Influence of French on Other Languages

This is an essay I wrote for a linguistics class. There are some mistakes and there are things that I would change. But it's good enough and I figured why not publish it? So here you go.

How Languages Influence Each Other

Every culture has a language they speak. Cultures that are in touch can influence one another. Similarly their respective languages also have an influence on each other. Edward Sapir in his book “Language: An introduction to the study of speech” (1921) 1 argues that it would prove difficult or even impossible to find a completely isolated language, even among the primitive tribes which are often too small to remain isolated and intermarriages with neighbouring tribes are common.

The contact between languages can be friendly or hostile. Sapir points out that the language of the more dominant culture is far more likely to impact nearby languages rather than be influenced by them. Notable examples include profound influence of Chinese on Japanese or effect of English on Hindi.

The influence of one language onto another is usually divided into different forms such as borrowing of words, adoption of grammatical and morphological features, phonetic influence, language shift, creation of new language (creole languages) and stratal languages.

Borrowing of words is the simplest one. Sapir shows that it is the cultural borrowing that drives the borrowing of words. He illustrates it with words like Strasse in German or street in English that certainly come from latin strata. Similarly Wein and wine have origin in latin vinum. Sapir believes that by studying borrowed words it is possible to judge the impact that various people had in the advance of cultural ideas. He remarks that Hindu Buddhism brought the influence of Sanskrit and Pali to Siamese, Burmese and Cambodian. Still, we don’t need to go so far to find examples of a major influence. Even today we still name new scientific discoveries using Greek and Latin. Sappir declares that only Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek, and Latin have had a major influence as culture carriers. He then compares them to seemingly influential languages such as French and Hebrew and observes that they are not as significant as one would believe.

It is relatively easy to make a point that the attitude of the borrowing language towards words depends on its acceptance of new words. Sapir illustrates it with comparison between English and German. While English has no problems with word such as credible, certitude, intangible because their formal analysis is not necessary and morphemes cred-, cert-, tan- don’t need a meaning on their own. German on the other hand aims to analyze the words. Because of this a lot of words that were once borrowed from French or Latin didn’t preserve themselves in the German language.

Borrowed words can change their pronunciation in the borrowing language. The foreign sounds that feel alien need to change in order to fit the phonology of the language. Sometimes a new sound is introduced but it doesn’t take long for it to fade away and assimilate with related sounds. One of the most interesting phonetic influence according to Sapir is so-called phonetic parallelism, that is the occurrence of similar phonetic features, or lack thereof, in languages that are close to each other geographically but are otherwise unrelated. For example German languages lack nasalised vowels. However some German dialects that are spoken adjacent to French do have nasalised vowels.

Sapir argues that it is difficult to prove morphological influence on a language. He argues that introductions of different morphemes are hardly any different from borrowing of words and that they don’t make any difference to the core of the language. As an example Sapir uses suffixes like ize or able in English that are from Greek and Latin origin.

Another way a language can influence another language is the creation of a new contact language. British linguist David Crystal in his book “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language” (1997) defines two types of created languages; pidgin and creole. According to him “pidgins and creoles are two stages in a single process of linguistic development”. Pidgin is a system of communication between two groups of people who do not share a common language. It has usually simple grammar, narrow vocabulary and limited functions. A creole has developed from pidgin and has become a mother tongue of a community. While pidgins are auxiliary languages, creoles are primary languages.

History of French language

From Vulgar Latin to Old French

The evolution of French language begins well before the Roman conquest of what is modern-day France. The territory of France was occupied by Celtic tribes who could have arrived here as early as 8th century B.C. The Romans referred to these people as Gaules. French linguist Jacques Leclerc 2 explains that even though there were approximately hundred different Gaulish tribes the Romans formally identified 44. They did however distinguish three ethnic Gaulish groups: the Belgae, the Celtae and the Aquitani. Leclerc further notes that the Gaulish tribes were not united against Romans but were also fighting each other contrary to the popular myth in today’s French culture.

Leclerc strongly opposes the idea of Jules César who in his book “Commentarii de Bello Gallico” described Gaulish people as being divided into different nations who speak different languages. Leclerc argues that when César depicted Gaulish languages he used as an example two tribes living in two opposing ends of the territory. Furthermore he points out the consensus among modern linguists that the Gaulish language was relatively unified except regions at the opposing borders such as Belgae tribes who were influenced by Germanic languages and Aquitani influenced by Iberian and Basque languages.

After the conquest the Romans imposed Latin language on the conquered people mainly through their administrative system. However it is important to point out that Latin wasn’t the only administrative language. In fact the Roman Empire was practically bilingual and the status of the dominant language was shared by Greek and Latin. Leclerc explains that the Latin used in colonies is different from the classical Latin. Vulgar Latin as it is called was spoken by Roman soldiers, Roman officials and assimilated natives. However another French linguist Bernard Cerquiglini in his book “La naissance du français” 3 argues that the influence of classical Latin was much bigger.

Leclerc divides latinization of Gaulish language into several external factors:

  • Latin was a Language of social promotion. In order to get full Roman citizenship an individual must speak Latin.
  • Latin was the language of money.
  • Latin was used in the army.
  • Some Romans received land in new colonies for their services
  • Road network. The network needed a complex system of supporting infrastructure like a place to exchange horses.
  • Latin writing
  • Beginning of the invasion of the Germanic tribes. Local population saw foreigners arrive en masse. The only mean to communicate was to speak Latin.
  • Christianization. First churches used Latin.
  • Oral Latin. Priest encouraged the use of different Latin than the Latin of Rome.

The linguists mark the 7th century as the theoretical date of transition from Latin to Romance language. Latin has not changed the same way everywhere. Dante Alighieri in his essay De vulgari eloquentia divides early Romance languages into three languages: oc language, oïl language and sì language. He identifies them by the world for “yes”. Modern French is considered descendant of language d’oïl. However Leclerc points out that Dante’s division does not make sense when considering language areas of oc, si and oïl language and it only works when considering the region of modern-day France.

After the fall of the Roman empire and violent centuries when different Germanic tribes fought for the influence in the region the Francs assert their dominance in the west and brought with them their language. Thus beginning the process of germanisation of “lingua romana rustica” or Vulgar Latin.

Leclerc shows these influences in phonetics, morphology and semantics. First the introduction of certains diphthongs or more expressive pronunciation of vowels comes from language of Francs. Similarly suffixes -and, -ard or -aud are of germanic origins. Finally Frankish language introduced several new words mainly in the areas of war, agriculture or adjective of colors.

Old French

The era of the king Charlemagne (Charles the Great) is regarded as the beginning of the Old French. The most important documents from this era were Oaths of Strasbourg. They are considered the first texts written in Old French. The Oaths of Strasbourg were pledges of allegiance between Louis the German and Charles the Bald.

In the late 10th century Hugh Capet became king thus starting Capetian dynasty. He was still called King of Franks. However in 1119 the new king Louis VI declared himself as the King of France. Leclerc observes that at this point in history people in France spoke various languages. In general people ignored the language of Church (Latin) and the language of king (Old French). This means that Old French was spoken only in Île-de-France. The inhabitants of other regions spoke various dialects of oïl language, oc language or germanic languages.

In medieval society the Church had a very prominent role. Furthermore in Middle Ages a lot of Latin texts were translated into Old French. Latin naturally influenced the language. Leclerc calls this effect latinisation and illustrates it with creation of latinisms, words like abomination, adorer, convertir or deluge.

Another language that influenced French was Arabic language. It brought Arabic numerals and a number of words into French. In 15th century the influence of France rises and with it rises the influence of French in France as well as in foreign countries.

Comparison of French Dialects

Today the French speaking world is bigger than ever before. There are 29 independent countries where French is an official language. It is easy to imagine that every nation will develop its own dialect. According to Leclerc each French speaking region considers the language as an instrument of national identification. The don’t want to speak “like French”. In fact they tend to invent their own local standards, that is a variety of French that has retained a set of its original features.

Leclerc shows different varieties of French. Belgian French is characterised by use “Belgicisms”, “Wallonisms” and a specific accent. Similarly the Swiss French is characterised by its accent and the use of “Helvetisms” and “Germanisms”. Quebec French as well as Acadian French is defined by it’s use of archaic terms and “Anglicisms”. Leclerc points out that it is possible that climate and some local realities often cause regionalisms.

It is easy to find examples of such differences. While French call breakfast petit-déjeuner, lunch déjeuner and diner dîner, the Belgians, the Swiss and the Québecois call them déjeuner, dîner and souper respectively. In Belgium and Switzerland people use septante instead of soixante-dix for seventy and nonante instead of quatre-vingt-dix for ninety. Furthermore in different French speaking cantons in Switzerland people use various ways of saying eighty. They use either huitante or quatre-vingt. There is a lot more examples of these differences and it could fill an entire book. Leclerc notes that these regionalisms are not used by all Belgians, all Swiss and all Québecois.

French dialects don’t exist only in Europe and Québec but also in Africa, in Antilles and on Indian and Pacific islands. On almost every island in Caribic people speak variations of creole languages but French is the official language on a number of islands. Thus it creates several French regional expressions. Similarly the French spoken in Martinique and Guadaloupe uses a lot of archaic expressions.

By contrast the French spoken in Africa uses what Leclerc calls “africanisms”. Former French colonies developed a significant number of expressions which describe regional realities. Furthermore Leclerc argues that in Africa regionalisms appeared not only in morphology but also in phonetics and grammar.

Probably the most studied variety of African French is French spoken in Ivory Coast and its capital Abidjan in particular. Abidjan is the largest francophone city in West Africa. There are over 60 different languages spoken in the city.

Marita Jabet, Swedish linguist, explains in her paper 4 the varieties of French spoken. She argues that the origin African French is linked with creolisation of French in the beginning of colonial era. The slaves that were exported to America were no longer in contact with their French masters. The creole language thus became an approximation of an approximation, while African French is an approximation of French.

According to Jabet there are three main differences between standard French and French of Abidjan. Firstly the omission of indefinite and definite articles. Next in order the omission of subject pronoun which is mandatory in standard French. Finally its lack of number and gender of nouns.

Leclerc concludes that all these regionalisms can be called “francophonisms” regardless of their origin.

Influence of French on Other Languages

French based Creole languages

As France conquered different parts of the world they always brought their language which influenced the language of the natives. The biggest impact French had was in small island nations in Atlantic, Indian and Pacific ocean. Today natives to these island speak variants of French based creole languages.

The most studied French based creole language is probably Haitian Creole. Albert Valdman 5 describes the origin of Haitian Creole as a creation of French slavers in order to communicate with population from Africa. The theory he is proposing says that the new language borrows lexicon from one language and the grammar from the other language. Borrowed words are then phonetically and phonologically changed to fit into the syntax. Linguists call this theory relexification.

In the case of Haitian Creole the lexical influencer was French while the syntax was brought from the languages of African natives.

Another French based creole language is Louisiana Creole. It’s origin is similar to the origin of Haitian Creole. However linguists had a lot more texts available to analyze its creation.

French Indochina and North Africa

One of territories that was colonized by France was French Indochina. Today there are three independent countries; Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. French colonial rule lasted for less than 100 years which is not enough to create a significant French speaking majority. This is the reason why today only 5% of the population of Vietnam is francophone. However French has still influenced Vietnamese culture and language.

Before French colonial rule the Vietnamese was written in Chinese characters. However this writing system was unsuitable for Vietnamese language. British handwriting expert Rosemary Sassoon in her research paper “The Acquisition of a Second Writing System” 6 describes the transition from Chinese to Latin based writing system. According to her first attempts at romanisation of Chinese were done by Jesuit missionaries in 17th century. These attempts were not very successful.

French colonial rule released new script called “quoc ngu”. The first Vietnamese newspaper written in quoc ngu was printed. In 1910 the script was made compulsory.

By contrast France had a lot longer rule over its colonies in Africa. One of the region with strongest French presence was Marocco, Algeria and Tunisia or so-called Maghreb. Alison Tarwater student of anthropologist and Arabic linguist Abdelrahim Salih in his paper “French Colonization in the Maghreb: A Central Influence in Both Regions Today” describes the style of French policies towards its African colonies. According to Tarwater France focussed on forced assimilation. They tried to make people feel the same sense of loyalty to France as “real” French felt. Thus French has become the official language in Maghreb. To make their colonies loyal they replaced their original government with French speaking natives.

Today French is not the official language in either of the three Maghreb countries. However it is still spoken by a large minority.

French Influence on English

One of the most widely spoken language that French influenced is English. The first contact the two languages had was during the Norman conquest in 11th century. William the Conqueror (Duke William II of Normandy) invaded England following the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066. It is important to note that Normans were not actually French but Vikings who have settled in Northern France 200 years earlier. They have however lost their language and became French in manner and speech. The variant of French they spoke was different than Parisian French.

Anglo-American writer Bill Bryson explains the Norman conquest in his book “Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language” 7. He says that even though the elite was replaced by French the life for the common people went on. They never expected to speak the same language as their masters. The Norman society had two levels. The French speaking elite and the English speaking peasantry. Bryson argues that this may be the reason why the linguistic influence of Normans focused mostly on matters of court, government, fashion and high living. He illustrates it with the names of animal and food made out of them. While the animal itself usually had English name (sheep, cow, ox) the cooked meat on the other hand usually had French name (beef, mutton, veal, bacon).

Linguists call the language spoken in England during the Norman period Anglo-Norman. It differed from Parisian French in number of aspects. Bryson uses as an example words starting with qu-. In Anglo-Norman it was pronounced with kw sound while in Parisian French with hard k sound. The Normans used suffixes like -arie/-orie while French used -aire/-oire. That’s why in English there is victory while in French there is victoire.

Isabel Roth in her essay “Explore the influence of French on English” 8 points out the idea of a second wave of borrowing from French. According to her by the 13th century the Central French has become more fashionable in European courts. Furthermore the language was no longer exclusive to the upper classes and has opened itself towards growing middle class. Thus there is an increased number of loanwords in wider range of lexical fields. Roth uses as an example abstract nouns such as inspiration.

Roth argues that another strong influence of French was in morphology. While in Old English new words were created by affixation and compounding the influx of new words caused that new words were accepted more easily. Furthermore French affixes were added to the natives and some native affixes were lost. An example of English word and French affixe creating a new word in English is hindrance (hinder + -ance).

Another linguistic field where French has influenced English was syntax. In today’s English there are some expression with adjective preceding the noun such as general election or royal wedding.

© 2021 Matúš Námešný, Built with Gatsby