French is our heritage too!

Image via Akseli Koskela
Château de Langeais in France, once the home of King
Richard the Lion Heart, destroyed by the English in the
Hundred Years' War and rebuilt by Louis XI in 1465.
Last week I commented on why Australians flock to London in droves and about the cultural heritage that brings so many Australians to the British Isles. But, whilst Australians seem well able to appreciate the cultural significance of Britain, I feel that they don’t share the same enthusiasm for the country on the other side of the channel, which I think is equally as significant. My own contention as an English teacher, is that all speakers of English who actually take an interest in the language or have a love for the language should try to acquaint themselves with French. Because French makes up an important part of our heritage too - I think far more so than Latin or Greek - Samuel Johnson in the preface to his, the original English dictionary, explains that he preferred French spellings to Latin ones where the etymology was uncertain because as he put it “the French generally supplied us.” And when more than half of the words in the English language have either French or Latin origins that makes a big deal.

One thing that I noticed whilst travelling about in Europe is the line that you can draw across the continent dividing the two biggest cultural influences on almost every country, that is, the line between the Latin, and the Teutonic, and there exist a heap of cultural stereotypes and attitudes that seem to accompany the divide. (In terms of language Finland, Greece, Ireland and the Slavic countries all have very different languages, but if only in cultural stereotypes if in nothing else, they still seem to conform to their side of the dividing line). In Switzerland this line actually has a name: the Röstigraben or Rosti ditch after a popular form of mashed potatoes eaten in the German half of Switzerland. Maybe in other parts of Europe the demarcation isn’t so clear as in Switzerland, but you’ll know on which side you’re on when you sample the food in the North (or when you’re in Oslo and you have to barter one of your own limbs just to pay for the meal!). Or, likewise, you’ll know you’re in a Latin country when notwithstanding the tasty food your holiday experience is somewhat lessened when you have to learn to use your elbows to queue-up for a bus in Nîmes after your train has been inexplicably cancelled.

But I can’t help feeling that England and subsequently the United Kingdom occupy a bit of grey area. No-one would ever say that the UK is a Latin country - but at the same time, it’s not quite one-hundred-percent Northern either. The language itself is an odd mix, Germanic origins and an underlying Germanic grammar but with Latin words making-up more than half the vocabulary.

English stereotypes are likewise mixed: the English have somehow managed to acquire the dour puritan work ethic of Northern Europe without the famous German efficiency or Scandinavian inventiveness. Don’t think I’m just knocking the Brits either - Australians have a “she’ll be right” attitude to not doing a job properly without the joie de vivre or work-life balance of the Latin countries.

Hmmm, best of both worlds really.

But, actually these are just facile national stereotypes. The point that I really want to make is that too often the French heritage in English is forgotten. Whilst 20th century English writers like Thomas Hardy and J.R.R. Tolkien rejoiced in digging-up old English and Anglo-Saxon words, with their homely and honest connotations (consider Thomas Hardy’s “Hap”), only advertising executives and the worst types of academia have taken an interest in the French and Latin words in English.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Bordeaux, capital of Aquitaine,  was ruled by the King
of England for 300 years, or was it that for 300 years the
Kings of England were from Anjou or Aquitaine?
But there are fantastic words derived from French too. As well as almost all the words relating gouvernance and justice, also the words that have connotations that are Royal and Grand, there are Anglo-Saxon equivalents for these words but Kingly and Great take-on a whole new level of meaning when said in French. French gives us glorious words - like Glory, as well as the pompous like importune and impostor (and yes - pompous also came to Middle English via the Old French pompeux).

But I might leave you with a favourite for rich connotations and a lovely etymology: consider “journey” from journée as in bonne journée, it originally only meant a day’s travel or a day’s work but in English the word seems to have exemplified Bilbo’s attitude to a going out for the day - which says a lot about the English:

Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.
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5 comments:

JJ said...

Approximately ten thousand French words were adopted into English during the Norman occupation. About 75% of them are still in use today. The English language is riddled with French vocabulary. More than a third of all English words are derived from French. There are almost two thousand cognates, or words that are identical in both languages.

Il semble que vous avez raison!

Serkan Ozturk said...

Akseli,

I hope you've been watching that nerd show, 'Letters and Numbers' on SBS. David Astle the crossword guy is the word authority on the show, and he's a word nerd just like you.

roxy said...

You closed with one of my favorite Tolkien quotes. Absolutely love it. I must be a frustrated linguist because I enjoy language so much. I could listen to French voices all day. Thanks for this interesting post.

Akseli Koskela said...

JJ - Je te pense comme un ami. On peut se tutoyer, non?

Serkan, words are fantastic! I haven't been watching the show. But I'm going to look it up.

Roxy, yes although I no-longer read any Tolkien, I still find myself referring back to Tolkien in my musings on England and Englishness.

JJ said...

Mon français n'est pas bon, mais je suis un ami.