Last post, we looked into the origins of border, which turned up many planks and ships. But what of immigration?


The homeland of immigration is the Latin verb, migrare, “to move” or “change residence.” Immigrate features the prefix im-, a form of in-, “into,” assimilated to the root’s m to ease pronunciation. Immigrate‘s counterpart, emigrate, uses e-, “out of,” to make its meaning.

The Latin migrare has a yet more distant motherland in that rich earth of Proto-Indo-European’s *mei-. According the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this *mei– meant “to change, go, move; with derivatives referring to the exchange of goods and services within a society as regulated by custom or law.” In the case of immigration, *mei– took some extra bags with it to become, essentially, *meigw-.

We’ve actually encountered *mei before on the Mashed Radish in the surprising case of mad. As the American Heritage Dictionary will have you recall, Old English is hypothesized to have had *gemædan, “to make insane or foolish,” from the Germanic *ga-maid-az, “changed (for the worse)” or “abnormal.” This is then traced back to *mei-.

Immigrant Tongue

In many ways, English is an immigrant language. It both welcomes other languages and, to put it mildly, welcomes itself in others.

At its core, English is a Germanic language, but over half of its vocabulary is from Latin, much of it directly from the French, particularly during the Middle English period, which Deputy Chief Editor of the OED studies in his Borrowed Words.  But everything from Arabic to Celtic to Navajo to Spanish to Yiddish have made their great presences known on our magnificent bastard tongue, as linguist John McWhorter delightfully calls it in his work of the same name.

But we can’t really speak about English as much as we should speak about World English. According to Ethnologue, over 330 million people speak English as their first language, while over 500 million speak it as a second language, adapting it in wondrous and beautiful ways to fit their cultural and conceptual needs.  There isn’t English: there are Englishes.

Immigration may be an apt metaphor for English, but so it is for language itself. Yes, the story of English is a wildly successful one, but that is due to historical power and patterns, not inherent superiority. (Ask French and Latin about their ultimate fortunes as seemingly irrevocable global languages.) English is adapted and adaptable not because of its Englishness, but because of its language-ness. Language is adapted and adaptable because human purposes are. Because the human experience is a messy one, a busy one, a complex one, a changing one, whether battling the elements on an ancient savannah or battling traffic on the commute to work. We are in constant contact with others, with environments, with concepts, and our language acts as mediator, as migrator, if you will. And thus, in so many ways, the aptest metaphor is the root of immigration–*mei-, change, particularly in that sense of exchange.

m ∫ r ∫


6 thoughts on “immigration

  1. Great post! And very timely for me, since I will be immigrating to France from the US in exactly one week. Having taken Latin in high school and now learning French, it is clear how much of English comes from these languages, although my French partner (who also speaks German) regularly argues that English has more in common with German than French. Not knowing German myself, I can’t say. The history of the English language (and language more generally) is so interesting! Thank you for this. 🙂


    1. How exciting and thanks!

      When we say the core of English is Germanic, we are referring to its core structure and vocabulary. Its most common words are Germanic in origin (words like “bread”) and the way it puts its words together to make meaning (so-called syntax) or how its marks verbs (sing ~ sang). Languages are notoriously good at borrowing vocabulary, though, so its not unique in having borrowed so much from French/Latin, though perhaps the extent it did is unusual.

      Good luck!


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