How has English absorbed words?

In this monthly discussions we answer one question about language in PNG and beyond. This month we are looking at how English has absorbed words from languages around the world.

HUMAN societies are constantly changing. As they change, the languages we use to communicate these changes also change, adding new words for new inventions or concepts as they become part of people’s everyday lives.
For example, there was once a time when people did not have separate buildings for sick people. When this innovation was introduced into Germany, it was called a “Krankenhaus”, from the German words for “sick people” (“Kranken”) and “house” (“Haus”). The same method was used later in PNG, when this new idea was introduced via Tok Pisin (haus sik). Centuries later, when a machine was invented and introduced to Germany that let people’s voices be carried by copper wires over long distances, it was called a “Fernsprecher”, from the German words “fern” (“far”) and Sprecher (“speaker”).
This system of joining short words to make new words to describe new ideas and objects makes it easy for both children and foreigners to learn vocabulary, as the meanings are transparent even to people who have never seen the new object or thought about the new idea. Although English once followed the same pattern of joining short words to make new words, for the past thousand years, English has tended not to, making English vocabulary much less transparent than that of many other languages.
Instead, English has borrowed words from other languages, such as “hospital” from the Latin word for “hospitable to guests” (“hospitale”), or invented new words by joining roots from ancient Greek and Latin, such as Greek “tele” (“far off”) and “phoneē” (“sound”). This makes English vocabulary harder to learn.
The reason why English follows this different path can be found in history. In 1066 England was conquered by a French-speaking army from Normandy. For the next few centuries English-speaking people were ruled by a French-speaking minority, much as PNG was ruled by an English-speaking elite during its colonial period.

Child or infant?

Just as most Australians in colonial PNG did not learn Tok Pisin, most Normans did not learn the English that their servants and neighbouring villagers spoke. Because of this, English people who became educated during this period until the 15th century had to use French and Latin for writing and communicating with the ruling classes. When new concepts or inventions were introduced to society, they usually came to the ruling classes first before filtering down to grassroots villagers and workers, so people became used to using the French or Latin words for them, much as Melanesians in a later colonial period became used to using English words for new ideas and inventions as they were introduced into colonial PNG.
Sometimes a French or Latin word was introduced for things that were used by the ruling classes, even if there was already a good English word for exactly the same thing when it was used by the English-speaking grassroots. Thus when an animal was being looked after by an English-speaking servant, it was called by its English name (“cow”, “pig”, “sheep”), but when it was butchered and cooked to feed the French-speaking ruler, the meat was given a French name (“beef”, “pork”, “mutton”). English-speaking people came to have the idea that an English word (such as “child” or “king”) was ordinary, but a word derived from French was fancier (“infant” or “royal”).
Because most of the books that educated people of this time read were in Latin and Greek, people also began to have the idea that words to describe legal, medical, or intellectual concepts should come from these languages (such as “paedophilia” or “imperial”). In this way, English developed a vocabulary with three layers: a basic layer of indigenous English vocabulary, a fancier layer of vocabulary derived from French, and an intellectual layer with vocabulary from Greek and Latin).
As the English began to move beyond their shores to trade with and later invade much of the rest of the world, they followed this habit of absorbing new vocabulary from the people they encountered, rather than using their own English words to describe the new items and concepts that they were absorbing into their own society. Thus words from the Spanish-speaking people of the American Southwest for geographic features there (such as “mesa”, “canyon”, and “arroyo”), Asian words for new types of food and drink (such as “ketchup” and “tea” from Malay, or “curry” and “chutney” from Indian languages), and indigenous words for new animals (such as “budgerigar” and “kangaroo” from Australia) or plants (such as “chocolate” and “avocado” from Mexico) were all adopted by English-speaking peoples.
This pattern has continued in today’s globalised world, where trends and fashions can come from anywhere, so in recent years “anime” and “karaoke” have been taken from Japanese, “reggae” from Jamaican Creole, and “capoeira” from Brazilian Portuguese. As English becomes more and more an international language used more by non-English people than by the people of Britain, North America, or Australia, we can expect contributions from more and more languages.
Which words will your language contribute to English vocabulary?

  • Professor Volker is a linguist living in New Ireland, and an Adjunct Professor in The Cairns Institute, James Cook University in Australia with a home in New Ireland. He welcomes your language questions for this monthly discussion at Or continue the discussion on the Facebook Language Toktok page.

Farmer Martin Tony (in blue shirt in front), Joylen Boas (in green meri blouse) and Bilson Weyono (black shirt in the middle) together with fellow members in front of their coffee parchment bags.

Pulpers motivate Lufa farmers

COFFEE farmers under the Huwa Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society (HCFCS) in the Lufa District of Eastern Highlands have been motivated to produce more after receiving pulpers from Coffee Industry Corporation’s Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (CIC-PPAP).
On Aug 21, 2020, a group of CIC-PPAP officers together with some CIC officers travelled to Lufa station to witness the launching of close to 1,000 coffee parchment bags by HCFCS.
The cooperative society was formed in December 2018 and formally registered on Sept 10, 2019. The current membership is 582 and numbers are growing, covering the three Lufa LLGs namely Yagaria, Mt Michael and Unavi.
Between March and May this year, CIC-PPAP supplied 220 coffee pulpers to the group at a subsidised cost. The members willingly accepted the arrangement by paying only five per cent of the total cost. Each member contributed only K22 for the K450 pulpers.
Fast forward to the present, the group was able to display their hard work with close to 1,000 coffee bags just after months of receiving the pulpers.
Group Secretary Beni Rame acknowledged the assistance by CIC-PPAP for the much-needed pulpers. “Kofi palpa em nambawan nid blong mipla ol kofi famas. Saplai blong palpa em yu inapim bel blong mipla na fiksim wari blong mipla stret. Tasol mi laik apil long moa palpa long wanem planti fama i laikim.” (Coffee pulpers is our number one need to pulp coffee and you have helped however, there is still demand and need for more pulpers to be supplied to more farmers in the district).
Rame said the farmers were motivated and needed additional pulpers and training because upgraded road infrastructure in their area was an added incentive to produce more coffee.
“This will enable us to harvest and process more quality coffee and market it easily to contribute to CIC’s recently launched plans of producing and exporting three million bags by 2030.”
Rame urged the farmers not to depend on the Government but must be self-reliant through coffee.
Lufa’s deputy district administrator Peter Yang challenged farmers who still doubted the group to join now to benefit from it and see changes.
He told the CIC: “You supplied 220 coffee pulpers at a simple price. I also got one despite being employed, as I cannot afford the retail price. What you have done is encouraging and touching people’s lives. The coffee bags to be launched today are not only here but shows the group’s hard work and commitment.”
Yang stressed to the farmers that coffee is their business and life.
“We can talk about grand projects and running businesses. This is for individuals who are committed, but coffee is everyone’s business. Our family or community commitments revolve around the coffee season.”
CIC-PPAP Programme Manager Potaisa Hombunaka was pleased to witness the hard work and commitment of the Huwa farmers, which was demonstrated through the parchment bags produced.
Hombunaka told the group it was time to stand up for themselves and bring their coffee to get factory door prices including export under their brand name rather than selling at the roadsides.
“If you are in a group, you will have more advantages than in selling individually. Your hard work must see that you advance to having semi or permanent houses, and your kids using solar lighting to study,” he said. “Everything starts from a small effort. The seed has been sown through Huwa cooperative.”
Hombunaka said many cooperatives started well but wound up along the way. He encouraged the group to work together to strengthen what has begun for the betterment of the members.
The pulpers cost K99,000 with farmers’ contribution of under K6,000. The farmers proudly displayed samples of coffee parchment bags weighing an average of 55 kg per bag. They have produced close to 1,000 bags and wee to have transported them to Goroka last week to process to green bean for export.
From this K99,000 investment the farmers are expected to receive over K300,000 from their export sales and contributing over 680 green bean bags. In 2018 over K1m was received by the members from roadside sales of 260, 000 kg of parchment at an average price of K5 per kg hence contributing over 3,000 green bean bags.
Female farmer Joylen Boas from Rapiwa community said they used stones and their hands to remove the coffee cherry skin.
“I used to use stones and my bare hands to pulp two to three bags of coffee cherry in a week and it was a very tiring practice. Now, I can speed up pulping my coffee and have time to do other work. CIC-PPAP has really provided what we needed the most.”
Martin Tony is one of the young farmers with Huwa coffee cooperative and brought in 17 parchment bags as his contribution to the group. He encourages his peers to actively work in their coffee gardens and turn away from drugs, gambling and alcohol.
“Although we are close to the district administration, we have not received any assistance but we have to help ourselves. Coffee is our livelihood. We appeal to the Lufa DDA and provincial government to rehabilitate the road from Lufa station to Ubaigubi in the Unavi area. Most coffee comes from Unavi but deteriorating road conditions do not allow the coffee bags to make their way out.”
Bilson Weyono , an elderly farmer brought in 22 parchment bags ,the highest as his contribution to the group.
“I am happy for the pulpers given to us by CIC-PPAP. We work hard but we are not seeing the difference in the price we are receiving. I believe that by joining the cooperative, we are heading somewhere now to get better prices. Only a few farmers have pulpers and we try to help each other but that it still not enough. We are humbly requesting CIC to assist us with more pulpers so we can contribute towards producing quality coffee and increasing coffee production and export under its newly launched plans.”
Coffee rehabilitation is a Government of PNG project through the Department of Agriculture and Livestock and implemented by the Coffee Industry Corporation Ltd through its PMU widely known as CIC-PPAP. It is financed by a loan facility from World Bank and IFAD with support funding from the GoPNG and the project ends this year.

  • The author is the media officer at PNG Coffee Industry Corporation.

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