Anu Garg from A Word A Day once noted: “If you speak English, you know a little of more than a hundred languages. That’s because English has borrowed words from so many languages around the world.”
Generally, these words are commonly known and easily understood. In most cases, the original language is unknown to the speaker, writer, or reader – and they are merely assumed to be English words.
Some words, though, are in a state of transition, with their roots clearly in another language and their current usage only somewhat comprehended by English speakers. However, given time, these words will increasingly be understood by the English-speaking masses.
A few years ago at a conference, I met a man whose language of birth was Spanish. His accented English was quite clear and understandable, yet he would occasionally interject a Spanish word into our conversations. Each time he did so, he apologized. Yet each time, I also understood what he was saying. These words were in a state of transition. One day they will become common for those of us who speak English.
Although this is fine for informal verbal communication, the question is, should we use such words in our writing? Although doing so presents readers with a chance to increase their vocabularies, it also runs the risk of irritating them.
As for me, an example is French. I do not speak French, and I am quite annoyed when I encounter a French word in my reading. These are not French words that have made their way into the English language, and I’m not even sure if they are in a state of transition. What I suspect – either right or wrong – is that the author is trying to show off. And that irritates me further.
What do you think: When should foreign words be used in English writing?
Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!