New study on lexical borrowing

Density heatmaps indicating the frequency of languages as source (y) and target (x) language in loan events, by their ranking in a Language Power Index rank.

A study in PLOS ONE shows that borrowing is hierchical: borrowings are most likely to take place from a more prestigious language to a less prestigious one. In addition, borrowing is caused by increased cultural labour intensity.

All languages borrow words from other languages. Some languages are more prone to borrowing, while others borrow less, and different domains of the vocabulary are unequally susceptible to borrowing. Languages typically borrow words when a new concept is introduced, but languages may also borrow a new word for an already existing concept. Linguists describe two causalities for borrowing: need, i.e., the internal pressure of borrowing a new term for a concept in the language, and prestige, i.e., the external pressure of borrowing a term from a more prestigious language. We investigate lexical loans in a dataset of 104 concepts in 115 Eurasian languages from 7 families occupying a coherent contact area of the Eurasian landmass, of which Indo-European languages from various periods constitute a majority. We use a cognacy-coded dataset, which identifies loan events including a source and a target language. To avoid loans for newly introduced concepts in languages, we use a list of lexical concepts that have been in use at least since the Chalcolithic (4000–3000 BCE). We observe that the rates of borrowing are highly variable among concepts, lexical domains, languages, language families, and time periods. We compare our results to those of a global sample and observe that our rates are generally lower, but that the rates between the samples are significantly correlated. To test the causality of borrowing, we use two different ranks. Firstly, to test need, we use a cultural ranking of concepts by their mobility (of nature items) or their labour intensity and “distance-from-hearth” (of culture items). Secondly, to test prestige, we use a power ranking of languages by their socio-cultural status. We conclude that the borrowability of concepts increases with increasing mobility (nature), and with increased labour intensity and “distance-from-hearth” (culture). We also conclude that language prestige is not correlated with borrowability in general (all languages borrow, independently of prestige), but prestige predicts the directionality of borrowing, from a more prestigious language to a less prestigious one. The process is not constant over time, with a larger inequality during the ancient and modern periods, but this result may depend on the status of the data (non-prestigious languages often remain unattested). In conclusion, we observe that need and prestige compete as causes of lexical borrowing.