Monday, 13 July 2015

How many French words in English?

More than 29% of all English words come directly or indirectly from French. English speakers who have never studied French already know at least 10,000 French words.

Why so many?
In 1066 the Normans invaded England. They
introduced a legal and administrative system with its own vocabulary.

Around 10,000 French words came into common usage. Of these around 7,000 (judge and jury, for example) have survived into modern English.

What became known as Anglo-Norman had Latin roots. Sometimes the new Anglo-Norman words existed alongside existing Anglo-Saxon ones: beef (French) and cow (Anglo-Saxon for example.

Did English become more French?
Anglo-Norman did not change the essential structure of English - French and English remained fundamentally different languages. 

So how did the Normans influence English? 
Though the Norman dialect declined, French remained the language of court and learning. This influence remains; we still use terms like chargé d'affaires, for example. 


French words became associated with learning and culture, while anglo-saxon words lost their social status. This has created a reaction against perceived linguistic snobbishness and elitism.  

Fowler, in his Modern English Usage (1926) says this about the excessive use of French words and phrases :
Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth — greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners.
This combination of admiration and suspicion is still present today. Hence the joke popular in the British middle class: Pretentious? Moi?

How did French influence English pronunciation?
The introduction of French subtly modified  pronunciation in English. One example is the diphthong (long ‘o’ sound) in words like ‘boy’. Another is ‘th’ sound in  thin/shin.

The standard pronunciation of  French words these generally  approximate to the original: ‘ballet’, for example, has a silent ‘t’ rather than a sounded one as in Spanish. Some of the more common nouns have been completely anglicised - the hard ‘s’ in Paris being an obvious example.

As with many other aspects of the language, custom and practice has taken precedence over formal rules.

An version of this post with comprehension questions is included in the English FAQ Teaching Pack  (£1.99)

Crossword of French words in English


  1. I am aware that there are differences British English and American English have some differences in words (trousers/pants) and also in the spelling of some words (centre/center), what I am not tottally sure is that it also extends to grammar structures. Does it? And by the way, Is there a "war" between BrExAmE? Does anyone think that one is somehow superior to the other? I am saying this because that is what happens to Portuguese language (Portugal x Brazil)

  2. Many thanks. Will try to answer your questions in posts over the next few days but generally I feel that the differences British and American English are sometimes exaggerated. Having said that it is fun to look at the subtle differences and it is generally true that BE English speakers have have a greater exposure to the AE and so have fewer comprehension problems.

    I lived in Lisbon so am aware of the fact that Brazil and Portugal are also two countries divided by a shared language (to paraphrase Churchill). Funnily enough I found Brazilian Portuguese easier to understand (perhaps because I speak (an error strewn) Spanish. Also noticed how the telenovelas dominated in a similar way to US shows/films in the UK.

    One great advantage for language learners is that in Portugal (and in Brazil I think) films/TV shows are usually shown in the original language.

  3. Does anyone know the origins of the word "marmalade". Has it got anything to do with the French for sea-sickness, or is this just a rumour?

  4. According to the OED, there is a Portuguese origin which predates the French one - referring to to a product imported in the 1490s. But the word is associated with the famously francophile Mary Queen of Scots, who supposedly ate orange jam when she was unwell. The bitter orange - the skin in particular - was used medicinally as an aid to digestion.

    Personally, I've always found the idea of marmalade (minus sea-sickness) to be more appealing than the taste. It's a product I feel I should like rather than actually enjoy very much

  5. In tangible terms, am I any nearer now than before beginning to start! Does anybody know the provenance of the word marmalade

  6. Hi, I wonder if you could tell me where you got the "more than 33% of all English words come directly or indirectly from French." statistic from?

    Thank you so much, I urgently need it for my dissertation and you're the most reputable source I've found on the internet as yet!
    Wikipedia says 29%, somewhere else says 50%, gah - so confusing!

  7. Legend has it that Marie Antoinette awoke one morning quite ill. Her chef, on being told that "Marie est malade"(Marie is sick) concocted a bitter conserve of oranges and sugar to tempt her appetite - hence "marmalade".
    This is what I learned at school in Ireland.

  8. Great write up. I like your post. Thanks for sharing informative post with us. I love french language. I have taken various courses to improve french skill. I think people can improve skill by increasing vocabulary.

  9. Thank you for the posts. I like that legend about "marmalade" from Ireland. My comment is about the suffix -tion? I have noticed it in English, French, German and I guess it exists in other European languages. Why?

  10. According to Henriette Walter's book "Honni soit qui mal y pense" (2001), around two thirds of the English words come from French. There are words you wouldn't think of, such as "wait", from French "guêter".


Powered By Blogger · Designed By ESOL Extras