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I noticed a reference in The Times recently to a report written in a French newspaper in which the correspondent claimed, presumably with his tongue firmly in his cheek, that English is really French, but spoken with a bad accent. In the same way that you read an article by Jeremy Clarkson, invariably funny and not to be taken at all seriously, and raise your eyes at his preposterous assertions, you may frown at thecontention in this article de journal and say that it is a typical piece of Gallic lese-majeste, playfully disrespecting our national heritage. But with Clarkson’s pieces, there is often a grain of truth contained in his outbursts; similarly, in this comment by the Frenchman, there is a measure of actualite in his claim.

A brief history lesson…. A number of Germanic tribes sailed across the North Sea to settle in Britannia after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Angles hailed from the German-Denmark border, the Saxons came from Germany, Denmark and Holland, the Jutes came from Jutland in Denmark and the Frisians came from Frisia, in Holland. Collectively, they were known as Anglo-Saxons, and the language that developed was also called Anglo-Saxon. So, the basis of our language is Germanic. How come, therefore, that so many of our words have a French origin, which is not Germanic at all, but derived from Latin?

Never can the destination of a single arrow, loosed from a Norman bow just outside Hastings on the South Coast of England on 14th November 1066, have had such momentous consequences. King Harold of England got one in the eye – literally – and his death left the English forces leaderless, and resistance soon collapsed, leaving the Norman duke, William, in possession of the field and ultimately the country. The Normans were no more enlightened and chivalrous than any occupying force; they had conquered and intended to rule; the English, the Anglo-Saxons, had overnight lost everything. It seemed that their language too would be trampled underfoot. The language of the new king, of the court, of the army, of the nobility, of the new landowners, of the church, of the magistrates, of the law courts, of the tax collectors and of the law enforcement officers, was now French. To the English, the Normans were an alien race that spoke a foreign language.

Of course, English did not die out, any more than did the English population. In time, inter-marriage between the two tribes led to a mingling of blood and language. English, being a very flexible and adaptable language, quickly assimilated its French cousin, hence the number of words in everyday speech that owe their antecedence to French. Which we speak with a terrible, ie English, accent.

The fusing of the two languages has been more to our advantage, I would argue, than to the French. Broadlyspeaking, there are 170,000 words in the English Dictionary.At a rough calculation, 40,000 of those 170,000 words owe their antecedence to French. In the French dictionary, there are only 135,000 words, and none, not one, that owes its origin to English, or at least that is the firm line adopted by the Academie Francaise, even if the man in the street ignores this (‘le weekend’, and my favourite, ‘quelle passing shot’). Thus, we have more words to choose from, more synonyms, more inter-changeability, more parallels, more euphemisms, more puns, more irony, in short, more fun with words.

The basic words of our lives remain single-syllable and Anglo-Saxon in origin: love, hate, face, arm, leg, hand, foot, sky, earth, tree, grass, dog, cat, cow, sheep, horse, house, roof etc. Take the first word in this list, ‘love’, as an example. As we all know, the French for ‘love’ is ‘amour’. We have borrowed the French word to coin the word ‘amorous’, which has a shade of difference in meaning to love; it hints at ‘in love’, ‘inclined to love’ and with a slight suggestion of censoriousness in being ‘sexually provocative’. Next one on the list: ‘hate’. The French word is ‘deteste’. To hate someone and to detest someone is not quite one and the same thing. Hatred suggests fierce, visceral, unredeemable antipathy. To detest hints at something not quite so deeply felt, such as one’s feelings for curry or bananas or cigarettes (sorry folks, showing my prejudices there). OK, let us take that word ‘folk’, coming from old Dutch and old German ‘volk’ (ieVolkswagen). The French word is ‘populaire’. We know there is a difference in meaning between ‘folk’ (people in general) and ‘population’ (inhabitants of a particular place). ‘Face’, means the front part of a person’s head. The French word is ‘visage’, which we have adapted slightly; it means ‘face’ as well, but with particular reference to the form or dimensions of the features. And what about the most famous and most commonly used Anglo-Saxon word of them all? It’s pretty basic in its connotation; the French use the word ‘baiser’, which also means ‘to kiss’. Ample scope you would think for unintentional offence. As we Anglo-Saxons like to call a spade a spade, we have no derivative of ‘baiser’ in our language, thus removing any possibility of misinterpretation. Our word will do just fine and if we want to shy away from its more muscular usage, we are quite happy to share the altogether more genteel phrase, ‘faire l’amour,’, ‘to make love’.

The list is endless. Synonyms abound, each with different shades of meaning or interpretation and our language is the richer for it. By and large, the Anglo-Saxon words form the basis of English, and the French additions provide more abstract and elaborate notions of what we mean (which should please the French, who are proud of their academic and scholarly inclinations). And here’s an interesting fact thrown up by my research. The average, intelligent person in England uses about 20,000 words in everyday conversation, as do the French. Shakespeare however employed about 30,000 words in his plays and poems, of which he coined around 1,700 himself. If that goes to show anything, apart from the genius of our most famous playwright, it is that the English language is remarkably encompassing and elastic; it can stretch to pinch words and phrases from pretty well anyone, anywhere. Here is a random, but far from exhaustive, list of borrowed words from other countries:

Kindergarten: German         Prima donna: Italian          Verandah: Portuguese

Gulag: Russian                        Armada: Spanish                  Gung-ho: Chinese

Ombudsman: Danish          Yacht: Dutch                            Karaoke: Japanese

Fjord: Norwegian                    Bungalow: Indian (Hindi)  Budgerigar: Aboriginal

Haka: Maori                               Apartheid: Afrikaans           Jazz: Congolese

Safari: Swahili                           Democracy: Greek              Skin: Icelandic

Oasis: Egyptian                        Khaki: Pakistani (Urdu)     Jubilee: Hebrew


We are the most prolific robbers of words in the world, even if we expect everybody else on the planet to speak English (and many of them do). So, it is no surprise that our friends, sorry, conquerors, from across the Channel, sorry, Manche, provide the richest pickings. Incidentally, ‘manche’ in French means ‘sleeve’, the shape of the Channel. I don’t know why the French are so proprietorial about the name of the strait that separates our two counties. ’Channel’ is a French word anyway - ‘chanel’. I suppose it is the ‘English’ bit that upsets them.

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