French is an extraordinary language. Notoriously complicated from a grammatical or syntactic point of view (not to mention the spelling!), it nonetheless offers an extremely rich and varied lexicon that can create various styles of expression, both orally and in writing. The rich diversity of the French language has been influenced by a plethora of foreign languages over the centuries. Many everyday French words are of English, Italian or Dutch origin, while some of its more exotic terms have Arabic, Persian or Nahuatl roots.
English is, of course, very present in modern French discourse. From marketing to manager to brainstorming, English words abound in the French business sector. But they are an integral part of everyday French too, even if some English words have been Frenchified along the way. So it is not uncommon for a Frenchman to declare that he is overbooké with his very busy planning and can’t wait to have un break over le week-end, or that he’s run out of shampooing but enjoying le foot (football) with his friends.
English aside, the French language features other more unusual imports, such as anorak or kayak from Inuktitut (one of the principal Inuit languages) and café, yaourt (yogurt) or pacha (lord/pasha) from Turkish.
A little closer to home, words from France’s Italian and German cousins have also shaped the language of Molière. From brigand or bambin (toddler) to mascarade and charlatan, a myriad of words originating in Italy are now part of everyday French, not forgetting all the culinary terms, of course, such as spaghetti, pizza, carpaccio, and tutti quanti! German is a little harder to spot, because Germanic influences initially moulded the Romance languages of yore in a less discernable way. So, many words that seem quintessentially French – fauteuil (armchair) or accordéon, for instance – are actually of German descent. More recent additions have, however, retained a more noticeable German lilt: witness ersatz, bunker and the famous French choucroute (sauerkraut)!
Even extremely rare languages such as Nahuatl – which is still spoken by the descendants of the Aztecs in South America today – have given rise to mainstream words in French such as chocolat, avocat (avocado), cacahuète (peanut) or tomate, all philological remnants of the delicious feasts enjoyed by Europe’s original Conquistadors.
When all is said and done, French purists must face the facts: their language has been shaped by centuries of exchanges with France’s neighbours initially, and then with countries from around the world. In recent years, globalisation has amplified this phenomenon and encouraged the continued evolution of all languages, with diversity offering an irresistible invitation to travel.