How many French words are there in English? How did they get there?
Contrary to common myth, the structure of English, its grammar, syntax and key vocabulary are essentially Germanic. Though only 30% of English words are Anglo Saxon, they make up around 70% of those used in common conversation. The top ten most commonly used verbs — be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get — are all survivors from old English.
What makes the English language unusual, however, is that its lexicon (vocabulary) has borrowed heavily from other languages — particularly Latin, Greek and French.
How many French words in English? How did they get there?
Nearly 30% of all English words come directly or indirectly from French. English speakers will typically know at least 1500 French words without needing to study the language.
The 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. This was Anglo-Norman, a French dialect. Over time, around 10,000 French words (typically with Latin roots) came into common usage in England. Around 7,000 of these survive in modern English.
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 use but lost their social status.
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: ballet, for example, has a silent ‘t’ rather than a sounded one - as in Spanish. Some common nouns have been completely anglicized e.g. the hard ‘s’ in Paris.
Why have so many French words survived into modern English?
English has overtaken French as the primary international lingua franca, spoken as second language in a truncated form sometimes known as global English or Globish. Despite this dominance, French vocabulary still has the caché words of being associated with learning, culture and luxury: haute couture, haute cuisine, chic, elegance etc.
This in turn has lead to accusations of linguistic snobbery and elitism. 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?
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