How Did French Enter the English Language? What’s This “Frenglish?”

Book cover for King Alfred's EnglishOne of my fun, lighter summer reads is a fascinating history of the English language by Laurie J. White with the title King Alfred’s English: A History of the Language We Speak and Why We Should Be Glad We Do (The Shorter Word Press, 2009). Designed to be a “light course” book for “students grades 7-12 and curious adults,” King Alfred’s English is truly a fun and fascinating read. I am learning and re-learning much about my native tongue, including why there are so many other language influences on English.

One such influence is that of the French (wonder why we ask for pie a la mode?) – and that part of the English language story is quite amazing. Trace it back to the great battle of Hastings in 1066! Here is that part of White’s narrative and the answer to the question of how French worked its way so strongly into our tongue:

Nevertheless, on October 14 in the year 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, the French-speaking Duke of Normandy [northern France] overwhelmed Harold and his Anglo-Saxon forces [the Earl of Wessex who was vying for control of England]. Harold was killed, William won the English crown that day, and, along with the title of king of England, he became known as William the Conqueror who conquered England.

…A new invasion of the English language had begun and the effect would be enormous, and the impact would be from French.

After the Battle of Hastings, William brought a whole entourage of French speaking aristocrats into England to be his royal court and to fill any and all important positions of the government and the church. In other words, anyone who was anybody was French. A few of those Norman French learned English as a second language, but not many — there was no real need. French alone was spoken in all the schools and in the homes of the upper class, in all government proceedings and courtroom business. The only exception was the use of Latin in the religious sector. The English language was considered crass and vulgar. The word vulgar here means common, not nasty. However, the French almost put English in the nasty category.

Just as most of us would be, the defeated English people were eager to impress those above them on the social ladder, and the top rungs of this ladder were now solidly French. People began throwing in French phrases and words, mixing them with regular English. Everyone wanted to sound and look as French as possible. One historian jokingly suggested that we call the English spoken during this period ‘Frenglish’ because it was such a complete mixture of French and English.

Believe it or not, all this foolishness got carried on for a very long time, centuries in fact. One can see the remnants of these things even today. A small, down-home restaurant might offer the soup of the day; whereas a restaurant aiming at more sophisticated customer would call it soupe du jour. That little bit of un-translated French adds cultural spice to the menu. The same things applies to a la carte and a la mode. If you think about it, the whole industry of fashion is saturated with words en Francais, from coiffure for hairstyle, to lingerie for undergarments.  French design equals style, and as most people know, Paris has been seen as the cultural center for trend-setting for decades. But what people don’t know is that it’s really been centuries. In fact, the cultural compass that points to France for sophistication was calibrated at the Battle of Hastings back in 1066 AD!

As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story!”

Published in: on August 4, 2020 at 10:40 PM  Comments (1)