Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How French Gave English Its Sophisticated Words

If you're familiar with the history of the British Isles, you'll be aware that before taking the English language on tour and invading 90% of the world (with varying degrees of success), the British were the whipping boys of Europe and every empire across Europe had a go of taking over Great Britain. This helps explain why the English language is widespread and has a diverse lexicon with roots in many different languages.

What I find most interesting is the relationship between the origin of a word in English and its register. Words from Anglo-Saxon have taken their place in the lower registers of the English language, while "classier" high-register words come from both Latin and French. This all comes down to how the words were being used when they first made their way into the language.

Hastings, the site of the famous battle, in the 19th century.
By the time the Normans invaded in 1066, Anglo-Saxon words were already commonly used. The Normans brought their own language with them, and since they had just taken over the country, they decided that they would be part of the aristocracy instead of falling in line alongside the peasants, serfs, and labourers up and down the country.

Because of this, farmers and the lower classes kept their Anglo-Saxon words whilst the aristocracy and ruling classes consisted of William the Conqueror and his Norman-speaking mates. The Norman language became Anglo-Norman (also known as Anglo-French), which was only spoken by the upper echelons of medieval society while, in a humorous turn of events, the posh people in France at the time were actually speaking Latin.

The most obvious impact of these sociolects is prevalent in food, especially in terms of meat. As a lasting testimony to this, most English words for animals that are eaten come from Anglo-Saxon, while the terms for their meat come from French and Latin roots. For example, if you want some "beef" (from the Norman beof) you'll have to find a "cow" ( in Old English, which has roots in Anglo-Saxon). "Sheep" is from the Old English scēap, while you eat "mutton", which is from the Old French term moton. Dēor in Old English became "deer" in Modern English, but "venison" came from venesoun in Old French.

This garden in Tokyo would definitely
raise the value of your property.
There are also plenty of non-culinary words that show how lower register words from Anglo-Saxon have higher-register equivalents of Latin and French origin. For example, you could ask your friend to buy ;you a drink (all Anglo-Saxon roots) or you could enquire of your colleague about purchasing a beverage (all French or Latin roots). In the UK, it's usually cheaper to buy a house with a yard (Anglo-Saxon) than one with a garden (French).

While French and Latin words are commonly thought to be of a higher register, there are a few examples of seemingly-sophisticated words that are of Anglo-Saxon origins with the lower-register equivalent being French. Take hue instead of colour and uncouth instead of rude, for example. However, these examples are much fewer than to the contrary.

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