Thursday, 21 October 2010

french letters

English is a mongrel language. Around an original framework of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse has accumulated a vast, higgledy-piggledy superstructure of words and phrases appropriated at various times from French, Italian, Latin and Greek, liberally sprinkled with odd words from at least twenty other languages, many of which would have been seen as quite exotic when first used.

For example, coffee and kiosk were borrowed from Turkish, while caravan came from Persian, bungalow and verandah from Hindustani, bamboo from Malay, ketchup and typhoon from Chinese, tattoo from Polynesian, boomerang from Aboriginal Australian, safari from Swahili, kayak * and parka from Inuit, and chocolate and tomato from Aztec (via Spanish). You will notice that the object defined by these words didn’t exist in mediaeval England, and one may assume that when that object did arrive, whether literally or in the reports of travellers, it came accompanied by its ‘name’, forestalling any possibility that a native word might be coined to describe the new arrival.

A couple of languages have been the source of more than the odd word, but these contributions have tended to be focused in specific fields. For example, Arabic provides many words related to science and mathematics, including algebra, algorithm, azimuth, cipher, elixir, nadir and zenith. This reflects the history of these subjects, in particular how the science and mathematics of the ancient Greeks eventually found its way into Renaissance Europe, via the Islamic Empire in border cities such as Toledo in al-Andalus (Spain).

Many of the technical terms in art and architecture come from the country that spearheaded the Renaissance: Italy. Examples include chiaroscuro and tempera in art and cupola, piazza and portico in architecture. The technical language of music is almost exclusively Italian, but a few terms have escaped into general circulation; examples include crescendo, maestro, tempo and virtuoso.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the heyday of Latin and Greek. Many words were imported directly from these two ancient languages, such as alibi, acumen, basis, censor, dictum, formula and terminus from Latin, and chaos, criterion, hubris, hyperbole, mentor and stigma from Greek. Not content with mere borrowings, however, writers of this period also began to assemble new words by adding random Latin or Greek prefixes and suffixes to existing Latin or Greek words, with the result that the vocabulary of English expanded hugely. Word coiners of the twentieth century were not quite so discriminating: instead of marrying Latin with Latin and Greek with Greek, they came up with such hybrids as television, which has a Greek prefix tacked onto a Latin root and Latin suffix.

At this point, you may well be wondering about the point of this essay. Ah, but now we come to French. There are probably more words in common usage in English that come originally from French than from any other foreign language. But this simple fact obscures a real problem: pronunciation. Why do most native English speakers try to pronounce these words as if they are speaking French? Is it to demonstrate their self-defined erudition?

I wince each time I hear someone say something close to “doobl ontondre” in the middle of an English sentence, doubly so if the speaker tries to include the two nasal vowels from the original French. Another egregious example is homage, often pronounced to rhyme with the ‘Taj’ in Taj Mahal. One wonders what is wrong with pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘damage’, as most people tend to do. In fact, I believe that the pronunciation of all French words should be anglicized. Words that came over with the Normans in 1066, such as beef, mutton and pork, have been around long enough to have been anglicized in both pronunciation and spelling, but a host of more recent imports retain the original pronunciation, for no very good reason.

The stumbling block would appear to be speakers of what is rather pretentiously called ‘received pronunciation’ (aka ‘BBC English’, although this phrase becomes more of an oxymoron with each passing year). Most such speakers hail from the south of England and probably look down on those of us who pronounce garage to rhyme with ‘carriage’. But cafe is already pronounced to rhyme with ‘safe’ in working-class districts of London and with ‘coffee’ in the north of England, clique is pronounced to rhyme with ‘shriek’ by some and to sound like ‘click’ by others, and most people with limited pretensions regard a poseur as a ‘poser’.

We can hurry along this process by deliberately setting out to pronounce ballet to rhyme with ‘mallet’, cachet and sachet with ‘hatchet’, debris with ‘hubris’, debut with ‘rebut’ and promenade with ‘lemonade’. Unfortunately, there is a particular problem with words that in the original contain a nasal vowel. It isn’t as if we’re consistent either. Words like cordon and coupon sound as native as beacon and season, although this could be because the nasal and oral versions of ‘o’ are quite similar. The nasal and oral ‘a’ and ‘i’ differ much more significantly, which tends to cause confusion, with the educated among the population endeavouring to get as close to the original French as they can, and those who never learned French at school simply doing their best to follow. Imagine how much easier it would be if the first four letters of impasse were to be pronounced identically to the same four in ‘impact’, in other words, as it reads.

Another problem lies with diacritical marks, which have no place in English but are retained by many writers: café, débâcle, fête and rôle can function perfectly well without the accents. However, words like blasé, cliché, communiqué, façade and protégé do present a problem, although façade is often pronounced by those who know no French to rhyme with ‘arcade’, and this may be the way forward: to pronounce as it appears to read if you’re unfamiliar with French.

A second concept that is alien to the English language is gender. However, many French words have come into English with their gender distinctions intact, including blond(e), debutant(e) and doyen(ne). It would be a big improvement if the feminine forms were to be dropped.

Finally, there are a large number of French phrases that have been imported into English unchanged. Cul de sac may be a splendid metaphor in the original (‘arse of bag’), but English already has two equivalent phrases that have the advantage of meanings that are clearly understood: blind alley and dead-end street. Why do we need another? Other French phrases that could usefully be pruned from English include à propos, bon voyage, coup de grâce, de rigueur, en masse and vis-à-vis (the full list runs into dozens).

At this point, you will probably detect a whiff of hypocrisy. I may not make a regular habit of it, but I do use the occasional French phrase myself, probably because I can’t think immediately of a native English synonym. I use Latin words and phrases more frequently, but that’s another story (I studied the language for four years at school, so this habit is deeply ingrained). In any case, as you may also have spotted, this tirade against French imports is at least slightly tongue in cheek. I’m not optimistic of success, but for those of you who would like to see the English language defrenchified, the campaign starts here.

*This reminds me of a story I heard once about an Inuit hunter out in his kayak. It was so cold that he decided to light a fire—on the deck of his little craft. The inevitable happened: the fire burned through the deck, followed by the bottom of the boat, which sank, unfortunately, thus proving beyond reasonable doubt that you can’t have your kayak and heat it.


  1. Have you read the book "The Secret Life of Words - how English became English" by Henry Hitchens? It's a fascinating story of how the English languase is influenced by everyone who traded, fought and formed allies with the English over the centuries.

    I think you'd like it (though it sounds like you know a fair bit anyway!)

  2. I haven't read the book you refer to Baglady, but it does sound interesting. It also sounds like the sort of book I might find in the university library, thus obviating the need to part with hard currency.

    Our Language by Simeon Potter may not now be in print but is well worth a read. My copy is back in the UK, unfortunately.

  3. dennis-- Thanks for the interesting read. I am in teh site of a master. I can learn a lot from you. ( At teh very least improve my english!)

  4. Fun post, thank you! I was forced to live through 3 years of high school French, so it's hard to not pronounce it with the accent. I definitely agree with you regarding blond/e etc.

    On other languages, when I was studying Swedish I was surprised that there is really only one word for "love" - alskar. And you can't say it with regards to your parents or siblings or even a friend, it's pretty much only for your lover. The best you can do is "like" folks you aren't romantic with.

    The CRITTER Project and Naked Without a Pen

  5. I learnt French during my school days.However, as much as I try to brush up my language skills I end up speaking 'FRANGLAIS'..( more of English..with only one or two words in French).

  6. Ah. A man after my own heart.

    Nothing, nothing gets my wick up more than some eejit saying Balencia instead of Valencia with a V or the like.

    We speak English, there is an english name for that town - use it. You'd never hear the French doing that.

    Recently I had the misfortune to hear one radio reporter after another pronouncing Chile as Chil-eh. Jeepers I nearly cut off my ears.

  7. Glad that you pointed me in the direction of this essay. Although my poem is not meant to be taken as a serious literary piece, I found reading this informative and will certainly take more care with any future rhyming words, English or foreign!

  8. Very well written and great depth of knowledge, though as you say it would be an uphill battle. But very thought provoking and stimulating! Bravo! haha


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