NEWS

Canada Day 2015: How English became half French

06/29/2015 05:52 EDT | Updated 06/29/2016 05:59 EDT
Millions of people will be cooking up a feast to celebrate Canada Day in both official languages, but the secret history of French and English reveals the two tongues are twins who tried to eat each other as children before the fight spilled over to North America.

After the Roman empire fell circa 500 A.D., it left Europe divided into two main language groups. In the south, people mostly spoke local dialects of Latin, one of which evolved into French. In the north, people mostly spoke German languages, one of which became English.  

In 1066, the two great language families smashed into each other when Normandy's William the Conqueror earned his nickname by beating England at the Battle of Hastings. He became the king of England and for the next 300 years, the ruling class of England spoke French, while the ruled spoke English.

The French-speaking Normans greatly influenced the tongue of the people they ruled. ​Before the Battle of Hastings, English had about 50,000 words. After the French conquest, English turned the tables by swallowing French almost whole. English doubled in size, and kept on growing. 

For example, tongue obviously refers to just that — your tongue — as well as a language. But the synonym language comes from the French langue, which also means tongue.

Both ultimately come from the same Proto-Indo-European root word dnghwa.

If you say someone has a lot of heart, you can picture that organ as a sign of bravery, but if you say she's got a lot of courage, the abstract courage hides the matching French root word of coeur — French for heart. Both courage and heart come from the PIE word kerd.

Would you prefer snails or escargot? 

As ordinary English people grew used to French rule, the trend-setters began adopting French words.

People still kept oxen and cows, both old English words, but when they had friends over for dinner, they offered guests boeufs, the French word for the animal. In time it became beef.

Swine became porc, later pork, sheep got served as mouton, later mutton, chickens got turned into poulet, later poultry, and snails became escargot. 

English created many word pairs by borrowing a French synonym and giving it a slightly different meaning. 

Here are just 12 common examples with the old English word first, followed by its French/Latin twin: 

- Thinking/pensive

- Brotherly/fraternal

- Ask/enquire

- Ghost/phantom

- Stench/odour

- Help/assist

- Buy/purchase

- Fall/autumn

- Leave/permission

- Folk/people

- Drink/beverage

- Freedom/liberty

Today, English has about one million words. More than half of them (56 per cent) come from French or French's root, Latin. Only 26 per cent of today's English comes from its German roots. 

​But 24 of the 25 most commonly spoken words have German roots. We use those old English words most of the time, but add depth and colour by reaching for French.

Amazingly,1,000 years later, modern English speakers still see the imported French words like courage and language as abstract concepts, while the old English words such as heart and tongue create concrete images. 

The tension between the two tongues continued as Europeans fought across North America, resulting in the truce of 1867: the very first Canada Day.

Nothing binds people together like eating, and we can say that in either official language. In old English, we'd say people are eating meat with their mates — mate (and mating) come from meat. In French, bread is pain, and a person you have bread with is your companion. 

So much for the two solitudes. Canada's real linguistic divide is between the twin European tongues and the dozens of First Nations languages born out of an entirely different language family. But that's the subject of another column.

Word for Word is the CBC's monthly etymology column. Got an idea for a topic? Tweet me. Sign up for Word for Word to have it delivered into your inbox.

MORE:cbcNews