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French or English?

by Alan Townend

Today you'll learn why so many French words have been absorbed into the English language:

The one date which schoolchildren in Britain never forget is the year the Norman French invaded the English coast, defeated the English king Harold and virtually took over the running of most of what today we call Britain. The year was 1066. Many changes followed.

The major change I want to talk about is the influence that French had on the language. When I say the language, I am referring to a very early form of English that we call Anglo Saxon because before 1066 the islands of Britain had been invaded by many different nationalities and many words had been taken into the language but French had the greatest influence.

As you can imagine, the invaders (the Norman French) lived a good life and the local population did all the hard work. We can see the different words in relation to food. The locals used the words pig, cow and chicken because they looked after the animals. The landowners, the Norman French, of course knew nothing about pigs because they just ate the pork, they weren't interested in cows because they ate the beef and what did they know about chickens? As far as they were concerned, it was the poultry that ended up on their table. These are simple examples of two words for the same thing and the word you used then depended on whether you were the farm worker or the eater.

This dual strand not only refers to animals and food but also to many different words in every area of the language. I'll mention just three examples. We have the French/Latin verb ''commence'' and the Anglo-Saxon word ''begin''. Both mean the same in the sense of the first time something happens but they are not interchangeable as we use them in different contexts. ''Commence'' is usually used in official language: ''The new government scheme to help the unemployed commences on January 1st 2004.

''Begin'' is much more general: ''At what time do you begin work in the morning?''

''Demand'' and ''ask'' are two words you use when you want somebody to do something for you. ''Demand'' is very strong in meaning where you are giving the other person little choice: ''The army sergeant demands complete obedience to every order that he gives the soldiers''. ''Ask'' is much gentler: ''He raised his hand because he wanted to ask me a question.''

The last pair: ''Finish'' and ''end''. This is more difficult. ''Finish'' is used when the conclusion/last part is expected as in: ''The concert finishes at 8 0''clock''. ''End'' on the other hand often indicates the last part of something more serious as in: ''The whole country went crazy when they heard that the war hand ended. I'm sorry it's so complicated but don't blame me - blame the French, it's all their fault!

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