How French conquered English

William’s followers became a new French ruling class and, like colonizers everywhere, imposed their language on the society they now ruled

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 20 Jan 2022, 11:44 PM

It is said that somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of all the words in the English language are actually of French origin. Most of the French vocabulary in English entered the language after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, when William the Conqueror trounced King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. William’s followers became a new French ruling class (called Norman because they hailed from a part of France called Normandy) and, like colonizers everywhere, imposed their language on the society they now ruled.

French was, of course, spoken by the new elite. While the upper echelons of society spoke Norman French, the local plebeians spoke the Anglo-Saxon dialects that had prevailed earlier. But the Norman language (strictly speaking, Old French, specifically the Old Norman dialect) supplanted Anglo-Saxon English in the royal court and the government, among the upper crust, the judiciary, and the Church. Since the Norman settlers used their native language in their daily lives, it seeped into the quotidian English of the locals, forming a hybrid that took on the syntactical structure of English and used words from both sources. English itself became “Frenchified”, while the French spoken in England took on English influences.

The political separation of England and France in the early 13th century, marked by increasing hostility (culminating in the Hundred Years’ War between the two), inevitably led to the decline of French as the preferred language in England. In 1349, English became the language of instruction at the University of Oxford, which had previously taught its courses in French or Latin. King Henry IV (1367-1413) was the first English king whose principal language was English, and his successor Henry V (1387-1422) became the first to use English in official documents. English, as we would know it, came into its own just over six hundred years ago.

Today, few are even aware of the French origins of many words taken for granted as English. These include words reflecting the feudal practices of the Normans (ranging from chivalry, homage and vassal to liege, suzerain and even villain) to words connected to warfare (armour, dungeon, rampart). Royalty and governance naturally required words from the French overlords; thus came baron, count, dame, duke, and marquis, “heir apparent” and Prince Regent. So too, “minister” and “parliament” and even the word “government” itself, all came from French, as did “sovereignty”, and the ABCs: “administration”, “bureaucracy” and “constitution”. Justice, judge, jury and even court were gifts of the French as well.

The vocabulary of politics and economics is understandably dominated by French: you can’t talk about “money”, the “treasury”, or the “exchequer”, or commerce, finance, and even tax, without using words that were originally French. Political concepts from liberalism and capitalism, to materialism and nationalism, and for that matter the somewhat more obvious “coup d’état”, came from French.

French was for long the premier language of global diplomacy, some would argue right up to the 20th century. The words used in English for most diplomatic activities unsurprisingly derive from French. While the use of the accent mark in attaché, chargé d’affaires, démarche, communiqué, aide-mémoire, and détente betray the French origins of these words, other basic terms in diplomacy, from envoy to accord, alliance to passport, and for that matter protocol itself, are also French — as is the very word diplomacy. Some diplomatic concepts take French words even in regular English, notably entente and rapprochement.

If language is the vehicle of culture — and France prides itself on both — it’s not surprising to see how many terms from cuisine, art and architecture are owed to French. Almost everything on a menu seems to be in French, so that’s not a theme that need detain us here. But art is more Francophone than many realise. From the words art, music, dance and theatre, to specific terms like paint, canvas, gallery, portrait, brush, pallet, montage, surrealism, impressionism, fauvism, cubism, symbolism, art nouveau, gouache, collage and frieze, you cannot describe art without using French terms. When a musician “performs” in “harmony” or plays a “melody” with “rhythm”, she is using French terms. In the theatre, the words “director”, “author”, and “stage” all come from French as well.

And architecture would be impossible with borrowing words from French. A shortlist would include aisle, arcade, arch, vault, voussoir, belfry, arc-boutant, buttress, bay, lintel, estrade, facade, balustrade, terrace, lunette, niche, pavilion, pilaster, and porte cochère, before, like budget-strapped architects, we run out of space….

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