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How English has been shaped by French and other languages

Emma Harries
(Language Update, Volume 9, Number 4, 2013, page 23)

Many of the most common English words used today are of Old English origin, but during the Middle Ages, French had an enormous impact on the language. What follows is a brief history.

The Celts

In the 400s, the Roman Empire was withdrawing from its province of Britannia as Germanic tribes—the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes—were invading the island. The native people of Britain, the Celts, were killed in battle against the invaders, absorbed into the settling Anglo-Saxon population or forced to flee to the Scottish Highlands, the Isle of Man, the mountains of Wales, Cornwall in southwest England or Brittany on the continent. As a result, Celtic has left its imprint on English only in a number of place names.

The Anglo-Saxons and Old English

The Anglo-Saxons established a number of kingdoms whose inhabitants spoke various dialects of the same Germanic language referred to collectively as Old English. Interestingly, the regional variations of English spoken in England today correspond roughly to the borders of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.1 One of these kingdoms, Northumbria, extended into Scotland, where its dialect of Old English evolved into Scots, the language of the Scottish lowlanders, which is preserved in such ballads as "Auld Lang Syne," today sung on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight.

The Anglo-Saxons did not keep records, but rather had oral traditions, although they did use the common Germanic alphabet, runes, for inscriptions. With the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons by Irish missionaries came the appearance in English of a number of Latin words, such as priest and monk; however, words such as god, heaven and hell are of Germanic origin, as the Anglo-Saxons already had equivalent concepts in their culture.2 Easter comes from a Germanic word for a pagan festival held in the spring in honour of Eostre, goddess of the dawn. The Christianized English also adopted the Latin alphabet used by the Irish monks and began to record their traditional stories, such as Beowulf.

The Vikings

For over two centuries beginning in the late 700s, England was attacked, invaded and settled on numerous occasions by various Scandinavian tribes. The Vikings spoke Germanic dialects known collectively as Old Norse, which was closely related to Old English. Given the large-scale immigration of Norse-speaking peoples to England, the complex inflectional and gender systems of Old English began to be simplified, possibly to facilitate communication with the newcomers.3 As a result, with time, the Old English word for woman (wif) went from being gender-neutral to feminine, and the Old English words for sun (sunne) and moon (môna), which were feminine and masculine respectively (the opposite of the Romance languages), became gender-neutral.4 Those are just a few examples.

The Normans and Middle English

In 1066, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded the by-then unified kingdom of England and became king. Thus began the Middle English period. The Normans, meaning "Norse men," were also of Scandinavian origin. Their ancestors had settled Normandy during the period of Viking expansion mentioned above. However, Normandy had since become a dukedom of France, and by the time of the Norman conquest of England, the Normans spoke French. Although France was named after the Franks, the Germanic tribe that had founded the kingdom, its language was largely Latin because its heartland, Gaul, had been a major province of the Roman Empire and its Celtic population had long since abandoned their native language.

In England, beginning with William the Conqueror and lasting approximately two centuries, the nobles and high-ranking members of the church and administration were French-speaking. Church and government business was conducted in Latin or French. The Magna Carta (1215), the first English charter of rights, was written, as its name suggests, in Latin. English monarchs spoke French as their first language until the late 1300s.5 Yet English remained the language of the people. Since the English were being ruled by French speakers, a large number of French words were absorbed into English. This explains why the commoners are said to have lived in houses and raised oxen, sheep and swine (all words of Old English origin) so that their masters, who lived in mansions, might eat beef, mutton and pork (all words of French origin). The Gallicism of using you instead of thou as a sign of deference was introduced into English during this period and became more widespread than in French.

Furthermore, English spelling was changing as French scribes used French spelling for English words.6 For example, the letter "c" began to be used to represent both the "s" and the "k" sound in English, and the "u" sound was sometimes represented by an "o" under French influence, which may explain why son rhymes with sun.7 Later, English orthography was further complicated by changes in pronunciation that were not accompanied by changes in spelling.

In addition, the Old English inflectional system continued its slow decay during the Middle English period. A few Old English inflexions have survived, for example, oxen, the plural of ox, and feet, the plural of foot. However, by the end of this period, the Old English plural endings "s" and "es" had come to dominate, perhaps due to French influence.8 Few of the Old English strong verb conjugations—such as shake, shook and shaken—survived, whereas the Old English practice of conjugating weak verbs using either an "ed" or a "t," as in loved or spent, became widespread.

In 1204, the King of England lost his Norman possessions to France. This loss initiated centuries of English–French rivalry, during which England attempted many times to regain its Norman possessions, going so far as to burn Joan of Arc at the stake in 1431 for heresy. Owing to this rivalry, the use of French in England began to be regarded as unpatriotic.9 Government affairs slowly began to be conducted in English. Furthermore, an English-speaking merchant class was forming and exerting its influence. By the time of Chaucer (c. 1343–1400), English was the official language of England, but it had changed so much that it barely resembled Old English.

The melding of Norman French and Old English had been so thorough that Modern English does not even appear to be a mixed language. For instance, no one notices that beauty, a word of French origin, is combined with an Old English suffix to produce beautiful, or that eat, an Old English verb, is combined with a French suffix to form eatable. Such hybrid words abound in Modern English.

The large number of French words in English means that the latter has a wealth of synonyms. The words of French origin tend to have more formal connotations, whereas the words of Old English origin often seem more vibrant. Consider the difference between aid and help or solitary and lonely—just two examples. This abundance of synonyms in English means that very precise shades of meaning can be conveyed depending on the choice of words.

Modern English

The Modern English period, to which Shakespeare belongs, began during the Renaissance, a time when many words were borrowed into English from Greek and Latin. The discovery of the Americas ushered in an era of contact with and borrowing from languages spoken all over the globe, a trend that continues to this day.

Yet despite all these foreign influences, Modern English remains essentially a Germanic language. Although its vocabulary has multiplied since the 400s, most of the words used in English in informal exchanges today derive from Old English.10 It is estimated that over 80 per cent of the 1,000 most common Modern English words are of Old English origin.11 The following is just a sample of these words: heart, head, land, wood, hill, sun, moon, day, month, year, horse, cow, sheep, goose, hen, dog, fish, old, young, merry, greedy, sorry, bitter, sweet, love, care, have, be, do, say, speak, think, see, hear, eat, drink, bake, brew, jump, sing, swim, fight, shoot, win and sell. Old English is essentially the nucleus around which Modern English has been built.

Furthermore, Old English literary traditions continue today. The Anglo-Saxon penchant for alliteration is still alive, as demonstrated by such expressions as "labour of love" or "dumb as a dodo." The Old English practice of forming compounds also remains popular. In the 1800s, output and moonlit were coined by metal workers in northern England and by Tennyson respectively.12 Furthermore, beginning in the late 1700s, the Romantic Movement in England was marked by a conscious revival of Old English. Therefore, the movement’s English literature has a much larger percentage of Old English words than was previously the fashion. For instance, the following passage from Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality is composed entirely of words of Old English origin:13

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar.

Lasting influence

Old English remains central to how English is spoken today—both at an informal level and at the highest level. Yet French is very much a part of how English speakers communicate with each other. English legal and business jargons are heavily infused with words of French origin. A large number of plain English words, such as beef, join and pass, are also of French origin. Furthermore, the fact that many words of Old English origin have near equivalents of French origin contributes to the wealth of synonyms with varying connotations in English. French has therefore made a rich contribution to the English language.

Notes and references

  • Back to the note1 Careca, Samuca (2007). A History of English Language, Anmol Publications, p. 119.
  • Back to the note2 Careca, p. 199.
  • Back to the note3 Weekley, Ernest (1952). The English Language, Andre Deutsch Ltd., p. 62; Brook, G. L. (1960). A History of the English Language, Andre Deutsch Ltd., p. 51.
  • Back to the note4 Careca, p. 250; Weekley, p. 32; Brook, p. 51.
  • Back to the note5 Careca, p. 125.
  • Back to the note6 Bolton, W. F. (1982). A Living Language, Random House, pp. 143, 147; Brook, pp. 42, 50.
  • Back to the note7 Emerson, Oliver (1972). An Outline History of the English Language, Lemma Publishing Corp., p. 73; Brook, p. 57.
  • Back to the note8 Weekley, p. 67.
  • Back to the note9 Careca, p. 129; Bolton, pp. 141-2.
  • Back to the note10 Sheard, J. A. (1970). The Words We Use, Lowe and Brydone Printers Ltd., p. 324.
  • Back to the note11 Slocum, Jonathan and Winfred P. Lehmann. Linguistics Research Centre, University of Texas at Austin, http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/engol-0-X.html, consulted August 4, 2012, last updated August 11, 2011.
  • Back to the note12 Weekley, pp. 46, 95.
  • Back to the note13 Weekley, p. 108.