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The French Influence on the English Language

English has been influenced by French more than many of us know.

Introduction

Many different languages have shaped the development of the English language as we know it today. During its diverse history, English has taken on elements of spoken tongues and dialects from all over the earth. This is not surprising, as it is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet.

Our language originally sprang from the dialects of three Germanic tribes known by historians as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. These peoples settled in Britain around 450 AD. Their language became known as Anglo-Saxon.

One of the most important influences ever to shape the English language arrived in 1066 AD-William the Conqueror’s invasion of the British Isles.

The Norman Conquest and its Consequences

On William the Conqueror’s accession to the throne of England, several important changes took place. Firstly, the French dialect the Normans spoke (Anglo-Norman) became the official language of the court, administration, and perhaps just as importantly, the language of culture. At the same time, English was relegated the common people, and became the language of everyday use. This official ignoring of Old English actually assisted in simplifying the language. Being ignored by grammarians, the language was simplified, and became more practical.

Initially, French and English remained very much separate, and each language influenced the other but little. In the period between 1066 and 1120 AD, a mere 900 Anglo-Norman words became assimilated into English. As the Saxons began to accept their Norman conquerors, however; language change became more rapid, with 10,000 Anglo-Norman words entering English before the 15th century.

Vocabulary Change

Of the 10,000 French words adopted during the Norman occupation, three-quarters of these are still in use. Currently, French vocabulary is found in all areas-government, law, art, and literature. More than one third of English words today are derived, directly or indirectly, from French. This is so pronounced, that without prior study, English speakers already know 15,000 French words.

Pronunciation Change

Much of current English pronunciation can be traced to definite French influence. Old English had many unvoiced, fricative sounds, while French introduced voiced counterparts.

English French
f v
s z
th th
sh g (as in mirage)
- diphthong (as in boy)

Grammar Change

An interesting observation in the study of Middle English is the word order of certain phrases. In expressions like secretary general and surgeon general, the French order of adjectives and nouns is used. [English-adjective + noun; French-noun + adjective]

Conclusion

French influence has made a lasting print on English as we know it today. Many words which are generally conceded to be merely English, actually have their roots in French. Just pick up a dictionary to see.

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User Comments
  1. Will B

    On January 20, 2008 at 11:59 pm


    I love French. :) Its such a beautiful language.

  2. Ivan Trotsky

    On January 29, 2008 at 5:57 pm


    Yes, Will, many people agree that French is one of the most expressive languages of the world. Our language has indeed benefited from a lasting French influence.

  3. Lulu/Your Friend

    On April 18, 2008 at 12:15 am


    Hi Ivan!;) I really liked your article! I was searching for good articles by someone else and came upon this one. Keep it up! I like it.:)
    Lulu

  4. John

    On November 9, 2008 at 7:31 am


    French pronunciation can be so difficult indeed! We found a great resource to hear any French spoken… you can even hear it in slow speed. http://www.virtualfrenchtutor.com

  5. Payton

    On February 16, 2009 at 5:10 pm


    Hi everybody, I´m doing a research to find out how much the French languages influences on English and I´ve found lots of interesting things, it´s amazing the fact that English speakers know about 15,000 French words, without studying French! Wow!!!

  6. Brian

    On May 18, 2009 at 3:31 pm


    I have to agree with Payton. I had no idea English speakers knew about 15,000 French words. To me that is amazing. And its all because William the Conqueror took over England!

  7. Francois Hagnere

    On May 31, 2009 at 2:36 pm


    An excellent article. Thank you so much.

  8. Eria

    On September 13, 2009 at 7:55 pm


    Really helped my assignment. Thanks!

  9. Sinead

    On January 12, 2010 at 11:36 am


    Thanks very much for the aricle. I’m doing an assignment on the similarities and differences in the development of Spanish and English languages and the ways in which each of the languages are intertwined with other langauges which have influenced their development. This was quite helpful in my research.

  10. anirban

    On December 13, 2010 at 4:42 am


    i loved this article but it would have been a better one so that people can learn more about the relation between English and French language and the data is not sufficient enough for readers .

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