MED Magazine - Issue 36 - March 2006

New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

From metrosexual to metrosessuale:
the global influence of English in the
creation of neologisms

Three years of researching English neologisms for MED Magazine have recently prompted us to ask the question: how far do new English words crop up in other languages? We decided to investigate this by asking experts in five different languages (Russian, Italian, Dutch, Polish and Serbian) to look at the influence of English neologisms on the languages they know, and explore the wider question of how far English plays a role in the creation of new words in these languages. In this article we discuss their findings, which reflect not just the international nature of English, but its potential to mould vocabulary development in other languages.

Translate or transliterate?

There are a number of ways in which English seems to be pro-active in extending the vocabulary of other languages. By far the most common, as one might expect, appears to be where a word of English origin is adopted but changed morphologically to reflect the norms of other languages. Sometimes this takes place through straightforward translation, as in for example the English terms home page and firewall becoming thuispagina and vuurwal in Dutch. However much more frequently the English word is adopted and, rather than being translated, is modified to reflect the spelling conventions of the adoptive language, a process sometimes referred to as transliteration. The examples below from modern Serbian serve as an illustration:

Serbian English
biznis business
kompjuteri computers
mobilni telefoni mobile phones
eko-turizam eco-tourism
bio-diverzitet bio-diversity
tierka teacher (female)
nou hau know-how

There were many examples of this process in the other languages our experts looked at, especially in the domain of computing and the Internet, as one might predict. Among the examples from Russian are:

Russian English
Hy kliknut: to click
Ma, M mail: mail
MaaHy mailanut: to mail
xaHy khaknut: to hack
oTo offtopik: off-topic
caMMeP spammer: spammer
aPoBaPa sharovara: shareware
H fishing: phishing
IMXO IMKHO: IMHO (abbreviation for 'in my humble opinion')

The last example is particularly interesting. Instead of translating 'in my humble opinion' as o-MoeMy (po-moyemu) and adopting an acronym based on their own language, i.e.: -M (P-M), which would be more readily understandable to all Russians, the English acronym has been taken over directly and made to sound Russian. Above it the word for phishing has likewise been transliterated directly from English rather than being based on the Russian word for fishing, i.e.: pHa o (ribnaya loblya). This kind of transliteration of Internet terminology is a common phenomenon in other languages too, evidence which confirms the perception of English as the accepted language of the Internet worldwide.

In Italian also, English words are often adapted rather than translated. Some examples of Italianisations of recent English terms are metrosessuale (metrosexual), tolleranza zero (zero tolerance) and matrimonio lite (marriage lite). In the last example, the English term lite was retained despite the fact that anyone who did not recognise its English origins might find it confusing, since the Italian word lite actually means 'quarrel'. In the field of cosmetics, the term glitterato meaning 'containing glitter' as in gel/bagno schiuma glitterato ('glitter bath foam') has been directly adapted from English glitter, the word glitterato not previously existing in Italian. The verb mobbizzare, (to bully), has its origins in the English noun mobbing. Verbs are often italianised rather than translated, as in for example cliccare (to click) and more recently googlare (to carry out an internet search), adapted from the English verb coinage to google.

Dutch is a language heavily influenced by popular English culture which readily embraces English words, though here too there are many examples of modification to reflect Dutch conventions. For instance, though English uses the prefix e- to refer to online practices, i.e.: e-mail, e-business, Dutch often uses the prefix i- e.g.: i-business, partly because it relates to the internet, but also because the Dutch letter i sounds exactly like English e. English words assimilated into Dutch are often turned into solid compounds, so e.g.: spam filter becomes spamfilter. Some recent English neologisms which have been given a Dutch spelling include: metroseksueel (metrosexual), flexitariër (flexitarian), blogosfeer (blogosphere) and speeddaten (speed-dating).

Though in general the assimilation of English words involves modifications based on the linguistic norms of the adoptive language, occasionally English words are modified on the basis of cultural norms. For instance, the term Chelsea tractor, a humorous euphemism for a large four-wheel drive vehicle used domestically, recently crossed over into Dutch as PC Hooft-tractor, PC Hooft referring to a fashionable, up-market shopping street in Amsterdam.

Recycling English words and meanings

In contrast to the adoption and transliteration of English words, another process which seems common across the languages we investigated is the incorporation of English words in terms of form, but not meaning. In other words, English words are accepted into the vocabulary but are given a meaning which is unique to the adoptive language and does not necessarily bear any relation to the original English meaning. Sometimes the semantic link is clear. In Italian for example, the word fiction means 'TV series', the word discount is used to describe a cheap supermarket, and an after-hours is a club which is open all night long. In Polish, the word billing means 'itemized bill', and in Dutch, a lunchroom is a café selling sandwiches. At other times the link is more tenuous, as in Italian lifting, meaning 'face lift', Polish adapter, meaning 'record player' and Dutch coffeeshop, which is a café that doesn't only sell coffee, but also marijuana. Occasionally, another language's use of an English word brings with it very specific connotations. For example, in Dutch, being single strongly implies a conscious decision not to be in a relationship.

Conversely, languages sometimes adopt English meanings but apply them to their own forms. So for example the Polish word warsztat (workshop) has extended its range of meaning to refer to the educational event known as a workshop, as well as the room full of tools. The Polish word dokladnie, meaning 'exactly' in the sense of 'carefully, with attention to detail', has now under the influence of English taken on the sense of expressing agreement, as in Yes, exactly! Another common phenomenon is to adopt and extend, figuratively or otherwise, the original sense of an English word. So for instance in Serbian, a provajder (provider) is not just an ISP (internet service provider), but a person from whom you can buy homemade food or drink, and the verb ulogovati meaning 'to log on', can also be used to mean 'to get going after waking up'. In Dutch, shoppen (shopping) describes a recreational pursuit rather than just the daily humdrum of buying groceries.

A global English vocabulary

A third process which can be observed is the wholesale adoption of English words with their original form and meaning. The languages we investigated varied in their tendency to do this, though the terminology of computing and the Internet is an area where most languages have taken on at least some forms directly from English. The use of English as a lingua franca in this domain has meant that terms like web, blog, Internet, etc. have become pretty much universal.

At one end of the spectrum is a language like Polish, which during the Communist era was relatively resistant to the influence of English. Where borrowing has occurred, transliteration has quickly followed, and this is true even in more recent years, such as the term bite (in the computing sense) becoming bajt and scanner becoming skaner. Sometimes English and Polish transliterated forms co-exist, as in leader/lider and dealer/diler. More recently however the pace of borrowing has increased, and new borrowings have often retained their English spelling. Some recent examples include notebook ('notebook computer'), on-line, overdraft and DVD. These words are pronounced approximately as in English, and a Pole without some knowledge of English would not know how to pronounce them by looking at their written form. In fact the letter v, as observed in the last two examples, is not a bona fide member of the Polish alphabet, but is used nonetheless.

At the other end of the spectrum are languages like Italian which has for some time more readily adopted English words as a complete package of form and meaning. Recent examples include: WiFi, nouse, spim, bluejacking and podcasting. This kind of borrowing is not restricted to technological domains, however. The 2004 American presidential election saw security mom join familiar terms such as first lady, soccer mom and swing voting. Italians with a zest for extreme sports might now talk about zorbing, snowrafting or canyoning, and those in search of the right relationship might participate in a little speed-dating.

One issue to resolve when this kind of borrowing takes place is the allocation of gender and related articles. When English nouns are adopted into Italian they are often treated as if they were Italian words with regard to gender and article conventions, so spim and zorbing are masculine with article lo (because masculine words beginning with z or s plus consonant are preceded by lo). Sometimes gender is assigned on the basis of the gender of the equivalent Italian word, so il mouse (masculine) and therefore il nouse, because the Italian equivalent (to 'computer mouse'), topo, is masculine. Other times however gender assignment seems more arbitrary. For example, Italians talk about il Web, despite the fact that the Italian equivalent, la Rete, is feminine.

Among the languages we investigated, Dutch was at the pinnacle of 'wholesale' borrowing, heavily influenced by popular English culture through television and film as well as the internet. Modern Dutch is now peppered with English words. Some recent examples from new technology include blog, hotspot, notebook (computer), laptop, ethernet, DVD, WiFi, phishing, podcast and wiki. Amongst the younger generation in particular, there is the perception that English words are more trendy and fashionable than their Dutch counterparts. Glossy magazines like the popular Cosmopolitan often freely substitute Dutch words with English equivalents, so that e.g.: minaar becomes lover and ontwerper becomes designer. Dutch has been so keen to incorporate English that it even seems capable of coining new 'English' words. For instance, the term baby boom, an expression inspired by the sudden increase in birthrate during the 15 years after World War II, found its way into Dutch vocabulary as babyboom and led to the coinage of an antonym, babycrash, a word which makes perfect sense to English speakers but is yet to be recorded in an English dictionary.

The influence of English

Across the languages we examined we can therefore identify three general ways in which English is currently influencing the development of the lexicon: 1) adaptation (transliteration) of English terms to correspond to spelling conventions in the adoptive language, 2) adoption of English words in form which are then given new uses, and 3) 'wholesale' adoption of new English words both in terms of form and meaning. The latter was the starting point of our investigations, and it seems there is definite evidence of English neologisms making their mark in other languages, which do seem to be borrowing terminology for 21st century concepts that have largely originated in the English-speaking world.

Equally interesting however are the ways in which the languages we examined creatively exploit English in conjunction with other word formation processes. In Serbian for example, a blend of the English words glamour and panorama has been used in creating the coinage glamurama as a description of celebrity TV shows. Dutch has a new blend fairshoppen, derived from the English words fair trade and shopping. Polish applies its inflectional principles to English borrowings to create 'hybrid' words like mailem ('by e-mail'). In Dutch, English verbs are borrowed but then conjugated according to Dutch grammar, so we see forms like crashte as in Mijn PC crashte. ('My PC crashed.'). Italian combines English nouns with delexical verbs to formulate expressions like far audience ('to attract a lot of viewers') and essere al top ('to be in good form').

Our research indicates that English undoubtedly has a major influence in the vocabulary development of other languages, and with the Internet now an integral feature of everyday life, the capacity of English to pollinate other languages can only increase.


My grateful thanks go to Jonathan Marks, Martin Mevius, Diane Nicholls, Elizabeth Potter, Charles Robertson, Milica Stojanovi and Kati Süle, without whose research this article would not have been possible.

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