Dane Jurcic © 2003




For a greater portion of the Middle English period (M.E.) French (Fr.) was the governing vernacular of England.  It was the language of the ruling elite, many of which spoke little if any English, the language of the court, and the language in which polite literature was written.  Hence, studies using the Oxford English Dictionary revealing that Fr. was the primary source of loans outnumbering Latin, the second largest source, four to one should hardly surprise us.  As Baugh points out “where two languages exist side by side for a long time and the relations of the people speaking them are as intimate as they were in England, a considerable transference of words” is “inevitable” (163).  As to the quantity of loans, Baugh states that it is “unbelievably great” and that “there is nothing comparable to it in the previous or subsequent history of the language”.  When examining the conditions and motives for borrowing it is most helpful to break the ME period into two stages, an earlier and a later, with the year 1250 as the approximate dividing line.  Up to 1250, many of the loans were ones that the lower classes would be familiar with through contact with French-speaking nobility (baron, noble, dame, servant, messenger, feast, minstrel, juggler, and largess).  However, the largest single group of loans are associated with ecclesiastical matters.  After 1250, there is a large increase in loan words, which is attributed to one powerful factor: the upper classes were gradually starting to use English.  Baugh, as well as many other linguists, believe that the upper classes carried over so many French words into English for the following reasons: to supply deficiencies in the English vocabulary; due to an imperfect command of the English vocabulary; yielding to a natural impulse to use a word long familiar to them.  Whatever the motive or reason, the English lexis benefited greatly.  It is necessary to point out that the majority of native speakers today would not recognize these words as foreign, because they have become apart of the common core.  To illustrate, consider, for example, a sample of lexemes added to the military register: army, navy, peace, enemy, arms, battle, combat, skirmish, siege, defense, ambush, stratagem, retreat, soldier, garrison, guard, spy and the ranks of officers such as captain, lieutenant, and sergeant.  They hardly seem foreign and it would be impossible to even imagine trying to discuss military matters without these lexemes.  Other registers that were flooded with Fr. borrowings were government and administration, law, ecclesiastical matter, fashion, food, social life, art learning and medicine.  In the Early Modern English period (EModE), Fr. would continue to contribute to the English lexis; however, the quantity would be considerably less and motives would be different.


At the open of the EModE period, a common complaint made by many intellectuals was that the English vernacular was insufficient to express the abstract ideas and the range of thought embodied in the ancient languages (Latin and Greek).  Terttu Nevalainen points out that English was considered “‘rude’ and ‘barbarous’, ‘inexpressive’ and ‘ineloquent’” (358).  It was commonplace for authors to apologize for writing in English and in prefaces to unfavorably compare the mother tongue to the Romance languages, especially Fr.  Andrew Boorde, in the first boke of the Introduction of knowledge (1550), says

The speche of Englande is a base speche to other noble speeches, as Italion Castylion and Frenche, howbeit the speche of Englande of late dayes is amended. (qtd. in Barber 66).


Because English was a “base speche” many writers such as Sir Thomas Elyot made a conscious effort to enrich the lexis.  Their choice was not always a matter of practical consideration, coining new words for new concepts, but a matter of stylistic concern, providing richness to the lexis, known as copia verborum, which was considered the hallmark of a literary language (Nevalainen, 358).  

Fr. loans from the opening of the period to approximately the Restoration reveal that both of the aforementioned motives for borrowing are valid.  To illustrate, let us take into consideration a number of military and naval terms: trophy 1513, pioneer 1523, pilot 1520, colonel 1548, volley 1573, and cartridge 1579.  One could argue, and in those days many did, that the first three loans are examples of copia verborum because perfectly good native words −respectively, prize (1300), founder (1340), and steersman (1000)− existed to express these things while this cannot be said of the last three lexemes.  Nonetheless, it is important to stress that one is walking on a fine line when labeling a lexeme as copia verborum.  While the word steersman and pilot are almost completely synonymous at this point, the introduction of pilot did give the speaker the ability to express a fine nuance of meaning.   

The latter part of Boorde’s comment that “the speche of Englande of late dayes is amended” is indicative of the shift in attitude towards the English lexis.  Indeed, many felt that English was rich enough to express almost anything and that many were borrowing for the sake of magniloquence.  This started a conflict known as the Inkhorn Controversy, which died down in the course of the seventeenth century.  To be sure, those in favor of borrowing won the battle; however, the affectation of innovations, particularly Fr., continued to be criticized, especially during the Restoration period.


In 1660, Charles II was recalled from France, where he was in exile, to take the throne.  Charles’s inauguration had very important implications for the language and its development.  In particular, the antipathy towards foreign ideas and attitudes was considerably toned down.  As a result, the Restoration saw the influx of French ideas and social ideals.  N. F. Blake best describes the new cultural and linguistic environment:

The antipathy towards anything foreign, particularly if it had a papist tinge, shown by the Puritans was replaced by the wish to emulate all that was sophisticated and modern in France in particular.  Latin loanwords became less frequent as French loans proliferated. (238)


The proliferation of Fr. loans eventually became a cause of concern and as a result an anti-French faction gradually formed which aimed to check the great influx of words.  To be sure, because there was no academy which dealt with such matters like in France often the gentlest of men would disagree over what was polite and proper in usage and what was affected.  Even had there been an English academy, I believe that there would have been just as many disagreements because of the transitive term polite, which was the criterion for assessing affectation.

‘Polite’ became one of the most important words during the Restoration for it distinguished the speech of what came to be known as the English gentleman and the common brute.  Polite usage was something quite separate from ordinary or colloquial usage.  Two issues that stemmed from polite usage: proper pronunciation and appropriate vocabulary.  It was common view at this time, according to N. F. Blake, “that pronunciation should be as close as possible to the written form” (238).  Thus, any speaker “who wished to be polite clearly had to be reasonably educated in order to read and to be familiar with the spelling system of the language” (238).   Indeed, by making pronunciation dependent on spelling, nobody could be a natural polite speaker, not even the upper middle classes because it was not an imitation of a former aristocratic dialect.  Education is what was of the utmost importance, not birth.  Men like Jonathan Swift and John Dryden often ridiculed those who were or wanted to be members of the nobility and spoke in a strange way. 

It was not just the pronunciation that could earn someone ridicule but choice of words.  Blake points out that that “the approved language (here it seems more appropriate to use the word dialect) was one associated with polite society; it was free of fashionable affectations and cant; it was free of provincialisms; and it was free of the vulgarities of the lower classes” (239).  Accordingly, a gentleman had to be very aware of his audience and environment for it was just as vulgar to use the concrete and detailed language of science in polite conversation.  The gentleman was “an amateur who could talk about everything in abstract terms without relapsing into the vulgarly concrete and detailed” (239).  Again men like Swift, Dryden, Dr. Johnson, and Addison, did not hesitate to satirize those who did not observe decorum.  Of course, they were in a position to do so for they were apart of a small circle of people who “abrogated the right to pronounce on what others should imitate” (239).  And more often then not, they disagreed with one another over politeness, each defining polite to suit their taste or arguments.  So transitive was the term polite that it could be suited for unfounded criticism as the following argument demonstrates.   

Blake observes that women were typically a target of harsh criticism because it was believed that the language they spoke was either “too affected or too coarse” (Blake, 240).  In this context affected literally refers to the use of unnecessary Fr. loans.  Hence in plays written in the Restoration period, it is quite common for female characters to be satirized for their affected use of Fr. words.  So in Dryden’s Marriage á la Mode (1673) there is ‘an Affected Lady’ called Melantha who is ‘one of those that run mad in new French words’.  She peppers her conversation with phrases like mon cher, voyag’d, Bete, honete, home, bien tourney, obligeant, charmant, ravissant.   In short, instead of speaking politely Melantha speaks what critics referred to as “á la Mode de Paris”.

Such satirical writing and branding however must be taken with a pinch of salt.  Indeed, even Dryden was not opposed to the principal of borrowing.  In fact, he defended the principal in the prefix to his translation of Virgil’s Æneid (1697).  He states that our old Teuton monosyllables are all right for necessity, but if we want magnificence and splendour we must borrow words from aboard.

In assessing the linguistic situation and the criticisms, one cannot entirely rule out that it mattered who was introducing the Fr. Loan.  I would go so far as to say that women were often typically targeted because they were not permitted to influence the English language.  My studies have lead me to believe that only the well educated and well respected gentleman/literati was permitted to borrow.  When others borrowed irrespective of the reason, necessity or copia verborum, there choices and often even their character were ridiculed.  To illustrate, let us take into consideration Addison remarks concerning the Duke of Marlbourough’s report on his successful campaign against the French on the continent:

The present War has so Adulterated our Tongue with strange Words, that it would be impossible for one of our Great Grandfathers to know what his Posterity had been doing, were he to read their Exploits in a Modern News Paper.  Our Warriors are very Industrious in Propagating the French Language, at the same time that they are so gloriously successful in beating down their Power.  (qtd. in Blake, 266)


Addison objected to the new military words which had come into use such as manoruvre, bivouac, corps, terrain, and enfilade.  However, these loans have become well established.  Other military terms adopted after or just prior to the Restoration include: cartouche, brigade, platoon, mêlée, envoy, and aide-de-camp.  Loans belonging to specialized registers such as the military were borrowed out of necessity.

While Fr. loans did contribute to many specialized registers as demonstrated above, social loans such as repartee, liaison, naïve, class, décor, rapport, malapropos, métier, faux pas, beau, verve, ménage; and cultural loans such as rôle, crayon, soup, cabaret, cravat, memoirs, champagne, ballet, nom-de-plume, pool, denim, attic, mousseline and vinaigrette constitute the majority of loans.  By cultural I mean loans which would fit into the register arts, literature, dress, games and dancing, and food.

In the eighteenth century, food and cooking continued to attract Fr. loans (e.g. casserole, croquette, ragout, hors d’ oeuvre, liqueur); so do literature, music, and art (critique, belles letters, connoisseur, vaudeveille, dénouement, précis, brochure).[1] 

Enrichment and Semantic Differentiation


The wholesale borrowing of Fr. words was still a cause of much concern even by the eighteenth century.  George Campbell protested against redundant synonymy:

Are not pleasure, opinionative, and sally, as expressive as volupty, opiniatre, and sortie?  Wherein is the expression last resort, inferior to dernier resort; liberal arts, to beaux arts, and polite literature, to belles letters?  (qtd. in Nevalainen, 360)


In spite of such protests, many of the Fr. loans which were branded as affections withstood the test of time as the analysis of Addison’s remark above demonstrates.  As a result, the English lexis is very rich and speakers have a vocabulary at their disposal which allows them to express very fine nuances of meaning.  Indeed, due to wholesale borrowing English speakers have the freedom to modulate their tone, to control the formality or informality of their language to fit the needs of their rhetorical situation, or by using the words, create the rhetorical situation they want.  To illustrate, let us consider for example the French loan faux pas.  Hypothetically, let us say you utter the following sentence “I realize I’d committed a serious faux pas by joking about his wife’s family” to friends (who do not have English or Linguistic majors) while telling an anecdote instead of saying “I made a serious blunder by joking about his wife’s family”.  The first sentence to most native speakers feels slightly formal or even literary compared to the second sentence which is not felt to be stylistically marked.     By choosing faux pas, instead of blunder or even mistake, one is modulating their style to fit the situation with its unique social variables.  At any rate, many native speakers feel that the majority of social and cultural Fr. loans are more formal or literary than their native counter part(s).


Phonological Ramifications


It is quite easy to distinguish ME Fr. loans from EModE, and all loans afterwards, due to the spelling and pronunciation of the latter loans.  A quick glance at the lists above reveals that the Fr. loans did not depart greatly from their sources.  In other words, the loans from EModE and afterwards have not become anglicized like the ME ones.  In most cases, they are spelt the same as the source or something close to it.  Consequently, the letters –é(e), â, and ï enter the language’s orthography.  However, as Henry Alexander rightly points out they do not belong to the English spelling system; therefore, they should be disposed of.  We do see this happening in words like cafe and melee, which are commonly written without accents.  The rule of thumb seems to be that the more popular the loan becomes the more anglicized its appearance.

The pronunciation also remains as close to the original as allowed by the English phonological system.  Thus the ch in champagne is pronounced /S/ instead of /tS/ as in Fr. words taken over in the ME period, e.g. change and chamber.  Similarly ge in rouge is pronounced /Z / instead of /dZ/ as in edge.  ME loans were affected by the Great Vowel Shift, thus we have the diphthong /ai/ in words like nice and vine but a long monophthongal /i:/ in the EModE nouns machine and police.  Another typical distinguishing characteristic is the retention of stress on the second syllable, especially in words that end in –et(te), -esque, -oon, ade, e.g. cadet, coquette, picturesque, grotesque, buffoon, promenade, and parade.  Prof. Alexander duly points out that the deliberate attempt to pronounce these French loans has resulted in something that is neither Fr. nor Eng.  He correctly claims that it would be better and more in accordance with the tradition of our language to make garage one hundred per cent English and let it rime with carriage, and to stop trying to pronounce two nasal vowels in ensemble, because even if one is successful, which most are not, it is an undesirable disturbance to the normal English speech habits.  He suggests that en should be pronounced as in hen and the em as in them, as we do in resemble and assemble.  The usual pronunciation onsomble is neither Eng. nor Fr.


Aside from borrowing and word formation, Fr considerably influenced Eng phrasing.  While A. Prins dates the peak of this influence to late ME, Nevalainen points out that it continues to be felt in EModE.  The loan translations range from polite turns of speech, such as at your service, do me the favour, to engage somebody in a quarrel, to make (later: pay) a visit, to idiomatic phrases like by occasion, in detail, in favour of, in the last resort, in particular, to the contrary (Nevalainen, 370).


Though the number of French loans in the EModE period is relatively minor in comparison to M.E, the contribution is most important.  The EModE Fr. loans were primarily borrowed to provide richness to the language.  Whilst it was arguable during the Restoration whether the loans were corrupting or enriching the language, today there is no doubt or disputable grounds to argue that the loans did anything but enrich the English language.


Alexander, Henry.  The Story of Our Language.  New York: Dolphin Books Edition,

Barber, Charles.  Early Modern English.  London: Andre Deutsch Ltd., 1976.

Baugh, Albert, and Thomas Cable.  A History of the English Language 4th edition. 
            London: Routledge, 1993.

Blake, N. F.  A History of the English Language.  London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996.

Coleman, Julie.  “The Chronology of French and Latin Loan Words in English”.  The
             Philological Society
Vol. 93:2 (1995): 95-124.

Jespersen, Otto.  Growth and Structure of the English Language.  Toronto:
            Collier-Macmillan, Ltd., 1968.

Nevalainen, Terttu.  “Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics.”  The Cambridge            History of the English Language Vol. III.  Ed. Lass, Roger.  Cambridge:
             Cambridge University Press, 1999.  332-458

Tucker, Susie I.  Protean Shape: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Vocabulary and Usage.
            Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Williams, Joseph M.  Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History.
            New York: The Free Press, 1975.


[1] The list of French loans are taken from Terttu Nevalainen, pp. 370.