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The influence of French upon the English language not only pertains to its syntax and grammar, but also to its lexicon, orthography, and pronunciation. Most French vocabulary entered English after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, when French became the language of the new Anglo-Norman court, the government, and of the elites for several centuries until after the Hundred Years War. From then onwards, English has continuously been impacted by the French language. According to Laura K. Lawless, more than a third of modern English vocabulary is of French origin. According to linguist Henriette Walter, words of French origin represent more than two thirds of English vocabulary. Linguist Anthony Lacoudre estimated that over 40,000 English words come directly from French and may be understood without orthographical change by French speakers.
At the beginning of the 11th century, the English language did not have a well-defined status. The inhabitants of Great Britain did not have a common language with which they could clearly communicate. Instead, there were many different Germanic dialects in use which existed under diverse dialect continuums.
Great Britain, where various Celtic languages had coexisted since the 4th century B.C., experienced partial Roman occupation during the 1st century A.D., and for four more centuries after that. From 450 A.D. onwards, Saxons, Angles, and Jutes began to settle in the south and in the east, having come from mainland Europe. Germanic dialects prevailed in these regions, supplanting Celtic dialects, which survived only in the west and the north of the island (Wales, Cornwall, Scotland) and in Ireland. In the 8th century, Vikings from Scandinavia settled on the island. Their languages, also Germanic, in turn influenced the languages already present on the island. At the dawn of 11th century, the country was made up of peoples with significantly different languages, mostly Germanic, but with multiple influences.
It was, therefore, a linguistically disunited people that the Normans confronted in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. William II of Normandy landed at Hastings (in Sussex) on September 29, 1066. He deployed his men around the city while waiting for King Harold II's troops. On October 14, exhausted by the long journey to Hastings, Harold II's troops lost the battle after only one day. Following the defeat of the English, Duke William II of Normandy became King of England on December 25, 1066; he was crowned under the name of William I of England and was known as William the Conqueror. This date marked the beginning of a long period of ties between the peoples and languages of France and England.
In reality, these links existed even before the Battle of Hastings. That Normandy faced the English Channel encouraged commercial contact with England. Such ties further tightened at the beginning of the eleventh century, when Emma, daughter of Duke Richard II of Normandy, married King Æthelred II of England. However, it is only after the Norman conquest of 1066 that proto-English became largely influenced by Old French. English did not make any large contribution to French until the 18th century.
The arrival of William the Conqueror and his barons to England in the 11th century significantly changed the linguistic situation in England. The new ruling class of Anglo-Normans imposed their language into the upper echelons of society; Anglo-Saxon dialects were supplanted by Norman in the royal court and aristocratic circles, the justice system, and the Church. Influential Norman settlers continued to use their native language in daily life, while more modest, rural, and urban areas of society continued to speak varieties of Old English.
Norman is a particular variety of the Gallo-Roman language spoken in Normandy. It is one of the Oil languages spoken in northern France alongside, among others, Picard and Walloon. The Norman language changed when it came into contact with the Old English language; it integrated words and phrases from Old English to give birth to the dialect of Anglo-Norman, still spoken on the Anglo-Norman isles. Anglo-Norman can be described as a vernacular language, spoken on English soil in the 11th century, in the field of literature, culture, court and among the clergy. The French language's sphere of influence in England thus functioned on the basis of this Anglo-Norman dialect.
During the 12th century, continental French had a greater influence on Old English. It acquired great prestige in England, especially within the aristocracy and the clergy and became the standard language of law and justice. Noble families, most of them of Norman origin, taught their children French or sent them to study in France. Royal marriages also encouraged the expansion of the French language in England. From Henry II Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine at the beginning of the 12th century, to Henri VI and Marguerite in the 15th century, many English kings married French princesses. These marriages kept French as the language of the English court for several centuries and were crucial in strengthening the use of French in England. This period (12th-15th century) is characterized by a massive influx of French words into Old English vocabulary.
In 1204, Philippe Auguste of France annexed Normandy to France, politically isolating England from mainland Europe. Normans who chose to stay in England moved further away from France and, therefore, from the French language. Keeping its status as the language of justice and the language of power, England saw the first teaching manuals for teaching French to English. These manuals were intended for English nobles who wish to perfect their knowledge of French and taught it to their children. Two types of French spoken in the higher spheres of English society could be distinguished during the thirteenth century : the Anglo-Norman dialect, which was the aristocrats' mother tongue, and a more prestigious type of French as a second language. Knowing "Parisian" French was a mark of social distinction. As a language of culture, French supplanted Latin from the twelfth century onward as the language of diplomacy and worldly relations throughout Europe. The mass and influence of French literature reinforced its reputation and appeal.
The 16th century, that of the Renaissance, was a decisive century for French since king François I of France, through the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts (1539), made French the official language of administration in the whole kingdom. Although troubled by the European wars of religion, the Italian Wars, the language was marked by intellectual, technical and scientific effervescence. It ushered in an era of prosperity that would also spread to England through French.
The 17th century, the apogee of the Kingdom of France, was characterized by the political, literary and artistic prestige of France and the French language. Peace restored and unity ensured in the country, the economy grew considerably. King Henri IV, the Cardinal of Richelieu or the Louis XIV, The Sun King helped seed and enhance the French language in Europe, the Americas, India and Oceania.
The Académie française by Richelieu in 1635, under Louis XIII led to the standardization of French in continental Europe and abroad, including England. French was then the second language of all the elites in Europe, from Turkey to Ireland and from Moscow to Lisbon. The greatest scholars and intellectuals, writers and scientists, expressed themselves and corresponded in this new standardized French. French was considered a perfect language, beauty and elegance determined by scientific logic, aided by dictionaries. The greatest scholars and intellectuals, writers and scientists, expressed themselves and taught in French.
The geographical use of French has continuously and greatly diversified in the last five hundred years, with countries and states like New-Brunswick, Quebec, Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, Guinea, Cameroon, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Mauritius, Chad, Djibouti, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Monaco, Aosta Valley, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and Vanuatu adopting it as their official language. This geographical diversity has led to many different contacts with vernacular dialects, regional and international languages, from which French has often been enriched locally. In a number of countries and regions where French shares co-officiality with English (Cameroon, Canada, Jersey, Mauritius, Rwanda, Vanuatu), particular lexical regionalisms are observed where French and English terms are used interchangeably.
The following French glossary in English is in no way exhaustive. These examples illustrate the French words in the English language.
In this section, examples of French-to-English lexical contributions are classified by field and in chronological order. The periods during which these words were used in the English language are specified as much as possible. It is not always possible to state with certainty the precise period in which a word was borrowed or integrated.
The English word is on the left, with its current French equivalent in brackets, then its Old French origin in bold and the century of its introduction on the right.