English Words and Their Background

By George H. McKnight | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IX
THE FRENCH ELEMENT

The English language has been said to be French badly pronounced. This remark, facetious in intent and exaggerated in character, nevertheless conveys a considerable element of truth. The English language has taken thousands of words from the French, and in consequence of the divergent development of words in the two languages, the English derivatives have come to differ greatly in form and in meaning from the corresponding words surviving in modern French.

The initial impetus toward extensive borrowing from French came as a consequence of the Norman Conquest of England. Even before the Conquest, to be sure, French words had begun to find their way into English. In the reign of Edward the Confessor, who in consequence of the Danish Conquest, had spent his early life in exile in France, the French atmosphere of the English court is responsible for the introduction of a few French words, about a dozen of which, including purse, sot, castle, turn, trail, mantle, market, clerk, and false, are recorded in English literature before the Conquest. 1

In the few existing specimens of the written English of the twelfth century, the century immediately following the Conquest, there appear a small number of French words, consisting for the most part of terms such as justice, war, peace, tower, treason, prison, court, orown, empress, sacrament, prior, chaplain, saint, grace, mercy, charity, and

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1
F. Kluge, Englische Studien, Vol. XXI, pp. 334-335.

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