How the Infiltration of French Words Changed English

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Beginning in 1066 A.D., French speakers occupied England. It was the Normans in particular and the dialect they spoke was a different dialect of French. Normans were, in fact, descendants of the Vikings, too. They brought many French words into English, and these words are considered common English words today.

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

Throughout Western Europe, history was indisputably affected by the Vikings for a long time, and the area that is called France now was no exception to this. So indirectly, it was yet another Viking invasion although Norsemen had a different level of civilization. So the Norsemen controlled England for around 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 used by courts also. And in writing also, French was the language used most frequently. So during this period, there was a time when documents written in English could rarely be found because French had become the language of England, and this resulted in a great many French words being borrowed in English. 

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French Words in English

Beowulf manuscript's first page.
A detail of the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, showing the words “ofer hron rade”, i.e. “over the whale’s road”. (Image: en:User:Groogokk/Public domain)

Since the French occupation of England, English borrowed a great many French words. As a matter of fact, as per 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, large, poor, nice, carry, change, move, cry, move, push, chair, lamp, pain, save, trip, stomach, music, fool, park, toast, spy, beef, stew, faith, jail, bar, tax, and fry. All these are French words that do not seem to be foreign to English speakers at all. They feel like they are words of English. But they are not. Those words were not known to those people who arrived in England from the windy shores of the northern part of the Continent, which is now Friesland in the Netherlands, the Angles, The Saxons, and the Jutes, who founded the language that is called Old English. They were not aware of these words. These were French words and came from French only.

That was a prime impact. So there is this Old English that has absorbed all of those Scandinavian words, and then there are these French words that have formed a new layer. And factually speaking this time was a completely new stage of language and that language was Middle-English. But as compared to its sister languages, the Germanic languages like German and emerging Scandinavian languages and Dutch, the English language has such a vocabulary that is making English very distinctive in terms of its words.

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The Latin Layer

Then there was another layer in English. This one was the Latin layer. English becoming a language of learning was the major factor responsible for the coming of the Latin layer. The way English took its place in the world made people like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray worry that English did not have sufficient rules and was not properly covered. When that happened, just like the French words, a lot of words from Latin were inherited also. And then from Greek, too. Some examples of words borrowed from Latin are legal, intellect, scene, client, exclude, pulpit, recipe, necessary, exclude, tolerance, interest, and many such words.

What this means is that if the English language had grown without these lingual invasions, that English would be quite unfamiliar to people today. Icelanders are able to read their literature that was written around 1300 years ago without much difficulty. But for English speakers, wiThe thout any formal extensive training, Beowulf is totally opaque. For them, it might well be German. And still, it is a language from the not so distant past. The major reason for this is the huge lexical invasion. These French words and Greek words that were borrowed in big numbers mean that English speakers’ basic expression is different from what it would be if there were less of these words. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Advantages and Disadvantages

This has both advantages as well as disadvantages. One of the major advantages is that since English has so many Latin and French words, that English speaking people have a head start over others when they want to learn the vocabulary of French or any other language that has originated from Latin. This is particularly true when talking about more formal layers of vocabulary. For example, while learning French, initially someone may have to deal with words like poisson meaning fishlait meaning milk, and livre meaning book. But normally, it is easier to learn more advanced vocabulary because it generally corresponds to the words already known to us. For example, the French words for opportunity and association are opportunite and association. So that is not difficult to learn. So one gets the feeling that with the passage of time, French gets easier because English borrowed most words from it.

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

But then this has a disadvantage also. English has become such a mixed language by borrowing Latin and French words in such a way that is so dependent on some historical currents, that it could not have happened with any other language. It means that English speakers do not have any language that is sufficiently close to English that it can be picked up easily. That 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 around the world and there would be some language similar to their language. But as far as English is concerned, 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 have been taken from French words?

According to one estimate, there are over 7,500 French words that are being used in English. Many more have come from Latin from which French has originated. This implies that a significant number of English words either have an exact or similar counterpart in French.

Q: Is it tough to learn French?

French is definitely not tough to learn particularly compared to English. It is much easier to achieve fluency in French than one would expect. And because French and English have many common words, it becomes simpler.

Q: Which is older – English or French?

Old English borrowed many Norman French words. Norman rulers who spoke French language changed the way of speaking greatly about eight hundred years ago. The original English became what is now called by language experts the Middle English.

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