Borrowing Ya Mixing? (Part 1)

Kalika Bali, Microsoft Research India

An English speaker might go to a café and order an egg-sandwich made with egg, mustard and mayonnaise. If she stops to think, she might realize that she has the French language to thank for the words, café , and mayonnaise. However, unless she is a linguist major with a specific interest in English Etymology, she might be surprised that the word mustard, that so very quintessential ingredient of English cooking, is also of French origin.

A villager from the heart of Hindi-speaking rural India, also might not think that when he goes to the station and buys a ticket for the bus, he is actually using English vocabulary.

The historical linguist, Hans Hock, says that “languages do not exist in vacuum”.  Languages and dialects which are in contact or co-exist are continuously being influenced by each other. The extent and the type of influence can vary depending on many socio-political, cultural and linguistic aspects and can range from borrowing of sounds, words and sometimes even entire syntactic structures.

So, when a English-French bilingual says, “Je vais à Nice pour le week-end”, is he code-mixing or is “week-end” a borrowing from English into French?

Even linguists cannot agree on “other language embeddings”.  Is it true Code-mixing?  What is nonce-word borrowing? Do these differ from loanwords that are integrated into the native vocabulary and grammatical structure?

Many linguists believe that loan-words start out as Code-Mixing or Nonce-borrowing but by repeated use and diffusion across the language they gradually convert to native vocabulary and acquire the characteristics of the “borrowing” language. In spoken forms, this would be the adaptation of the loanword to the sound-system and the grammar of the native language, that is phonological and morpho-syntactic convergence.

The problem with this is that in many cases a native accent might be mistaken for phonological convergence, and a morpho-syntactic marking might not be readily visible.

For example, most Hindi speakers of English would pronounce an English alveolar /d/ as a retroflex because an alveolar plosive is not a part of the Hindi phonology. However, this does not imply that the said English word has become a part of the native vocabulary.

Similarly, if we look at the two sentences:

“sab artists ko bulayaa hai” (all artists have been called),


“sab artist kal aayenge”

(all artists will come tomorrow)

In the first sentence the English inflection –s on the word artist marks it as plural but in the second case, the plural is marked on the Hindi Verb.

Does this imply that in the first case it is Code Mixing and in the second a case of borrowing given that both the forms and the structures are equally acceptable and common in Hindi?

It is not easy to decide these categories especially for single words without looking at diachronic data and the inherent fuzziness of the distinction itself. In general, it is believed that there exists a sort of continuum between Code Mixing and loan vocabulary where the edges might be clearly distinguishable but it is difficult to disambiguate the vast majority in the middle especially for single words.

In a future post, we will look at what this continuum might look like and one possible way we can try to distinguish true code-mixing from loanwords.

In the meantime, you can look at some earlier studies on borrowing, mixing, and what lies in between.

  1. Frederic Field. 2002. Linguistic borrowing in bilingual contexts. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  2. Carol Myers-Scotton. 2002. Contact linguistics: Bilingual encounters and grammatical outcomes. Oxford University Press.
  3. Pieter Muysken. 2000. Bilingual speech: A typology of code-mixing. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Shana Poplack, D. Sankoff, and C. Miller. 1988. The social correlates and linguistic processes of lexical borrowing and assimilation. Linguistics 26:47-104.
  5. Shana Poplack and Nathalie Dion. 2012. “Myths and facts about loanword development.” in Language Variation and Change 24, 3.
  6. David Sankoff, Shana Poplack, and Swathi Vanniarajan. 1990. The case of the nonce loan in Tamil. Language Variation and Change, 2 (1990), 71-101. Cambridge University Press.

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