The English language is filled with words of French origin. It’s the result of a millennium-long tradition of vocab crossing the English Channel.
When William the Conqueror snatched England away from its Anglo Saxon owners in 1066, it could have been the end of English. It would be centuries before it returned as the language of the country’s ruling class.
But English did what it has always done when faced with an existential threat: adapt. Rather than be displaced by the invaders’ Old French, it began to absorb words used by England’s new francophone overlords. The rate at which it did so changed English forever and set it on course to become the language it is today.
French influence in English: Power dynamics
The areas where French vocabulary was most enthusiastically adopted shows the power divide between the conquered Anglo Saxons and the conquering Normans. English words of French origin litter the fields of government, justice, chivalry, nobility and religion — all five of which are French-derived terms themselves.
Still today we might encounter a minister in parliament (if we’re lucky), stand before a judge and jury (if we’re unlucky), or pray with a priest in a chapel (if we need forgiveness for whatever landed us in front of the jury).
Perhaps the most satisfying demonstration of the power imbalance between the English-speaking peasantry and the Anglo-Norman aristocracy is how we refer to animals, as I explain in this video:
Almost a thousand years after the Normans arrived, we’re still referring to cows, sheep, deer and swine by their Germanic-derived names. However, the second we prepare them to be enjoyed for dinner, we start referring to them in Old French: beef (boef), mutton (moton), venison (venesoun) and pork (porc). That tells us all we need to know about who was doing the hard work and who was enjoying the benefits.
English words with French roots: Broadening the language by 30%
The half century of Norman rule over England saw undoubtedly the greatest influx of French words into English, but the flow has never dried up. It’s thought nearly 30% of Modern English vocabulary is French-derived.
Many of the French entrants into English have served to broaden the language, rather than to replace existing Anglo Saxon vocab. Often we’ve taken the direct French equivalent of a word we already have and charged it with nuance. To demand something is not the same as to ask for it, for example. Being content is slightly different from being happy, just as being weak is slightly different from being feeble. And a gateau is merely a subcategory of cake.
The double French influence on English vocabulary?!
The flow of French into English has never stopped (nor ceased). It’s been going on for so many generations that we’ve occasionally forgotten previous borrowings and imported the same word twice. Look at petty and petit, hostel and hotel, castle and chateau, chief and chef, warranty and guarantee (w and g have a complicated history together). Once again, a healthy helping of nuance helped the later additions to fit snugly into the language.
The English language: Germanic or French or…what?
English remains Germanic at its core. Look at one of the many compiled lists of the Top 100 most-used English words and barely a handful of them will have French cognates. Person and number are among the few that make the grade.
However, English has been greatly enriched by its French imports. The way in which they have broadened its vocabulary, thanks to all that nuance, gives English one of its strengths. It is uniquely expressive.
Modern English would not be what it is without centuries of French influence. So Merci.
((Special thanks to France for the words language and nuance, without whom this article would not have been possible.))
Rob Watts (RobWords)
I’m a British fella living in Berlin. Check out my videos about the wonders of the English language on YouTube.
For the last decade I’ve been making my living by talking. Back in the UK I was a newsreader for BBC national radio. Nowadays I present TV programmes for Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle (in English, thank goodness).
I’ve got a Bachelors degree in English and a Masters in Broadcast Journalism. I am also an enthusiastic — if not skilled — speaker of French and German.
Good grief, I love words.