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. Continue reading