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Languages at War
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changed in times of conflict

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Languages at War
by Diane Nicholls

 • Where do loan words come from?
 • War and new words
 • War and 'borrowing'
 • Words as badges of allegiance

Where do loan words come from?

Loan words, or 'borrowings', are a natural consequence of language contact. When two or more countries have contact with one another, words will always be exchanged, in a very literal sense. The three major factors in human life which have always taken people and their languages to other countries are trade, religion and war.


War and new words

With each military conflict new words enter the lexicon. This has been recognised by many of our major newspapers, which have recently included explanations of new vocabulary in their columns. Some of these new words and phrases will be temporary visitors to the language and some will be here to stay. This has always happened. The First World War gave us shell shock, battle fatigue and trench foot. Of these, the first two remain in use primarily in their figurative senses, whilst trench foot is, thankfully, a thing of the past. The Gulf War of 1991 gave us the term friendly fire. The recent conflict in Iraq has also given rise to new words and phrases. The New Words feature on the Macmillan English Dictionary website recently explained two terms, weaponsofmassdestruction and embed, which have come to prominence in the recent conflict and which seem likely to be here to stay.


War and 'borrowing'

A related linguistic feature of war is that many new words, rather than being homespun, come into the language through 'borrowing', whether it be from the languages of enemies or of allies. Through borrowing, words from foreign languages are adopted into other languages and become part of a shared vocabulary. The vocabulary of war and warfare in English, for example, includes many words from French: bayonet, grenade, battalion, cavalry, and from German: U-boat, blitzkrieg, zeppelin, and many English words have entered other languages via the same route. But what happens to these shared words when war breaks out? Can borrowed words be returned when countries disagree with each other?

The linguistic history of war features many instances of countries ejecting words in their vocabulary which have been borrowed from the language of their current enemies. In World War I, Americans renamed sauerkraut 'liberty cabbage' (or just plain 'pickled vegetables'), the frankfurter became a hot dog, dachshunds became liberty hounds, hamburgers were renamed liberty steaks (or in some places Salisbury Steaks), and German shepherds became Alsatians. Meanwhile, the Germans renamed Gibson Girl, a popular brand of English cigarettes, Manoli Wimpel. In World War II, the Japanese replaced American baseball terms with homespun Japanese words, so home-base became ichi ryu, and, it is claimed that, since the Turkish-Greek conflict over Cyprus, the Greeks have been calling Turkish coffee, Greek coffee.

Clearly, the governments and ordinary people of countries at war are conscious of the loan words in their language and see in them some reflection of the country and culture they were borrowed from. Significantly, it is the area of food - a great symbol of nationality - that often first comes under attack. But it is important to note that in World War I people didn't stop eating sauerkraut and frankfurters to signal their allegiances, but rather, changed their names, as if the names were the key to their foreignness. In times of war the linguistic results of former contact between countries - loan words, and often the objects and concepts they describe - are seen as newly 'foreign' again, and ejecting the words from the lexicon is seen as a way to create a new cultural distance, and so signal enmity.


Words as badges of allegiance

The recent conflict in Iraq has been a source of great disagreement between nations, and France and Germany in particular have been among the most vocal opponents of the stance adopted by the US and UK in this matter. What is interesting linguistically is that, while the US and UK on the one hand, and France and Germany on the other, have only political differences on this issue, the familiar tendency to focus on language as a weapon of protest has once again been seen. There is nothing even approaching war between these two groups of nations, and yet, the rejection of loan words and the renaming of things have been resorted to as a signal of disagreement, rather than enmity, this time. Words are again being used as badges of allegiance. And once again, it started with food.

It is reported to have started when the owner of Cubbie's restaurant in Beaufort, N.C., USA, reminded of the sauerkraut renaming in the First World War, decided to rename French fries and French toast, freedom fries and freedom toast on his menu as a display of solidarity with the soldiers of his local military base. He commented 'It's our way of showing our patriotic pride'. It wasn't long before this was taken up at the highest level, in the cafeterias of the House of Representatives. The fact that French fries originated in Belgium, as a French Embassy representative was quick to point out, was immaterial here.

(For a full story of Cubbie's restaurant, go to or

Meanwhile, in Germany, a group called 'Language in Politics' were urging German citizens to replace many of the English-language loan words used in German with French terms, again as a sign of allegiance. German speakers were called upon to replace for example bye-bye with adieu, boss with chef, cool with formidable (though the French use cool themselves), date with rendezvous, T-shirt with trikot, and sadness with tristesse. Thirty-three English loan words have been targeted so far, but there are plans to expand the list. With this 'Sprachdemo' (language demonstration), Dr Amin Burkhardt, the group's chairman, explains 'We are not trying to permanently ban English terms … We are urging French alternatives because of our solidarity with France.' He continues: 'We aren't trying to purify the language, we're trying to send a political signal to show we are against this war which is without legal foundation.'

The form of linguistic protest put forward in Germany adds a further twist to this phenomenon. The country which is ejecting its loan words and the country whose loan words are being ejected are not at war, but at odds, however seriously, and it is with words from the language of a third party, rather than with native words, that the loan words are being replaced.

What all these moves reveal, is that enormous power is still attributed to words, both by governments and by ordinary citizens, whether for showing patriotic pride in times of turmoil or for signalling allegiance with third parties. This raises important questions about how people see words, and the power of words, generally, and how people relate to the lexicon of their mother tongue, in particular. It also throws some light on the phenomenon of linguistic borrowing. It seems that shared vocabulary is to some extent seen as a sign of shared cultural, political and ideological ties, and that loan words are kept, on approval, until such a time as their presence begins to rankle as those ties are stretched or broken. What has been happening, linguistically, in the background of the recent conflict, raises questions about the link between language and national identity.