Earlier this week I came across an article about how 300 Bibles in the Bahasa Malaysia language were seized for using words that originated from the Arabic language, including the word for God. This seems to be the latest in an ongoing controversy in Malaysia about whether Christians speaking Malaysian languages should be allowed to use words that historically came from Arabic in their translations of the Bible in those languages.
From a sociolinguistic point of view, a language borrowing “loan words” from another language is something that happens all the time. Of course, “loan words” is something of a misnomer, as the new words become as much part of the language as any other words, and will never be returned! English has borrowed words from a whole range of languages – French, German and Greek to name just a few.
Whenever a new concept occurs in a language, there is a need to name it, and the new name is almost never random. People generally make up the new name, either by modifying existing words in the language (hence we now talk about a “selfie”), or by using the word that was already used by speakers of another language for that concept (e.g. “pizza”). Sometimes the name is borrowed from a similar concept in another language, but the meaning changed, for example the English word “safari”, meaning a trip to see wild animals, comes from the Swahili word meaning “a journey”. The word then becomes a legitimate part of the language – a Swahili speaker can’t tell an English speaker that they are using the word “safari” wrongly just because its meaning in English is different from its meaning in Swahili. Read the rest of this entry →