French Influence on American English Lexis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background

3. French Influence on American English
3.1 Proper Names
3.2 American English Lexis
3.3 Americanisation and changes in meaning
3.4 American Phrases

4. French Influence specially on Canadian English

5. Conclusion

List of Works Consulted

1. Introduction

Travelling across the United States, you will encounter place name signs which carry such appealing names like Beaumont (in Texas), Louisville (in Kentucky), Baton Rouge (in Louisiana), Terre Haute (in Indiana), Belle Fontaine (in Alabama), etc. To some people these names might not seem exotic, either because they do not have any knowledge of French or because these names have an American pronunciation. But others might notice that these place names are actually French and - unless they have a good knowledge of America’s history - wonder how come. Apart from this, about 13 million U.S. residents are of French descent, about 1.7 million speak French at home, and further 400.000 speak a French creole language, according to a U.S. census in the year 2000 (Wikipedia: French American). French is the second-most spoken language in Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont (Wikipedia: French in the United States).

Leaving the United States and travelling further North to Canada, you will notice that public institutions, traffic signs, packages of food, etc. carry both English as well as French names.

The reason for that is that Canada is an officially bilingual country (Algeo 423). Moreover, in the province of Quebec French even is the only official language (Algeo 438).

From these – and many other – hints, it is just plausible to conclude that there must have been a connection between France and North America somehow.

The following work will shed some light on how the French language has made its way onto the North American continent by providing some historical background information. Furthermore it will present examples which illustrate the influence French had on American and Canadian English lexis. Moreover, it will give some information about how French “traces” have been dealt with by American English speakers. In addition, the special language situation in Canada and especially in Quebec will be illuminated in the last section.

2. Historical Background

The English language was brought to the North American continent by British colonists at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But England was not the only country which was interested in North America. So the British colonists encountered explorers, traders and colonists from other European countries (Algeo 18) as well as native tribes of the continent and thus many different languages. “English [later] displaced most of the languages it came into contact with as it expanded and consolidated its influence” (Algeo 181), nevertheless, these languages influenced its development in North America. Such foreign influences were “not shared directly by other English speakers” (Algeo 19). Consequently, English in America developed differently from English in Great Britain and thus lead to an American variety of English – American English. “Near the end of the colonial period”, a Frenchman named Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur “commented on this melting pot out of which came a new man, an American, changed and different from the Englishman, Dutchman, Frenchman, German, or Jew who had arrived […] on these shores” (qtd. in Wright 45). The four colonial languages which exerted the greatest influence on American English were Dutch, French, Spanish and German (Algeo 169). However, the “non-British people” who had the most extensive influence “in proportion to their numbers throughout the North American colonies were the French” (Wright 51). As this work deals solely with the influence of French on American English, some information about the establishment and development of the former French territory in North America will be provided in the following.

French exploration of the American continent began under King Francis I of France. In 1524 he sent Giovanni de Verrazzano to explore the region between Florida and Newfoundland for a route to Asia (Trudel 2-3). With this voyage, “New France” – the name which was given to the land discovered by France (Trudel 10) – “was born” (Trudel 1). In 1534 and 1535, Jaques Cartier was sent “to discover certain isles and countries where it is said there must be great quantities of gold and other riches” (qtd. in Trudel 12). He explored the coast of Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Laurence and St. Laurence River up to today’s Montréal and claimed the land for France (Braun/Klooß 28). In 1541, Cartier was sent to “enter deeper into these lands, to converse with the peoples found there and to live among them […]” (Trudel 35). Therefore, a considerable number of French people and domestic animals were shipped over with him (Trudel 40). But this attempt of establishing a settlement in New France, like several others later, failed (Trudel 52). However, French fishing fleets had been sailing to the coast of Newfoundland since the early sixteenth century to fish the rich cod banks. “The economy of Western France depended in great measure upon the Gulf of St. Laurence during the years 1560 to 1570” (Trudel 55). These fishermen came into contact with natives, who wanted to barter their furs for gifts from Europe. Thus the fur trade began (Creighton 15) and friendship with these hunting Indians, who also helped them navigating, was established (Creighton 20), whereby the French traders learned native words. During the sixteenth century, “French explorers and traders made forays into the northern wilderness and established scattered trading posts” (Algeo 171). By the 1580s, fish and furs were exported to Europe and fur trading companies had been established (Wikipedia: New France). During that time, France was interested in the “new land” only for commercial purposes and not for establishing a colony (Trudel 61).

In 1604, Champlain and Pierre du Gua de Monts established the first settlement in Acadia (Historica Foundation of Canada) and in 1605, they settled down at Port Royal, which was the first permanent French settlement in Canada (Trudel 88). “Between 1604 and 1627 appeared the first generation of French Americans”, as they “finally settled down and began to adapt to their new environment” (Trudel 150).

Unfortunately for the French, from 1610, “the English were gaining more and more ground in territory that the French persisted in calling New France” (Trudel 98). Because of the “opposing claims and interests of France and England” (Phelps 11), a series of power struggles would follow. In 1613 England claimed Acadia (Trudel 116), which would be regained by the French in 1632 (Historica Foundation of Canada).

In 1627, New France had only 107 inhabitants (Trudel 165), whereas the English colony of Virginia already had a population of two thousand (Trudel 164). The number of French inhabitants “appears quite absurd when compared with the other European colonies in North America” (Trudel 165). By 1627, the fur-trade network of New France was “immense and far-reaching” (Trudel 167), but this could not “hide the numerical insignificance of French settlement, nor its instability” (Trudel 168). The French crown did not make efforts to expand the small French settlements because “their existence was bound to the fur-trade network” and “Indian labour sufficed amply for its operation” (Trudel 168).

Finally, by the late 1620s “France had adopted a massive colonial policy”. “[…] she was preparing to occupy a country” (Trudel 171). But the “hold on [her] North American possessions was feeble, spasmodic, and uncertain” (Creighton 25). In 1645, New France still had only 300 inhabitants (Trudel 268) and by 1663, slightly more than 3000 (Trudel 270). “Meanwhile, the other European colonies were continuing to increase their numerical superiority” (Trudel 268). A further disadvantage for the French was that their colony was politically primitive (Trudel 270), whereas the British colonies had functioning parliamentary institutions (Trudel 268).

In 1654 the English attacked Acadia again and once more, most of Acadia fell into their hands (Historica Foundation of Canada) until 1667, when Acadia was restored to France again (Trudel 209). This “quarrel over jurisdiction” continued into the eighteenth century (Trudel 206-208) and Acadia changed from French to English hold several times.

After 1663, New France, which had been not more than a sparsely settled fur-trading area so far, “formally became a royal province”, with French government, institutions, social organization, etc. (Creighton 30). With these reforms, “the colony of New France suddenly emerged from the formless and stagnant condition [...]” (Trudel 280). Its population then rapidly increased.

From the 1660s, the French began moving westward along the St. Lawrence into the unexplored interior (Creighton 33) in order “to gain new untouched areas for exploitation” (Creighton 35). They hoped of “strengthening the economy of the St. Lawrence through its diversification” (Creighton 34). In 1671, France claimed the upper lakes region, and New France began to also grow south and west of it (Creighton 35).

In 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle travelled the Mississippi to its delta and claimed the river’s entire watershed, the land between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, for France, naming the territory ‘Louisiana’ in honour of King Louis IV of France (Wikipedia: French Colonization). In 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’ Iberville and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville founded the colony of Louisiana, which “included part or all of at least ten states: Alabama (western part), Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana (eastern part), Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee” (Louisiana Parish).

New Orleans, which later became its capital, was founded in 1718 (Wikipedia: French Colonization). By the late seventeenth century, New France had become “an enormous oceanic and continental empire which stretched westward from Newfoundland and Acadia to beyond Lake Superior, and southward from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.” This was the peak of its success. Nevertheless, in contrast to the growth of its size, it still had not grown remarkably in population (Creighton, 46). From that time onwards, the success of the French in America “gradually receded” (Creighton 47-48).


Excerpt out of 22 pages


French Influence on American English Lexis
University of Trier  (Fachbereich II: Anglistik)
Historical Semantics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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French, Influence, American, English, Lexis, Historical, Semantics
Quote paper
Miriam Weinmann (Author), 2007, French Influence on American English Lexis, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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