English and French—Are They So Different?

Paul Sullivan
  • Paul Sullivan
  • October 12, 2018

Have you ever wondered why French and English have so many words in common?

It’s a rich and fascinating story! It begins around the 1st century A.D., when the Romans brought Latin to the native Celtic people living in the British Isles. Though the native Celts didn’t adopt the language entirely, more than two hundred years later, Christian missionaries gave Latin a central role as a religious language, which explains the survival of some Latin words today, like bishop and martyr.

Britain would see many changes to its people and languages over the next centuries. The Anglo-Saxon invasion, which began around the year 410, would bring Germanic languages from the coast through to the mainland. The language spoken by the settlers, with a mix of the Latin already introduced years prior, would become known as Old English.

Old English was the talk of the town until a French prince, known as William the Conqueror, proclaimed his right to the British throne in what was known as the Norman Invasion in 1066. Upon ascension, King William began replacing the English nobles with his buddies—French-speaking ones. Of course, they didn’t speak French as we know it today, but something called Old Norman. For many centuries after William’s rule, the nobles and royalty spoke this variety of French, while the land workers spoke Old English. This divide would solidify French’s position as a prestigious language and English’s as a dirty one; it also explains the French origin of English words. After all, we use the French words pork and mutton for the animal product but the English words, pig and sheep, for the farm animals themselves.

Middle English emerged in the centuries following King William’s rule; it transformed Old English grammar, included a new English syntax, and mixed English and French vocabulary. The trend of using French to spice up English would continue into the development of Early Modern English, the weapon of choice for William Shakespeare in the 16th century. You may have heard of him! He is credited with having creating 2,000 English words and expressions, which themselves have both Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots.

Both French and English continued to grow in popularity into the 17th century and, for the first time ever, English began to exert an influence on the French language, in a trend that continues today. French, however, began to affect English in a new way:  through the popularized Central French dialect, which was spreading quickly across the world. What happened then? English borrowed more words from French! Keep in mind that English had previously absorbed French words through the Norman dialect, which used w’s where Central French would use g’s—explaining English words like wager and warranty. Then, the second wave of French influence brought some of the same words—though sounding very different—back into English, with altered meanings, creating, for example, gage and guarantee.

But, as the saying goes, it’s a two-way street. English words have made their way into French, but with significantly different functions and definitions, thus creating false friends in English. French-speakers face this difficulty in learning English, and often fall into traps of using recognizable structures in what sounds like English—but isn’t. After all, a demand is not the same as une demande, and even something innocuous as the word envy (distinct from envie) can make a normal conversation unclear and awkward!

On the flipside, because both English and French are official languages of Canada, we are lucky enough to hear firsthand the influence one language can have on another. In Quebec French, for example, words like flush, full, and cash can have very different meanings from their English counterparts!

We can now see that language has played an important political and social role in history and that learning French and learning English means participating in that history. So if you’re thinking of improving your English and French, then you are in for a rich experience! Why not opt for learning English and French in Montreal?