How many French words are there in English?
How did they get there?
French and English are fundamentally different languages in term of grammar, structure and syntax. Despite this incompatibility, all English speakers understand some French.
The average native speaker will automatically recognise around 1500 French words — without needing to consult a dictionary. This figure expands greatly when a looser connection is included. In fact nearly 30% of all English words come directly or indirectly from French.
The main influx of French words can be traced back to the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Unlike the Romans, the Normans introduced a legal and administrative system written in their own language. The Norman dialect was not generally spoken outside court, but which became increasingly associated with power and influence.
Over generations a new form developed, Anglo-Norman. This retained a distinctive identity but over generations there was a substantial crossover into the indigenous language.
Court and Learning
Eventually Anglo Norman declined and a new form, Middle English, evolved.
But French remained the language of court and learning. As a result many Anglo-Saxon words remained in common use but lost their social status. Around 10,000 French words (typically with Latin roots) came into common usage. Around 7,000 of these survive in modern English.
The Normans also had an enormous impact in key areas of vocabulary:
particularly politics (coup d’état), legal language (jury, verdict) and diplomacy(chargé d’affaires). Their legacy includes 1,700 cognates (words identical in the French & English).
Many of these cognates are easily translated. Au contraire, for example, may sound more glamorous than on the contrary but there is no difference in terms of meaning. Some French words and phrases do, however, capture a precise nuance not available in English. Here are some common examples:
French influence on English words can also be seen in pronunciation. One
example is the diphthong (long ‘o’ sound) boy, for example. Or the ‘th’
sound in thin/shin.
The pronunciation of French words in English generally defers to the original language. Ballet, for example, has a silent ‘t’ rather than a sounded one - as is the case in Spanish. Some common nouns have been completely anglicised: even the most ardent Francophile will use a hard ‘s’ for Paris.
Why have so many French words survived into modern English?
English has long overtaken French as the primary international lingua franca. It is by far the most used second language, though often in a truncated form sometimes known as global English or Globish. French, in contrast, has been slowly declining in influence within the Anglosphere.
In the UK it is no longer the automatic choice of second language within school, and this this trend is even more pronounced in the USA. Canada, of course, remains an exception, though widespread French usage is localised. French may dominate in Montreal but not in Toronto, where 85.9% only speak English (2016 Census). And while perfidious Albion may have said adieu to the (allegedly) francophone EU, English still doggedly echoes along the corridors of Brussels. A majority remaining twenty-seven countries are on Team English when it comes to the most useful lingua franca. Yes, and that includes you, Ireland.
French vocabulary still has great caché amongst the educated elites across the world. Words associated with learning, culture and luxury have particularly high status: haute couture, haute cuisine, chic, elegance etc. This has fed into the culture wars, , with Bart Simpson leading the charge against the ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’. You’d be run out out of the faculty lounge for expressing such sentiments but accusations of linguistic snobbery and elitism have a long history. Fowler, in his Modern English Usage (1926) talks about the ‘vulgarity’ of the excessive use of French words and phrases. As the joke goes: Pretentious? Moi?
Sometimes a French word will sound misleadingly chic in English. Bistro for example, has romantic French associations but the Russian origin is “bystro” meaning “fast”. A “bistro” should technically serve burgers and fries under bright lights rather than the menu du jour by candlelight.