Saturday, September 25, 2010

French influence on English

Hey everyone, I'm sorry that I haven't written anything in a week or so; school and LSAT prep is taking up a lot of my free time. Hopefully this week will be a little calmer. It's always been a mystery to me why all of my professors choose the same week for their tests.


Anyway, I'm going to talk a little bit about how French has influenced English's vocabulary and grammar.

In most English classes they'll tell you that English was 'born' in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings. In a sense, that's true. During that time, William of Normandy decided that, since he'd conquered his neighbor, it would be a good idea to stamp out their language and replace it with French. He killed a bunch of people and replaced them with French speakers in the hopes that it would catch on. But he made a crucial error: he killed the wrong people.

See, if he really wanted to kill the English language, he should have killed the common people (the uneducated). Instead, he substituted English elite for French elite. There were more commoners than their were French speakers, so English won out.

Yet it didn't conquer French unchanged. Previous to 1066, English was a more inflected language than it is currently. Inflection is the modification of a word in order to express different grammatical categories (say, how we change she to her or he to him, or how we make plurals), and English was rife with it; remnants of that old system are apparent in how we pluralize ox (oxen), child (children), or sometimes brother (brethren). But when French came to Britain, the words English speakers were picking up were more difficult to inflect; they didn't behave in the way native English words did. This most likely contributed (but didn't cause) to English's transformation into an analytic language, or a language that relies on word order to express sentence meaning.

Have you ever wondered why pigs are called swine and their meat is called pork? Why we raise cows and kill them for their beef? Why birds become poultry? It's because pork, beef, and poultry are words that come from French and swine, cow, and bird are Anglo-Saxon; the Brits were raising the animals and the French were eating them, so it's only natural the animal gets an Anglo-Saxon name and the meat is French sounding. Additionally, we picked up words like fantastic and magnificent from the French as they were describing things in their famously flowery way. Even more, a huge chunk of our words that are Latin in origin actually made their way to us through French.

So, whether or not English speakers like the French, they can't help but sound just a little like them.