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Semantic changes and borrowing from French

In order to understand this sphere of borrowings from French one must bear in mind that the first loans were to be found in the upper classes who spoke Anglo-Norman. This fact led to French loans being automatically placed on a level above the normal everyday English vocabulary. Up to the present-day this characteristic of French words in English has remained. While it is true that some of the common French borrowings have become part of the basic stock of English vocabulary (cf. air, age, cry, change, large, manner, mountain, place, point, village, voice) a large quantity of words has remained on a stylistically higher level alongside the lower English terms. This results in such word pairs as the following which are distinguished more by register than by basic meaning: dress : clothe; amity : friendship; commence : begin; conceal : hide; nourish : feed; liberty : freedom.

Loans and native words

The fact that for many of the above words Germanic equivalents already existed in English and continued to exist led to a stylistic splitting of the vocabulary of English. Thus a word like work is a Germanic word and the normal everyday word whereas labour is a Romance loanword which is regarded as being on a higher level, cf. ‘I have some work to do now’, ‘The value of labour in our society’. In other cases the Romance loanword has come to have a slightly different meaning to the Germanic base word, cf. ask and demand where the latter (Romance) word has the implication of insisting on something.

Among the various types of changes which took place in the period in which Middle English borrowed from French through direct contact, are those which led to a mixing of Germanic and Romance elements. Thus one has cases of assimilation in which an English word was created on the basis of a similar sounding French word. Here one has an instance of the French form complementing the English one. For example, the English verb choose obtained a noun choice on the basis of a borrowing of French choix.

In some cases one can no longer decide whether the Germanic or the Romance form of a word has survived into Modern English. Thus in the case of the adjective rich one cannot tell whether it is a continuation of the Old English rice or the later French borrowing riche. However, one can in many cases see a contamination of the morphology of words due to French borrowing. With the previous adjective one can see the Romance suffix in the noun formed from it: richess as opposed to Old English richdom with the Romance ending -ess.

The form of a word may have been changed without its meaning having been affected. With the Old English word iegland / iland (cf. German Eiland) one arrives at the later spelling island under the influence of French isle. Note that the s here is unetymological, i.e. was never pronounced in English. Some French loanwords were influenced by changes later than Middle English. This is for example the case with Old French viage which was borrowed into Middle English but where the later French form voyage was borrowed into English and adapted in its pronunciation. The same is true of the Middle English noun flaute which was changed under the influence of later French flute.

Relative chronology of borrowings

The form of many French loanwords can be used to date borrowing. As mentioned above there are two strands of French influence, an early Anglo-Norman one and a later Central French one. These can be identified phonologically as can be seen in the word pairs catch and chase or cattle and chattels (from captiare and capitale in Latin respectively). In the first word one sees Middle English cacchen which was borrowed from North French cachier as the retention of the /k/ before /a/ was a feature of Norman French.

After 1250 the influence of Central French was predominant in England. In this variety of French the original /k/ retained in Norman French was shifted to /tʃ/ which is reflected in the writing where c was changed to ch. Thus we have the Central French verb chacier being borrowed into Middle English as chacen, Modern English chase. Note that the later borrowing did not replace the earlier one in keeping with the principle that if two variant forms come to be distinguished semantically their continuing existence in the language is as good as guaranteed. Not so with a number of other Norman French borrowings which were replaced by the later Central French ones: calice, carite, cancel; chalice, charite, chancel.

The Central French /tʃ/ underwent the further change to /ʃ/ in the course of the post-Middle English period and later loans reflect this. Thus we have change and chief as Middle English loans from Central French with /tʃ/ but words like chef and champagne with /ʃ/ are of a later origin.

Similar differences in pronunciation can be used to date other loanwords from French. For example the relationship of /dž/ and /ž/ shows the relative chronology of borrowing. The older loans such as siege, judge, age show the affricate /dž/ whereas newer loans from the Early Modern English period have the simple fricative typical of Modern French as in rouge /ru:ž/; with the word garage there still exist two alternative pronunciations /ˡgærɪdʒ/ and /gəˡrɑ:ʒ/.

One can also recognise later borrowings by the vowel quality when the stress is found on the final syllable: memoir (cf. the earlier loan memory), liqueur (cf. the earlier form liquor).

FRENCH LOANS AND THE GREAT VOWEL SHIFT Recall that the Great Vowel Shift is a phenomenon which took place in English after most of the loans from French had entered the language. Thus original French pronunciations inasmuch as they involved long vowels were also subject to the shift. This can be seen in the change of /i:/ to /ai/ as in fine, price, lion, for example, or in the shift of /u:/ to /au/ as in spouse, tower, proud. This does not apply to later loans such as machine /məˡʃi:n/, i.e. this is not pronounced /məˡʃain/. Similar argumentation applies to words like cuisine and prestige which are even later loans, the latter with /i:/ and with /ʒ/ rather than /dʒ/.

Original final stress with French words was replaced in time with the more normal initial stress typical of native words. Thus words like galloun with /u:/ or purchace with /a:/ shortenend their final syllables to ones with just schwa /ə/. Below you find a tabular summary of loanword phonology in the Middle English period and later.

French orthography and Middle English

The orthography of Modern English reflects in a fairly exact manner the pronunciation of Late Middle English. In some respects it can be seen to have adopted practices of French spelling which, while justified in the latter language, were superfluous in English. A case in point is the orthographic treatment of Middle English /u:/. In Old English this vowel was represented simply as u as in OE hus ‘house’. In the course of the Middle English period it came to be written as ‘house’. This spelling is based on the use of the digraph ou to represent the vowel /u/ in French. In the latter language the simple u grapheme stood for a phonetic /y/, cf. Modern French vu /vy/ ‘seen’ and fou /fu/ ‘mad’. In English, however, the digraph ou was not necessary because /y/ had been unrounded in the Early Middle English period (with the exception of the West Midlands area), cf. OE þymel (ME thimble) ‘thimble’. It was nonetheless used so that by Late Middle English the /u:/ of Old English had come to be written with ou (OE /y/ being written simply as i), cf. out, now (the latter with the variant ow at the end of a word). Later loanwords in English do not have the spelling ou for the /u:/ vowel, irrespective of their origin. Thus one has, for example, chute from later French and acute from Latin, both with u for /u:/.

Other instances of Frence influence on English spelling are: h > gh, þ, ð > th, æ > a, cw > qu, i > j (partly), u > v at the beginning, u in the middle of a word, sc > sh [ʃ], c > ch [tʃ], cg, gg > dg [dʒ].

French scribal practice is behind the spelling -ough which in Middle English indicated the pronunciation /-u:x/ or /-oux/. Because of later phonetic developments this spelling came to be one of the most notorious cases of incongruence between pronunciation and orthography in Modern English as it can represent at least seven different sound sequences as seen from the following random set: plough /-au/, cough /-ɒf/, although /-əʊ/, hiccough /-ʌp/, thorough /-ə/ (unstressed), through /-u:/, rough /-ʌf/.

Another feature of French spelling which affected Old English words was the use of final -e. This was added to English words to show that the vowel of the previous syllable was long, as in ice (from OE is). This ‘discontinuous sequence’ is used very much in Modern English to keep original short and long vowels apart graphically, e.g. pan and pane, ban and bane. Note that due to the Great Vowel Shift (which only affected long vowels) the difference is nowadays one of vowel quality and not just quantity. The major changes involved in this shift are given in the following table.

Stress with French loanwords

In the course of time the borrowed forms from French changed their stress from a final stress (which later developed into an equal stress for all syllables in Modern French) to the more common initial stress typical of all Germanic words in English. Thus words like punish, manner which had original stress on the second syllable came to be stressed on the first syllable and retained this into Modern English. Note that initial stress in English refers to the first syllable of a word stem. This has meant that words like conversion, depletion which are French loans with original final stress came to be pronounced with stress on the second syllable as this was regarded as the stem syllable. With disyllabic words the stress may thus remain on the final syllable for the reason just outlined, cf. revert, review, conduct, precede. Later on an independent development in English is to be noted whereby verbs and nouns of French origin are distinguished when they are segmentally similar by virtue of different stress. Here initial stress is characteristic of nouns while final stress is used for verbs, cf. convert, convert; conduct, conduct. The principle outlined here are not watertight, however, that is one finds initial stress on apparent prefixes in words like precedence and no difference in stress between disyllabic nouns and verbs in pairs like review, review; address, address.

Note that there is a certain liberty with stress in English; this applies only to Romance loanwords which all developed a complex of stress alternation. Very often the variants in stress are coterminous with the difference between British and American English, cf. aˡddress, ˡaddress; adˡvertisement, adverˡtisement; ˡharass, haˡrass; inˡquiry, ˡinquiry. The variants in stress may involve changes in vowel quality (as do the undisputed stress variants in Modern English).

French loans and grammar

Quite a few changes in grammar are to be noted with the borrowings from French into Middle English. On the one hand there are cases where not the infinitive is the model for the loan into English but the plural present form of the verb (somewhat unexpectedly). Thus we have words like resolve which comes from the plural resolvons and not from the infinitive resoudre (in which the /u/ indicates that the former /l/ had already vocalised in French). The infinitive which usually forms the point of departure may be borrowed in its entirety (i.e. with the infinitive ending) in words like render from French rendre. In other cases the borrowed infinitive with its ending became a noun, cf. diner which turned into dinner, the corresponding verb being dine. A further case is user which became user (noun) with the verb use. In some cases there may be no verb as a result of the change in word class, cf. souper which turned into supper, the verbal paraphrase being ‘to have supper’.


Evidence for the strong influence of French on Middle English is nowhere as forthcoming as in the area of hybridisation by which is meant that a word consists of two elements, one of Germanic and the other of Romance origin. Consider the following:

(1) The formation of verbal nouns from a French stem and the Germanic ending {ing}: preaching, serving.

(2) The formation of nouns by the addition of Germanic suffixes: {ness}: faintness, secretiveness; {dom}: martyrdom; {ship}: companionship, relationship.

(3) The addition of the ending {ly} (< OE -lich) to French loanwords: {ly}: courtly, princely. The same applies to the following endings {ful}: beautiful, powerful; {less}: colourless, pitiless, noiseless.

The reverse can also be the case, i.e. the ending of a word is French in origin and the stem is Germanic. Consider the following:

(1) The formation of nouns by the addition of suffixes: {age}: mileage, shortage, leakage; {ment}: endearment, enlightenment, bewilderment.

(2) The formation of adjectives by the use of endings: {able}: likeable, loveable, proveable, drinkable, bearable.

In the case of the last examples one can see that many of the French suffixes became productive in English. Indeed the productivity can exceed that of the donor language. This can be seen in the case of the word mutiner ‘to mutiny’ which in English has lead to no less than six forms: mutine, mutinous, mutinously, mutinousness, mutiny, mutineer. The number of word forms may also have developed differently in the course of time, thus English has entry, entrance while Modern French only has entreé, and of course English has the latter as a recent loan meaning ‘something small before starting a full meal’.

The height of productivity is reached, however, by the French adjective veri which originally meant ‘true, real, genuine’ (as is seen nowadays in expressions like You're the very man I'm looking for) and which came to be used in Late Middle English as an intensifying adverb and which has retained and expanded this function since. Originally the English adverb full was used as an intensifier and is still found in fixed phrases like You know full well.

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