By Jacques Saleh
For all the relentless drumbeat, if not frenzied alarm, in the French-speaking world (as often witnessed on numerous French-speaking talk shows), to counter or curtail the seemingly inexorable onward and forward march of English worldwide, and for all the alarmed French and Francophile luminaries, grandees and pundits who feel that the French language is under siege by the Anglo-Saxon (or Anglo-American) linguistic onslaught, it behooves us to reassure those rearguard French and Francophonie defenders that all is not lost, and that in the spirit of cross-cultural comity and cross-linguistic camaraderie, French is still alive and well and living in English.
Perhaps it hasn’t seeped into the foundational structure of English as much as Frisian and other Germanic offshoots such as Dutch, Scandinavian or German, but English still seems to have more clearly recognizable Gallic terms in its lexicon than other Germanic languages, which over the years have morphed away—in often unrecognizable fashion—from their Teutonic roots. If, for instance, you join the British or U.S. military (militaires) or army (armée), at whichever echelon (echelon), from the humble soldier (soldat) to the sergeant, colonel, general, or admiral, you may think you have joined the ranks of the French military.
And to add a bit of bonhomie to the whole competitive linguistic shebang, the French and Germanic or Proto-Germanic languages have peacefully coexisted in an ongoing détente within English, with English providing the basis for this ideal and idyllic rapprochement. In other words, English may have accomplished the near-utopian feat of making the French and Teutons gentle bedfellows, at least linguistically.
By italicizing French-rooted or French-influenced words in English below, we will notice more vividly how French is intrinsically ingrained in the English language. And if we review the text above, a French-speaking sleuth a bit versed in etymology (NB: while Greek, the word “etymology” took this form through the French “étymologie”) could easily count more than a few dozen words with French ancestry, influence or affinity. Some (including frenzied, counter, curtail, march, vigorously, defend, languages, rearguard, competitive, peacefully, accomplished, feat, gentle, instance, and join) represent different alteration degrees of the French words frénésie, contrer, tailler, marche, vigoureusement, défendre, langues, arrière-garde (itself an alteration of the Old French rereguarde), compétitif, fait, gentil, instance, and joindre. Others are plucked wholesale and with seemingly little compunction from French, e.g., words like détente, camaraderie, bonhomie, rapprochement and the like.
This article is not meant to give a statistical or scientific representation of French within English, especially with a limited textual sample (Old French “essample”), but to show that one can write English using a copious dose of French-influenced or French-originated words, even if their semantic and formal iterations have deviated from current or even Old French. But this would be no different from Canadian French using French terms that are uncommon in France, or modern French in France being quite different from Old French but still influenced by, or derived from, it. Languages do not remain static, and whether the French words that seeped into English were quite different semantically and formally from their modern configuration does not negate the fact that their origin is French and that English has a solid French linguistic identity in conjunction with its Teutonic one.
If the Anglo-Saxons resent this “foreign” influence, they would then be using a French-rooted word (“ressentiment”) to express their feelings, or they could hate it, in which case they would be using a German-rooted or Dutch-rooted term (“hassen” or “haten”). It will be up to them to express any xenophobic or perhaps bigoted sentiments against this reality, but if their resentment pushes them to extirpate only French-rooted words from the English language, English would become so different as to become another language and would no longer qualify as English. As things stand, it won’t be an easy task to extricate English from French encroachment, or for that matter, from its Teutonic manifestations. If it were, English would have a major identity crisis and would cease to exist. To prune the Teutonic-Gallic branches and roots from the English tree will be akin to uprooting and killing that tree. Ergo, RIP English.
While the nuts and bolts of English are infused with Teutonic-originated terms, which permeate its building blocks of prepositions, adverbs, conjunctions and pronouns, French suffuses its superstructure, so to speak, including many terms used in the military, law, economy, finance, religion, and politics, among others.
And speaking of the military, the Brits conquered a good chunk of global real estate and built their empire with plenty of help from the French—that is, French words. They had these French-rooted terms to help advance their colonizing or expansionist ambitions: the army and navy, along with their assortment of generals, colonels, admirals, lieutenants, sergeants, corporals, and soldiers. And to this end they used troops, the infantry, and cavalry, in addition to the artillery. They also used battalions, brigades, and squadrons.
And to advance their objectives and promote and consolidate their newly established regime, the occupiers did not hesitate to use search and destroy missions to tame any recalcitrant elements of the populace, nor did they fail to use surveillance, reconnaissance missions, espionage intrigues, spies, guards, sieges, and logistics, all the way down to the lowly latrine.
After setting their expansionist designs on a region, they applied or established their laws and rules, again with much help from the French language, introducing in the process French-rooted terms like contracts, felonies, crimes, courts, tribunals, judges, jury, bailiffs, plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, cases, bails, paroles, summons, claims, complaints, pleas, pleadings, petitions, motions, briefs, requests, appeals, jails, and prisons, among many terms that could almost fill an English legal dictionary. This gave the illegitimate presence of the colonizers a semblance of normalcy and legality that might have helped them further subdue and control the local populace by instilling a whiff of legitimacy, accompanied by a firm dose of law and order, to their conquest.
Naturally, for further appeasement and other self-serving purposes, the new victors probably wanted their newly vanquished communities and societies to enjoy a humming economy. Such economy would assist those victors in better managing their own affairs while profiting even more from the existing spoils by rendering the latter more productive than from the simple plunder of limited or unsustainable resources.
With such a symbiotic or collaborative arrangement with the indigenous peoples, the victors’ ruling classes and elites, along with their acolytes, would theoretically enjoy a greater level of prosperity and riches, some of which is allowed to trickle down to appease the oppressed masses by easing their economic and financial burdens, hence inducing them into continuing collaborative comportment. In this instance, the reasoning of the conquerors might be that the robust economy should serve as the opium of the politically oppressed people in the way religion played that role for those who championed the cause of the proletariat.
The above examples should suffice for now to give sufficient credence to the present thesis and, by extrapolation, should point to the clear etymological and historical evidence that seems overlooked by all those alarmist French language Cassandras and other linguistic doomsayers who think that languages, especially theirs, are or should be immutable.
Instead, the Gallic doomsters might as well stop panicking and stressing over this issue, and for that matter they might as well vicariously enjoy the English language (French-Teutonic to a large extent) triumphs without undue compunction, mindful of the fact that the English language’s French ancestry is well-established. They should also be mindful of the humbling fact that, for all intents and purposes, all present living languages will eventually sink into Latin-like or ancient Greek obsolescence and will succumb to the inevitable and dire fate of linguistic extinction.
Thus, the Gallic doom and gloom merchants and sundry linguistic fearmongers could join the ranks of those who take a grander and more relativistic and historical view regarding the transience of languages, or of life for that matter, and they could in particular tone down a notch their strident anti-Albion protests once they realize that French will be riding on the coattails of the English juggernaut for the foreseeable future.
In this case, it bears repeating that those with French predilection who are still contesting the current linguistic status quo might as well vicariously enjoy the English language advances, as they should be comforted by the fact that English has historically and to a large degree embraced, assimilated and absorbed French, which played, along with Teutonic linguistic offshoots and to some extent Latin, a predominant role in its inception.
Therefore, once we consider that English has a distinct, significant, recognizable, and manifest French identity, the relationship between the two languages should no longer be regarded as a zero-sum game, as some alarmist Francophile pundits would like us to think, but rather one of lineage and pedigree, or of parentage and identity, which in turn entails that French is not only alive and well for the French-speaking people, but also living in English. Thus, French can legitimately share in the successes of English and celebrate its triumphs.
[Editor’s Note: What are your thoughts on the influence of English on the French language, and vice versa? Any amateur (or professional!) etymologists out there? Please join the conversation by liking or sharing this article along with your comments on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.]
Jacques Saleh, PhD is an ATA-certified Arabic-to-English translator with more than 20 years of experience translating from Arabic to English and French to English. He holds a doctorate degree in philosophy from the City University of New York and a BS and MBA from New York University. He has taught translation, philosophy, and humanities courses both in the United States and abroad. You can find him on Twitter at @textoubli or contact him through his website.