In honour of the European Championships being held in France, and specifically the Ireland vs France second-round match this afternoon, I want to look a little bit at the influence of the French language on English. A whole history of this would be exhaustive and exhausting, as there has been a lot of exchange between the languages over the centuries. After the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, French became the language of the royal court and politics, and remained so for about 300 years, so it’s not surprising that a lot of French words entered the English language.
I’m more interested in words that we’ve taken directly from French, and what they say about our attitudes towards the language as well as French people. The long, long history of antagonism and outright war between England and France in the last couple of millennia has, I think, led to some conflicting feelings about French evident in the way that English uses some of its words. We’ve always had conflicting stereotypes about the French: romantic, sophisticated, with great food and drink, but also rude and arrogant (I’ll just restate that these are stereotypes and not my opinions).
And so we tend to feel that the French language sounds beautiful, elegant and sophisticated, and the areas in which we most commonly use French words reveal a lot about our positive stereotypes about the French.
In terms of food, for example, we tend not to translate French words for food of French origin: baguette, crêpe, croissant, cuisine, à la carte, à la mode, restaurant, aperitif, café… I could go on. But clearly using a French word automatically makes something seem more delicious: pancake, kitchen, on the menu, in the fashion, in the style: there’s nothing wrong with them, but they don’t have the appeal of crêpe, cuisine, à la carte, and à la mode.
French words are also quite common in the fashion world. Chic, haute couture, décolleté, prêt-à-porter, élan: all suggest that suspicion we have that the French are naturally more stylish and elegant (which also comes from French).
I think that even some of the differences between British and American English are telling . One of the most common differences of course is between words ending in -re or -er, e.g centre/center, theatre/theater. While there can be some snobbery involved in looking down on American English, I’ve always been curious about how, even for me, the -re spelling seems so much more sophisticated than -er. It’s not really logical, because -er much better reflects how the words are pronounced. But I think that unconsciously, the fact that the -re spelling derives from French makes it seem much more elegant and proper (propre?).
And yet, for all this apparent Francophilia, there always seems to be a limit on just how far we’re willing to integrate French into English. Sure, we’re happy to spell words with -re, but pronounce them the way they do in French!? Absolutely not! In general we shy away from replicating the exact pronunciation of French words, instead making them sound much more English. Which isn’t too surprising, but we do seem to get embarrassed when pronouncing French words. I can personally attest that it can be a major obstacle for Anglophone teenagers learning French at school. We just feel so silly pronouncing words in what sounds to us like an exaggerated, ridiculous manner.
We also don’t like to retain French accent marks, except for the occasional accent aigu (é). And even if you want to use them, keyboards and word-processing software make it so complicated that it’s not worth the effort. And often when we use French phrases we do so with a sense of irony, like we’re making a parody of sophistication: e.g. when we say ooh la la, quelle surprise, or au contraire.
It’s as though we’re attracted to the French language and culture and want to adopt so much of it, and yet never quite trust it and want to keep it at a safe distance. And while any language is going to do this to some extent when integrating elements from another language, I wonder if English is a little more resistant to directly acknowledging the foreign origins of her words. Maybe it reminds us too much of the fact that most English-speaking countries are largely monolingual, as are most English speakers, and we don’t like to face that head-on, especially when we meet non-native speakers who speak English so well.
But let’s focus on the positives, and all the great things the French have given us: food, wine, cinema, fashion etc.
Merci, nos amis français, et au revoir!