November 26, 2010

Lexical borrowing in the history of Indo-European languages

This is an open access paper.

Proc. R. Soc. B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1917

Networks uncover hidden lexical borrowing in Indo-European language evolution

Shijulal Nelson-Sathi et al.


Language evolution is traditionally described in terms of family trees with ancestral languages splitting into descendent languages. However, it has long been recognized that language evolution also entails horizontal components, most commonly through lexical borrowing. For example, the English language was heavily influenced by Old Norse and Old French; eight per cent of its basic vocabulary is borrowed. Borrowing is a distinctly non-tree-like process—akin to horizontal gene transfer in genome evolution—that cannot be recovered by phylogenetic trees. Here, we infer the frequency of hidden borrowing among 2346 cognates (etymologically related words) of basic vocabulary distributed across 84 Indo-European languages. The dataset includes 124 (5%) known borrowings. Applying the uniformitarian principle to inventory dynamics in past and present basic vocabularies, we find that 1373 (61%) of the cognates have been affected by borrowing during their history. Our approach correctly identified 117 (94%) known borrowings. Reconstructed phylogenetic networks that capture both vertical and horizontal components of evolutionary history reveal that, on average, eight per cent of the words of basic vocabulary in each Indo-European language were involved in borrowing during evolution. Basic vocabulary is often assumed to be relatively resistant to borrowing. Our results indicate that the impact of borrowing is far more widespread than previously thought.



Fanty said...

8% seems quiet low.

If I imagine what usualy is claimed for German.

I read several times that modern German vocabulary is like:

60% borrowed from Romance and Greek languages.
30% bases on Germanic words.
10% is borrowed from other languages, other than Germanic, Romance or Greek.

The Grammar is Germanic.

This suggests that Germanic vovabulary is the minority in modern German language. Basicly the grammar, makes German a "Germanic language".

For several things, German has 2 vocables to chose from: A Germanic and a Latin.

"Straße" (Street) from Latin "Strata"

"Weg" (Way), beeing a Germanic word.

"Mauer" (Wall) borrowed from Latin "Murus".

But "Wand"(<--house wall) or "Wall"(<-- structure for keeping enemies out), beeing Germanic words.

Often, the Latin or Greek borrowed word is used for the higher developed level of a thing ("Street" compared to "way")

"Portal" over "Tor" (means "gate", but related to english "door"). "Portal automatically gives the impession that it must be much more glorious with figurines and all. ;-P

There is even a study about the modern usage:
So higher the education, so fewer Germanic words does a German use but so higher the amount of Latin and Greek borrowed words he uses in all day life.

But, there is a funny thing to observe:

German heavily borrows words from English at the moment.

Some of these words start to displace the German words.

The funny thing is:
Some of these English words are Germanic and displace Latin or Greek borrowed German words. ;-)
So there is "re-import".

princenuadha said...


I don't think it works like that. I think their counting borrowed words since the predecessor language in the evolutionary tree. You seem to be trying to approach the total amount of words borrowed which is impossible to do because how many words did pre-germanic borrow, and how many words did pre indo-european borrow, etc...

Anonymous said...

Roots of western civilization is the Greek-Roman world. Latin and Greek were the dominant languages for centuries and influenced others for centuries.
Latin was the language of scientists and letterates until the seventeenth century, not surprising that even today the upper classes speak a language influenced by it (and latin has Greeks borrowed itself).
Also Italian has German cognates and usually they are usually used to describe something ugly, vulgar, inferior too.

The linguistic research, however, show that the recent loans, due to the mode, leaving few traces and generally disappear with the time.