What is the difference between a loan word and an English word with foreign roots?

Logic of English Spelling Rules 3, 7, and 16 include the phrase "English words." People sometimes wonder, as they first learn these spelling rules: How we are categorizing a word as English or foreign? For example, we recently received an email with this question:

What criteria do you use to decide whether a word is English or foreign? Is a word counted as "English" for the purposes of the rule only if its etymology shows that it came to us through Old or Middle English? That would be a small slice of the English language, wouldn't it?

This is an excellent question!

If we were considering only words that derived directly from Old or Middle English or were coined in modern English, that would be under half of English words. But that is not actually the distinction we are making when we talk about foreign words and English words.

Big Picture

Many, many English words have origins in other languages. But these can be divided into two categories:

1) Loan words. These are words taken directly from another language and used in English as-is.

2) English words with ROOTS from another language. These words contain one or more morphemes (roots, prefixes, or suffixes) from another language. However, the particular words developed within English, and their spelling is based on English spelling patterns.

It is the first group we mean when we talk about "foreign words." English has many loan words, and we continue to add more. However, as an overall percentage of our language, the words that are true loan words in this sense are a much smaller group than the second category: words with roots from other languages that formed as new words in English.

Digging Deeper

Loan Words

We use the term loan words to describe words that English speakers have taken directly from another language and simply started using "on loan." These words will often be recognized as foreign, at least initially, by English speakers who use or hear them; many English speakers today, for example, are aware that tofu is a Japanese word, or that hors d'oeuvre is a French term. However, some loan words also become naturalized into English speech. Over time many loan words become so common that we don't think of them as foreign anymore and may not even realize they are loan words.

Some examples of loan words: 

  • Taco is a Spanish word for a Mexican dish. It has been used in English since the mid 20th century. The term has become so common that it is naturalized into English, just as tacos are now naturalized into American culture. We never invented a new Anglicized term for it; the Spanish word described it perfectly, so we just used that. This is typical of how loan words are added to our language over time.
  • Alumnus and alumna are Latin terms for a pupil. English-speaking schools and universities have used these Latin words since the 17th century to refer to former students. Now they are so common that we often don't think of them as foreign. (However, even if we don't notice that they are loan words, we still use the Latin endings to form the plurals of these words: alumni and alumnae.)
  • Spaghetti is an Italian word that describes an Italian dish. It has been used in English since the 19th century.
  • Philadelphia is Greek word that means 'brotherly love.' It was chosen by the founders of the city Philadelphia because of its meaning.
  • Menu is a French word. Its literal meaning in French is 'a detailed list,' but is used in both French and English to mean a detailed list of meals available at a restaurant. It has been used in English since the 19th century and is fully naturalized.
  • Ski is a Norwegian word. It has been used in English since the 18th century and is now fully naturalized. 
  • Status quo is a Latin term that has been used in English since the 19th century. I would argue that it isn't yet fully naturalized and that most people still recognize it as a foreign term, but it is becoming so commonplace that its meaning is recognized by many who have never studied Latin. So it is in the process of becoming naturalized into English. 
  • Hajj is an Arabic term, referring to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. We do not have a separate English term for this pilgrimage in common use; instead, we borrow the Arabic term. Although the term has been used in English since the 18th century, most English speakers still recognize it as a foreign word; it is not fully naturalized into the language.

Unlike English words with roots from another language, which we'll discuss in a moment, loan words usually follow the spelling of their language of origin. (Some languages, such as Arabic, Greek, or Japanese, don't use our alphabet; loan words from these languages usually follow established patterns for transliterating that language's sounds into English.) So their spellings may not follow the rules that govern the spelling of English words.

It makes sense that we spell them this way, because often they were initially used in English as foreign words that were identifiably new and different. This is common in English; while some languages change the spelling of a loan word to match their phonograms when it is added to their vocabulary, in English the spelling from the language of origin is often retained. This is one of the blessings — and challenges — of the expansive, democratic, and multicultural nature of our language!

English words with foreign roots

These are the words that were formed (at least in their current English form) in English using at least one root from another language. There are a lot of them!

Let's consider Latin, for starters. About 90% of multi-syllable English words have Latin roots. However, most of these multi-syllable words are not actually Latin words; they are English words derived from Latin. In other words, they were created using a previously existing Latin morpheme.

Similarly, we have many thousands of words with Greek roots, including much of our technical vocabulary. But the number of terms we use that are actual Greek words is much smaller.

For example: Each of the following English words is derived, either directly or by way of another language such as French, from Latin. However, none of these is actually a Latin word. The related Latin terms from which they are derived are listed next to them for comparison.

  • circle — circus
  • invention — invenire
  • conference — conferre
  • tractor — tractum (past participle of trahere)
  • signal — signum
  • amorous — amor

Since these English are words based on Latin, not taken directly from Latin, they aren't loan words. They are English words with Latin roots.

Similarly, the English words

  • biology
  • psychosomatic
  • philanthropy
  • mystery
  • arithmetic

are not found in Greek. They are not Greek words themselves. However, they are derived from the Greek words bios, logos, psukhē, sōma, philē, anthropos, mustērion, and arithmetikē. The English speakers who coined these words in centuries past knew these Greek words and their meanings, and they used them as the roots of new terms in English.

In Logic of English spelling rules, if a rule specifies that the pattern applies to English words, it means all the words in this category, as well as any other words that developed in English (such as words that derive from Middle English and Old English, and words invented in modern English).

How does this relate to the LOE Spelling Rules?

Often, when some part of the spelling of a loan word differs from English patterns, it helps call our attention to the fact that a word may have been borrowed from a different language and culture. For example, since we know that English words do not end in I, U, V, or J (Rule 3), and that one of the places I may say /ē/ is at the end of foreign words (Rule 7), a student who reads an unfamiliar word that ends with I can make an educated guess that a) it is likely a foreign loan word and b) the I may be saying /ē/.

It's important to note that loan words often do follow the spelling rules and phonograms taught in Logic of English! Not all loan words will stand out as foreign on the basis of their spelling. Since the English spelling system has roots in other languages, even words that are loan words often follow the same rules and use identical or similar phonogram sounds. But since other languages' spelling patterns also differ from those in English spelling, there will also be differences in some loan words.

So in Logic of English spelling rules 3, 7, and 16, the limitation "English words" highlights that loan words often do not follow these particular patterns.

Some words are tough to categorize

There are admittedly some gray areas. For example, Circus is also an English word, although it doesn't mean the same thing in English as it did in Latin. So would you say that our English-speaking forebears borrowed the Latin word directly, or borrowed it and used it to make a new English word with a new meaning but the same spelling? 

However, most words of foreign origin will fall clearly into one of these categories or the other. Either the word was created as an English word following English spelling patterns, often using morphemes from another language such as Latin and Greek; or it was borrowed directly from another language, as is, and follows the spelling patterns of that language.

The best way to check the origin of a word: Look it up in a good dictionary!

About Logic of English

The phonograms and spelling rules that explain the spelling of 98% of English words are taught in Logic of English curriculum and in Uncovering the Logic of English: A Common-Sense Approach to Reading, Spelling, and Literacy.

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