Since it is the season of giving and receiving, we thought it would be interesting to see how French has influenced and been influenced by other languages! As much as the Academie Française wants to protect the purity of the French language, language borrowing is a process as old as languages itself and is one of the way a language develops over time. We talked a little bit about borrowing in our article on Middle French, but here we’ll look at specific things different languages have contributed.
Borrowing between French and English has been going on for rather a while. It probably started around 1066, when the Normans came to invade England. They brought all their French vocabulary with them and changed the English language. It is why English often has different words for the same concept. E.g. sheep vs. mutton or cow vs. beef. One is the form that is eaten and one isn’t.
English certainly gave words back though, and this increased from the 19th century onwards. During the Industrial Revolution, French borrowed more technical vocabulary such as “tunnel”. But nowadays, words from a whole variety of sectors are being borrowed. From “le shampooing” to “l’interview” to even “le match”! It’s particularly interesting when French borrows English words…but then completely changes their meaning. For example “le planning” in French is essentially a schedule, but in English the word “planning” isn’t even a noun! Guess some things get a bit lost in translation…
There was a bit of an Italian fad in the 16th century due to the Renaissance. The French court and artists were taken with the Italian style. Therefore French borrowed many words in the realms of architecture and art from Italian. Some examples are: belvédère, arabesque and carrosse. However, a certain amount of military vocabulary was also borrowed at the time because France and Italy were at war from the end of the 15th through much of the 16th century.
Language is not the only thing that was shared between Italy and France, but cuisine too! This is especially true in the South of France near where Italy and France share a border. There was mass migration from Italy to France in the 50s and the cuisine and culture came as a part of that. But even before then there was a sort of diffusion of culinary ideas simply because of the proximity of the Franco-Italian borders. Much of the cuisine in Nice is Italian-inspired (also because it was not part of France for a while).
German has contributed much to the vocabulary of French. Not only individual words, but also suffixes such as -ard, -and and -ais. The very name France is derived from the Franks: a Germanic group of tribes. When the Franks settled in Northern France in the 3rd century, they had influences on the Gallo-Roman language spoken by the natives at the time. It should be kept in mind that neither modern French or German were even close to existing at that point!
In comparison to Italian though, Germanic was not quite as hot to the natives living in Northern France so they never took it up in the same way. Instead Frankish royalty ended up adapting and adopting the Gallo-Romance spoken in N.France. Nowadays many French words to do with nature or craft and hunting have Germanic origins.
Now, the fact that Arabic too has had an influence on French vocabulary may or may not surprise you. However, there are a surprising number of words that have Arabic origin, showing that linguistic influence spreads across continents too. Some commonly used examples are “chemise” (shirt) and “alcool” (alcohol). Arabic entered the French language when France colonised areas of the Maghreb such as Algeria and Tunisia in the 19th-20th century but also through Spanish! Southern Spanish varieties absorbed many Arabic words and transmit them through to French this way. Traces of Arabic have actually been around in Spain since the Islamic conquest in the 7th century.
Borrowings and linguistic diffusion can get pretty confusing, because words can go through different languages and each may alter it to fit their phonetic system. Kind of like a chinese whisper between languages! It kind of shows that languages are a bit of a melting pot really. They’ll adapt based on the actions their speakers take. But we also see that borrowing from various other languages (this is only a sample) has made French all the richer for it.