Purism in Languages

When we discuss foreign languages there always appears a question if it is difficult to learn any particular language. For a professional scholar or a language-fancier such a question doesn’t make sense as each language is interesting in its own way, each one is both difficult and easy. But when this question is asked in everyday life, it often goes about how transparent the language is. A language is called transparent if it contains a great amount of intelligible international words.

Quite a few languages in the world were purposefully cleared up to eliminate foreign words. Eliminating unnatural borrowings from the language is called purism. Today the most demonstrative examples of purist languages in Europe are Finnish and Czech.


For instance, let’s compare several international words in 6 languages: Russian, English, Portuguese, Czech, Finnish and Greek.

  1. октябрь – october - de outubro – říjen – lokakuu – οκτωβρίου.
  2. дистанция – distance – distância – vzdálenost – etäisyys – απόσταση.
  3. футбол – football – futebol – fotbal – jalkapallo – ποδόσφαιρο.
  4. компьютер – computer – computador – počítač – tietokone – υπολογιστή.

From this unsophisticated experiment we can see that Russian, English and Portuguese are transparent languages, but Czech, Finnish and Greek are purist languages.

For example, Czech was virtually recollected word by word in the nineteenth century. By then Czech had been spoken only in villages, city dwellers had mostly used German though. During the revival of Czech language the enthusiasts tried to clear it up from all the borrowings, mainly from German. Owing to this the majority of Czech words have Slavonic roots: divadlo – theater, vůně – perfume, polévka – soup. Learning purist languages can be difficult to a certain extent because mastering new vocabulary is more effort-consuming than the same process with transparent languages.

In the same way Turkish borrowings were swept away from Greek, and Norwegian (Nynorsk) was cleared up from Danish borrowings. It was done by representatives of national intelligentsia in order to save the uniqueness of the language because according to romantics the language preserves the soul of the nation (in German it is called Volksgeist). Due to this philosophical conception Czech was revived, Serbian and Slovenian advanced greatly, Norwegian (Nynorsk) was given a start, though there exist so called bookish Norwegian (Bokmål). Who knows, but for those enthusiasts we might not have the possibility to learn Modern Greek or start a course of Finnish.

Of course, there are no exclusively purist languages. Every language must have had such a period in its history. International words can as well be found in the most purist languages. Any language is a living organism indeed, which lives its own life and doesn’t rely on outer influence.

Денис Краликаускас(Lgroup)

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