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How Language Cannot Stand Alone – Enter the Loanword

By Bramantyo Indirawan

If you can read this, you probably have some sort of an understanding of the English language. This planet has a population of 7.7 billion inhabitants, with an estimated 1.5 billion or 20% who speak English to various extents. These people fall under two categories; those who speak it as a first language (around 379 million people), and the remainder who speak it as a second language. English is part of the Indo-European group of languages, with roots from Germanic, Latin and Ancient Greek linguistic groups. The modern English adopt and use words from other languages, from their “parental” Western heritage so to speak, and even from Eastern parts of the world. In a sense, the English use loanwords from other languages.

Words Travel from Language to Language

What is a loanword? Well, just like the name, a loanword loans or borrows words from other languages. But unlike the term loaning, the word that was loaned or borrowed from another language will not be returned since it becomes part of the language it was loaned to. As put it, when two languages come into contact, words are mutually exchanged. Lexical borrowings, or loanwords, are by far the most commonly attested language contact phenomena. Loanwords are studied and researched from various perspectives. This relates to subfields of linguistics such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, and semantics, as well as sociolinguistic and historical linguistics.

As we all know, languages across the world loan English words into their own. Trainer in German means “coach,” le parking in French means “car park,” pilot in Indonesian is pilot in English etc. The English language also loaned many words from other languages, such as “anonymous,” meaning someone or something without a name, is a loanword from the Greek anōnumos (ᾰ̓νώνῠμος). Another example is “zeitgeist,” which can be defined as the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era. The word was directly loaned from the German, which directly translates as “spirit of the time,” although the German geist does not mean “ghost” or “spirit,” but lies somewhere in between, of which there is no alternative word in English, hence why they loaned the word to compensate for this lack of terminology.

The English word “loanword” itself is a loanword. Taken from the German lehnwort that translates as, taking a word or words from a foreign language and adapting its pronunciation, spelling, and inflection to the language that was adopted. This is why loanwords are not actually loaning or borrowing words other languages, but rather taking them and adapting them to meet the requirements of their linguistic rules.

Words define many subjects and objects that can relate to many things such as behavior and expression, invention, discovery, natural resource and technology. The English word for an expedition to seek animals in its natural habitat is “safari”, originated from the Arabic word safar that translates to journey. Karaoke comes from the Japanese word of the same name, literally meaning “empty orchestra”.

Interlocal and International Loanwords of Indonesia

Indonesia has its own Bahasa language that has also contributed to the English language through loanwords. One such example is amok, that can mean a violently raging, wild, or uncontrolled manner, as in “running amok”. Flora and fauna are two exceptionally common Indonesian words that are used in English, banteng from the Indonesian cattle, the komodo lizard, climbing palms named rattan come from the word rotan, and rice fields, or paddy fields, come from the word padi. Cultural manifestations from Indonesia are also used as loanwords in the English language. Examples are batik, a technique for decorating cloth, koteka or the penis sheath from Papua, rendang that is a renowned dish from Minangkabau, and the gamelan musical ensemble.

Indonesia itself use loanwords from other languages just like English does, both imported overseas and across oceans, and even from within their own country through local languages. With roots in the Malay language that is also shared with Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia also use languages from local ethnicities and cultures such as Java and Minangkabau. Examples are ayomi from Java that means “to protect” and bantah that can mean “denial” in Minangkabau.

From the local to the international, why and how does the Indonesian language “loan” words from outside their country?

Trade and religion also played a role in Indonesia’s loanword process. Arabic languages came and eventually loaned the Indonesian language some words through increased trade and the spread of Islam. Nowadays, the Arabic language is used in daily life through to academic writing in Indonesia. Examples of loanwords are kabar, or “news” as in  Arabic al’akhbar, and abadi, that can mean “eternal” from the Arabic ‘abadia.

Another way for a language to take words from other languages is through invention and innovation as previously mentioned. For instance, the terminology for methods, systems and devices used in scientific practices usually correspond to similar etymological roots. The English language and American-English provided new words to other languages in the 20th century through inventions and technological inventions that many English-speaking countries developed. From music genres such as jazz, sports such as baseball, to electronic and digital inventions such as internet, modems, emails, and blogs. Some inventions used an adaptation of old languages such as Latin, such as monitor from monere and camera (read as kamera in Indonesian) from camera obscura meaning “dark chamber.”

Ultimately, all languages use loanwords from other languages. A cultural transaction was and is still made through languages. Even if we only speak one language, that language itself represents different cultures through loanwords that were taken from other languages. We can find diversity in the things that we use each day and the languages we speak.

Whether we like it or not, we are indeed multicultural beings that stand together in this world we coinhabit through loanwords. If languages cannot stand alone, this should make us realize that humanity cannot stand alone either.


Source:,,,, Oxfordbibilographics,com,


Bramantyo Indirawan

Author: Bramantyo Indirawan

Freelance Journalist and Writer

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1 year ago

Interesting article! Great job, keep going!