How the Infiltration of French Words Changed English

Through John McWhorter, Ph.D., Colombia University

From 1066 AD, the French-speakers occupied England. It was the Normans in particular and the dialect they spoke was a different dialect from French. The Normans were, in fact, also descendants of the Vikings. They brought many French words into English, and these words are considered common English words today.

The daily life of the Vikings showing farmers and fishermen.
The image shows everyday life in the Viking Age. (Image: Postverk Foroya/Public domain)

Throughout Western Europe, history has been unmistakably marked by the Vikings for a long time, and the region that is now called France was no exception to this. So indirectly, it was yet another Viking invasion although the Norsemen had a different level of civilization. Thus, the Normans controlled England for about 200 years. The result was that French became the official language of England. French was the language used by the government and this language was also used by the courts. And in writing too, French was the most used language. Thus, at that time, there was a time when documents written in English were rare because French had become the language of England, which resulted in the borrowing of many French words into English.

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French words in English

First page of the Beowulf manuscript.
A detail from the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, showing the words ‘ofer hron rade’, meaning ‘on the way to the whales’. (Image: en:User:Groogokk/Public domain)

Since the French occupation of England, English has borrowed a large number of French words. In fact, by one estimate, there were as many as 7,500 such French words. Some of the examples of these words are air, face, flower, coast, debt, blue, joy, river, people, sign, easy, mean, clear, big, poor, nice, wear, change, move, cry, move, push, chair, lamp, pain, save, trip, stomach, music, fool, park, toast, spy, beef, stew, faith, jail, bar, tax and fry. These are all French words that do not seem at all foreign to English speakers. They feel like English words. But they are not. These words were unknown to those who arrived in England from the windy shores of the northern part of the continent, which is now Friesland in the Netherlands, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, who founded the language called Old English. They were not aware of these words. They were French words and came from French only.

It was a primary impact. So there is this old English that absorbed all these Scandinavian words, and then there are these French words that formed a new layer. And actually this time it was a whole new stage of the language and that language was Middle English. But compared to its sister languages, the Germanic languages ​​like German and the emerging Scandinavian languages ​​and Dutch, the English language has such a vocabulary that makes English very distinctive in terms of words.

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The Latin layer

Then there was another layer in English. This was the Latin layer. English becoming a language of learning was the main factor responsible for the advent of the Latin layer. The way English has taken its place in the world has people like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray worried that English doesn’t have enough rules and isn’t properly covered. When this happened, just like French words, many words from Latin were also inherited. And then Greek too. Some examples of loanwords from Latin are legal, intellect, scene, client, exclude, pulpit, receipt, necessary, exclude, tolerance, interest, and many such words.

This means that if the English language had developed without these linguistic invasions, this English would be quite unknown to people today. Icelanders are able to read their literature which was written around 1300 years ago without much difficulty. But for English speakers, without any formal in-depth training, Beowulf is totally opaque. For them, it could well be German. And yet, it is a language of a not so distant past. The main reason for this is the huge lexical invasion. These French words and borrowed Greek words in large numbers make the basic expression of English speakers different from what it would be if there were fewer of these words.

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Advantages and disadvantages

This has both advantages and disadvantages. One of the main advantages is that since English has so many Latin and French words, English speakers are one step ahead of others when they want to learn the vocabulary of French or any other language derived from Latin. This is especially true when dealing with more formal vocabulary layers. For example, when learning French, someone may first have to deal with words like fish sense fish, milk sense milk, and delivered meaning book. But normally it’s easier to learn more advanced vocabulary because it usually matches the words we already know. For example, the French words for opportunity and association are opportunity and association. So it’s not hard to learn. So we have the impression that over time, French becomes easier because English has borrowed most of the words from it.

Manuscript sheets from the Heimskringla sagas.
One of the few surviving manuscripts of the Heimskringla sagas written by Snorri Strulusan. (Image: National and University Library of Iceland/Public Domain)

But this also has a downside. English has become such a mixed language by borrowing Latin and French words in such a way dependent on certain historical currents, that it could not have happened with any other language. This means that English speakers do not have a language close enough to English for it to be learned easily. This is a major difference with speakers of most other languages. For example, it is very easy for a Spanish speaker to learn Portuguese. Similar is the case with Russian and Ukrainian. Talk to anyone in the world and there would be a language similar to their language. But when it comes to English, there is no language like that.

Learn more about how languages ​​also mix their grammars.

Common questions about French words

Q: How many English words were extracted from French words?

By one estimate, there are more than 7,500 french words which are used in English. Many others came from the Latin from which French originated. This implies that a significant number of English words have an exact or similar counterpart in French.

Q: Is it difficult to learn French?

French is certainly not difficult to learn, especially compared to English. It is much easier to achieve fluency in French than you might expect. And because French and English have a lot of common words, it becomes simpler.

Q: Which is older: English or French?

Old English borrowed many Normans french words. Norman rulers who spoke the French language significantly changed the way of speaking about eight hundred years ago. The original English became what language experts now call Middle English.

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Changes in language, gain or loss?
Proto-Indo-European and borrowed words from languages
Changes in the grammar and pronunciation of English words

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