This question is motivated by some creative writing and world building I'm doing, but it has another real-world inspiration that I would like a real-world linguistics answer to.

My in-laws (and my wife) speak Sylheti Bangla, and often I hear a sentence in Sylheti with an english word mixed in. I've also noticed my wife will prefer a Sylheti word over the English, even though her first language is English.

The sort of english words I hear mixed in are small simple words like 'ok', 'alright' or 'however', as well as some words I presume my wife can't translate well like 'practice' or 'tension' (for communicating a mental health concern, like anxiety or depression). However my wife and mother-in-law will both say 'time kita?' to ask the time, even though I know there is a word for time in Sylheti. Something seems to make these english words stick with the speaker.

The reverse is even more intriguing to me, words like 'fosha' (money), 'firis' (saucer or small plate) or 'fasis' (hallway) crop up in conversation, despite my wife knowing the english word. She uses the english word with others, but it's clearly more natural for her to use those words when speaking to me or her family. Again, something makes those words stickier.

I'm aware of various 'lists' that highlight something similar:

  • Swadesh: Words every language seems to have
  • Dolgopolsky: Words that seem stable across time
  • Leipzig–Jakarta: Words used to 'test the degree of chronological separation of languages' (resistant to borrowing)

But these lists are more to do with comparative linguistics, or language evolution. The sort of words I'm talking about aren't loan words (of which there are plenty from Bengali, 'Dinghy', 'Bungalow', 'jute' etc.), but words that although their translation is easy and known, don't stick in the mind of the speaker as well as their native or new language?

Is there a general list of these, or is it known that there is no such common set of words?

1 Answer 1


There is some research in bilingualism and code switching dealing with such phenomena. The main thing is that code switching is not just random or arbitrary but does follow some rules. For example, I once overheard a conversation between two young people in the tramway [some Turkish I don't understand] zum Beispiel [more Turkish I don't understand] (the German phrase zum Beispiel means "for example").

I don't know if it is possible to derive some universals from that kind of research, but I am aware that hierarchies of substitution exist, e.g., in the order of conjunctions that creep in.

A researcher active in that field is Jürgen Meiser.

  • Presuming that you were in Germany and not Turkey, this sounds like the opposite as it's more likely the people in the conversation were Turkish than German. A word that second-language speaker found easy to pick up.
    – user253751
    Nov 7, 2022 at 21:52

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