Word Matters Podcast

Linguistic Double Dipping

Word Matters, episode 84

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English borrowed lots of words from French. And it liked some of those words so much it borrowed them twice.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, linguistic double dipping. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. English borrowed lots of words from French, and it liked some of those words so much it borrowed them twice. Peter explains.

Peter Sokolowski: One thing that's unusual about French dictionaries, French monolingual dictionaries, is if you turn to the letter W, you realize that there are no French words that begin with W. You will see if you have a good-size French dictionary, like a Petit Robert or Petit Larousse, which is the size of our Collegiate Dictionary, there might be 20 or 30 words. You realize they're all English or German words have been borrowed into French, but none of them are natively French words.

Peter Sokolowski: It's just one of those things. It's a language that can obviously make that sound. They have the word oui that is spelled with an O. But for whatever reason, because most of French is derived from Latin, and Latin didn't have a W—as you can think of the old inscriptions where U's would appear as V's for example—so there was a confusion, the V's and the U's, and even in early English dictionaries, were just thrown together. There was no separation of those letters, and the W itself was kind of a more modern innovation.

Emily Brewster: Does the letter W appear internally in French words?

Peter Sokolowski: That's a good question. I don't think so.

Emily Brewster: Wow. So it's really kind of a W-less language.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, essentially. They're not unwelcoming to use a W word to the immigrants from mostly English and German. When I lived there, the W in my last name was very consistently pronounced as a V, a more European approach to that. The reason again is because Latin is the basis of most of French. But there is an interesting thing that happened around the time of the Norman Conquest because we think of that moment as an important one in the history of the English language because this invasion also brought a new language, the language of the Norman French across the Channel into England to blend with English in the 11th century. So that's why it's easy to say that English is a thousand years old. It really might be a little bit longer if you are counting from Old English. Of course, there's a huge infusion of vocabulary that happened after the Norman Conquest. Then, of course, there was the development of what we refer to as Middle English a few centuries later.

Emily Brewster: For people who haven't listened to other episodes and don't know the basic history of the English language, English was basically a Germanic language until 1066 when these invaders from what is now France came and took over. They pretty much banished English from any kind of formal use at all. Law, literature, government, all of that was all in French suddenly. So after a few hundred years of that, then what started to be used became the precursor of Modern English.

Peter Sokolowski: It's exactly as you say. The official language, especially the bureaucratic language, became this Norman French, this sort of equivalent to Old English but on the other side of the Channel, so Old French, often referred to as Anglo-French, the French spoken on the British Isles by those Norman conquerors. Then, of course, in terms of religion, the Catholic Church still used Latin. So you had either a medieval development of Latin as Old French or Latin itself in all the positions of power and authority that clearly had an enormous influence on the vocabulary.

Ammon Shea: A lot of scientific writing would still be read directly in Latin at that point as well, wouldn't it?

Peter Sokolowski: Until the 20th century, basically. I mean Latin was the lingua franca, of course, of scientists on the continent and in England as well. In the household, children were growing up speaking English as they always had. There are all kinds of consequences of this. One of the interesting ones is to look at just a group of words that came from those Normans but then a second group of words that came from a second group of French people.

Peter Sokolowski: There were, in fact, a couple of French conquests. The first one was by the Normans who were in the north of France, and they neighbored, just to the east what we would today call Belgium, peoples who spoke another Germanic language, one that was related to English. We usually call it Franconian. Sometimes in the dictionary you'll see Old Low Franconian, which in French has a lovely name, Francisque with a Q-U-E at the end, Francisque. That was a Proto-Dutch. But that language like English has W's and has that sound and had that influence on the Latin that evolved into Medieval French in Normandy. So you had that first batch of words that came across that included words that did start with that W sound. That means that these are Norman French speakers who are using words that begin with a W because they were influenced by their neighbors. These were sounds from Franconian words that had come into the northern part of France. That happened to be the group of people who then crossed over into England. So this is why we have words like warranty or warden.

Ammon Shea: You're saying Franconian did come with a W.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. These were words that were essentially Germanic in origin, that were Gallicized, Latinized, Frenchified, and then brought over to England from there.

Ammon Shea: Where did they get their W's from?

Peter Sokolowski: They were from the Germanic tradition in what was kind of a Proto-Dutch. However, people meet and languages merge and blend. What happened was there were a group of these words that came across initially after the Norman Conquest in the 11th century. The linguistic changes did not happen instantaneously. It took a couple centuries for these things to filter in. What happened in the case of the word warrantee and other words like wallop, for example, or ward, warden, that had come initially, the language dialect of the slightly more southern part of France, around Paris, the central part of France, became the next group of people who either through trade or through the Hundred Years' War were connected to England and who were able to influence England. Their language was also spread among the French speakers in Great Britain.

Peter Sokolowski: They recognized they had the same words, but they didn't start with a W. They started with a G. So warranty had a neighbor or a cousin called guarantee, and guarantee came in, and warden had a cousin, guard or guardian, that came in, and wallop had a cousin gallop that came in. This is why we have the two names William and Guillaume was the French version of the same name. There's another phonetic change that you can sort of measure in the same way, which is that the Germanic-influenced Norman French typically had words that started with a /k/ sound with a letter C, a word like captain, for example, or cart.

Ammon Shea: What about Walloon? Did that have a G?

Emily Brewster: What is Walloon?

Peter Sokolowski: I think you're onto something there. They are the French speakers of Belgium, contemporary Belgium. In French you say that word Wallon spelled with a W and with two L'S and a single O in French.

Emily Brewster: Having been steeped in this sort of conversation for a long time now, this is very, very confusing. I got the whole Norman Invasion thing. A bunch of French people from a particular part of modern-day France came over to England and brought their language with them and forced people to use some of their words and introduced all this new vocabulary. But now I have to consider the fact that there are these other French people who are heavily influenced by the Germanic language spoken by their neighbors. They come over, and they bring different words with them.

Peter Sokolowski: In French history, you talk about the Gauls and the Franks. These were different tribes, the tribes that the Romans encountered. The Franks were the Franconians. Franks were those people that were essentially Germanic and had that Proto-Germanic language. It's also important to recognize that, for whatever reason, by the 14th century, so a couple hundred years later, that dialect from the greater Parisian area, a different Norman dialect... Of course, Normandy had been lost. France wasn't a country as we know it today. The Dukes of Normandy who conquered England, England became kind of a colony of Normandy. But then the Parisian region of France, which is normally known as France, attacked and conquered Normandy. So the Normans were actually pushed out of their original territory, and they ended up retreating to England because that was their colony essentially. So they lost political control of the north of France.

Peter Sokolowski: But what happened by the 14th, 15th century is that the dialect spoken by these others, the Parisians, ended up being the more prestigious one. For whatever reason, it was the fancy one. It was the one that was preferred by the upper classes. Therefore, you get these doubles, so warranty and guarantee, warden and guardian. That's how these words were introduced a second time and had the horsepower to enter into the language a second time. With the C-A words, so you had words like cart and chart. Cart, which became card in English, and card and chart, they're cognates. They're the same word. Carriage and chariot are the same word, captain and chef. What you notice about all of these is that the Norman one had a /k/ sound, and the Parisian one had a /ch/ sound. Yet they were etymologically the same word borrowed twice. It's an interesting sort of human story that talks about politics but also wars, conquering of course, but also the influence of neighboring languages onto local languages.

Ammon Shea: I know this is over-simplification, but can you trace the development of W in Europe just by more or less going to the north and to the east? I know that there are very few W words that aren't loan words or borrowings in Spanish. I presume the case is similar in Portugal. I don't know about Italy. But once you go north and east of France, you immediately start to run into all kinds of W's. Is that an accurate portrayal of the role of the W and what we think of as modern-day Europe?

Peter Sokolowski: I'm not etymologist. However, there is no prominent W in the Italian language or the Spanish language or the Portuguese language. So what you're seeing is essentially the languages that derive very directly from Latin, as opposed to those that were in the Germanic tribes, like the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes and the Franks and ultimately the Germans.

Emily Brewster: Do you know if the G-U in guard and guardian was originally pronounced with the /gw/?

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, it was.

Emily Brewster: It was.

Peter Sokolowski: They do know that. That's a really good point.

Emily Brewster: I think it's an interesting blend because English does not allow it initially, or just doesn't happen to have it. We're fine with Q-U with the /kw/ sound, but we are really not fine with /gw/ at the beginning of a word, but we allow it in the middle of a word like linguistics and sanguine. It's not super common, but there's no problem having /gw/ internally in English, but we don't have it initially.

Peter Sokolowski: Initially. Again, these are cultural stories as much as they are linguistic stories. They have to do with politics and prestige and wars, the consequences of wars.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more on a particular group of French borrowings. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merriam-webster.com by using the promo code "matters" at checkout. That's "matters," M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at Word Matters at m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Our discussion about guarantee and warranty and others like them continues.

Emily Brewster: Guarantee and warranty are also interesting in particular because they have this overlapping semantic territory in English. A warranty in common use, it's a very particular kind of guarantee. They're both legalistic. They're both technical. Warranty is more technical than guarantee. I can give you my personal guarantee about something, and that's my word that I'm going to do something. But a warranty has some legal standing. It can actually function in a legal context to protect you from being cheated from a bad product or something.

Peter Sokolowski: There's guard and ward, which are intriguingly kind of mirrors of each other. Ward is one who's protected, and the guard is the one who protects. That's an intriguing development from this as well. Another one from this pairing of Norman French and Parisian French, we're just calling it Parisian French of that period of the 13th, 14th century, is canal and channel. They're the same words, but canal came from the Norman dialect and channel from the Parisian dialect, a slightly more southern one. Once you hear that, you think, "Oh, yeah, those are kind of similar in meaning." We use them in different ways, but they etymologically go back to the same root.

Emily Brewster: What you said a little while ago about the Franks, I assume is the source of the name France.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: So the name of the country where this famously Romantic language is from is actually a Germanic word?

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. It should be called "Gaul" because Gaul was the greater part of the landmass in France. Gaul is a kind of a special word. Like in America, we could have been called "Columbia." But Gaul as a tribe, because they were perceived as heroic fighters against the Romans, have a special place in the patriotic French history. There's a great French pop singer from the 1960s whose name, and many of these singers were given made up names, her name was France Gall, which is funny because her name was basically two of the names of her own country. But it is an intriguing thing that they named themselves after the Franks and not after the Gauls.

Emily Brewster: Well, you can't really blame them. France maybe sounds a little bit better than Gaul.

Peter Sokolowski: It's true. It's interesting. There are other consequences of the medieval period that come down to this day, which is to say that so much of British royalty is still connected to the French language. The motto of the queen is "Dieu et mon droit." It's written in French. The motto of the Order of the Garter is "Honi soit qui mal y pense," which looks like Latin to a lot of people, but it's actually French. These-

Emily Brewster: You have to translate both of those.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, boy. "Dieu et Mon Droit," it's important to know that the "et" in that phrase is the word "and," E-T, not the word "is," E-S-T, because it would be pronounced the same way, "Dieu est mon droit," which has an effect on the meaning. So "Dieu et mon droit" means literally "God and My Right": my ability to exert my right. So that's the motto on the British Royal Arms: "God and my right." If it were the other "est," "Dieu est mon droit," it would be "God is my right," which would be a little bit heavier.

Emily Brewster: Whew.

Peter Sokolowski: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" is difficult to translate. I actually know this because I'm the one who translated it for the Collegiate Dictionary, and our colleague, Mark Stevens, was in charge of the foreign words and phrases section. By the way, that's an interesting thing because there was an addenda to the Collegiate with foreign words and phrases. I don't know how many there were. There might have been 1,500 it or 2,000 or something. But they were overwhelmingly French and Latin, 80% of them of commonly found foreign words and phrases in the English language listed in the back of the Collegiate.

Peter Sokolowski: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" is a little hard to translate. I translated this way: "Shamed be the person who thinks evil of it." It's a really hard thing to express, but "honi soit" means "shame be to you, shame to you, or shame to one." "Qui mal y pense," "one who," in French literally "bad of it thinks." It's very elliptical, but "Shame be to anyone who thinks poorly of it," that is either the Order of the Guard or the group of knights, the honor that they share, whatever it is. It's a famous medieval-sounding French phrase.

Peter Sokolowski: One of my favorite uses of this is the final shot of the Laurence Olivier version of Richard III where he as a dead king on the battlefield is sort of slung unceremoniously over the back of a horse, so he's just a body in a suit of armor. The little plate on his knee, the side of your leg with a circular armor plate has inscribed in it in a circle all the way around the circle, Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense. The camera slowly pans very, very close until all you see is that little motto on his knee plate. Then the movie's over.

Emily Brewster: Wow.

Ammon Shea: I think we're starting to reconfigure the meaning of common foreign words and phrases.

Peter Sokolowski: I think the idea was for that addenda, for that collection of words, that these are often cited without explanation or translation, and so there has to be a place to get them.

Emily Brewster: It appearing in that very evocative scene of that movie is a good example. It's not a common phrase where the average dictionary user, as something common might be, like je ne sais quoi. That's actually something that people might hear if they're listening to NPR, for example.

Peter Sokolowski: Lots to talk about with the French influence in medieval England. It's a fascinating subject for me. It just never ceases to amaze me the backstory that ultimately connects to politics and culture from a linguistic point of view.

Emily Brewster: I'm going to start saying "gward" instead of "guard."

Peter Sokolowski: There we go. Do what you can.

Ammon Shea: I'm just going to start saying "Walloon" every chance I get regardless of context. "Walloon."

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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