French Loan Words in the English Language

Borrowing during the Middle English Period

Seminar Paper, 2012

10 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The French Influence on the English Lexicon
2.1 The Historical Background
2.2 Loan Words
2.2.1 from Norman French
2.2.2 from Central French

3. Conclusion

1. Introduction

The dates for the beginning and end of the Middle English period are rather controversial. But many linguists do agree that by 1100 certain changes to the English language were sufficiently well established to justify the use of the adjective middle to designate the language in what was actually a phase of transition from the English of the early Middle Ages - Old English - to that of the first printed books at the end of the 15th century. During this period many changes occurred that may be noted in nearly every aspect of the language: in its phonology, its semantics and in its lexicon, where many Old English words were replaced by borrowed items from the French language. But although the French influence did not cease with the end of the 15th century, due to its size of merely seven pages this term paper will concentrate on the Middle English period.

Starting with a short introduction to the historical background of the French Influence on the English language, there will be examples of the borrowed vocabulary, explanations why they were borrowed and how they can be further distinguished into loan words from Norman and Central French. Moreover, there will be an analysis of how the process of borrowing led to the highly distinctive vocabulary of the English language regarding register and style. The structure of this term paper is chronological as it seemed to be the most appropriate regarding the historical nature of this paper’s topic.

2. The French Influence on the English Lexicon

2.1 The Historical Background

King Harold was the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England and the last English-speaking king before the Norman Conquest. Harold’s predecessor on the throne, Edward the Confessor, had no heir and William, Duke of Normandy, who was distantly related to Edward the Confessor, was among the various claimants. William challenged Harold's possession of the crown, defeated him in the famous battle of Hastings and accessed the throne of England in 1066 (Pyles & Algeo, 134f.).

For almost 300 years after the Norman Conquest, French was the language of the ruling classes in England. However, there was never any period during which the majority of the country’s people did not speak English (Pyles & Algeo, 135f.). Indeed, for two centuries after the conquest, the kings of England could not speak the language of many of their subjects. William handed over all authority to his countrymen at church, court and administration, which made Anglo-Norman the language of all people who tried to climb up the social ladder, while the peasants carried on speaking English. Eventually, the middle classes became bilingual, speaking to peasants in English and to the ruling classes in French (Bähr 2001, 25.).

The Norman Conquest, similar to the invasion of the earlier Norsespeaking Vikings, resulted in changes to the English lexicon. A large amount of French words were ultimately to become part of the English vocabulary, many of them replacing English words. To gain an impression of these changes, compare for instance the disparate examples OE1 burhsittende man with ME/ModE citeseyn ‘citizen’ and OE mildheortness with ME/ModE mercy. (Pyles & Algeo, 136).

2.2.1 Loan Words from Norman French

The Influence of French on English began approximately 100 years before the Norman Conquest, although only a few French loan words were imported to England at that time (Campbell, § 567). England and France had economical and religious relations at that time. But the French influence did not increase significantly after 1066 (Markus, 107). Some of the earliest loans from French are considered to be castle (1066), juggler, prison (1076) and service (Pyles & Algeo, 295).

The Norman Conquest made French the language of the official class in England. Therefore, it is not astonishing that many words that have to do with government and administration are of French origin. One example is the word government itself, along with ME amynistre. Others include attorney, chancellor, country, court and crime (Pyles & Algeo, 295). Furthermore, English titles of nobility except for king, queen, earl, lord and lady - namely prince, duke, marquess, viscount, baron and their feminine equivalents - date from the period when England was in the hands of a Norman French ruling class. In military usage army, captain, corporal, lieutenant, sergeant and soldier are all of French origin (Pyles & Algeo, 295). French words were borrowed not only for various animals, when served up as food at Norman tables, like beef, mutton, pork and veal for instance, but also to the cooking techniques by which the English cow, sheep, pig and calf were prepared for human consumption, for instance boil, broil, fry, roast and stew (Pyles & Algeo, 295f.).

The German linguist Scheler (52) endeavoured to count the loan words in English that were borrowed from French until the 16th century. The results are very interesting for the reason that they show two stages of borrowing: Until the year 1200 loan words were few (0,9%)2, but afterwards a major increase can be identified (49,4% until 1400). The two stages can also be distinguished by the origins of their loan words. According to Markus (107), those words before 1200 are of Norman origin, those afterwards can be identified as Central French. This alteration can well be explained with regard to Henry II (1154-1189) who had political as well as personal relations to Southern France and moreover due to England’s loss of the Normandy by King John in 1204 that removed an important tie with France. (Markus, 107). The two stages can also be distinguished by their semantic fields. Many words of Norman origin portray the world of the Norman conquerors, namely the military and law, while the second stage supplied the English lexicon with a much wider range of vocabulary from Central French, especially from Paris and its surroundings (Markus, 107f.).


1 OE = Old English, ME = Middle English, ModE = Modern English, OF = Old French

2 The numbers are to be seen in relation to all borrowed French Loan words until the 16th century (see Scheler, 52).

Excerpt out of 10 pages


French Loan Words in the English Language
Borrowing during the Middle English Period
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel  (Englisches Seminar)
English Lexicology: Words and their Meaning
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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french, loan, words, english, language, borrowing, middle, period
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Anonymous, 2012, French Loan Words in the English Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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