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The Other Germanic Threat That French Staved Off

Richard Oslund
(Language Update, Volume 3, Number 4, 2006, page 27)

As modern communication technologies turn the world into one big village, the opportunities for languages to influence one another are becoming more and more frequent. There is naturally a concern that some languages might overly influence others. Much of the work of the federal government’s Translation Bureau is aimed at ensuring that both official languages remain healthy and vibrant in Canada. The Bureau’s terminologists in particular play a crucial role by identifying viable equivalents for many of the neologisms coined in English and French each year.

English definitely appears to be in the ascendant worldwide. But French-speakers facing this onslaught might take heart in looking back at an earlier, brilliantly successful defence of their language against a speech that was initially so close to the English of its day that the two tongues could be considered sister dialects.

A chapter from language history in which The Da Vinci Code meets The Lord of the Rings

Some seventeen hundred years ago, as the border defences of the Roman Empire began to crumble, a barbarian people crossed the Rhine near its mouth and settled in what is now the southern Netherlands and northern Belgium. When Roman defences in Western Europe collapsed completely a century and a half later, an aggressive king aptly named Hludowīg (loud fighting) led these barbarians on a series of campaigns that left them lords of all the land from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean and south to the Pyrenees.

That king is better known to history by a Latin approximation of his name: Clovis. He was the third in the Merovingian line of kings, identified in The Da Vinci Code as being direct descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This is an odd claim for the book’s author to make, since Hludowīg owed much of his success to having converted to the orthodox Catholic faith. This made him much more acceptable to the Romans than the other Germanic invaders of Western Europe, who embraced a Christian heresy that denied the full divinity of Jesus and were zealously persecuting orthodox Catholics in the lands they had conquered.

The barbarians whom Hludowīg led—erstwhile next-door neighbours of the Angles and Saxons in what is now northern Germany—called themselves Franks (freemen). Although the Frankish rulers held onto their Germanic tongue for some five hundred years in the country to which the Franks gave their name, Frankish ultimately had surprisingly little effect on French.

What influence it had was almost wholly lexical. It affected French pronunciation only slightly and French grammar not at all. By one count, some 400 Frankish words were borrowed into Old French, but only a third of them have survived, with their derivatives, into Modern French. This makes it quite difficult to write even one paragraph in French using just nouns, verbs and adjectives of Frankish origin. Here is this author’s admittedly artless attempt:

Le baron Thierry et ses garçons hardis épient la troupe de sales félons, tapis dans les aulnes au bord du marais, qui ont saisi du butin dans son riche fief. L’étendard bleu brodé du baron flotte sur son épieu. Il éperonne les flancs gris de son étalon fringant. «Montjoie! Au galop!»

As one might gather from the preceding paragraph, many of the Frankish words that survived in French are connected with warfare. This is perhaps understandable, since the Frankish invaders initially prohibited their non-Frankish subjects from bearing arms. The battle cry Montjoie! of French medieval knights was a garbled reinterpretation of Frankish Mundgawi!, "To the nation’s defence!" Guerre comes from Frankish werra, guetter from wahtōn, garder from wardōn, and blesser from blettyan. But the Franks did not just inflict wounds, they also tended them: guérir comes from Frankish waryan, and soigner from sunnyōn. Frankish bisunnia (care), a derivative of sunnyōn, evolved into both besogne and besoin in French. And the Franks knew how to stop a fight as well as start one: trêve comes from Frankish triuwa. (English truce is historically a plural derived from trēow, the Old English equivalent of triuwa.)

As some of the preceding examples suggest, many French words beginning in g or gu come from Frankish words beginning with w. This category includes guêtre (from wrist, which meant "ankle" in Frankish), guigner (from wingyan, "to wink"), guise (from wīsa), guimpe (from wimpil) and galoper (from the expression wala hlaupan, "to lope well").

Similarly, many French words that begin with h aspiré harken back to Frankish words that began with h. The h sound died out in Latin before the Roman Empire collapsed, but it was reintroduced into what is now France by the Franks. This second generation of h’s in turn fell silent just a few centuries ago, but they continue to prevent elision and liaison in pronunciation. For example, one must say le hameau (a French diminutive derived from Frankish haim "home") and not l’hameau, and the final letter of les is silent in les hanches (from Frankish hanka). Other Frankish loanwords in this category include haïr (from hatyan), halle (from halla), haie (from hagya) and hangar (from haimgard).

Like English-speakers who say "Margaret’s every memory" as if each word contained just two syllables, the Franks are believed to have heavily stressed accented syllables and pronounced unaccented vowels indistinctly or not at all. And they are thought to have passed this habit on to their non-Frankish subjects in the area around Paris, where Frankish settlement was especially dense. The result is that word-final e, for example, is now silent in standard French, which arose from that area.

Returning to the military lexicon, French has several words derived from Frankish compounds based on heri (army).

Frankish heriberga (army camp) engendered a verb heribergōn (encamp), which in French became héberger, a word that has inexplicably lost its h aspiré. The slightly different hariberga, introduced earlier into Latin by German mercenaries in the Imperial Roman Army, found its way into French, via Provençal, as auberge. (Harbour, which can still mean "army camp," is the Modern English development of the same West Germanic word.)

Frankish soldiers would gather in a circle around their leader to hear an inspirational address before battle. This formation was called the heriring in Frankish, from heri and hring (ring). Borrowed into French, the name of the formation passed to the address itself, evolving into harangue.

Hring had the same form and meaning in Old English, by the way, and English and Frankish cultures shared the general Germanic fascination with circular patterns and objects. Circles and swirls were a recurring motif in Germanic art, and Germanic tribespeople wore much of their personal worth on their bodies in the form of circular armlets, bracelets and rings. Leaders were judged by the number of gold and silver rings they could distribute to their followers, and the kingly hero of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, on which J.R.R. Tolkien was a recognized expert, is twice described as hringa fengel (lord of the rings).

Another French word derived from Frankish heri tells a story about the changeable nature of military fortune. The heriwald (Frankish for "army commander") started off at the pinnacle of the military command structure, only to tumble to the much more modest post of héraut over time. On his way down, he met the maréchal, rising from the lowly position of horse groom (marhskalk in Frankish) to take the herald’s former job.

Being barbarians, the Franks were not above pillaging the areas they conquered. French dérober, whose first meaning is "to steal," comes from Frankish raubōn (to loot), embellished with a Latin prefix. And robe, which originally referred to looted clothing, comes from Frankish rauba (booty).

Besides common nouns, Frankish was the source of some of the most popular French given names for men, such as Robert (from Hrothberht, meaning "fame-bright"), Roger (from Hrothgar, "fame-spear"), Charles (from Karl, another word for "freeman") and Louis (from the already mentioned Hludowīg, which became Ludovico in Italian and Ludwig in German). Thierry, by the way, comes from Theodoric, "the people’s king."

The Franks were an exceedingly proud people, quick to take offence, so it comes as no surprise that they gave French the words orgueil (from Frankish urgōli), froncer (from hrunkyan) and moue (from mauwa, "lip"). But they were not without a conscience: honte comes from Frankish haunitha, and gêne ultimately comes from the Frankish verb yehhan (admit).

It was perhaps because of their pride that the Franks retained their Germanic language longer than the other German tribes that conquered and gave their names to continental parts of the former Roman Empire: the Burgundians of Burgundy, the Long Beards of Lombardy, the Vandals of Andalusia and the Goths of Catalonia (originally "Gothalandia"). But by the earlier 800s, Charlemagne, the great Frankish king, was worried enough about the survival of Frankish to begin a grammar of the language. This work does not survive, if it was ever completed at all, and in fact most of the Frankish words in this article are conjectural. They were reconstructed by historical linguists on the basis of what is known about the evolution of words within Old French and research into Germanic languages of the past and present, including Old English.

Hugh Capet, who ascended the throne in 987, is said to have been the first French king who could not speak Frankish, and the language presumably died out in France around that time. But this is not to say that Frankish ceased to be spoken at all. It lives on to this day, in evolved form, in the speech of the Franks who remained behind when King Hludowīg launched his westward invasion. Those Franks are now called Dutch, Flemings and Afrikaners, and the modern descendants of Frankish are national languages in the Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa.

French lives on too, of course, enriched by loanwords but otherwise virtually unaffected by its Frankish interlude.

Further reading

Picoche, Jacqueline. Dictionnaire étymologique du français. Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 2002.

Walter, Henriette. Le français dans tous les sens. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1988.

Cohen, Marcel. Histoire d’une langue: le français. Paris: Éditions sociales, 1973.