01 August 2011

Borrowings into English

In my previous post, I discussed words such as amok, orangutan, and gong that have become part of standard English.

We also find words of Malay that are borrowed into local varieties of English but would not be understood by people from elsewhere. For example, in Brunei we have titah ('a speech by the Sultan') and puasa ('fasting').

An immediate question is: how do we know which are part of standard English and which are only used locally?

One way to do this is to consult a large-scale corpus, such as COCA. This confirms that there are no instances of titah or puasa in the 450 million words of English covered.

For the words I mentioned in may last past, I get the following numbers:
  • amok: 471
  • orangutan: 178
  • durian: 50
  • rambutan: 15
  • parang: 9
which confirms that all of these have some currency in contemporary American English.

The one I cannot easily search for is kris. I get 1528 tokens, but they are all for the name Kris. I need to find some way to make the search case-sensitive.

There's lots else I can do in the corpus. For example, I can look for the collocates of amok, and here I find that nearly all the tokens occur in the phrase 'run amok', though there are 20 instances of 'gone amok'. So this tells me that in English, the word amok is usually but not always part of the fixed phrase 'run amok'.