French Influence on English Language

French Influence on the English Language: 32 Words You Didn’t Know Were French (and Why)

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Uncover the Story Behind These 32 Cognates English Words Borrowed From French

Ever notice the French influence on the English language and wonder…

“Why are there so many French words used in English?”

The amount of English words borrowed from French is astounding. And the answer to WHY that came to be is, well, complicated.

But to make a long story short… English is weird.

The Evolution of the English Language: The Great Language Loot

English is a Germanic language with a mix of Celtic, Old Norse, French, Latin, and other languages it picked up along the way to becoming the modern English that we know and love today.

Today, our language is notorious among language-learning circles for being extremely irregular, and unique among many Indo-European languages as having evolved through the absorption of other languages by visiting or invading cultures.

Even though English doesn’t have any close relatives (in the way that Portuguese and Spanish are linguistic cousins), it shares cognates with languages of the countries that surround the British Isles. This includes, of course, England’s neighbor across the English Channel: France.

History of French Influence on the English Language

French Influence on the English Language

Did you know that nearly 45% of all English words are of French origin? That’s nearly 80,000 words fused together through war, peace, diplomacy, royal marriages, and popular culture.

Ever wonder what Je ne sais quoic’est la vie, or rendez-vous mean? Do you know why they came to be used in English?

Here’s how the story goes…

The Norman Language Reaches England

Unlike isolate languages like Basque and Korean, both English and French are two languages that have continuously come into contact with each other and stolen words from each other through marriage alliances and historical conquest (similar to Arabic influence on the Spanish language by way of conquest).

The Norman Conquest of 1066, led by William the Conqueror, was a famous historical event that drastically changed the path of the English language. William declared his claim to the English throne after the death of King Edward, his cousin, who had taken a vow of celibacy and remained childless.

After William killed the Norwegian and Danish invaders in the north, seized the lands of the English elite, and built castles that would serve as military strongpoints, he instituted the Norman language (a.k.a. basically French) to be the language of the elite. 

The Norman dynasty ruled in England until 1154. By then, English had already cherry-picked nearly 10,000 new words from both French and Latin.

What Kind of English Words Were Borrowed from the French?

The most famous examples of French word theft – I mean, borrowing – are of course, what the French are most famous for: food.

And human rights, and art, but first… le grand amour:  food.

English Words Borrowed from French

Thanks to King William, in English we say –

  • beef (French: bœuf) from cows
  • pork (French: porc) from pigs
  • venison (French: venaison) from deer

…all of which played a big role in the Norman-English cuisine.

Here’s the most interesting part.

The reason WHY we have a distinction between animals and their meat in English is this: English-speaking butchers, who were of a lower socioeconomic class, slaughtered the livestock for the French-speaking upper class. We adopted the word beef but not the word cow, which sounds a lot more like its German counterpart Kuh and Dutch counterpart koe.

French Words in English Pop Culture

Presently, popular culture has taken over William’s role of seasoning French into the English lexicon.

Take brands and companies for example – l’Oréal, Lancôme, Louis Vuitton, Sephora, Louboutin –all have entered the English vernacular.

When going out for breakfast, you might order a croissant, frappé (literally from the verb frapper, meaning to hit), or some crêpes from the new café downtown while you discuss the latest coup d’etat in Venezuela or laissez-faire economics.

Feeling fancy yet?

The cultural hype around all things French today expands way beyond the Norman Conquest. French words have been adopted by countless other nations because of the impressive advancements the French have made as a nation in many areas, including:

  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Law
  • Art
  • Fashion
  • Architecture
  • …and Food!

Here is a list of English words borrowed from French in those influential areas of life.

32 Everyday English Words Surprisingly Borrowed From French – English French Cognates

Borrowed French Words from Politics, Economics, and Law

English WordFrench Word
Coup d’étatCoup d’état (literally, a blow to the state)
Laissez-faireLaissez-faire (literally, to let do)
AdvocacyAvocat(e) (literally, lawyer)

Borrowed French Words from Art and Architecture

English WordFrench Word
CanvasCanevas (in reference to a tapestry)
LunetteLunette or demi-lune 
(Watch out! When used in the plural, 
Lunettes means eyeglasses)
CastleChâteau (From Anglo-Norman French 

Borrowed French Words from Food

English WordFrench Word
SautéSauté (literally, to jump)
SouffléSoufflé (from the verb souffler 
meaning to blow)
Crème brûléeCrème brûlée (literally, burnt cream)
CuisineCuisine (literally, kitchen)

French Words in Military Affairs

English WordFrench Word
ArmyArmée (de terre, de l’air)

BONUS! Kansas vs. Arkansas: French Names in American Geography

Fun Fact: Do you know why Kansas and Arkansas are pronounced differently?

It’s because Kansas was settled by the English, and Arkansas was settled by the French.

French colonists settled Maine, many parts of Canada and the Louisiana landmass, in what was known as New France (French: Nouvelle-France), between 1534 to 1763.

Geographically, the French expanded their territory from present-day Canada and northern New England to the Midwest, down through the Appalachian mountains, and finally to the Gulf of Mexico.

When Napoleon sold the Louisiana region to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, the United States quickly expanded to nearly twice its size.

No big deal.

The Louisiana Purchase encompassed 15 modern US states, including —

  • Louisiana
  • Arkansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Northern Texas
  • Eastern New Mexico
  • Half of Colorado
  • Kansas
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Iowa
  • Almost all of Wyoming
  • South Dakota
  • Southern Minnesota
  • Southern North Dakota
  • Nearly all of Montana

French Names of Native American Indian Tribes

Which means the French had the first opportunity to name the territories and the Native American tribes they encountered during the fur trade in North America. Today, many First Nations tribes still use their French-given name, such as:

  • The Iroquois Nation
  • The Sioux Nation
  • The Cheyenne Nation
  • The Saulteaux Nation

French Names of U.S. Cities

Many cities from the aforementioned states still use their French-given names as well, like:

  • Baton Rouge
  • Des Moines
  • Montpellier
  • Pierre
  • Saint Paul

Learn French: You’re Closer Than You Think

As you can see, the French language, though seemingly mystérieux and cache on the surface is really an ever-present force in common English.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these French English cognates. If you’re interested in advancing your French skills, you’ve already won more of the battle than you think!

Get started today with the Pimsleur language learning platform that can get you conversational in just 30 days.

Try a full French lesson for free, on us!

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