le 7 février 2014
After the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlements before the XIth century in the area what we call Great Britain today, 1066 is the key year for the beginning of the closest relationships between the English and French languages. The conquest of England by Guillaume the Conqueror from Normandy, who becomes the King of England in 1066, preludes predictable and mutual interferences between these two languages.
In fact, it is not an immediate impregnation: centuries after the conquest, only English will benefit from French linguistics whereas French will really take from English only at the beginning of the XVIIIth century.
This kind of “anomaly”, a result of a serious time gap, can be explained by the history of both countries. The languages history is always linked to the peoples by whom the languages are spoken.
In the middle of XIth century, the linguistic situation in England had drastically changed following to the massive arrival of Normans. The Noble together with Ecclesiastic people were straightaway robbed by those who came with Guillaume the Conqueror from Normandy. Although the rural and urban population used to speak English, the aristocracy together with the Ecclesiastic and influent people will speak the Norman dialect (based on Latin). Thus, the early and rare English loanwords from the Norman dialect can be separated more objectively from the further and massive English loanwords from French.
Here are some English words which came from the Norman:
- To catch “attraper” comes from the old Norman cachier, whereas the old French was chacier “chasser” - originally, the English verb “to catch” meant also “chasser”;
- Captain “capitaine”; the old French chieftain (with ch-) allows to think that captain must have been through the form by “ca-“;
- Canvas “toile”, probably from Norman-Picard canevas which comes from Latin cannabis “chanvre”;
- To carry “transporter” comes from the Norman carrier, the French form was charrier “transporter”.
As we can see, all these words which came from France bear, in their very form, the marks of their Norman origin. Later on, as French became the prestigious language in France, we will find French words and not strictly Norman words. We will find countless signs of French words inside these across the Channel.
The expansion of French language had found a particularly favourable ground in England. If the French language could have extended so far for almost three centuries, it is because the contacts between these two countries had been constantly renewed. At the highest level, through the successive royal marriages, since Henry II of England (1133-1189) until Edward IV (1461-1483), until that date, no King took any English woman and that for three hundred years: the Sovereign’s choice was always towards the spouses who came from France.
The Queens of England who came from France had played a very important role with possessions they had brought in their marriage baskets. Thus, the Kings of England possessed also vast territories on the Continent, i.e. on the other side of the Channel.
At the beginning of the XIth century, among the French words formerly entered into the English language, there is proud, today “fier” , but it had meant “vaillant” during the Middle Age period (prud in old French became preux); tower “tour” together with prison, but also bacon. This last word which is taken for Anglicism in French today is, to the contrary, a form previously loaned by English from the old French bacon “viande de porc, flèche de lard salé” (a day-to-day word earlier loaned by French from the old German).
These English words are really interesting: their form, be it oral or written, had sometimes kept the traces from the old language which came from France, like some consonants (the s of forest “forêt”) or some vowels and diphthongs (veil “voile”, prey “proie”, leisure “loisir”). Their meanings stayed often the same in English; fields such as employment and especially social and intellectual life together with domestic and food ones reveal the omnipresence of French in English during that period.
Yet, we should beware of some false appearances. If parrot “perroquet” comes from Pierrot, a shortened form of Pierre, (together with slate “ardoise” from the old French esclat and pattern “modèle” from the old French patron “modèle”), crayfish or crawfish “écrevisse” comes from German “krebiz” “crabe” and is not formed on fish “poisson” as we might think at first place.
When French pupils learn the rules on the circumflex accent (ex: “ê”) in the French orthography, they are told that this “little hat” replaces a disappeared consonant and that this disappeared consonant was often “s”. But to really realise these phenomena, we should have the ancient texts before the orthography reform in 1740 which is the date when the Academy had suppressed more than ten thousand internal “s”.
It might be easier to see the form that English had loaned from French since Middle Ages: this “s” is quite well represented and even nowadays, its presence, be it at oral or written form, witnesses the manner how these words used to be pronounced at the time they had entered into English. They are too much numerous to be all listed here, but below are some dozens which will show that the rules on the circumflex accent in the French spelling suffer from some exceptions too.
At the end of the XIIIth century, in French, the consonant “s” used not to be pronounced anymore when this consonant “s” was followed by an another consonant in the same syllable: this is the dead “s” in French and the living “s” in English. So, the period before the elimination of the “s” pronunciation must be logically before the XIIIth century when the following words were loaned by English.
To the English “s” corresponds the French circumflex accent (pastry: pâtisserie; master: maître; cost: coût; coast: côte; cloister: cloître; haste: hâte; crust: croûte; conquest: conquête; priest: prêtre; pasture: pâture; hospital: hôspital; crest: crête; wasp: guêpe; honest: honnête; alabaster: albâtre; to hasten: se hâter; mast: mât; bastard: bâtard; oyster: huître; tempest: tempête; forest: forêt; roast: rôti; ancestor: ancêtre; quest: quête).
Since 1740, “é” in French (accent aigu: pointed accent) was systematically written as a replacement of “es-“(despite: en dépit de; scarlet: écarlate; to spy: épier; spice: épice; strange: étrange; spine: épine dorsale; sponge: éponge; study: étude; to respond: répondre).
The English word custom “coutume” is placed apart because the French original word had been through successive modifications. “Custume” was the old French, and then was written “coustume”; it finished “coûtume” (with the circumflex accent) as we could have expected. But in 1762, the Academy had suppressed this circumflex accent without any explanation.
At last, custard is a kind of unexpected culinary curiosity since this word comes from the old French. It has the word crouste “croûte” as a basis which indicates that custard was originally a kind of paste with a crust part. It was a kind of pie filled with fruits or meat together with milk or sauce. Now, since the beginning of the XVIIth century, custard means in English a kind of thick cream with battled eggs in milk and has nothing to do with paste in crust anymore.
Since Middle Ages, numerous English nouns, verbs and adjectives which were loaned from French did not always keep in English the meaning they had in the old French. Sometimes, they had developed a new meaning which is unknown to the French language. In both cases, these words constitute good examples of what is called “false friends”. As we can guess, “false friends” gather words with forms which are close or identical in both languages, but their meanings are always different [to achieve: doesn’t mean “achever” which means to finish or to complete in English, but accomplir or réussir; an account: we shouldn’t be mistaken by the similarity with acompte - it means deposit in English because account matches either to compte, for example in the bank, or to compte rendu, for example of an event; actual (adjective): we think straightaway actuel and we are wrong because the French adjective actuel means current in English whereas the English actual means reel, concret in French].
Here is also Shakespeare’s affirmation which contains two “false friends” in one sentence: “A miser grows rich by seeming poor, an extravagant man grows poor by seeming rich” which means “Un homme avare devient riche en ayant l’air d’être pauvre; un homme dépensier devient pauvre en ayant l’air d’être riche.”
In French, être versatile means that one does not know what he wants, someone who changes one’s mind without any apparent reason whereas versatile in English means a gifted or a talented person or an exceptional and polyvalent material for multi uses.
Within these “false friends”, there are also “partly false friends” which are in fact the most numerous. Chain in English and chaîne in French have the same meanings as to chaîne en or (gold chain), whereas chaîne may be applied to the TV (chaînes de télé) in French, but not in English which is said TV channels.
Maybe there is also the “worst” category of all among these partially “false friends’ homographs”. The meanings of the same graphical forms in English as well in French are so far to each other that their comparisons might appear completely grotesque. Here are some weird “not good friends at all” homographs: chat means “bavardage” in French and “chat” in English; pie means “pie, oiseau” in French and “tarte” in English; but means “cible, but” in French and “mais” in English; seize means “sixteen” in French and “saisir” in English.
Nevertheless, the “very good friends” have not only the particularity to be strictly identically written in English as well as in French but they have also the similar meanings in both languages. There are about 3222 homographs and some of them are listed here in alphabetical order. There is no translation because it would only repeat the same word: abandon, abattoir, badge, badminton, cycle, cyclone, doctoral, docile, effective, exultation, fiction, flexible, globe, graduation, horizon, hyperbole, imagination, impartial, jovial, juxtaposition, kayak, koala, local, long magnificence, million, normal, nuance, omniscient, opinion, panda, quintessence, quantum, restaurant, robot, sauna, sculpture, technique, thermal, ultra, volume, waterproof, zone.
In the middle of XIVth century, French and Latin are not the education languages anymore. In Oxford, the professors teach in English since 1349. On the political ground, French loses its predominant place also: the Parliament opening discourse is for the first time symbolically pronounced in English in 1362 whereas until then, French used to be the unique language in the official affairs.
After almost three centuries of French language presence at the England court, Henry IV, crowned in 1399, was the first King of England to have English as mother language. His son, Henry V (1387-1422), crowned in 1413 and married with Catherine de Valois, Charles’s VI daughter, King of France, was the first to use English in his official communications. It was also very important for him to have his testament written in English. Henceforth, English had really dethroned French.