I've heard people say that the reason English is such a great language is that it's enriched itself by stealing so promiscuously from other languages. The image I get of English is that she's like the kind of old and very distinguished madam that you'd see running a storied whorehouse in New Orleans. We have "beef" from French and "cow" for the living animal, we have "automobile" formed from the miscegenation of Greek and Latin. We have drug czars and pajamas and canyons and chow mein.

Is this story of English exceptionalism really true, or is it an urban folktale like the number of Eskimo words for snow? It does seem that certain languages such as French and Katharevousa Greek have been much more concerned with maintaining their purity. Are there other languages that could contend with English for the title of Most Thieving Language?

I originally asked this on english.SE, but folks there suggested it would be more appropriate here.

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    It doesn't seem objectively true. Ottoman Turkish, Romanian, every pidgin and creole (among which I might place English), Yiddish, Romani, Sabir... Perhaps among modern Western European formal languages it's true. I think the core issue is that it's sort of a mixed Germanic and Romance language - at some point the Romance portion is more than borrowing, it's simply inheritance. The other factor is that English is spoken in many countries, so it "has" words for some rare fruit in India but that hardly implies that speakers in Newfoundland know those words. Mar 7, 2016 at 19:53
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    And the English software vocabulary is purer than that of any other language. Mar 7, 2016 at 19:53
  • @A.M.Bittlingmayer: every pidgin and creole (among which I might place English) Interesting...I'm not a professional linguist, but WP's definition of a pidgin requires that it be a grammatically simplified language, and its definition of a creole is that it developed from a pidgin. Are you saying that English is, or was at some time, grammatically simplified? Would that be simplified compared to earlier Germanic languages? Compared to proto-Indo-European? Compared to English before the Norman conquest?
    – user12663
    Mar 7, 2016 at 21:22
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    @BenCrowell en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_English_creole_hypothesis (was news to me) Mar 8, 2016 at 17:51
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    Possible duplicate of Examples of Borrowing Languages Dec 30, 2017 at 21:05

2 Answers 2


Technically speaking, English (or any language) does not steal from other languages. Although we acquired "beef" from French, unlike actual theft, we did not deprive French of that word, and even today speakers of French use the word "boeuf". Nor do we "borrow", which implies an intent to repay, although there has been some payback in the form of originally-English words now employed in French ("OK", "weekend", "sandwich" and so on). We don't know who is responsible for the aforementioned self-loathing characterization of the history of English, but it wasn't a linguist.

This behavior is found in very many languages of the world, and English is not special in the percentage of its words that are nor strictly descended through the West Germanic line of Indo-European (suitable restated to identify the borrowed vocabulary of French, Norwegian, Persian and so on). There can be special impediments to borrowing, such as Korean's resistance to borrowing verbs. It is possible, though, that English may top the charts in terms of the number of different languages borrowed from.

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    Technically speaking, English does indeed borrow from other languages, because that is the technical word used in linguistics. What other meanings the word "borrow" may have are irrelevant here.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 7, 2016 at 18:27
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    User has, however, made a legitimate point. The technical term "borrow" is basically absurd if seen from the etymological meaning of this word. Linguists, more than anyone else, ought to respect etymology.
    – fdb
    Mar 7, 2016 at 20:21
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    @fdb Quite the opposite, linguistics has shown that etymology is no guide to present meaning. Mar 7, 2016 at 21:02

There are other languages with heavy borrowing. In Europe, Romanian comes to my mind (basic vocabulary and grammar inherited from Latin with lots of mostly Slavonic vocabulary borrowed (language purists replaced some of those borrowings with borrowings from Italian and French later on).

Another example might be Suaheli: A Bantu language in grammar with a heavy load of borrowings (mostly from Arabic).

However, I don't have quantitative data on either language.

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    I would add that the volume of borrowing from English into Swahili probably now equals that from Arabic.
    – user6726
    Mar 7, 2016 at 18:45

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