Even if you’re just starting to study French, believe it or not, you’ve already got a pretty extensive vocabulary!
The reason for this is over 10,000 English words come from French. Many others come from Latin, the language from which French originated.
This means that a significant number of English words have either exact French counterparts or very similar equivalents in French.
That’s something to celebrate! But, you might be wondering, just how did all of these French words get into English? How many French words are there in English? Let’s take a look at the French influence on the English language, and how it can help you with French vocabulary today!
When were French words borrowed into English?
In order to understand the way French influenced the English language, you have to know a little bit of history.
In antiquity, Celtic languages were spoken in the British Isles. Then, around 50 CE, most of the territory was invaded by the Romans. “Britannia” became a part of the Roman Empire, and Latin became the language of political and administrative life.
In the 5th and 6th centuries CE, Germanic tribes, including the Angles and the Saxons, invaded Britain, bringing their language with them.
But Latin remained a strong presence, since it was the language of the powerful and far-reaching Catholic Church (the Germanic tribes had quickly converted to Catholicism).
All religious services and texts were in Latin. This led to words commonly heard during masses and in religious parables becoming a part of everyday vocabulary.
Some of the Latin words that began to infiltrate the language of British people at this time include “devil” (Latin: diabolus) and “angel” (Latin: angelus).
Like its fellow Romance languages, French is a form of Vulgarized (that is, spoken by the people and influenced by previously existing local dialects) Latin. This is one of the reasons why there are so many similar words in French and Latin-influenced English. But it’s not the only reason why – not by far.
The main reason for the large number of French words in English can be chalked up to another invasion: the Norman Invasion of 1066, when William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquerant in French) staked his claim to the British throne and won it in the Battle of Hastings.
If you’re an art person, rather than a linguistics or history person, this battle may sound familiar – it’s immortalized on the Bayeux Tapestry.
After William’s accession to the throne, the royal court was made up of Norman (from Normandy) nobility, who spoke French.
Old English and French coexisted, often quite separately, since most people in Britain never had contact with nobility.
But over time, French words began to creep into English.
These were mainly in areas like law, administration, and, unsurprisingly, food. For example, this excellent (and very funny) video about the history of English points out that while words like “pig” and “sheep” have Germanic roots, their food forms– “pork” (porc) and “mutton” (mouton) – come from French.
A few other French words that entered the English language in this era include sovereign (souverain), justice (justice), and counsel (conseil).
As the centuries went by, English continued to evolve, and and became recognized in its own right. It was used in the daily life of the upper classes and clergy, as well as the commoners. Latin did make a comeback, though. During the Renaissance, cultured people spoke it, and later, in the Age of Enlightenment, Latin was used again when classifying scientific discoveries and phenomena.
French words in English today
Over the course of its tumultuous history, and English has borrowed from and been influenced by many different languages. But French and Latin have had the most influence. French and Latin words make up 58 % of modern English vocabulary today. On their own, purely French words make up 29% of English.
It’s generally thought that around 10,000 words have been borrowed into English from French. Of those, according to this source, there are over 1,700 “true cognates” – that is, words that not only look the same or similar, but have exactly the same meaning in both languages.
Why is the French (and Latin) influence on English important to French learners?
Sure, etymology is fascinating, and sure, what you’ve just read might make for some fun party conversation (well, depending on what kind of parties you go to…). But is all of this really important? After all, even if you can speak English, that doesn’t mean you can speak French.
But in fact, knowing this tie to French can help you. For one thing, you may have already experienced reading something in French and realizing that you understood more than you’d expected, because some of the words are the same in both languages. And on an even more helpful scale, since certain lexical features like suffixes can be the same in French and English, you may be able to guess how to say certain French words.
Six suffixes that are the same in French and English
With that in mind, let’s look at six fairly common suffixes that are the same in both languages.
Before we do that, though, remember that a suffix is an ending that gives a particular meaning when it’s tacked onto a word. For example, -ly is a suffix in English that indicates a word is an adjective or adverb (examples: lovely, quietly).
Like English, French has many suffixes. A number of these come from Latin. These include:
- -ation. Examples: nation/la nation ; information/l’information
- -tion. Examples: acceleration/l’accélération ; attention/attention
- -ssion. Examples: mission/une mission ; passion/la passion
- -able. Examples : capable/capable ; table/la table ; adorable/adorable
- -isme. Examples: Impressionism/l’impressionnisme ; racism/le racisme
- -if/ive. Examples: furtive/furtif/furtive; creative/créatif/créative
As you can see, not all of these words are identical down to the letter. But knowing that root words in both languages can have these suffixes added to them can be helpful, especially in French conversation. Personally, this rule was one of the things that made speaking French a lot easier for me. If I knew a word in English that had one of these suffixes, there was a good chance that it was the same or similar in French.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’ll no longer have to memorize vocabulary for words with these endings. After all, there are some that don’t follow the rule. Take “vacation” – in French, it’s les vacances. Still, these common suffixes are good to keep in mind.
French circumflex words and English
Unlike English, the French language involves a lot of diacritical marks. While most accents in French words are used to indicate things like pronunciation, verb tense, or gender, one of them, the circumflex, is basically just a historical marker.
Most French words that have a circumflex once had an “s” after the accented letter. So, for example, the word château was once chasteau. The word forêt was once forest.
That “once” is a time when French words were being borrowed into English, and so, interestingly enough, many French circumflex words have English counterparts that are very similar, with an “s”. You may already know or have guessed the English equivalents of château and forêt, for example – castle and forest.
(Before we continue, yes, I know château is also “chateau” in English, but that word has a very specific connotation and isn’t used as a general term the way château is in French.)
As you can see with château/castle, not all French circumflex words have remained exactly the same in the two languages. And in some cases, like être , there’s no similar English word at all. So, while the tie between French circumflex words and English could be helpful to keep in mind in some cases (forêt/forest; hôtel/hotel; hôpital/hospital; théâtre/theatre, etc.), it isn’t a constant.
But for etymology fans like myself, it is a pretty neat tie to history, at the very least.
False cognates – and why they exist in the first place
Some English and French words are written the same way or very similarly but have evolved to have very different meanings.
One of the most notorious of these faux amis is préservatif, which does not mean “preservative” in French, but…condom. Misusing this word is one of the most awkward French mistakes you can make!
So, the moral here is to still learn your vocabulary. But if you’re in a bind, you have a good chance of being able to find an equivalent French word if it contains one of those six suffixes I mentioned, or is related to a French circumflex word.
You may be wondering why faux amis exist at all, since English borrowed words directly from French and Latin. The answer is, it’s simply because of how language evolves. Even in English itself, certain words have changed meaning over time or have additional connotations than they previously did. A very interesting example of this – in both languages – is the word “gay”.
“Gay” was borrowed into English from the French gai (joyful, flashy). Over the 20th century, it came to have an additional meaning in English: homosexual. Today, this is the dominant connotation that comes to mind for most English-speakers. The English “gay” has been borrowed back into French, where it also means “homosexual.” The French word gai(e) still means “happy” in French, although some francophones, including those in Quebec, also use this spelling instead of “gay”.
One of the most important things that etymology can teach us is that words are always evolving. While they’re being spoken and used by human beings, languages are living things. Faux amis aside, that’s pretty cool.
French words that are the same in English
Still, there are many words in English and French that are the same or very similar, both in spelling and meaning. Here’s a list of some of the most common. If you want to go further, at the end of this article, you’ll find a link to an extremely long and thorough alphabetical list.
French food and dining words that are the same in English
Many English food-related words originally came from French, but a majority of these have changed a bit over the centuries, to be pronounced and written in a more Anglophone way.
A good example of this are the words derived from the French word and verb dîner, which include dinner, diner, and dinette, as well as the verb “to dine”.
You’ll notice, first of all, that all of these words are pronounced differently than their French ancestors. You’ll also notice that their meanings have expanded from these two original borrowed words: “dinner” and “to dine” are the counterparts of le dîner and dîner, respectively, but a diner and dinette are types of restaurant.
Interestingly, “dinette” is also a French word, but it’ s a classic example of a faux ami. In French, une dinette in French is a child’s tea party set or set of plastic food toys. (It can also mean a light, late evening meal, although I’ve personally never heard it used that way, for what it’s worth.)
This being said, there are other French words related to food and dining whose meaning and spelling have remained more or less the same in French and English. A number of these were borrowed into English in recent centuries, when French cooking became a hallmark of class for Anglophones.
Here are some of the most common food- and dining -related words that are the same (or extremely similar) in French and English:
- à la carte : when you want to order individual dishes which are not part of a pre-established sequence of courses.
- café (a type of restaurant)
- bon appétit
- hors d’œuvre
- alcool (This word was originally borrowed into French from Arabic, by way of Latin)
- chef (This means boss in French and not only “cook”.)
British English speakers also often use some common French food words, including:
French fashion and appearance words that are the same or similar in English
Every culture has its trends, fashions, and notions of beauty, but France has an international reputation for expertise in this area. It’s no wonder, then, that so many French words related to fashion and appearance have been borrowed into English. Here’s a list of some of the most common -including one that’s a very recent addition to the English language:
- faux (usually used to describe synthetic fur (faux fur), as opposed to fur from an animal)
- sans fard – If you’re a fan of pop culture and celebrity gossip, you’ve probably come across this term in recent years. “Sans fard” (sometimes written “sans fards”) means “without makeup” and describes a photo where a person is wearing no makeup, and may not even be groomed in a glamorous way (for example, unbrushed hair, etc.). Of course, sans fard photos aren’t always truthful – many celebrities have been called out for abusing the term, since they are wearing at least very basic makeup and have their hair done in the shot.
French art and culture words that are the same or similar in English
Here are some French words that you’ll often hear or come across (or use) in English.
- Art Nouveau
- film noir
- matinee (Note that in French, this word is most commonly used as a way to say “morning”.)
- papier mâché (For many English speakers, this is written slightly differently: papier mache)
- trompe l’oeil
In addition to artistic movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco, which keep their French names in English, many artistic movements are written in a similar way in French and English. One of the main reasons for this is the suffix -ism/-isme. Here are a few examples:
You can find many other French words related to culture and the arts, including classical dance-related vocabulary on this excellent and extensive list.
Other common French words used in English
Some French words we use in English, like repertoire and protégé, don’t have exactly the same meaning in both languages – or at least, not the same primary meaning. For example, répertoire in French is most commonly used to describe a list of phone numbers; protégé means “protected” in French). But many other French words in English are used the same way in French, more or less. Here are some of them:
- au contraire
- déjà vu
- (eau de) cologne
- eau de toilette
- en route
- fiancé (Note that while in English, this can refer to a man or a woman, in French, a female person someone is engaged to is fiancée, the word’s feminine form.)
- maître d’ (this is used in its complete form, maître d’hôtel, in French)
- joie de vivre
- nouveau riche
- faux pas
- je ne sais quoi
- carte blanche
- R.S.V.P (Many English-speakers don’t realize this is an abbreviation of Répondez s’il vous plait)
- par excellence
- Bon voyage
- cliché (Note that in French, in addition to its most well-known meaning, cliché is another way to say “photo”)
- au pair
- femme fatale
- ménage à trois
- bon vivant
- bon mot
- coup d’état
- de rigueur
- tête à tête
- Voila (I usually see the word written without an accent in English, but remember that it’s actually written like this in French: Voilà).
- du jour
These are just the most common French words in English, but there are many more, especially if you’re watching or reading something featuring educated, possibly pretentious characters – or spending time with them in real life. You can find a more extensive list of French words and expressions in English here.
The three kinds of French words in English – and where to find them all
The words on our lists are among the most noticeable French words in English, because they haven’t changed (or haven’t changed much) from their original spellings and meanings. But what about the thousands of other French words that are supposed to make up the English language?
Since most of these words have evolved over the centuries, they may still be very similar to their French ancestors, or quite a bit different. Take, for example, one of my favorite English words, “jaunty”, which evolved in both spelling and meaning from the French word gentil.
You can find an alphabetical list of French words in English, including these original borrowings that have evolved away from their French forms, here.
And of course, don’t forget the English words that have a counterpart in French thanks to Latin. You can see some of those on this list.
Do you have a favorite French word or expression that’s used in English? Are there any words these lists that surprised you? If so, why not try to use them today?