Why is French similar to English?

Vocabulary comparison English-French

Table of Contents

1. The Indo-European language family

2. French language skills in English
2.1 The clash of two languages
2.2 The influence of Latin
2.3 The wealth of English synonyms
2.4 The battle of the two languages: English vs. French
2.5 Examples of borrowings
2.6 phonetic characteristics of loanwords

3. English language skills in French
3.1 Fight against vocabulary Anglomania
3.2 Main borrowings

4. The importance of the two languages ​​in the world

5. Bibliography

Vocabulary comparison English - French

1. The Indo-European language family

Most European languages ​​belong to the Indo-European language family. So it is not surprising that among these languages, which also include English and French, one discovers a basic set of vocabulary that are similar, or from Latin, the "key [...] to European vocabulary"[1], and can be found in many European languages:

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Latin, which of course also belongs to the Indo-European language family, has influenced the European languages. All of the earlier colonies of the Roman Empire or people who had contact with the Roman population through trade, for example, accepted the Latin language. When developing into Old French, a distinction must be made between written and spoken Latin. While the written Latin retained its form, the spoken Latin, the so-called Vulgar Latin, developed more and more into a dialect through the use of the language of different social classes. This is how the Old French came into being, which over time gained more and more importance through the vernacular and finally replaced the spoken Latin in Gaul. When comparing the vocabulary with French, one must not forget that it was derived from Latin and that most of the words in Old French can be traced back to Latin alone. The reference to the vocabulary of French origin must therefore be viewed very closely with the Latin language in the following examples.

2. French language skills in English

When comparing vocabulary, it is essential to check languages ​​that were confronted with each other at a certain time for similarities, in this case for similarities in the vocabulary of English and French. French has had a considerable influence on the structure of today's English and left the English vocabulary, apart from the hereditary words, which are composed of relationships with Latin, among other things, from an enormous number of loan words that point to language contact between the French and the English are due, exist. It follows from this that French shaped modern English in such a way that it was largely through the expansion of its vocabulary that Old English is difficult to understand for the modern speaker. As far as English is concerned, one also speaks of a Germanic-Romance mixed language, since the former West Germanic vocabulary has been enriched to a large extent with words from Latin and French.[2] In order to show the similarities between the English and French vocabulary, it is not enough to look at the language as it is today, but one has to follow the history of the English language over several centuries, i.e. to carry out a diachronic linguistic observation. A brief historical review of English history is therefore necessary.

2.1 The clash of two languages

The most decisive event that shaped today's English is undoubtedly the Norman conquest of Britain on October 14th in 1066. At this time William the Conqueror moved from Normandy to Britain and defeated the English armed forces with his army in the battle of Hastings on the south coast of England and was crowned King of England. This caused some major changes in British society. The Normans spoke a French dialect, the so-called Normanno-French, which from then on mixed with the Anglo-Saxon spoken by the British population or replaced many old English vocabulary.[3] The English kings spoke French for the next three centuries, whereas the common people initially still used the English language within the 1st century of the Norman conquest. The use of English by the uneducated classes led, among other things, to the fact that English lost its highly complex system of endings and the distinction between the genera was completely lost in the course of this event. In contrast to English, in German, since it is also a Germanic language, these endings still exist. It was also the case that the ruling class, but also the nobility and the clergy, spoke Normanno-French and therefore the common people were inevitably confronted with the Norman influences in the language, e.g. in sermons. The French-speaking ruling class faced an enormous majority who spoke English. However, this language barrier could not last long, since the common people, for example peasants, were subordinate to the aristocracy. They were dependent on their employers and in the end they had no choice but to accept the new language and also take it in the form of orders from their masters. As a result of the Norman conquest, England suffered a foreign rule in which the Normans alone decided what was right and what was wrong and therefore also determined the English vocabulary. At that time, the French language was called the superstrate language (language of the gentlemen), which dominated the English, also known as the substrate language.[4] Very little was borrowed from this substrate language, so it is not surprising that 10,000 words were borrowed from French in the Middle English period, but French hardly contains any English loanwords. Of the 10,000 loan words from the Middle English period, around 75 percent are still used in modern English today.[5] The following is a percentage distribution of the words borrowed from French that have penetrated into today's standard English over the centuries:

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The percentages marked in bold stand out from the rest due to the large number of loan words, e.g. in the 14th century 31.8% of the words were borrowed from French that are still used in today's English. In the period from the 13th to the 16th century, the English vocabulary was significantly influenced by French loanwords. The faltering increase in loanwords from the Norman conquest to 1200 can therefore be explained by the fact that the upper class spoke exclusively French and therefore bilingualism in Britain developed only slowly. From the middle of the 13th century, English gradually replaced French as the official language, but adopted an enormous number of loanwords. In addition, from the 13th century onwards, the focus was on Parisian French, especially what was taught at universities. While under the Norman siege mainly words were borrowed that benefited the ruling class, from the 13th century the arts and sciences were preferred words that were borrowed.[7]


[1] C. Vossen: Mother Latin and her daughters. P.158

[2] E. Leisi: Today's English. P.46.

[3] C. Vossen: Mother Latin and her daughters. P.109.

[4] A. Stein: Introduction to French Linguistics. P.112.

[5] C. Vossen: Mother Latin and her daughters. P.116.

[6] M. Scheler: The English vocabulary. P.52.

[7] C. Vossen: Mother Latin and her daughters. P.112.

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