France and England have a very rich but also very tumultuous shared history. The timeline is punctuated by wars and allegiances. Linguistically, of course, this frequent contact between the two countries has had an impact on both English and French…but not necessarily in the way you might imagine. While the French often bemoan the infiltration of English, the Académie Française estimates that only 5% of French words have actually been borrowed from across the Channel, while between one-third and two-thirds of English words (depending on which linguist you believe) are believed to stem from French!
A glance through the history books can shed some light on when and how French was able to infiltrate the English language so extensively. Although exchanges between the two countries were already established prior to the 11th century, the turning point came when William the Conqueror led his army from Normandy to victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, French became the official language of the court, the church and the judiciary, superseding the Anglo-Saxon dialects of the time in the upper echelons of society. The motto of the British monarchy is still the French “Dieu et mon droit” and certain chivalric orders also have French maxims, such as the Order of the Garter’s famous “Honi soit qui mal y pense”. Incidentally, both of these are still inscribed on British passports today.
After this invasion, thousands of French words naturally passed over into English. Some are obvious, particularly in the culinary field (mustard from moutarde, mutton from mouton, beef from bœuf, etc.) while others are less apparent because the original word has since been abandoned by modern French (purchase, for instance, derives from the old French word prochancier, meaning ‘to look to obtain’, while gown comes from the old French word gone, meaning ‘long breeches’). In addition to food, fields with noticeable French influences include business, fashion and the arts, as well as law, the Church and society in general, with words such as marriage, abbey, curtain (from the old French word cortine) and lingerie.
For several centuries, linguistic exchange between French and English was thus almost entirely one-sided, until around the end of the 17th century, when England became an irrefutable economic power. Little by little, French lost its status as the international language of diplomacy, despite retaining its reputation as a highly sophisticated language. Increasing numbers of English words began to pass over into French, such as wagon, parlement (parliament), jury or boxe (boxing). It is interesting to note that over the course of history there has been a kind of to-ing and fro-ing of words, such as bacon (yes, it really is a French word!), challenge or flirt, for instance, which have been reintegrated into French from English and yet all originally stem from now-obsolete French terms.
The phenomenon gained pace in the wake of the First and Second World Wars as the United States grew increasingly dominant both politically and economically, and the influence of English over French has been growing ever since.
Today, it is clear that English holds sway in myriad domains, from business, advertising and banking (where marketing and leadership are in everyday use) to IT, the media and sport (with football and basketball). Everyday French is also peppered with words inspired by or directly taken from English, such as week-end, parking, t-shirt or footing (to mean jogging), which remain infinitely more popular than their French equivalents.
While some French purists lament this English ‘invasion’, a more moderate approach would be to accept this linguistic exchange as part of the normal evolution of language in tune with today’s world. In an era where everything is accelerating, the adoption of ‘loan words’ is no exception. After all, language is a living thing designed to facilitate dialogue and communication!
To find out more about the history of linguistic exchange between French and English, we highly recommend Honni soit qui mal y pense by linguist Henriette Walker (in French).