When a loanword enters a language, does it usually replace an existing native word or phrase? Or does it more often lead to an increase in the size of the language's vocabulary?

Regarding Japanese's influence on English, most of the words are new words describing concepts that did not exist before, such as karaoke, kimono, and sushi, with only the occasional word replacing existing terms (tsunami replacing "tidal wave"). I'm curious as to whether most loanwords are like this, or whether it indicates that Japanese has had a rather weak influence on English compared to other languages' influence on English.

  • 2
    Usually, when a new word enters a language to which a similar word already exists, the two live happily together, one commonly taking up a different register than the other. Sometimes the old word disappears, but usually it does not, I would say. Whether or not a similar word does or does not already exist in the host language upon adoption of a new word from the source language is often difficult to determine and define. It depends on how similar they need to be to count for you. I would say they usually add something to the host language, but sometimes that is as marginal as register.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 13, 2013 at 11:24
  • AFAIK, 'tsunamis' refer to waves caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, whereas tidal waves are caused by... well... the tides. Off course the two can combine, so it's not necessarily so simple. However, I wasn't aware that one was about to replace the other. Is that so? Or is it just that tsunamis are more likely to hit the news?
    – dainichi
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 0:53
  • @dainichi tidal waves used to be used for things that had nothing to do with the tides, whereas that's being discouraged nowadays, because it's a bit misleading. See en.wiktionary.org/wiki/tidal_wave#Usage_notes
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 0:59
  • @AndrewGrimm tsunami literally means "harbour wave" though has little or nothing to do with harbours
    – Henry
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 23:56

3 Answers 3


There is not a single behavior and loanwords behave differently from one another, because after all they're strictly connected to human behavior and that's quite variated even if similar across the world.

The word Loanword itself is a calque from the German Lehnwort. And even Calque is a loanword from French. Calques are another thing but let's focus on loanwords.

For example, in English the word web both refers to a spider's web, and to the web, the internet. Italian got this last word (from www which means world wide web), so we say "Ho portato la mia attività sul web" (I got my activity/shop on the web, online).

But Italian only acquired that meaning. We don't say "C'è una web nell'angolo di quel muro" (There's a web in that wall corner). For us "Web" exclusively refers to the Internet, not to the spider's web. Loanwords often behave like this, they just refer to the object/situation/concept they referred to when they were acquired and just to that.

Another example is "Corner". In English it designates a random wall/something corner, or the Corner Kick (in Soccer). In Italian if we say "È stato assegnato un corner alla squadra avversaria", we mean "the opposing team was awarded a corner kick". We won't say "Questo muro ha un corner strano", (this wall forms a weird corner).

The same happens for the opposite: English say "lasagne" because the term was acquired from the collocation "Lasagne al forno/alla bolognese", not knowing that "lasagne" is a plural for us and that the singular is "lasagna". But English acquired that particular word and uses it as standard.

Here's another important point: when loanwords are acquired, their original gender/number is lost and they are "reset" to work in the receiving language. In Italian we say "In questa cartella ci sono molti file" to mean "In this folder there are many files".

But at a certain point, it's really hard to know what word is actually a really well-integrated loanword. I bet many Italians wouldn't know that "Grattacielo" is actually a loanword from English "Skyscraper" (cielo = sky, gratta(tore) = scraper).

English and Japanese are more transparent in this case as Japanese, for example, usually adopts Katakana so you can see what words are not Japanese. The word tsunami, 津波 (tsu: harbor and nami: wave), would probably be used just to refer to the natural disaster, even if you could say "a tsunami of crime", because people will always (un)consciously link that word to those disasters and journalists will most likely prefer another word to avoid this.

In conclusion there is not a single answer that will satisfy all instances concerning loanwords as each loanword has a different story and a different origin, but luckily for most recent loanwords, it's not hard to guess their history.

This is also true when talking about their position in the new language: some sort of usurp the original word, others will increase the vocabulary (mostly because the receiving language didn't have a word for that concept), and so on.


Firstly, I think words are usually borrowed to fill in gaps in a language. For example, there are no lions, horses or snow in Malaysia, which is why all these words were borrowed into Malay from Snskrit or Arabic.

However, sometimes a loanword can become so popular that it eclipses the native word. For instance, Sanskrit 'kapala'- skull became Malay 'kepala'- head, eventually usurping the place of 'hulu'. Nowadays, 'hulu' only retains vague remnants of its original meaning, e.g. 'hulu'- head of the river -> upstream, 'penghulu' headman.

Now on to Japanese. A digression... Well, actually, correct me if I'm wrong, but tsunami is not a loanword. It just happens to be an indigenous Japanese word written in kanji. In fact, if you search wiktionary, you can see that it is written with different kanji that all mean 'tidal wave'.

When Japanese borrowed Chinese script, it applied them to both loanwords and the original Japanese words.For example, the same kanji is used for 'chu' in 'chu-goku'- China/Middle Kingdom; and 'naka'- centre, middle.

The way to tell if a Japanese word is borrowed is through its pronunciation. Loanwords typically sound closer to Sinitic languages but might have evolved a different meaning. Eg: 'shitsurei'- loss of manners/rudeness cf. Mand. 'shili', Taiwanese Hokk. 'sit-lae'; 'benkyo'- study cf. Mand. 'mianqiang'- to force; 'hijyou'- emergency, extraordinary situation cf. Mand. 'feichang'- really, extraordinarily.

  • "Tsunami" may not be a loanword in Japanese, but I was talking about it being a loanword in English.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 1:05

Russian is an example of language which uses borrowing of foreign words actively for a few reasons:

I. Loanword expresses something that have not a representation yet (obvious case, and isn't a case in question).

II. Loanword is shorter and/or more convenient. For example, the complex clause "электронно-вычислительная машина" or its indeclinable abbreviation "ЭВМ" is replaced with "компьютер" ('computer'), and this replacement had finished just immediately after USSR collapse, when old moral rules had got down.

III. Loanword is used due to fashion, or speaker lasiness to find an existing word for the same. This is typical for wide crowd of business related people (mainly "office plankton"), for IT people and some other branches which are led mainly by English literature, which borrow words with the described phenomena, even if the native language has words for the same sense. Such borrowings aren't stable and are actively criticised even by speakers' colleagues.

IV. Loanword is used to express some specific flavor of word sense, which isn't distinguished from a main sense in own word. For example, "тенденция" ('tendency') was neutral for centuries, but, in the current business slang, it is definitely negative; instead, "тренд" ('trend') is used for positive meaning. This difference isn't reflected yet in printed dictionaries but it is marked by (IIRC) most of audience; it has appeared due to reasons described in (III) but, unlike most of those words, has been surviving for years. Also, IT is full of such borrowings.

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