Ooh La La!

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!


61 thoughts on “Ooh La La!

  1. Reading this makes me think of a couple somewhat related experiences and/or memories of mine.

    My grandmother is from France, she came to America when she was in her early 20’s, after marrying my grandfather who was in the Air Force. My grandmother barely has a French accent, to the untrained ear you would say she has no accent at all, save for particular words. As a kid, my favorite thing to do was to goad her into saying particular words that she just could not seem to say with out her accent, such as ” à la carte”. I would pester and pester until she said it, and then giggle when she begrudgingly gave in to me and spoke the word/phrase. This speaks to your point about feeling awkward about the sound of attempting to speak these words with the true French inflection. As a child, I never thought about it. As an adult, I asked my grandma once, why she never taught her native tongues (French and German) to my mother and aunts, and why she had no accent. She said that when she moved to the States in the 50’s, and had her children in the 60’s it was better for everyone all around to Americanize herself as much as possible, that being foreign of any nationality was frowned upon. That in itself, is sad and disappointing. I regret that she was made to feel that way, and I selfishly regret the lost possibility of being poly-lingual (I’m bilingual as it is, English and Spanish).

    My second thought, touches on your topic of associating French words with sophistication and in some cases, a sense of clout. When I was 18, I lived in Chicago and was attending the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. At the time of my entrance the school was in the top 3 culinary academies in the States, and had been made that much more so by recently being allowed to brag the prestige of newly becoming one of the “Le Cordon Bleu” program participants in the education given to the attending students. Just the addition of those 3 little words, seemed to give the school that much more prestige – but in a good way.

    The opposite side of that sophisticated coin, was some of the patrons I’d serve at The Corner Bakery, where I worked part time. This particular location of the local chain café was in a rich neighborhood called “The Gold Coast”. Aptly named for the monetary status of this neighborhood’s residents, as well as being on the northwest coast of the lake. Several of this café’s patrons thought (in my admittedly judgmental opinion) much higher of themselves than did anyone else around them. It was always a bit of an “internal eye roll” moment for me when certain patrons would order 2 particular things: a La Croix sparking water or a croissant. Speaking to making these words as English as possible, you typically hear (here anyway) these things pronounced “La Croy” and “Cra-sahnt”. Not these patrons, oh no. While every other word out of their mouth was American as possible, these two words were unnaturally forced from their mouths with as much French throaty and or guttural enunciation as they could muster. It’s still a funny little story I tell people from time to time, much better told vocally when I can imitate such things.

    Lastly, there is my name. I was named after my grandmother’s sister. I will be honest, I have given up and don’t even attempt to get people to spell my name properly, let alone pronounce it properly. To this day, the only person that pronounces my name in proper technicality is my grandmother. You see my name, as is on my birth certificate is Renèe – not to be confused with Renée. There are very few people I have ever encountered, native French included, that seem to know the difference in pronunciation of the ” è ” versus the ” é”. Most people don’t even k now how to create those letters on a keyboard, so I accept my name being spelled without it. 99.5% of the people I have ever encountered in my life pronounce my name “Reh-Nay”, so I accept it. Truth? My name is Renèe and it’s pronounced “Re-neh”. But you know the old saying: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell just as sweet”

    Thanks for putting up with my humongous comment…. Hopefully it was at least somewhere in sync with the topic and if not, entertaining! I truly enjoy your blogs!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for sharing, that’s really interesting! It must have been so hard for your grandmother to suppress her French identity, but I can understand why she felt she had to do so, especially back then.
      I’d love if people who try to pronounce French words to sound sophisticated were faced with a native French speaker, who could correct them!
      I’ve never actually come across the name Renèe before: I imagine it must get frustrating for so many people to pronounce it as Renée. I know the feeling: my name is pronounced “Nile,” but as “Neil” is much more common, people always call me that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am sure it was very hard for her, and I feel bad. Though, the sad truth is that this theme is so common in the States. I’m sure it’s not just here in the States, but having never lived anywhere else I really can’t compare. I have always felt a little cynical when I think about the fact that America boasts to be “The land of the free” where people can come to be free of persecution…. I’ll just let the irony of that simmer for a while.

        I used to get frustrated by the mispronunciation of my name when I was younger, having a “rare” name with a special accent mark was something I was proud of as a child and teenager. As an adult I’ve just given up and accepted that everyone will pronounce my name with a hard “a” sound at the end. I even just introduce myself that way to avoid the confusion and questions.

        I am surprised that people call you Neil, however. Maybe I pay a bit more attention to spelling and letter relationships, but while I admit I’ve never seen your name before (just as you’ve not seen mine) – when I was sounding out in my mind earlier my conclusion was “Nile” – so I’m happy to know I got it right 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m glad you got it right :). I used to be surprised that people got my name wrong, because even though Neil is much more common than Niall in Ireland, Niall is still a common name everyone would know. I’ve actually found that non-Irish people tend to take more care in getting my name right, and not just assume it’s pronounced like Neil. Probably because they expect they might not be sure they’re pronouncing it right.
          I lived in Scotland for a year and it’s common enough there to spell a name “Niall” but pronounce it “Neil.” I was expecting to be called Neil a lot, but I don’t think it happened once :).

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Oooo I loved this! I have this argument with my partner at home all the time (he’s French) and he gets on me for pronouncing the “c” in Sauvignon Blanc and saying croissant like an American.

    However, I wanted to tell you that in French they do the exact same thing to English words. For example, in the soccer matches they call it a “corner,” but they pronounce it “corn- air.” It made me giggle during the match.

    I think that it goes back to the ancient English- French love/hate rivalry 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts. I always love them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s good to know that French speakers do that to English too! I actually remember being on holiday in Switzerland, and on a French-language quiz show on TV, there was a round where all the answers were international writers. He pronounced each name exactly as it would be pronounced if it were French. I particularly remember him pronouncing “Dante” as “daunt!”


  3. […] least it looks the same, but is pronounced differently. More French. And we do love French words: we’ve always thought of them as more sophisticated and romantic than our own. Movie, on the other hand, is 100% English, being an abbreviation of moving picture. Not only does […]


  4. Interesting post, I enjoyed reading it. I always thought it interesting that we adopted or anglicised French words to describe different meats – putting a layer of distance between us and the the product. We eat pork not pig, beef not cow, the exception now being poultry, where chicken/goose/duck has found favour over the French form.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, it’s probably because the peasants who slaughtered the animals spoke Middle English and used the old Germanic names for the animals, but the royalty and aristocrats who got to eat them spoke French, so we now have French-inspired names for meat!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. As a Canadian in a bilingual province, this hits home! I’m one of those “re” folks, haha. I also have the bad habit of Franglish, the fun mish-mash where I am tired and not paying attention and go between English and French. One of my favourite aspects of my medieval lit courses is studying middle English and the influence that French had on this wonderful language of ours. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] (I know I shared this a few weeks ago on the blog’s Facebook page, but I’ve kept thinking about it and wanted to look at it in more detail). When I first saw this I was bemused: what were they trying to say, and how had they mangled the English language so? Fortunately, on the other side of the box there was the original French: […]


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