The french influence on the english vocabulary in middle english

Term Paper, 2000

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. 11th – 15th century
2.1 The decline of English
2.2 The period of Great Influence

3. Language influences
3.1. Borrowings into the English language
3.2. French loan-words in Middle English

4. Middle English dialects

5. The loss of native words

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The French influence on the English vocabulary had its greatest expansion in the period of the Middle English (1150 – 1500). During this time over 10,000 French words were adapted into the English language and about 75 per cent of these are still in use. The reasons for that are, firstly, the bilingualism in England which had been prevailing since the Norman Conquest in 1066. Secondly, the English culture was regarded as inferior, i.e. it had more to gain from the language spoken by the upper classes.[1]

Although, these extensive changes were important for the improvement of the English language, there were also disadvantages to it. The loss of native words, the different Middle English dialects, the need of a Standard English are only some examples for this. Does that mean the English we speak today would not have been the same, if there had been no French influence? Undoubtedly, every influence on something does change the circumstances of it, otherwise it would not be an influence.

The question now would be, if English really profited from the French language or if it was more a drawback to its further development. I want to deal with this matter of fact in my research paper. I will show the historical conditions from the Norman Conquest up to the 15th century in a diachronical way, as it is important to know about the situation in England at that time to understand the changes in the English language. As the French influence hardly affected the English grammar, I will only consider the changes in the vocabulary. I also will briefly refer to other language borrowings to show that the French influence was not the only one, but the most effective in the period of great change – the Middle English. Lastly, in my conclusion I will summarize my results.

2. 11th – 15th century

2.1 The decline of English

Since the Norman Conquest in 1066 the French language became more and more important. The Normans (North-man) were descendants of the Danes and spoke French influenced by a Germanic dialect. They inhabited some parts in the north of France and adapted not only to the language, but also to the French culture. They had a talent for building churches, cathedrals, castles and proved the English their rank of military quality.[2]

Yet, that does not mean the English culture was inferior to the French one. The Anglo-Saxons were excellent writers, artists and craftsmen. They did not lack in civilization. “French became the language of the upper classes in England simply because it was the language of the conquerors, not because of any cultural superiority on their part.”[3]

By this time, the French and English language existed side by side and French took over to be the language of the court and “royalty of England throughout the twelfth, thirteenth and (diminishingly) fourteenth centuries.”[4] The kings of England spoke French, took French wives and lived mostly in France. The Normans became the new upper class. They dominated all high positions like the church, education, aristocracy, administration etc.. So, many other people, particularly among the gentry whose native language was English had to acquire French, if they “wanted to get on in the world.”[5]

Although there were more common people holding on to their mother tongue than noblemen speaking French, English was on a decline, as the French language had its prestige in the most important ranks. This can also be read up in the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester who commented on the historical situation in England in the 13th century.[6]

2.2 The period of Great Influence

Considering the French influence on the vocabulary, the Middle English period can be parted in 2 stages: an earlier and a later one. In the first phase from 1150 to 1250 there were less French words adopted into the English (about 900) than in the second phase. The borrowings show characteristics of the Anglo- Norman phonology and were mostly from the areas of the nobility (e.g. servant, messenger), literature (e.g. story, rime) and the church.[7]

In the second stage (1250-1500) there was a rapid change in the prestige of the French language with a climax at the end of the 14th century. The Norman French developed its own peculiarities to the so called Anglo- Norman dialect, but it was more and more regarded as old-fashioned and rustic compared to the Central French spoken in Paris. “[I]t is this [13th] century that sees the tipping of the balance away from French and back to English.”[8]

The decline of French as a vernacular was a slow process starting with the loss of Normandy to the French crown in 1204. At that time many noblemen had properties in England and Normandy and had to make a decision whether to become English or to go back to France. Many Norman landholders chose to stay and the coming up of national thinking in England must have increased the importance of the English language.[9]

The final success of English over the French was observable in the 14th century where those who spoke French as their mother-tongue were turning to the use of English, “in other words, the point at which French ceased to be a language acquired in conversation with those around them and must be painstakingly learned with the help of books and tutors.”[10]


[1] Cf. Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable (1993), A History of the English Language. London: Routledge, p.163f.

[2] Cf. Charles Barber (1993), The English Language: a historical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, p.134f.

[3] Charles Barber (1993: 135).

[4] J.A.Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre (1992), A book of Middle English. Cornwall: T.J. Press LTD., p.17

[5] Charles Barber (1993: 135).

[6] Cf. Charles Barber (1993: 136).

[7] Cf. Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable (1993: 164).

[8] Charles Barber (1993: 141).

[9] Cf. ibd.

[10] David Burnley in: Norman Blake (1992), The Cambridge History of the English Language.volume 2, GB:

Cambridge University Press, p.427.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The french influence on the english vocabulary in middle english
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
Historical Linguistics
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ISBN (eBook)
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Historical, Linguistics
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Magistra Artium Claudia Stehr (Author), 2000, The french influence on the english vocabulary in middle english, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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