Locked in the language: Loanwords and national stereotypes

Mirosława Podhajecka (University of Opole)

Loanwords constitute a specific interface between language, culture and society. By denoting some characteristic realia, such words become 'icons' of foreign cultures which influence the perception of those cultures and, consequently, societies (cf. Hope 1963: 36). One could argue that the importation of loanwords, as other modes of contact, fosters greater understanding of all things foreign. However, this is not so obvious as it seems, because borrowings are often subtly linked with feelings of sympathy or antipathy for other cultures and may thus reinforce biases, prejudices and national stereotypes (cf. Stubbs 1998: 19).

In the present paper I look at the implicit relationship between loanwords and stereotypes. More precisely, I want to analyse what images French, German, Italian and Russian words taken to (British) English in the 20 th century conjure up, and how they affect the categorizing of the respective cultures in positive or negative terms. The loans retrieved from Ayto's 20 th Century Words were studied both diachronically and synchronically, and were then checked against the British National Corpus to find out which lexical items, and in what contexts, retained currency in contemporary English.

As has turned out, the words taken from the four languages belong to different thematic categories and evoke fairly different associations, which to some extent helps to maintain the cultural myths. Among the French borrowings one finds words like avant-garde, cloche hat, voyeur, negligee or boutique ; by referring to art and fashion, they signify originality, luxury and sophisticated taste. Italian loanwords are related to cooking ( pesto, pizza, scampi, cappuccino, espresso ) and politics ( Duce, fascism, totalitarian ). German words are mainly scientific terms ( electrocardiogram, gene, quantum, testosterone, snorkel ) and words related to the Second World War ( Blitzkrieg , Natzi, Führer, Gestapo, panzer ); the latter, in particular, arousing pejorative connotations. Russian loans denote almost exclusively political and social concepts ( pogrom, Bolshevik, Comintern, commissar, perestroika, glasnost, soviet, liquidate, smersh, nyet ). Despite the fact that Ayto's selection of entries must be seen as subjective, the study offers interesting findings about the borrowing process in the historical context. Examples will be presented and discussed in detail.

Summing up, loanwords reflecting the social and material reality seem to be applied for assessments of foreign cultures and societies, even though "the idea of a distinctive national character can hardly be a realistic proposition" (Stamirowska et al. 1998: 13). Nonetheless, the nature of stereotyping as a mental process is inherently complex, because it is not only related to native speakers' linguistic competence (hence, the knowledge of borrowings), but also to their socio-psychological traits and, perhaps less frequently, real-life experiences. Though lexicographic analyses approach stereotypes from one-sided angle only, they may still contribute to a fully comprehensive description of this multidimensional phenomenon.


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