Why in some essays or articles there are words in the author's native language?

(In other words, the essay is in English and there are some Spanish words spread out in the whole essay.)

Does it necessarily mean the targeted audience is Spanish-speaking people or there is something else behind it?

  • 1
    I think this is difficult to answer without knowing details about the work in question. Can you elucidate? – Goodbye Stack Exchange Apr 4 '13 at 1:58

In many cases, the intent is to add a foreign flavor or a realistic touch to the narrative. In other cases, the foreign word may be difficult to translate; or might not be specific enough in translation; or the author or translator may not have realized that a particular word was not an English word.

For example, in the books of Chinua Achebe (where words from Igbo, a Nigerian language, appear occasionally) ogene is used for one kind of big drum, and Ikolo for another, larger, drum. This is an instance where translation would lose specificity.

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    +1 Agreed. And as for the question about the targeted audience, I would say it's just the opposite: The targeted audience is those who speak the language of the main body of the text. The few words in the other language are in some sense intended to broaden the knowledge and understanding of those reading in the primary language. To be more clear, you may write in English, tossing in some Spanish words to expand the horizons of the English-speakers who are reading your work. (jwpat, I upvoted your answer, but I think the part about not knowing the word is not English is highly unlikely.) – John M. Landsberg Apr 2 '13 at 7:36
  • @JohnM.Landsberg, re “not knowing the word is not English is highly unlikely”, I agree with “unlikely” but not with “highly unlikely” as I've seen it a few times. Re “The targeted audience is those who speak the language of the main body of the text”, fully agree. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Apr 2 '13 at 8:08
  • @jwpat7 "As I've seen it a few times": can you give an example? (I more or less agree with you; I'm interested to see it in context.) – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Apr 2 '13 at 10:15
  • You've listed mostly good reasons for including a foreign word. I'd mention that writers also sometimes include foreign words for bad reasons, like to show off their knowledge of foreign languages, or to make the writing seem "more sophisticated". – Jay Apr 2 '13 at 13:40
  • @jwpat7 I recall a friend of mine from China whose English was good but not fluent once included Chinese ideograms for days of the week in a note she wrote. When I asked what these meant, she was surprised and said, "Oh, doesn't everyone use those?" So yes, it happens that people get confused and forget that this word is from their native language and not some other language they're trying to write. – Jay Apr 2 '13 at 13:49

Whenever you translate, there is a kind of "semantic loss", which may be easily circumvented when it comes to fictional texts but which may endanger the essence of nonfictional texts such as philosophical treaties or academical research, since the latter kind of texts may contain certain key phrases whose connotations would get lost in the process of translation. If concepts of a certain general interest are concerned, the words signifying them are included into the language system that had no way of referring to those concepts beforehand. Blitzkrieg, schadenfreude, realpolitik and gedankenexperiment are examples for such transfers into the English language.

If the concept signified by a certain word is more specific, there's no need to transfer it beyond the very text it is used in. "Waldesruh" (literally "silence of the woods" or "silence within the woods") is a proper example. I don't think that this word has found its way into English, and yet it's impossible to really translate it, since "silence of the woods" doesn't convey the culturally related imagery (nor its allusions to romanticism or the implied pastoral atmosphere of peacefulness) of this very word.


"To have another language is to possess a second soul" - Charlemagne

All languages are bound up within their particular cultural contexts. Translation doesn't simply strip some words of their specificity, it can also change their meaning entirely, or how people from different cultures understand that meaning.

By choosing not to translate the word, the author is implying that there is a connotation, context, or idea contained within that word, in that language, that is not present in the "equivalent" word in a different language.


It used to be common practice in scholarly works and in popular works aimed at educated audiences to quote works in the the language they were written in, at least for major classical and modern European languages. This is not a matter of the author using their native language, however, but of using the original language of the quotation.

This is less common practice today, presumably because Latin, Greek, French, German etc. are far less often taught in schools and far less often required for bachelor's or even advanced degrees. However, examples of it may still exist.


For French words, at least, it is mostly a pretentious way to show the author is cultured, thought funnily enough their "French" is often incorrect, though it will pass mustard for most readers.

For other languages, there are words or concepts that are not easily translated like the German gestalt, the Czech litost, or the Japanese bakku-shan

Though, as suggested, it is also sometimes used to give it a foreign flavor and greater realism.

I think that it targets speakers of that second language only if the book is mostly culturally dependent and the readership is assumed to be bilingual. For example a book using Spanish words whose MC is a Mexican descended teenager having a Quinciniera.

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