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A Brief History of Frenglish

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What’s in a name? Explore the origins of the beloved Frenglish language.

When I was around twelve years old and had only recently started to learn French in school, I made the following startling discovery: little French kids were way more sophisticated than little English kids. In one of the Oncle Picsou (Uncle Scrooge) comics sent to me by a friend of my father’s who thought I could understand them, I consistently discovered that Riri, Loulu, and Fifi (far fancier than Huey, Duey and Louie, you will agree) demonstrated dazzling verbal dexterity in response to the most banal daily occurrences. On one page, Huey tells his brothers: “Ne nous en faisons pas, Oncle Donald viendra nous récupérer!” Récupérer? I recognize that! It’s like the English word “recuperate”! But that’s a 15-dollar word at least! What are these seven-year-olds doing using that? And on another page, Louie, (let’s say, since they were so similar as to be interchangeable), tells Uncle Donald: “Dommage que tu ne connaisses personne capable de te supporter qui puisse rester avec toi!” The subjunctive, no less! There was no contesting it: the French always came off as more “intellectual” than the English.

Of course, we all must have noticed at one time or another that whenever you want something to sound really smart, you just have phrase it in a way that is as indistinguishable from French as possible. Try this piece of pretentious nonsense: “The interaction of the parameters is inversely proportional to the distortion factor inherent in the variables.” It may not mean much, but I think you can already imagine what you’d get if you asked Google Translate to render it in French, Spanish, Portuguese or Romanian. Not much would have changed. But look what happens when we ask for the German version:

Das Zusammenspiel der Parameter ist umgekehrt proportional zum Verzerrungsfaktor der Variablen.

Hmm… Those German scientists still can’t resist some Latin-sounding words, but Zusammenspiel? Umgekehrt? Verzerrungsfaktor? I thought English was supposed to be a Germanic language! How come the French is easier for us Anglos to understand than the German? Here’s my bet: Take any unilingual anglophone and plump him or her down in Munich or Lyon, and I guarantee they would be able to guess the meaning of what they read on French signs, billboards, and screens far more easily than their equivalents in German. They’d be less “lost in translation” so to speak. Let’s see how this came about.

“Anglo-Saxon” (in English) refers to the predominant culture of England before the Norman conquest of 1066. (What the French today mean by “anglo-saxon” is practically untranslatable into English, and we’ll leave it up to them to explain it). As early as the 7th century, poetic and religious works began to appear in Old English, which is linked historically to Old German and Old Norse – languages of Northern Europe that had developed independently of Latin, “Mediterranean” influences. The most famous of these is Beowulf, a marvelous tale of a dragon-slaying hero that any Game of Thrones fan would still enjoy.

Alfred (886 to 889) was only the fourth King to rule over a united England, yet he was unquestionably the greatest (d’où le nom: Alfred the Great). His reign was marked by major accomplishments. He made peace with the Vikings, he had the reputation of ruling wisely and fairly, he promoted learning and literacy, and notably, he directed the translation of substantial parts of the Latin Bible into Old English.

In 1066, Duke Guillaume of Normandy (William the Conqueror) defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and proclaimed himself the new King of England. Notwithstanding England’s high level of cultural development, and the fact that the Normans were actually only a bunch of Frenchified Vikings anyway (Normand = Nordmann or Norseman), the invaders soon set themselves up as the crème de la crème of aristocratic refinement and decreed that French was the language of the upper crust and that English was a patois spoken by ignorant peasants. This marked the birth of the near schizophrenic battle that has waged within the bosom of the English language ever since.

English swearing, notoriously, is more centered on anatomical, excretory, sexual terminology than the oaths of other European cultures, which usually involve claiming that the interlocutor, or his sister, mother or daughter indulges in monstrous practices with sundry animals or distasteful foreigners. You don’t have to be so inventive in English. All you need do is utter the Anglo-Saxon word for a naughty practice or body part, and the impact is immediate. Not only do you refer to the taboo subject, but you do so in the taboo language! Doubly vulgar! Those typically short formulations, those “four-letter words” certainly score in terms of concision and impact–a virtue for which the English language has long prided itself.

But never mind sex. What about food? Over the years, a system of classification developed in everyday English parlance that recalled the “sacred/profane” dichotomy and its many variants in religious discourse. “Angel/man” “aristocrat/peasant” “man/animal” “French/English” certainly do not mean the same thing, but as Claude Lévi-Strauss so brilliantly pointed out, the difference between them is the same. Consequently, one can be made very handily to stand in for the other. Thus, an English lady could distance herself from the distasteful idea of eating mere “pig” (raised by the peasants) by reserving the English name for the animal and using the French name for the cooked article:

Pig (porc) = Pork

Calf (veau) = Veal

Bull/cow (boeuf) = Beef

Sheep (mouton) = Mutton

Sadly, folks back in France were deprived of the luxury of telling themselves they were not eating pig when they ate pig.

English began to come back into favour towards the end of the 12th Century when Anglo-Norman landowners had lost the majority of their estates in France, and especially as the generalized hostility between England and France heated up to culminate in the so-called Hundred-Years War of the 14th century (which both sides claimed they won). England and France were belligerents for centuries after that, all the way through the early North American Colonial era, and the Napoleonic era (when the French were the allies of the Americans against the British), the last time the French and the English were seriously at odds militarily. The British must have had more than a sneaking admiration for French military methods, however, since practically all the names of army ranks are borrowed directly from French, albeit undergoing profound changes in pronunciation: Lieutenant = Lieutenant pr. LOOten’nt (Am.) LEFten’nt (Br./Can.) Capitaine = Captain pr. CAPt’n. Colonel = Colonel pr. KERn’l. Similarly, platoon, squadron, battalion, regiment etc. are all lifted from French.

Throughout this entire period, England’s longstanding antipathy to things French was shown in the almost complete absence of wine, garlic, olive oil, charcuterie, runny cheeses and other French staples anywhere but on a few aristocratic tables and has even been blamed for the infamous “blandness” of traditional British cuisine. One French wit (probably Voltaire) is claimed to have quipped, “les Anglais inventèrent les manières de table pour leur donner quelque chose à faire en mangeant.

In these amazing modern times, powerful word-processing programs are, for good or ill, available on every desk in practically every office and home, and many poor souls who at one time would never have been expected to write anything are now required to bash out little pieces for their bosses for inclusion in the in-house company newsletter or to contribute a blog to the Website. However much (or little) literary acumen these amateur authors may command, they have all long since internalized the following conviction that they share with every seasoned “business” writer: If you want make something sound impressive, make sure you include as many (preferably long) abstract-sounding Frenchified words as possible. Instead of saying: “Jones & Co. will build the house” it's much better to write: “The residential unit will be constructed by Jones & Co.” and even better to write, “The construction of the residential unit will be implemented by Jones & Co.” and even better than that to write: “The implementation of the residential unit construction phase will be assured by Jones & Co.” and there you have it! A pearl of circumlocution! A gem of corporate gobbledyspeak that many a muddlemanager would be proud of.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell famously railed against what he took to be the debasement of the language of Shakespeare (as the French say) perpetrated by the practitioners of the lamentable tendency described above. His remedy not only included banishing as many non-Saxon words as possible from decent discourse, but also following the rule: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Although the admonition is laudable for many reasons, it seems to run counter to the supposition that those foreign (mostly French) words are always longer than “purely” English ones. How about “table,” “chair,” “strange,” “enter,” “soup,” or “sport”? All short; all derived from French. We wouldn't get very far if we got rid of words like these, I'm afraid. In fact, it has recently been established that as little as 26% of modern English words can be traced back to any Germanic language at all, whereas a whopping 58% of words are of either Latin or French origin (and many of those Latin words came into English via French!).

Source: Wikipedia, “List of English words of French Origin”

English speakers, unlike their Gallic cousins, have never had an “academy” to legislate what is real English and what is not. When one hears the French bewail the atrocities inflicted upon the beautiful French language over the centuries, the following phantom history of French starts to form in our imagination: Once upon a time, there was French. It was French and only French. French in its purest, unsullied form. Then people started to use it, and that’s where the trouble started. They might have known what would happen by permitting the homme moyen sensuel to dabble with the mysteries surrounding the complément d’objet direct. And as if that wasn’t enough, so many foreign words and expressions were foolishly permitted entrance that today, le français, that pristine essence, the flower of civilization, is in danger of disappearing, mangled beyond recognition, laid waste by “l'invasion des barbares.”

The English attitude to foreign words and expressions, on the other hand, couldn't be more different. Apart from a few scattered “purists.” the general attitude, even among the educated is: “Got some neat words and phrases we could use? Bring 'em on! Maybe that's what English was back then, but it ain't what it is now!” English, as we have seen, has the marvellous ability to incorporate borrowings and feel enriched in the process. Just imagine how much easier the task of the English lexicographer is made by accessing the bilingual lexicon that all Anglophones have imprinted inside their linguistic DNA. All you need do to define a word is to substitute the ordinary (Germanic-type) words for their Latinate (Frenchified) synonyms, or vice-versa, thus: Go up = mount; go down = descend; put in = introduce; go in = enter; look up to = admire; look down on = disdain; put right = rectify; run after = chase; mistake =error, etc. etc.

How very useful! And so much easier than trying to explain French using only French words!

Ah oui, those anglo-saxons, they're so pragmatique, so empirique. And all those other words that sound like compliments to the English ear, but might even be subtle slurs when uttered by a Frenchman. And so it has gone on for centuries. Sometimes the best of friends, sometimes enemies, and sometimes faux-amis, French has nevertheless long been and will forever be part and parcel of our beloved Frenglish language.

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