh.
    This has gotten way off-topic, but with any luck someone will run with it. And hey, my name really is Like a Plum Blossom (Meiruo). Happy Feeling Thankful Holiday, everybody.

  2. I noticed when going through a glossary for Saanich (Salish) that the anthropologist had written down the Saanich word for the United States as sounding very similar to Boston. And this was out of a list of just a 1000 or so words, so it seems that the antropologist simply wrote down what he wanted or perhaps negotiated what the Saanich word for the United States should be. Is there a proper term for this in translation? Verbal imposition?
    By the way, regarding Chinese and transliteration, it is somewhat encouraging when learning Chinese that many scientific and marketing terms (eg. vitamin, aspirin, DM and DIY) are thankfully transliterations and none of this “electric brain” stuff (although English has borrowed “brainwash” from Mandarin).

  3. it seems that the antropologist simply wrote down what he wanted
    Why do you assume that the word for the United States couldn’t sound similar to “Boston”?
    I had a thread about translating personal names a long time ago, but I’m too tired to look it up now.

  4. As I understand, Icelandic and Finnish are two other languages which coin, instead of borrowing. A friend of mine says that someone who knows both Swedish and Finnish can spot Swedish borrowings, but my own quick research didn’t see anything that was obviously from German, English, Latin, Greek, or Romance.
    Iceland has to be an amazing place. 200,000 people keeping a language alive and giving the world Bjork, an entire literary genre (the saga), and the librettos many of Wagner’s operas. That’s two out of three, and I like Bjork.
    Not many know that Iceland has more horses per capita than anywhere except Mongolia. Ponies, actually, in both cases, and in fact Icelandic ponies are probably distantly related to Mongol ponies.

  5. Zizka, you forgot to mention that the sure-footed Icelandic pony has a unique, and uniquely comfortable, fifth gait and that they are descendents of the horses the Vikings took over, but are now only found in the Land of Fire and Ice. Expect a visit from the Iceland Tourist Board’s feared black-ops squad…
    Spair is worth reading on borrowing (in fact Sapir is always worth reading on anything or just for the sake of it):

    The psychological contrast between English and German as regards the treatment of foreign material is a contrast that may be studied in all parts of the world. The Athabaskan languages of America are spoken by peoples that have had astonishingly varied cultural contacts, yet nowhere do we find that an Athabaskan dialect has borrowed at all freely 3 from a neighboring language. These languages have always found it easier to create new words by compounding afresh elements ready to hand. They have for this reason been highly resistant to receiving the linguistic impress of the external cultural experiences of their speakers. Cambodgian and Tibetan offer a highly instructive contrast in their reaction to Sanskrit influence. Both are analytic languages, each totally different from the highly-wrought, inflective language of India. Cambodgian is isolating, but, unlike Chinese, it contains many polysyllabic words whose etymological analysis does not matter. Like English, therefore, in its relation to French and Latin, it welcomed immense numbers of Sanskrit loan-words, many of which are in common use to-day.

    Is Montana Salish a flavour of Athabaskan?
    Loaning (which I would suspect on the evidence in the post) and spontaneous identical metaphor generation do not exhaust the possible options for similarity – there are also calques. (Remember kids – “calque” is a loanword, “loanword” is a calque.)

  6. As for the use of the word Boston for American, the word in Chinook Jargon for American is Pashtin, as the first Americans they encountered in any numbers were whalers from Boston. (Brits were called something like ‘King George’s man’) This leaves the question of directionality of borrowing up in the air, but it wasn’t a researcher imposing it on a speaker.
    I believe that another example of metonymy for a smaller place substituting for a larger country is Holland and the Netherlands, but I have a feeling that the story that the sailors mostly came from North and South Holland and so said Holland rather than The Netherlands may be a little too pat to be true.
    What’s interesting to me is not so much that some languages don’t want to have anything to do with loanwords (good on ‘em, I say, if you can’t be snobbish about loanwords, what can you be snobbish about ), but that loanwords generally have to come in as nouns. In Japanese, you can never have a loanword as a verb, though you can make it a verb by the simple expedient of adding suru (‘to do’) I think that the same is true of English, but because you have functional shift, once the word is in, you can do with it as you will. Or so it has been blogged…

  7. Ojibway is a great language for borrowing words, even down to the common greeting, “Bozhoo” which sounds a lot like French and for which there is some controversy.
    (By the way, Cree uses the greeting “wachiya” which sounds a lot like the common British greeting “Whatch ya” to me.)
    But many years ago Fred Wheatley, an Elder and linguist convened a group of Elders to create new Ojibway words for things like computers and coffee. It’s Fred’s little joke that his word for coffee is niibiishabobetchboodaketchboosawagamig.
    It translates, poetically, as “a beverage like tea, but stronger that leaves a sharp taste on the tip of your tongue.”
    Most Ojibway speakers just say “kwapiy” for coffee. Fred told me once the beauty of his word is that if you can it at 8 in the morning, you don’t really need another coffee.

  8. In Cree, the word for horse is mistatim, or big dog. Atim being dog. Me likey.

  9. The Harvard Indo-Europeanists used to favor an idea that PIE *ekwo- ‘horse’ was actually the word for ‘dog,’ *kwon-, with an augmentative prefix: Eh! Dog!! = horse. The Cree instance is a nice parallel, but I still don’t believe it.

  10. Very interesting thread. Regarding Japanese, it is true that loanwords can be verbalized by adding “suru”, but lately it has beocme popular to form verbs by tacking one of the more common verbal suffixes (“ru”) and conjugating it like a native verb. So you get vords like “memoru” (to write a memo) and “taguru” (to tag something). If the word has just the right pronunciation when transcribed into Japanese, you can get gems like “daburu” (to double) which are pronunced almost identically to the original word. This formation struck me as being very close to morphological looseness found in English. Now I want to try and find an adjective ending in “i” and see if I can’t get that imported in the same manner. Happy-ku nai? ;)

  11. About horses and dogs
    The Nez Perce diminutive of horse (sik’em) is dog (ciq’aam-qal) (s>c and k>q) so in NP, a little horse = a dog
    About memoru
    Yes, if the word fits the phontactic template of Japanese, it can be used like that, but I think it gets its foothold from Japanese using it as an in-joke (since everyone is exposed to English as part of compulsory education) and, because it then fits so other people think it is appropriate to use (not too sure about tageru, though) I also think that one of the comedy manzai teams went through a phase where they would use English words as Japanese (the one that sticks in my mind is private-teki for kojin-teki) Doberu also has a german version, dopperu (from doppleganger) which fits really well because of the doubled consonant in the middle.
    Speaking of doubling (see the tar tar pits blog entry above, I think a similar thing happened with ‘honcho’, which was from occupation forces having to deal with Japanese work crews (han) and asking who is in charge (Who’s the hancho, which has become who’s the head honcho, which is like who is the leader group leader) I’d wager that almost every American thinks that honcho comes from Spanish.
    As for an example of an ‘adjective’ that is borrowed, maikaa (my car) is reanalyzed as a single unit, so you can ask your student if he has ‘maika’ when it’s not your car but his car. However, these sorts of adjectives tend to get fused to the noun (so ‘waishatsu’ which means ‘white (button down) shirt can be used with a color, so you can say ‘aoi waishatsu’ which literally means ‘a blue white shirt’. Both words have the -i ending, so they seem quite natural modifying nouns.

  12. Regarding the Saanich language in Victoria,BC:
    The glossary is online here but I cannot read the font. That’s interesting about Chinook jargon; I remember picking up a dictionary of it one time and wondering if this was a pidgeon of the Chinook language proper (from central coast of Oregon) or whether it was supposed to be a pidgeon of several language families of the west coast such as Salish, Nuu-chal-nulth, Haida and Kwakiutl. I think I usually comes down to what the Sam family (large extended Salish family in Canada and the US) says ;)
    Regarding Japanese verbs:
    Many Japanese verbs are also borrowed from Chinese (not just English) using the する (suru) ending and besides the administrative and goverment related verbs that one might expect to have been borrowed from Chinese, some are also very common and basic such as studying (benkyo suru) and doing exercise (undo suru).
    It might be interesting to know if there are more verbs that are loanwords than are not. And more facetiously, how many more centuries will it be until Chinese loanwords will be considered Japanese? I understand the Chinese navy currently has subs watching American and Japanese naval manoeuvers in the Sea of Japan.

  13. I gather that Finnish has many old borrowings, often made obscure by simplification of consonant clusters, such as koulu < schola.

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