How much French do you speak?

Just the other day, I was watching my latest favorite television series, Downton Abbey, and I heard one of the characters use a French word I’d never heard used before in an English sentence: “She’s found her métier—farm laboring.” That struck me as the height of pretension, but then again, it is a show about English aristocrats during the First World War. In any case, métier means “profession, occupation, or trade.” I knew this word from my French classes, of course, but I never knew that we used it in English. I guess being a country boy from South Carolina, I wasn’t high-class enough to have trotted it out in my own conversations. It got me thinking, though, about how much French there actually is in English. As it turns out, between the recent imports and what we inherited from the Normans, there’s a lot more than you might imagine.

Recent Imports

Métier is one of those French words that entered the English lexicon in recent centuries through literature, the arts, and other cultural exchanges. Because we “adopted” them directly into English, they’ve preserved their unmistakable character as Gallicisms even when we don’t pronounce them exactly right. Originally, these words were used primarily by the upper echelons of society (Look, there’s another one!), those privileged enough to have spent their time reading, visiting art exhibits, and traveling to France. As such, although they may be recognizable by a broad segment of today’s English-speaking population, they aren’t used in the normal course by most of us … except perhaps when we want to sound chichi.

used under license from CartoonStock
used under license from CartoonStock

A sample of 20 (I could give you a few hundred!):

  • blasé (adj., unimpressed because of overfamiliarity)
  • cachet (n., quality or prestige; literally “stamp”)
  • carte blanche (n., unlimited authority; literally “white card”)
  • cliché (adj., trite through overuse)
  • comme il faut (adj., proper, in accord with conventions or accepted standards; literally “as it is required”)
  • de rigueur (adj., required or expected, especially in etiquette)
  • dénouement (n., the end result, resolution)
  • détente (n., easing of diplomatic tension)
  • élan (n., impetuous ardor)
  • fait accompli (n., something that has already happened, “a done deal”; literally “accomplished fact”)
  • faux pas (n., violation of accepted social rules; literally “false step”)
  • gauche (adj., clumsy, tactless; literally “left”)
  • insouciant (adj., nonchalant, unbothered)
  • louche (adj., disreputable, dubious; literally “cross-eyed”)
  • malaise (n., a general sense of unease)
  • milieu (n., social environment or setting; literally “the middle”)
  • panache (n., verve, flamboyance)
  • raison d’être (n., justification or purpose of existence; literally, “reason for being”)
  • sans (prep., without)
  • savoir-faire (n., adaptability, ability to respond appropriately to a situation; literally “to know how to do”)

Of course, there are also the words that we’ve adopted for use in our kitchens and restaurants because … well, the French really do know how to cook like no one else: à la cartevinaigrette, mousse, cuisine, apéritif, dessert, hors d’œuvre, à la mode, sommelier, amuse-bouche, au jus, au gratin, demi-glace, entremets, flambé, omelette, roux, sauté, even café.

Julia & Jacques
Julia & Jacques

And then there’s the world of fashion: couture, chignon, décolletage, chic, lamé, chiffon, tulle, prêt-à-porter, ruche. Just watch an episode of Project Runway and count how many times you hear one of those words.

There are also French words and expressions we’ve introduced into English that no longer have (or, in some cases, never had) the same meanings in French itself.

  • accoutrement (Meaning “gear” or “accessory” in English usage, it just means funny or ridiculous clothing in French.)
  • cause célèbre (Meaning “an issue arousing heated public debate” in English usage, it is simply no longer used in French.)
  • corduroy (Its origin is disputed and may derive from corde du roi (“cord of the king”), but the word isn’t used in French.)
  • corsage (In English, this refers to a small floral arrangement usually worn pinned to a woman’s dress, but in French, it means the body between the shoulders and the hips (especially for women) or a blouse covering this part of the body.)
  • double entendre (Literally meaning “to hear double,” the French don’t use this expression and would rather say “une expression à double sens.”)
  • encore (Meaning “again” (among other things), we use this word in English to mean an additional performance at the end of a concert, but the French do not use it in this way.)
  • exposé (In French, this word simply means a report on any subject and completely lacks the sense of scandal we attribute to it in English.)
  • forte (The word is not used to mean a “strong point” or “strong suit” in French; they say “point fort.“)
  • résumé (In French, a résumé is simply a summary of something, oral or written; they use curriculum vitae or CV instead.)
  • risqué (In French, this means that something is risky and lacks the sexual undertone that we’ve given it in English usage.)

That’s just a sampling of the most recent imports. The list goes on and on …

The Norman Conquest

These recent French imports are all very interesting, but what I find much more fascinating are the earliest imports that came from Old French by way of the Norman Conquest. By all accounts, there were about 10,000 of them (words, not soldiers)!

The Normans were of Viking origin, having descended on the coasts of Normandy in the 10th century. As such, they originally spoke a Germanic Scandinavian language, but they quickly adopted the French language of their new subjects, including words of Latin origin and also of Frankish origin, the language of the Germanic tribes who settled in what is now France. Nevertheless, the Norman French dialect preserved some interesting phonetic differences with their Frankish neighbors to the south. For example, certain words of Latin origin beginning with a “c” were softened to /sh/ as French evolved, but the Normans preserved a hard /k/. Inversely, words of Frankish origin beginning with a “w” were hardened to /g/ as French evolved, but the Normans maintained a soft /w/. This gave rise to certain words in modern English that aren’t very French at first glance but which share a common root:

  • castle ← castel (Norman) = château (French, chastel in Old French), from the same Latin root as “ceaster,” later “caster” or “chester,” used by the Anglo-Saxons for centuries for settlements around old Roman military strongholds or “castra”
  • catch  cauchier (Norman) = chasser (French), from the Latin root for “capture”
  • kennel  kennel (Norman) = chenil (French), from the Latin “canis” for dog
  • wait  waitier (Norman) = guetter (French, gaitier in Old French), from the same Germanic root as “to watch,” which is similar to the meaning of guetter
  • war  werre (Norman) = guerre (French)
  • warranty   warantie (Norman) = garantie (French), which subsequently have rise to guaranty, when imported from French
  • wage  wage (Norman) = gage (French), from the same Germanic root as the verb “to wed”

Who would have guessed that “wait” and “war” are French words? Well, at least Frankish ones?

A note regarding those “w” words: In general, when Germanic words were adopted into Romance languages (notably French and Spanish) the original /w/ was replaced systematically with a hard /g/. So … it’s worth noting that, while the French today may call the star of this part of the show  “Guillaume le Conquérant,” as a Norman and, therefore not a Frenchman or even a Frank, he really was William with a “w”!

From the Bayeux Tapestry … notice “WILLELM VENIT.”

This is not just a story about phonetics, though. It’s also a story about social class, just like our more recent French imports. For centuries after the Conquest, Anglo-Norman French was spoken by the nobility and Anglo-Saxon English was still widely spoken by the common people. As a result, the Middle English language that was eventually born of their marriage featured a parallel vocabulary based on this social structure. Generally speaking, the more refined aspects of life took on French vocabulary and the more menial aspects of life were described in English terms. Take the journey from the barn to the dinner table, for example:

The beef on the plate (from the Old French boef, now bœuf) came from a cow on the farm (from the Old English cu).

… but I’m GOING to be “boef.”
… but I’m GOING to be “porc.”

The pork on the plate (from the Old French porc) came from a pig on the farm (from the Old English pigge).

… but I’m GOING to be “mouton.”

The veal on the plate (from the Old French veel, now veau) came from a calf on the farm (from the Old English cealf).

And the mutton on the plate (from the Old French mouton) came from a sheep on the farm (from the Old English sceap).

As the language developed, the French word for the animal became the accepted term for its meat, and the English word prevailed over the French name for the animal itself. That was true for both the lords and the serfs.

The great house (from Old English) where the lord lived was a mansion or a manor, if it wasn’t a castle (all three from French), and while he was a lord (from Old English), his title was probably baroncountmarquess, or duke (all four from French). (Of course, he could also have been an Earl (from Old English), but that was a very special, very English title, so we’ll set that aside.) In fact, almost all of the vocabulary relating to the socio-political structures of the time was of French origin: feudalism, peasant, chivalry, liege, vassal, sovereign, prince, court, council, minister, mayor, judge, jury and later parliament … even “government” itself. Town might not have come from French, but hamlet, village, city, barony, county, duchy, statecountry, and nation did. The chief exceptions were “king” and “queen” … not sure why “God Save the Roy” never caught on in England. It was true of the church as well: priest, friar, nun, clergy, mass, prayer, choir, sermon … practically everything but the church (from Greek by way of Old English) and the altar (from Latin by way of Old English). French words of hierarchy and power supplanted earlier English words almost completely. Even the words “hierarchy” and “power” came into English from French, by the way.

Interestingly, almost a thousand years later, the English language retains a parallel vocabulary. The influence of French remains in what we call the “registers” of the language: the difference between using a “refined” vocabulary and using a more “common” one. Consider the following verbs derived from Old English and their synonyms derived from French:

  • start / commence
  • go on / continue
  • leave / depart
  • stay / remain
  • meet / encounter
  • withdraw / disengage
  • buy / purchase
  • sell / vend
  • show / demonstrate
  • show up / arrive
  • keep up / maintain
  • go forward / advance, progress

and my favorite English verb of all (in one of its many senses):

  • get / obtain

Now that you’ve suffered through all that, take 1 minute and 18 seconds to check out this humorous video on the impact of the Norman Conquest on the English language. I guarantee you’ll laugh.

To Wrap It All Up …

My French professor once joked that there is more French in English than there is English. He was sort of right about that. It is estimated that almost 30% of our vocabulary comes from French (whether from the Normans, the imports that arrived during the next few centuries following the Conquest, or the words we have adopted more recently). Another 29% of our vocabulary comes from Latin (in the scientific, technological, medical and legal fields), and only 26% comes from Germanic languages, like Anglo-Saxon English. Despite this heavy French influence, however, English remains classified as a Germanic language because of its grammar—the machine that sets this rich vocabulary in motion.


That said, I’ll leave you with this tidbit: the very word for that Germanic mechanism that makes our language work is derived from Greek through the Old French grammeire.

Originally meaning “book learning,” grammar took on a different, more enchanting sense during the Middle Ages—one of magic—and, through dissimilation, eventually gave us a most English word: glamour! But what, I ask you, could be more glamourous than French? Exactementrien.

So, you see? You speak a lot more French than you thought you did! So, if one day you find yourself racking your brain in search of some French word you can’t seem to find, don’t get annoyed. Take my advice and just say the English word with a French accent:

annoyed … annoyé? … ennuyé!

Works about 30% of the time!

P.S. — For related articles, check out the “franglais” archive.

© 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

19 thoughts on “How much French do you speak?

  1. Brilliant post, thanks. I’d heard the 30% recently – not too surprising, I guess. The video did make me laugh, you were right! As a student of both French and TEFL at the moment, my head is all over the place, but I think someday soon the French will come together!

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I spent so much time on this post, so I’m glad it’s well-received. I feared it was too long, so I tried to add a little levity here and there to keep things interesting. Good look with the classes. I’m looking forward to hearing how TEFL ends up, as I’ll be charging headlong into CELTA in a month’s time! :-/

  2. i took french in HS. in college, i took a spanish class that required that you’d never had any spanish. of course, that meant 90% of us had HS french so we spoke spanish with a french accent and there was often an odd mix of english and french thrown in when we didn’t know the spanish words….

    i like the wine cartoon. well, maybe i just like wine. i don’t “know” french wines though (do more south american…). what is a good wine for a red-lover who likes them big and bold and full (NOT fruity, not sweet, no tobacco tastes)??

    1. Well, I have to admit, I know almost nothing about wine, Cheryl, despite my pretending to know something from time to time. Generally, I like them a little fruitier than most people. I love a good Pinot Noir and a good Malbec (speaking of South America). Michel, who—despite his French bona fides—doesn’t know wines particularly well either says that maybe a Bordeaux that’s well aged … but I have no idea what that means! Bonne chance!

      1. thank michel for me. i love malbecs and shirazes but i know by grape (as those are named) and not so much region like the french do it. i’ve had a bordeaux or two and will try one next time i wine shop (which SUCKS in PA….super-extreme state control)

  3. super interesting! Now if you can find some great videos on GRAMMER which is what your head will be spinning around very soon – OMG! It’s not your typical 5th grade grammar I can assure you once in school. I wish someone had told me to bone up on the grammar before I went!!

  4. Love this post! Very brilliant and insightful, especially as I’m starting the journey of learning French myself. One of my favorite things is when a friend or colleague asks me “how do you say in English when something is really over-used and stereotypical?” to which I reply “you mean, cliché?” and they say, “Really? You use that word in English?” It happens all the time, with so many words, and I find it fascinating that not only am I coming to realize how much French is used in English, but my French circle is learning about it, too. Now if only the English language had adopted indefinite and definite articles, it would make our transition to French a bit easier… 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Nikki! I love that moment, too, when a French person realizes that we use the same word (at least, a very similar) in English. It happens with Michel all the time. Last night I found him reading (and thoroughly enjoying) this post. I think it made him feel proud of French and relieved about English vocabulary all at the same time! 🙂 You’re right, though, we adopted a lot of nouns and verbs from French, but not enough prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and such. Believe me … not to get you too worked up, but … when you get to the level of French where you’re trying to decipher the nuances between their conjunctions, especially the complex ones, you’ll definitely wish the Anglo-Saxons had just given up and gone to school to learn them! Ha ha!

  5. Great piece!
    “As the language developed, the French word for the animal became the accepted term for its meat, and the English word prevailed over the French name for the animal itself. That was true for both the lords and the serfs.”

    I have heard of this. It was explained to me at the time that if an Anglo Saxon worked for a Norman they would use one word for meat and if they went home they would use another (cow meat (in Copenhagen, beef is labeled like this I believe)). Gradually both words make it into the lexicon through interaction between lord and servant.
    Also, when in Croatia this past summer, all the waiters said “good appetite” before every meal. The first time we heard that phrase it seemed odd and then you realize how normal the french language sounds when eating good food!

    1. Thanks Brian. I’m glad you enjoyed it! This was one of the most interesting posts for me, but there was SO much to say, it was hard to edit myself down.

      It’s funny that you mentioned Croatia; I wanted to plan a long weekend getaway to Dubrovnik for Valentine’s Day, but unfortunately we won’t be able to make it. Maybe later this year!

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