Did you know … ? The French language.

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Did you know that French has 100 000 words in its language, and English has over a million?

Almost 40% of our English words, however, originated as French words, ie some 400 000 of them.  Logically, then, as there are only 100 000 words in the French language (75% of which are of a Latin base), surely there cannot be 400 000 of them in our language?

The reason for this is because in English we have far more room for adapting a word to suit what we are saying, thus creating new words.  For example, in French we have the word joie, meaning joy.  Also joyeux, meaning joyful and joyeusement, meaning joyfully.  But in English we can also say joyfulness.  Add one more word like that to thousands of words and suddenly the English vocabulary becomes huge!

We also frequently have two words for the French one word.  Sheep in French is mouton, dead or alive.  We say sheep (Anglo-Saxon) for the alive kind but mutton for the eating kind.  A lamb ( the prancing in the field kind) is agneau, dead or alive, as it is in English.  We can also say lambkin. It is perhaps no coincidence that a lot of our words for things to eat, in view of the French obsession with food, have French (and Latin before that) roots:-

  • restaurant, from the verb restaurer, to restore
  • manger, the verb to eat, hence a manger where animals eat
  • une coupe becomes a cup
  • supper from the verb souper, to eat a light evening meal
  • veal from veau
  • dinner from the verb diner, to dine. This is another example of one French word that we have made in to two English words.  Diner means to dine and also it means the dinner.  
  • lettuce = laitue; tomato = tomate; onion=ognion; biscuit = biscuit, moutarde = mustard…. I could go on and on, but you get the picture
  • Some words have been re-designated, so to speak, as we see in manger.  The French un plateau, meaning a tray, has become a plate in English (tray being of German origin) and un plat means a plateful of food or a dish to be served up.  A dish, ie a receptacle, is un bol … a bowl.  Joli, meaning pretty, becomes jolly in English.

Interestingly, the French word fromage (cheese) has an English origin, dating from cheese-making in Roman times in the town of Frome.

As we all know in 1066 the William, Duke of Normandy, who was French-speaking, invaded the south of England. This was not France, as we think of it today, but Normandy, in other words “the land of man of the north” – nor(th) man – Vikings.  Nevertheless it introduced a French-speaking ruling class.  As a result many of our words for upper-class and power matters are French-based:

  • royale – royal
  • ministre – minister
  • palais – palace
  • juge – judge
  • commande -order
  • bataille – battle
  • victoire – victory
  • prince – prince
  • demander – demand
  • noblesse – nobility

… and so on.   Most of these words have their Anglo-Saxon equivalent too, e.g demander in French also means to ask.  Or to request.  Or require. French as the language for the elite became the norm for 300 years, though they usually also spoke Latin, Greek, and of course Anglo-Saxon in whatever form it had evolved in to.  The language for the educated classes, to include the church, was Latin, and this also remained the case till well in to the 20th Century. Indeed, I remember my father, a doctor in Africa, conducting a conversation In Latin with a fellow doctor who spoke neither English nor French, my father’s two languages.

Of course, there is a good reason why we have so many words.  Not only do we also have an Anglo-Saxon word for each “French” one, we also have the Anglo-Saxon ability to think laterally when using words and transform them in to essentially the same thing but in a different way. To top it, we had the linguistic influence of Vikings in the north of the British Isles and a very large Germanic influence.  More importantly,  our huge vocabulary also comes from the influence over the centuries from other parts of the world.  The British Empire was the biggest and the longest-lasting the world has ever seen and our language picked up words from around the globe:-

  • from India there are hundreds, even thousands, to include chutney, Blighty, cot, dinghy
  • from Africa there are also hundreds, to include banana, jamboree, chimpanzee
  • Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada, all evolved their own versions of English, much of which we use in our own language without thinking.
  • places like Jamaica, and many others, have their own dialect of English
  • the Peninsular Wars (early 1800s) brought home words such as casi, an abbreviation of casita In Spanish, meaning “little house”, and endless similar examples from every corner of the earth, to include meander from Turkey,  trek from South Africa., and abacus, amen and alleluia from Hebrew.

Many of our English words have slightly more obscure French origins.  My PA used the word charabang the other day, and this originated as char a banc – a coach with benches.  Our word barbeque comes from barbe a queue, meaning beard-to-tail, ie where the spoke goes when roasting on a spit.  Plonk is an abbreviation of vin blanc (blonk if you like) which came back to the UK with WWI soldiers.

  charabanc                                      www.seasidefrance.com

We also use a lot of French expressions:

je ne sais quoitete a tete, rendez-vous and so on. Both ballet and fencing have predominantly French words, though ballet originated in Italy.

French has now adopted thousands of English and/or American words and most “modern” words in French are English – but that is a different chapter.

Interested in France ?  Book your holiday at www.seasidefrance.com or e-mail [email protected]


Posted on 15/09/2016 by Catherine
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