May 262011
 

I was always curious how this can be that so much would be borrowed from French if English has 1 million words and French has, what, maybe 100,000 tops? Rome invaded England before France did, and there were also the Danish, Norwegian, Greek and Dutch influences, and also English is a Germanic language itself, closest to the endangered language Frisian.

(asked by Diane)

Well, we’re straying away from French stuff here as we’re going to talk about the English language mostly, but as it’s a topic that I love, bear with me.

William the Conqueror

William the Great Importer of French Words in the English Language (source Wikimedia)

Let’s start by getting your numbers correct. Whoever told you that English has one million words was clearly delusional (or a bit too biased?). While it’s hard to count the number of words in any language, especially with languages like English that can create new words easily by linking two words (is “hot-dog” one word or two?), here is what the Oxford Dictionary has to say about it:

“171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.”

A few lines later, after having added a few types of words (technical terms and such) they conclude by “a quarter of a million distinct English words”.
I feel that this is a realistic number. Of course, I’m sure one can get to one million when adding concatenated words (that’s “hot-dog”), words from dialects (which are clearly not English as they’re dialects), words from old English and whatnot, one can get to a million, but let’s stay realistic here and let’s stick to English (no dialects) and contemporary English (no obsolete words), and let’s say 250,000 words.

Among those words, a conservative estimate for the number of words from French origins is about 50% (although the truth may be closer to 60% if not 70%, but let’s stay conservative on this topic). And no, I don’t separate French words and Latin words as some statistics do, for two reasons:

  • Latin words came to the English language through French and France  during the Middle Ages. French was simply the everyday language while Latin was the scholarly language, but they were spoken by the same people (that’s the ones who were educated) and those are the same people that brought both to England.
  • This separation obviously comes from the fact that there’s a will to diminish the importance of French (and of France) in the English language as well as the will to make English closer to Latin. Funny how Centuries later, Latin still has this aura of superiority and whatnot.

As far as French is concerned, it seems harder to find an accurate number. The very web 1.0 French Academy’s website stays as vague as it can and mentions the number of words found in dictionaries (a number which has nothing to do with the actual number of existing words), other websites here and there give numbers ranging from 30,000 to 100,000. This huge discrepancy comes most likely from the fact that French language Talibans would rather blow themselves up than accept words like “parking” as French words.
In any case, it’s a fact that French has fewer words than English, and yes it is true that English is most likely the language that has the highest number of words in the world.

Don’t get too cocky though, this doesn’t mean anything in terms of richness of a language and let’s not even think about going in the direction of “superiority”.

What it tells us is one thing and one thing only: English is a “mutt language” finding its origins from many other languages; also it is one of the languages that accepts the most easily foreign words and brand new words in its lexicon.

However, in the end of the end of the day, the average English speaker can spend his/her entire life using only 3,000 to 6,000 of those words. Same goes for the average French speaker and the average speaker of many languages.

I know, I haven’t really started to answer the question yet. I’m getting there.

First I need to tell you briefly about:

The history of the English language

I’m giving you an abridged and simplified version.

So 2,000 years ago, Britain was populated by Celts, and they spoke various Celtic languages. In the 1st Century, the Romans invaded the island. They tried to impose Latin, but it didn’t take as well as it did in other Provinces, namely the ones that were going to become France, Spain and Portugal later on. However, it doesn’t matter whether Latin took on or not because soon after the Roman Empire collapsed and Germanic tribes invaded both England and France (I’m talking geographical spaces here, they didn’t exist as countries yet). However, linguistically speaking, something very different happened in both areas. In England, while they kept some Latin and Celtic words, the dominant tribes, the Angles and the Saxons imposed their languages on the local populations. Latin disappeared more or less, Celtic languages survived only in Wales, Cornwall (and still do today) and Brittany (yes, in France) where some Celtic tribes flew after being invaded by the Angles and the Saxons (who originally came from what is Germany today). In the meantime, in France, the Franks did something that was unheard of (if you can find another example throughout history, I’m interested), they gave up their own language and took on the language of the people they invaded, which basically was Latin (although Latin in the 5th Century was already quite different from Latin in the 1st Century BC) and which eventually would become the French language.

Back to England, the next six Centuries were spent with people speaking Old English which was more or less the language of the Angles and Saxons, with some evolution (remember languages evolve constantly, they’re not frozen in time, for example, Old English in the 6th Century is very different from Old English in the 10th Century). During that time, we must also mention some Viking invasions that influenced Old English a little.
And then we have the big turning point in the history of the English language:

The year 1066 and the Norman Invasion

The Norman, despite their Viking ancestry, lived at the time in France, had done so for about two Centuries and spoke French (11th Century French of course). When William took over England, he obviously brought his language with him, and during the next four Centuries, England basically had two languages that slowly merged into one: Old English for the people, French for the ruling classes, and finally both gave Modern English. During that time don’t forget that France and England were more or less constantly at war, territories on both countries changing nationalities constantly (for example, Aquitaine was English for a long while).
In the 15th-16th Centuries, ties with the French language were definitely cut (yes, England was that pissed to have lost the 100 hundred years war, it was its way of pouting, completely stopping using French) and both languages went their separate ways (not really).

However, during those four Centuries, many many French words were incorporated into the English language, almost all of them really. Two reasons for that, first the aforementioned fact that French was actually the native language of part of the population, also, it was the time during which France rose as the leading nation in Europe in terms of culture, science and pretty much everything else.

Because of that specific reason, the number of French words being included in the English language was much more important than the number of preexisting Old English words of Germanic, Viking and other origins. Why? Remember, an average individual will use 3,000-6,000 words in their daily life, and Old English may not have had that many more words in its lexicon (disclaimer: this is just an assumption from my part, I skipped the research for that particular point, if an Old English specialist wants to pitch in, they’re more than welcome to do so).
See, during this whole time the English nobility spoke French and the people kept on speaking Old English (which had become Middle English then), the consequence being that today, most everyday life words in English are the ones from Germanic origins, the ones from French origins being the ones used for more specific, complicated, scientific topics and issues.

Actually “every” and “day” are Germanic words, “specific” “scientific” and “complicated” are French words. I just realized it as I typed the sentence.

Another reason why there may be more words of French origin in English than there are French words could be that a lot of Old French words have disappeared in the French language and still exist in English.
An example? Where do you think the word computer comes from? From the French word “comput” which has to do with counting dates when doing a calendar (you know, those dates like Easter that change from one year to the other). Nowadays in France, almost nobody knows that word except for people whose job it is to calculate dates when doing calendars and language geeks like me.
Another even more interesting example? The word “sport”. We also use it in French and it’s clearly an English word, right? Well, not so much… “sport” in English comes from “desport” in Old French, a word totally gone from the French language today and that meant “game” or “entertainment”. So we have a word in French “desport” that went to England, became “sport” there while disappearing in France and a few Centuries later coming back to France as “sport”.

There is definitely more to say about this topic, but in short, this is why there are so many French words in English.

More Questions Answered:

  19 Responses to “How this can be that so much would be borrowed from French in the English language?”

  1. http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/story-of-english/

    An excellent documentary you can watch explaining how English developed, and why certain words have Germanic vs French origins

    Enjoy

  2. A few relevant quotes from The Story of English (2002), by McCrum, Macneil and Cran:

    –”Computer analysis of the language has shown that the 100 most common words in English are all of Anglo-Saxon origin.” (58)
    –”Christianity brought its huge Latin vocabulary to England in the year AD 597… it strengthened and enriched Old English with new words, more than 400 of which survive to this day.” (62-63)
    –”The impact of Old Norse on the English language is hard to evaluate with much accuracy, precisely because the two languages were so similar… Nine hundred words… are certainly of Scandinavian origin.” (71)
    –”The pre-Conquest Old English vernacular, both written and spoken, was simply too well established, too vigorous, and thanks to its fusion with the Scandinavian languages, too hardy to be obliterated.” (75)
    –”Almost immediately the Normans began to intermarry with those they had conquered.” (75)
    –”In the early years of the thirteenth century, long before the outbreak of hostilities with France known as the Hundred Years’ War, we find English making a comeback at both the written and spoken level.” (76)

  3. Thanks for both your input. The History of English is not something I’m a specialist of, so I welcome any extra info.

  4. Thank you for answering that question. Your response and the other comments were interesting.

    :)
    Angela

  5. A friend of my parents used to tell me : “If England had won the 100 years war, the world would be speaking french and not english today.”

    • While it’s hard (read: impossible) to predict what the world would be today had England won that war, a sure thing is that it would completely different.

      England and France would have become one country only. One country called England and speaking French. From then on who knows? But it’s true that if those two countries would have been one, the history of Europe would have been completely different, colonization would have taken a very different turn, and who knows from there?

  6. Well, many people count phrasals in, like separate words, like in put/put up/put off /look/look for/look after a.s.o , and count each one as a different “word”, which is dishonest and increases the number ! I have met this aproach many times and when I pointed out the evidence all I got back was a kind of “blank” starring … Anyway, it’s obvious the Norman conquest is no longer that popular and probably not much mentioned at school in some countries….

  7. Thanks for the history lesson monsieur. I can feel your love for English emanating from my computer screen.

    I just want to add a VERY important fact:

    French does combine words. Haven’t you ever had a “hot-diot” (diots de savoie au vin blanc dans une baguette)?!

    If you haven’t, I’m very, very sorry.

    • Don’t take it the wrong way, but I’m not exactly sure if you’re trying to be funny or not.

      (humor is hard to get in the Internet, especially when you don’t know the other person)

  8. Words are all derived from one another, English isn’t the only language made from a combination of different countries.

    Besides, English as it’s known today is fairly recent, around the mid 1600′s or so? And none of us really know what the English accent sounded like hundreds of years ago, evolution of language comes with evolution of voice.

    Ever seen old Saxon? THAT’S as close as you’ll get to REAL English. And even that’s strangely similar to German and modern-day Welsh.

    • Obviously English is not the only language that comes from a combination of several other languages, but the topic here was English and French and their relationship.

      And English as it’s known today dates from… today…
      English is an ever evolving language that is definitely not frozen in time.
      However, while one cannot be 100% sure, there are ways to have educated guesses about how languages sounded in the past (based on evolution if languages, puns and worplays in literature, music, etc)

      Old Saxon, real English???
      Er, you have a quite strange definition of “real”. Real English is the language that is spoken by the majority of native speakers at a given moment, and in these days and ages of linguistic globalization (which started in 1492 for European languages, I don’t mean nowadays globalization), we can even say that there isn’t one real English (or French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and whatnot) but several ones. American English is as real as British English which is as real as Aussie English which is as real as Irish English and the list goes on.

  9. Please can I correct some grammar in your post…

    “French has less words than English,…. English…has the most number of words in the world.”

    French has FEWER word than English….English has the HIGHEST number of words.

    • Thanks for the correction. Yes, my English is getting rusty. :-(
      (ok, to be honest Less Vs Fewer is a mistake I always made, “most number” is a first I think)

  10. Notice how Chaucer uses many more French words than Shakespeare.For example Chaucer uses corages instead of hearts in Canterbury Tales. Why French words when English already has a word to name an object or action. The Brits say abbatoir instead of slaughterhouse.By the way Brits do not speak English correctly.Americans do.Brits have dumbed down the language .Listen to the BBC sometime.

  11. Are you trolling or have you missed a few points? Not sure.

    • I have made and continue to make a study of language and its origins. For instance the word for five is the same in Russian and Irish.In other words I know what I am talking about. My studies have been a lifelong occupation and I am 70 years old. Than you for your comment. I hope we can exchange some ideas.

      • Sorry Fred Easton, but your studies haven’t done you much good, and certainly the one example you chose to give does not really go any way to suggesting otherwise. My job is to write press releases for both the US and British press, and when sending out for publication in both countries, a conscious effort had to be made to dumb down the US version – in terms of both grammar and vocabulary. These releases were for highbrow journalists/publications such as the WSJ and The Economist

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