You may have noticed that there are words in English that are very similar to, or even the same as, words in French. To describe something weird, an English-speaker could say it is bizarre. People eat at places such as restaurants and cafés in English-speaking parts of the world. My friend’s mom in New York gets the chauffeur to drive her places since she doesn’t drive herself. Both the spelling and the meaning of these words are the same in French as in English. The above words came to English via French, although some have even earlier origins in other languages, such as the words café and bizarre, which come from the Italian caffe and bizarro. With all these similarities, does it mean that French should be a breeze for those who are already familiar with English? Maybe. Let's take a closer look.
Shared Words Between English and French
The percentage of words shared by the English and French languages is significant. Different sources give different numbers, with Wikipedia placing this at over a third, a statistic corroborated by an article written by Françoise Armand and Érica Maraillet titled “Éducation interculturelle et diversité linguistique” for the University of Montréal’s ÉLODiL website.
Both French and English have significant Latin roots, thus accounting for the high number of cognates, words that have a common etymology. Although English draws directly from Latin in some cases, as with the word stultify, which is related to stultus, many words of Latin origin have passed into English via French. The influence of French on the English language is due in large part to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, a conquest that resulted in dialects of Old English being displaced by Norman French, particularly among the elite classes.
The use of French in English-speaking regions continued throughout the Middle Ages and was reinforced by a surge in popularity during the renaissance of French literature in the 13th and 14th centuries. Words found in many works that describe chivalry, fealty, and courtly love have French origins and are still present in the English lexicon; likewise there are many words whose Renaissance French spelling looks like that of its English counterparts. A hospital in Renaissance French is a hôpital in modern French. Likewise, a forest is a forêt and a beste is a bête.
The replacement of an 's' appearing before a consonant by the accent circonflexe, a graphic transition that took place during the Renaissance, likely reflects a change in pronunciation from very early spoken forms of French, as well as from the Latin forms of corresponding words, as Bernard Cerquiligni notes in his 1995 work, L’Accent du souvenir. An interesting aspect of this spelling change is that it reflects phonetic changes that likely occurred around 1066, also noted by Cerquiligni. And it was only in 1740 that the Académie française formally introduced the circumflex accent into the French lexicon, with the third publication of its dictionary. A seven hundred year period of deliberating over a spelling change that would reflect a phonetic change in everyday speech illustrates the peculiar relationship French speakers have with their language. If this is the amount of thought, reflection, and argument French speakers have among themselves concerning their own language, it should not be surprising for those learning French to encounter a certain amount of skepticism and questioning as well, as they embark on this linguistic journey.
English Words with French Origins in Food
French terminology continues to be used in fields that have seen great developments within French-speaking contexts, such as cuisine, fashion, and visual art. People in English-speaking parts of the world regularly eat foods they refer to as omelettes and mousse. They may order escargots from a menu, perhaps a more appetizing term than snails. Menu is another word that has come to English via French, referring to a detailed list of components of a meal, with origins in the Latin word minutus, for smaller. In addition to food items, English speakers regularly refer to couture when talking about fashion, and describe stylish items as chic.
English Words with French Origins in Visual Arts
Visual art uses many French terms, such as trompe l’œil and aquarelle. Even the term fin de siècle is used to denote the late 19th / early 20th century time period during which France had a great influence on artistic and cultural movements. Performing arts terminology has also been influenced by French, with French terms being used for classical ballet. The origins of this dance form can be found in the French court, with the first ballet performed at the Louvre for the wedding of the duc de Joyeuse to Mlle de Vaudémont on 15 October 1581 in the grande salle du Petit-Bourbon, according to the Encyclopædia Universalis. Later, in 1661, Louis XIV founded the Académie royale de danse, which established ballet terminology as a codified vocabulary of set movements to be studied as the basis for many works that have been developed in this domain. French is indeed the lingua franca of ballet and continues to be present in ballet schools worldwide and used by choreographers as they set their works on companies around the globe.
While the similarities between words in the French and English languages seem encouraging, there are several caveats to keep in mind, not least of which are the subtle spelling changes that occur between the French and English versions of certain cognates. These include: connexion and connection, adresse and address, correspondance and correspondence, agressive and aggressive, bagage and baggage, danse and dance, mariage and marriage, futur and future, to name a few. To make things even more confusing, there are different spellings for certain cognates in different parts of the English-speaking world that correspond to the same French counterpart, e.g., license, which is used in the US for the French licence, but is spelled licence in the UK and Canada, at least when denoting the noun referring to a legal document granting permission to own, use, or do something. As a verb, the spelling license is used across the board in the English-speaking world. Such details reflect regional changes that have contributed to the development of vocabulary used by linguistic populations and illustrate the various paths these words have taken through time and geographic space.
Words Borrowed from Other Languages
In addition to being affected by French, the English language isn't shy to borrow words from other languages. Words such as manga, zero, waltz, glitch, and moccasin are from Japanese, Arabic, German, Yiddish, and Algonquian, respectively. Something interesting to note is that, whereas English has borrowed words from other languages for centuries, it may now be lending more than borrowing, according to Philip Durkin, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, in a 3 February 2014 BBC article. This turn of events is likely linked to developments in domains such as business and technology, which have largely taken place in English-speaking contexts.