135. French Influences on English Vocabulary

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New Arrival

Some English words borrowed from French are easily recognisable as such

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THE IMPORTANCE OF THE FRENCH INFLUENCE

As France is the closest non-English speaking country to Britain, the influence of the French language on English vocabulary is unsurprisingly great. The two languages do not belong to the same “family” – English is “Germanic” like other Northern European languages, while French is “Latinate” like Spanish and Italian – but their proximity to each other has ensured that inter-borrowing has been extensive. English had a particularly heavy borrowing period during approximately 300 years of rule by French-speaking kings from the year 1066 (see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling).

In this post I am not aiming to survey the full French influence on English vocabulary, since that would be too long and much of it would probably not facilitate correct English usage. Rather, I wish to concentrate on words that give problems because they have kept some French feature instead of adjusting to accepted English practice – words like reservoir, which cannot be pronounced correctly if normal English rules are followed. Many of these words also feature in the post 29. Illogical Vowel Spellings.

One other kind of French influence that seems worth knowing about is discussed elsewhere in this blog in the post 108. Formal and Informal Words. Guinlist posts that deal with borrowings from other languages than French are 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary and 130. Formal Abbreviations.

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ENGLISH WORDS WITH NOTICEABLY FRENCH SPELLINGS

Many French spellings in English can be grouped together on the basis of a common feature that they possess. The following groups are notable:

1. Longer words ending in “-ee”

In French, the -ee ending is equivalent to English -ed on verbs after BE and HAVE – in other words it is the ending of “past” participles. As in English, when used alone or after BE it has passive meaning. Thus employee in French means “employed” or “used”. The French pronunciation of -ee sounds a little like “ay” in English. Also specific to French is the need to use -ee only with feminine nouns. The masculine equivalent has a single -e (usually with an accent: ).

In English, the French -ee tends to be found in words of two or more syllables (it is not present in bee). It is usually pronounced /i:/. The words make no distinction between masculine and feminine, and they tend to be nouns rather than verbs. However, they still usually keep their passive meaning: an employee is “a person who has been employed”. Other examples are addressee, amputee (a person who has suffered amputation), divorcee, escapee, evacuee, examinee, internee, interviewee, nominee, payee, referee (“a person who is referred to”), returnee and refugee.

A few English words actually keep the “ay”-like French pronunciation, e.g. fiancee and negligee. The first of these also has a purely feminine meaning: its masculine equivalent is fiance (same pronunciation).

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2. Longer words ending in “-et”

In French, consonant letters at the end of a word are often not pronounced (see 155. Silent Consonants). This tendency has been carried over into English in a noticeable way with some longer words ending in “-et”. All of the following words end with the pronunciation /eɪ/ rather than /Ət/ or /ɪt/: ballet, bidet, (pronounced like bee day), bouquet (boo kay), buffet (= self-service food), cachet, chalet, croquet, duvet, ricochet, sobriquet, tourniquet and valet.

In a few other cases, the French pronunciation has been dropped in favour of the more expected English one. It is /Ət/ or /it/ in buffet (= blow sideways), casket, fillet, musket, sonnet and ticket, and /et/ (with stress) in cadet and minuet (see 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”).

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3. Longer words ending in “-age”

The French pronunciation of this ending rhymes with English barge. In English, it is found in a few multi-syllable words like barrage, dressage, entourage, fuselage, garage (American English only), massage, mirage, montage and sabotage. Many more words, however, have anglicised the pronunciation so that it rhymes with bridge (not wage – apart from stage and engage). They include adage, advantage, average, bandage, bondage, cabbage, carnage, carriage, damage, dotage, envisage, forage, hostage, image, leverage, marriage, message, mileage, orphanage, passage, presage, salvage, savage, stoppage, storage, usage, village and wastage.

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4. Words ending in “-ette”

This ending means “small” in French, a meaning that is still present in English borrowings, despite not always being obvious. Relevant words include briquette, cigarette, courgette, etiquette, maisonette, palette, pipette, roulette, serviette and silhouette.

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5. Words containing “ois” or “oir”

The English pronunciation of “oi” usually rhymes with boy, as in join. In French, however, it is /w/ followed by either a short /ʌ/ vowel or a long /a:/ one. The former is used with “ois”, the latter with “oir”. English tends to follow suit (except with “oist” words like moist). Thus, bourgeois is pronounced “borzch-wuh” /bɔ: ‘žwʌ/ and reservoir is “re-zu-vwah” /’re zƏ vwa:/. Other English words like this are patois, abattoir, boudoir, memoire and repertoire.

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6. Words with “que” pronounced /k/

The already-mentioned words briquette, etiquette, croquet and tourniquet are in this category. Many others end in either -ique (with a long /i:/ vowel) or -esque. Examples of the former are antique, boutique, critique (see 114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3, point 10), mystique, oblique, physique, pique, technique and unique. Examples of the latter are burlesque, picturesque and Romanesque. Also notable are baroque, liqueur and plaque.

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7. Words beginning with “sur-”

In French, sur is a preposition meaning “on” or “over”. Most English words beginning with sur- seem to come from French and hence to have a hint of these meanings. Examples are surcharge, surface, surfeit, surmount, surname, surplus, surprise, surround, surtax, survey and survive. The underlining shows which syllable is stressed (see 125. Stress & Emphasis). In most cases, nouns stress sur- and verbs do not. Survey changes its stress according to whether it is a noun or a verb.

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8. Other spellings

The combination “eau” is found in plateau, tableau and beauty. In the first two its pronunciation (like “o” in home) is still French-like, but in the last it has changed to /ju:/.

The underlined parts of lieutenant and manoeuvre are also pronounced differently in French and English – but are still not as expected in English. The first is /lef-/ in Britain and /lu:/ in America; the second is /u:/ in both.

The French ending -ine rhymes with mean, not mine. English words with it include aubergine, cuisine, magazine, margarine, marine and routine.

The combination -ez is found in rendezvous and laissez-faire. It represents the vowel sound /eɪ/, the “z” being silent.

-ale in a separate syllable at the end of words like rationale tends to keep theFrench pronunciation /a:l/.

Finally, -s, which in French is rarely pronounced, is similarly silent in the English borrowings corps, rendezvous and debris.

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FRENCH PHRASES IN ENGLISH

Phrases are much easier than individual words to identify as borrowings from French. English speakers quite easily associate the whole phrase with a single meaning without knowing the meanings of the individual words. The difficulty that French phrases give to learners of English is more likely to be in reading and listening than in writing and speaking.

The following are common phrases that I have been able to think of. Their pronunciations and meanings can be discovered with an English dictionary.

aide mémoire, amour propre, avant garde, bric-à-brac, carte blanche, cause célèbre, coup d’état, cul-de-sac, déjà vu, de rigueur, double entendre, en passant, en route, fait accompli, hors d’œuvre, joie de vivre, laisser-/lassez-faire, nom de plume, nouveau riche, pas de deux, pièce de résistance, pot-pourri, raison d’être, tête-à-tête, tour de force.

Many more examples of obviously French words and phrases can surely be found in English, but I hope that those above give a flavour of the huge impact that French has had, and will perhaps enable strange spellings like champagne to be approached with a little more understanding and confidence.

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