Parallel influences in language

To paraphrase John Donne: No language is an island, entire of itself. And the death of a language diminishes all of us because languages are part of mankind.

In more ways than one, languages are intertwined and not one escapes the influence of other tongues. Dominant languages, world languages, borrow heavily from less favored ones, less favored economically or politically, of course, which in turn pilfer terminology from their big brothers. This has been going on since the dawn of our species but now the interrelationships are more numerous and faster. For good or for bad, we have now a small world, a truly smaller world.

It has been said that a more powerful and developed culture imposes its language on the underdogs. Not so.

Spanish and English belong to two different language branches. The former is a Romance language that evolved from Latin, like French, Portuguese, Italian, for example. The latter is Germanic and arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England. It is, of course, related to Dutch and German. These facts are well known.

There are two important events in the history of the two languages, which I will call parallel influences: The Arab invasion of Spain in AD. 711, and the Norman invasion of England in 1066, almost 350 years later.

In AD 711 the Arab troops of Tarik-ben-Zeyad had conquered the north of Africa and were at the gates of the Iberian Peninsula. The last Visigoth king of Spain lost his life, his kingdom and the battle of Guadalete, all in a day in July, 711. The Arabs conquered Spain and stayed until 1492, for almost eight centuries, when Isabella took Granada. Eight centuries is a long time, so for us the question is: what was the Arabic influence in the Romance language we call Spanish or Castilian?

On Sealac Hill, King Harold II lost his life and the battle of Hastings, in 1066, to the Duke of Normandy and his troops, who were invading England. William the Conqueror won this battle and moved on to London. No more battles had to be fought. William brought troops and a new language that came to be known as Anglo-Norman, a variety of French. It became the official language of the Court and nobility for centuries. The Normans stayed and eventually adopted English, the language of the conquered. Our question is: What impact had this invasion on the English tongue?

Blackboard with the word welcome in different languages

What language does not stem from others? / Photo: Shutterstock

Give or take a few words, the eight hundred years of Islamic domination produced only 4000 in Spanish, most of them archaic and out of use today. Without invasions, French has introduced more words into the language. Acequia, arroba, álgebra, alfange, aljibe, aceituna… mostly agricultural terms, coming form Hispanic-Arabic. Also expressions like ojalá. Castilian was not affected grammatically, syntactically or morphologically. If the Arabs had not remained so long, the imprint on Spanish would have been the same, almost nil.

According to Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue, 40 percent of the English vocabulary comes from French, from Norman French, and from Latin. The fact that English has two sets of words has enriched it: Shut / close.  Answer /  reply. Smell / odor. Power / might. Room / chamber. Wish / desire. Yearly / annual. Manly / masculine. Gut / intestine. A hearty welcome can be also expressed as a cordial reception, meaning the same.

I tell Spanish-speaking people that English is easier to acquire than, say, German or Dutch, because of its closeness to the Castilian vocabulary, thanks to the contribution of the Normans. English speakers will find Romance Languages and Germanic languages easier to master than Polish, Serbian or Tibetan, for instance.

I dare you all to find a language in the world that has no borrowings from another.

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