Borders, Migration and Linguistics

Language is a ragbag of terms and phrases that are handed down, created or borrowed over a long period of time. A loanword is a term adopted from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language without translation. Loanwords are immigrants. They arrive in alien surroundings, adapt to the new vocabulary, integrate and become domesticated (spelling, pronunciation, etc.), at times losing part of their original meaning. In English, loanwords (mostly nouns) appear in a variety of contexts, such as trade, art, fashion, food, technology, war, etc. Such words tend to be taken from a field of activity where the foreign culture has a dominant role, hence the many Italian words in the sphere of music and opera, or French terms in that of ballet.

When the Merchant Adventurers set up headquarters Bruges in 1344, it marked the beginning of a long period of commercial and artistic interaction between the Low Countries and England. Contacts were intense. In order to defend their interests, foreign merchants united in ‘Hansen’, including the powerful ‘Flemish Hanse of London’. From 1463 to 1469 William Caxton stayed in Bruges as governor of the Merchant Adventurers. He learned the art of printing in Flanders and, on his return, installed the first printing press near Westminster Abbey in 1476. Later, when Elizabeth I provided a safe haven to Protestants from the Low Countries who had escaped Spanish persecution, the country received their skilled industry and commercial experience in return. Refugees introduced new trades to local economies, such as Canterbury silks, Norwich stuffs, or Yarmouth herring. Flemish and Dutch professional craftsmen and artists were enticed to cross the Channel. English ambassadors in the Low Countries functioned as industrial and artistic ‘spies’. The brain drain existed long before the term was invented. It is clear from Johan Frederik Bense’s impressive Dictionary of the Low-Dutch Element in the English Vocabulary (1926) that many early words borrowed from Flemish/Dutch belong to the economic and commercial domains.

In 1519, Jan Ympyn returned from a twelve years stay in Venice where he had been sent by his merchant father to learn commercial practices and the art of bookkeeping. Ympyn settled in Antwerp where he prospered as an exporter of silks, woollens, and tapestries. Much of his business was directed towards England. Today he is remembered as the author of the first Flemish manual on bookkeeping, entitled Nieuwe instructie ende bewijs der looffelijcker consten des rekenboecks, published posthumously in Antwerp in 1543. Four years later this manual was translated into English as A Notable … Woorke, Expressyng and Declaryng the Forme how to Kepe a Boke of Accomptes or Reconynges. The last word is literally adopted from the Dutch/Flemish word ‘rekening’. Reckoning is one of those loanwords that in the course of time began a ‘life of its own’. This book is the oldest extant text on accounting in English. It has been suggested that merchant and financier Thomas Gresham, resident in Brussels in 1543, had been responsible for the translation, but the claim has not been substantiated.

Under the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585, Elizabeth I decided to intervene directly in the war between the United Provinces and Spain. She sent Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, with some 5,000 troops to assist the Dutch. For years to come, English troops were stationed in Flushing (Vlissingen). During the eighty years of struggle many new weapons, strategies, systems of fortification, and other innovations in the art of warfare were introduced. To British soldiers and mercenaries, the Dutch experience was crucial in their personal career development. The first substantial Dutch-English dictionary (31,000 entries) was compiled by the soldier and scholar Henry Hexham in 1648 and is entitled A Copious English and Netherduytch Dictionarie. He was responsible for introducing many Dutch military terms into the English vocabulary, including booty (buit), beleaguer (belegeren), quarter-master (kwartiermeester), knapsack (knapzak), plunder (plunderen), and tattoo (taptoe).

In 1598, Richard Haydocke, former English ambassador to The Hague, translated Paola Lomazzo’s Trattato del’arte della pittura. Searching for an English equivalent for the Italian paese, he recalled the word landschap from conversations with artists in the Low Countries, the second syllable in the word being derived from scheppen (to create). His Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge introduced a new set of terms in the vocabulary of the English art critic, first landscape, soon to be followed by seascape, cloudscape, riverscape, and townscape, all terms conjuring up the image of the Flemish or Dutch artist contemplating his surroundings and creating scenery, clouds, rivers and urban views in paint.

Certain loanwords have not survived or are rarely used. They appear in the dictionary, but seem lost in a mass of entries, isolated, ignored. Because they are exceptional, such terms tend to hint at a notable event or happening. One particular word tells a story of political intrigue. In its early days Tyburn was a country village in Middlesex, close to the current location of Marble Arch. Until 1783 it served as London’s primary public place of execution. The first recorded hanging took place in 1196 and concerned the charismatic figure of William Fitz Osbert, known as ‘William Longbeard’, the populist leader of London’s poor who was apprehended after a mob uprising against the rich. It was one of the first explosions of urban violence in England. Early executions tended to be of a political nature. Order had to be protected at any cost, hence the public displays of punishment. Tensions within society grew with an increasing influx of refugees into London and elsewhere. It created anxiety among the authorities that certain aliens might have immigrated ‘under the colour of religion’ and could be agents or spies. Such suspicions were not unjustified. Impostors had tried to claim the English throne on a couple of occasions. In both instances a foreign connection was evident. There was the failed attempt by Lambert Simnel, a young pretender to the throne of England and most likely of Flemish descent, whose supporters were beaten in the Battle of Stoke Field in June 1487. Simnel was imprisoned for life, but Henry VII pardoned the young man and gave him a job in the Royal kitchens.

Tournai-born Perkin Warbeck was possibly an illegitimate son of Henry IV. He called himself Richard Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Various European monarchs accepted Warbeck’s claim to the English throne in order to pursue their own diplomatic objectives. In 1497 he landed in Cornwall with a small army of men hoping to capitalize on local resentment in the aftermath of a recent rebellion against the war taxes imposed by Henry VII for his Scottish campaign. As the rebels had been heavily defeated, Perkin found little support for a renewed uprising. He was captured and hanged as a traitor at Tyburn. The story of events was dramatized in 1634 by John Ford in a play entitled The Chronicle Historie of Perkin Warbeck: a Tragedy. In 1830, Mary Shelley wrote a story about him. A linguistic link to the impostor remains. ‘Landloper’ is a Dutch/Flemish word for vagabond or vagrant. The word was first recorded in Britain in the early sixteenth century and used by Francis Bacon in Henry VII (1622) when referring to Warbeck: ‘He had been from his Child-hood such a Wanderer, or (as the King called him) such a Land-loper’. It may well be that Perkin had brought the word with him when he crossed from Flanders to England.

The integration of loanwords can be controversial. In the circle of linguistic sticklers such terms are frowned upon. They suffer hostility and discrimination. Purism is the practice of defining one variety of language as being of intrinsically higher quality than others. By definition, the purist is a prophet of doom. An invasion of foreign words is a sign of decline, fatal to a nation’s cultural wellbeing. He/she strives for a form of prescriptive linguistics, aiming to establish a standard language that is resistant to change, and immune to foreign importation. Purists are the border agents of language, overseeing the strict control of the movement of words. Their record is just as poor as that of the UK Border Agency itself. They have failed in the past and will continue to do so. Nations and languages do not live in a vacuum, but they flourish in a continuous interactive relationship with other countries and peoples. Freedom of movement and exchange are the essential characteristics of a dynamic culture. Mapping the spread of loanwords offers an insight into the balance of power between nations and the migration of peoples at any given period in time.