Encountering and appropriating the Other: East India Company merchants and foreign terminology

From The Language of Daily Life in England 1450–1800, ed. by Arja Nurmi, Minna Nevala & Minna Palander-Collin [Pragmatics and Beyond New Series 183]. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. ISBN: 978 90 272 5428 3.

Samuli Kaislaniemi
University of Helsinki

The establishment of the East India Company in 1600 led to increasing contacts between English and Asian languages. Conducting commerce in the East Indies was a multilingual affair, and required proficiency in a lingua franca such as Portuguese or Malay, together with the use of interpreters. The multilingual setting was also reflected in the mercantile terminology used by English East India Company servants in the East Indies, for most of these words were borrowings. Words were borrowed from all languages encountered, but while many borrowings remained close to their regional source, some words came to be used by East India Company employees across the Asian seaboard from the Red Sea to Japan. These borrowings were a prominent feature in the letters sent home from the East Indies.

From 1613 to 1623, the English East India Company had a trading post in a provincial town in Japan, which by accident had become host to Chinese, Dutch, and now English merchants. Half a dozen Englishmen lived and conducted trade in this multilingual setting for ten years, and left behind a sizable corpus of correspondence and other documents. This study looks at three different types of borrowings from Japanese which occur in their letters home.

The first, goshuin, is a typical borrowing of the local word for an existing referent, namely ‘license for trade’. The second word, tono, is a more interesting case of borrowing a referential term (‘lord’) according to local usage, but which showed confusion due to mismatching near-equivalent semantic categories. The third term, tatami, is a case of appropriation, of a word being borrowed “incorrectly”: the word means ‘standard-sized rush-covered floor mat’, but was used by the English to indicate a measure of about two yards.

This pilot study shows that in order to study the actual processes of borrowing in historical texts, traditional typologies need to be supplemented with an analysis of the wider semantic fields of the borrowed words and their collocates, and the borrowings need to be placed in their socio-historical and discourse contexts. It also shows that contrary to traditional views, the establishment of a borrowing in a speech community can be a rapid process. It concludes that micro-level studies of historical borrowing provide insight into language contact situations, but further studies are needed in order to chart the processes of borrowing in the history of English. Indeed, it is found that while materials such as the correspondence of early East India Company servants can provide key information on linguistic interaction between Europeans and locals in Early Modern Asia, the field has hitherto been largely neglected.