As a French learner, there have been multiple instances where I have stumbled upon words in the English language and gone “Hey! I learned that in French class. It’s a French word.” This got me thinking about the two languages’ relationship: “Did the word come from the English or the French language?” “How do these two languages influence each other?” Linguists estimate that 45% of terms in both languages are similar, with up to 27% of their words sharing lexical similarities (similarity in both form and meaning). The two Indo-European languages belong to separate sub-groups; English belongs to the Lower Germanic, while French belongs to the Romance.
History of the French language
History reveals that today’s patterns of similarities are the result of centuries-long conquests, wars, mutual trading and communication.
In the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William The Conqueror invaded England and conquered the Saxons with his Norman army. He was England’s first Norman monarch to ascend to the throne. During his reign, Norman French became the official language used by the upper class, aristocrats, and as well as the government. Norman-French was the upper-class language for more than 300 years, while English remained the language of the masses and common people. As a result, the French language had a significant impact on the English language.
Let us now look at the similarities and differences between the French and English languages.
English and French share the same Latin script. Alphabetically, they have the same number of letters i.e., 26. However, the French language is replete with superscript characters (accents), depending on which the meaning can radically change. For example:
Tâche – task vs Tache – a spot
Maïs – corn vs Mais – but
Marché – market vs Marche – walking, strolling
Cote – rating vs Côte – a coast, a shore
Ou – or vs Où – where
Given the historical overview of the interaction between the two languages, it is needless to say that many of the French words found their way into the English vocabulary and vice-versa. There are more than 1,700 true cognates (vrais amis fr.) —words that are identical across the two languages. Examples: In English; Camouflage, Omelette, Sauce, Impasse, etc. In French; Éléphant, Situation, Opération, Télévision, etc. Loanwords are words adopted by a foreign language with little to no modification
Let’s look at some examples of loanwords in English and French.
French loan words in English :
Déjà vu – a feeling of having already experienced the present situation.
RSVP – Répondez s’il vous plaît in French, it is literally translated as “Respond if you please”. This initialism is used in an invitation to request the confirmation of the guest’s presence.
Faux pas – an embarrassing act or a blunder.
À la mode – something that’s up to date in fashion
English loan words in French :
Le dressing – a dressing room
Le week-end – the weekend
Le selfie – a selfie
Le sandwich – a sandwich
In both English and French, we can find auxiliary verbs, participles, active/passive voice, past/present/future tense, and so on. The syntactic principle is the same in both languages (the order or arrangement of words and phrases to form proper sentences). In sentence construction, they use the subject-predicate-object order. When it comes to the creation of more complicated sentences and varied tenses, however, there are many complexities.
Now that we’ve observed the similarities the two languages share, we move on to identify a few differences between them.
Faux amis (false cognates)
Literally translated as “false friends”, faux amis are aptly termed. They are words that sound the same or similar in both languages but have different meanings. As a French learner, one must beware of these words and be cautious of their usage. Here are some well-known faux amis:
Assister – to attend something
Formidable – great/terrific
Amateur – someone who is passionate about something
Envie – to wish or desire
Bras – an arm
Assist – to help
Formidable – dreadful/fearsome
Amateur – a beginner or non-professional
Envy – a feeling of jealousy
Bras – a piece of women’s clothing worn under clothes
A major difference between both languages is the gender of nouns. The French language possesses gendered nouns (masculine/feminine) whereas nouns in the English language are not gendered. Only the pronouns are gendered in English. For example –
La fenêtre (feminine)
La voiture (feminine)
Le table (masculine)
Le livre (masculine)
In French, verbs are conjugated differently for each grammatical person while the conjugation is different only for the third person singular (he/she) in English. Example:
You (plural) speak
In conclusion, it is clear that in the course of time and history, both languages have influenced each other significantly hence making it a tad easier for an English speaker to learn French. Knowing the nuances between English and French are key to providing high-quality, accurate, translation. With the right effort and commitment, one can excel in any language. So go ahead, overcome your inhibitions and put your English language skills to good use in learning French!
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