Episode 99: The Second French Invasion

The early 13th century saw the arrival of a new wave of Frenchmen on the English shores. Some came as conquerors, and some came as nobles and courtiers looking for land and titles. During this period, Norman French started to lose much of its prestige in England, and it was gradually replaced with the French of Paris and central France. In this episode, we look at this second French invasion and the impact it had on the English language.


29 thoughts on “Episode 99: The Second French Invasion

  1. Listening to the bit about the word “chase”, I wondered if you know the history of the English “cat” vs the French “chat” – an animal that chases. Are they related?

    • Yes, “cat” and “chat” are based on the same root with the French word “chat” showing the sound change I mentioned in the episode. The word is ultimately a Latin word (“cattus”) that was borrowed by the Proto-Germanic speakers and has been widely borrowed throughout Europe over the centuries. Since it existed in Proto-Germanic, Old English had the word as “catt.”

      There are actually a lot of English words with ‘CA’ that have a French equivalent with ‘CH.’ In the episode, I tried to focus on pairs where both versions exist in English, and where one or both versions entered English in the 1200s or 1300s.

  2. Really interesting episode. Regarding the meanings of “reward,” you mentioned (if I recall right) that it lost its negative associations and retained only the good. But there is a sense in which it retains its older dual meaning: when a criminal is punished for his crime, he can be said to have received a “just reward.” I had always thought that was an ironic or even sarcastic use of the word, but, based on your lecture, it now seems to be an echo of its original use.

    • Thanks! The phrase “just reward” is indeed a holdover from the punitive sense of the word “reward.” The OED attributes it to that original sense.

  3. I have been listening to your wonderful podcasts. Thank you. I want to revisit the episode where you talked about the words “bee” and “honey”. I cannot find it again. Can you direct me to the episode? Thanks!

    • Hi Jennifer. I first discussed honeybees in Episode 6 in regard to Indo-European words. I discussed them again in Episode 9 as part of the attempt to identify the first Indo-Europeans. I also discussed the use of honey and mead in the context of medical remedies in Episode 63. Hopefully, one of those is the episode you are looking for.

  4. I have been listening to your podcasts for a long time now in spurts of 20 episodes or so and then I take 6 months off. Because of this, I’ve never caught up to a point where I could leave a reply before this.
    Thank you for all your research and hard work. This is such a great podcast. I enjoy it immensely.

  5. This episode discusses cognates that came into English separately from Northern and Central France, examples of the doublet ‘g’ and ‘w’ being ‘Guillaume’ / ‘William’, ‘guard’ / ‘ward’, ‘guerre’ / ‘war’. Note all of the initial ‘g’s are followed by ‘u’.

    Perhaps the earlier Central French form was pronounced like ‘gward’ or ‘gwerre’? That the ‘u’ after the ‘g’ signified a ‘gw’ pronunciation? So in the centre they went (phonetically) from Germanic ‘ward’ to Old French ‘gward’, to Modern French ‘gard’.

    PS: the old spelling ‘real’ for ‘royal’ is still evident in the toponym Montréal (Mount Royal).

    • Hi John. I think your summary of the phonetic development is correct. I believe it was initially a /gw/ sound. I think the ‘g’ was initially softer and simply a way to help the Central French speakers get to the ‘w’ sound at the front of those words. Over time, the ‘g’ sound became more pronounced (both literally and figuratively) and the ‘w’ sound disappeared.

  6. Hi Kevin
    I think it is premature to talk about the Parisian dialect becoming the standard French dialect in this period. I believe what is known as Middle French in this period is, in fact, the Francian dialect (from the Ile-de-Paris region) but it is only one of many northern dialects (langues d’Oc) as you rightly pointed out.

    The 16th and 17th centuries — the beginning of the Modern French period —saw much standardization and purification of the language as well as the creation of l’Academie Francaise, but even so, French was spoken by a very, very small percentage of the population of France. Most people spoke a regional language or patois. In fact, it really wasn’t until the 19th c with the advent of standardized national educational system that a majority began learning French.

    I love the podcast!

    • Hi again
      Further to my comment above, here’s an interesting statistic from the History of French entry on Wikipedia:

      “Hence, according to historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the French language has been essential to the concept of ‘France’, although in 1789 50% of the French people did not speak it at all, and only 12 to 13% spoke it ‘fairly’ – in fact, even in oïl language zones, out of a central region, it was not usually spoken except in cities, and, even there, not always in the faubourgs [approximatively translatable to “suburbs”]. In the North as in the South of France, almost nobody spoke French.”[27]

      • “even in oïl language zones”
        We are definitely a sect in this forum!
        Who else except your dedicated followers would understand immediately that you weren’t discussing OPEC here? (grin)

    • Thanks Carol. All good and fair points. I am definitely simplifying the history of French a bit, but I feel that I have to do that in order to tell the story of English. I think I noted in the episode that I was using the term “Parisian accent” in a very broad way that included a variety of accents outside of Paris as well. I elected to use the term “Parisian accent” because I thought listeners would find it easier to follow the developments if I explained it that way. And you are correct to point out that other dialects were very common during this period. Maybe someone will do a podcast about the history of French one day. That would be fun. 🙂

    • Interesting points, Carol; thank you for sharing!

      Just a couple notes from me. Languages in northern France are langues d’oïl, not langues d’oc (which are in the south, even into modern-day Spain and Italy).

      I encourage you to refrain from using the word “patois” to name regional languages; it implies that these languages are less-than or not “real” languages. Additionally, patois retains a classist tone that places rural, peripheral speakers beneath bourgeois, central speakers. Really, patois is only useful inasmuch as it applies to sociological critiques.

      Beyond that, calling a langue d’oc a “patois” is very misleading: to imply that something like Occitan is a “non-standard variant” of metropolitan French is linguistically inaccurate, since Occitan is its own distinct language.

      Lastly, I can’t recall where I read it, but I also heard that WWI was the death knell for regional languages because conscripts had to learn the government’s French.

  7. Minor quibble: the langues d’Oc were the languages of southern France (hence the region “Languedoc”); the northern dialects were the “langues d’Oïl”. At one point in his book “The discovery of France : a historical geography from the Revolution to the First World War”, Robb Graham lists perhaps a dozen different pronunciations of the word “yes”–from which the many different linguistic regions received their names.

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  9. Hi Kevin — Love this podcast! and so interested to know about this 2nd French invasion. It reminded me of a blog post I wrote some years ago, “Why OUI?” about the origin of the French word for “yes” — oui. (Why “oui,” when the other Latin languages went with “si”?) I read it again and still enjoyed it and thought you and other readers might too: http://bit.ly/2CSWyPj

    • Thanks for the link to the blog post. I actually discussed the origin of “oui” in an earlier episode (#44, I think).

  10. I’m sorry for posting g this question here but I figure this may he the most relevant time period for what I’m going to ask:

    What is the earliest written instance of “favorite/favourite” in English and how was it spelled? My memory may very well be misleading me but it seems to me that the *u* was added later, especially since at the time Enflish adopted words like favorite and color, the variety of Frenxh we got them from still spelled these words with -or.

    Can anyone confirm or correct me on this?
    Thanks a lot, love the show!

    • The OED cites the first recorded use as “fauorits” from the year 1582. (This was at a time when the ‘u’ still represented both the ‘u’ and ‘v’ sounds.) Several early entries spell the word without a ‘u’ in the second syllable, but Shakespeare spelled it with a ‘u’ as “fauourites” in Much Ado About Nothing from the year 1600. So it appears that the spelling was variable in the first century or so before the ‘u’ became standard in British English.

  11. Interesting episode! I had the same question as John C. above, and also wondered if the standard French “c” as an “s” sound (“chase”) discussed at the end of the episode went through an intermediate phase of “ch” sound like the Normans (catch) on its way from Latin before softening all the way to the “s’ sound? Is it thought that at one point the Normans and central Parisian French speakers had a similar pronunciation, but that the Parisian-area ones kept evolving more?

    • Hi Meghan. As far as I know, there was no intermediate ‘ch’ stage in the Parisian assibiliation or palatalization. It is my understanding that in the central dialects around Paris the /k/ sound shifted forward to an /s/ sound when it appeared before the front vowels. If there was an intermediate ‘ch’ stage, I haven’t encountered it in any of my research.

  12. Kevin, always fun to learn why we say what we say. In this episode you discussed two seemingly contradictory sound shifts from Norman to Parisian pronunciations. The first is the ‘wa’ to ‘ga’ shift as in warden to guardian..because the latter couldn’t pronounce the ‘wa’ sound. But ‘oi’ became ‘wa’ – as in the word for oiseau (bird). Does this suggest that the Parisian pronunciations were based more on preference than on ability to pronounce?

    • Hi Darryl. It has been a while since I did the research for this episode, but I think the answer to your question is that the ‘oi’ to ‘wa’ that you mentioned was a later development within French. I actually mentioned that example at some point point in the podcast. When English borrowed the ‘oi’ sound from French in Middle English, it was a brand-new sound to English. So the French pronunciation was ‘oi’ (/oy/) at the time. It later evolved into the modern French ‘wa.’ I think the same thing happened with French ‘oui’ where the modern pronunciation of /wee/ developed relatively late.

  13. Coming very late to this discussion, I think
    part of the reason why “oiseau” comes naturally to a French speaker but “war” and “wardrobe” do not is that “oiseau” (and any other noun starting with “oi”) is usually preceded by an article such as l’, les, un or des.
    That gives the speaker a consonant from which to move to the “oi” sound and makes the move easy. By contrast, “the war” or “a wardrobe” places a vowel before the “wa” sound. Likewise if you try to say “la uerre” or “le uarderobe”. It becomes easier if you put in the G (“la guerre”, “le garderobe”) and thus give yourself that consonant to launch from.

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