The Mixed Origins of English Words

March 13, 2019 10:30 am

Have you ever wondered why the English lexicon has words that seem to have identical meanings?

What about terms such as:
• freedom and liberty
• lawyer and attorney
• friendly and amicable

In the word pairs above, you may know that the first word comes from Anglo Saxon or Old English, while the second word derives from Norman French.

The French language arrived to the British Isles during the Norman Conquest in 1066. The old English aristocracy was ejected, a new upper class took over, and Norman French became the language of the royal court and all things related to administration. Every English king from William the Conqueror to Henry IV (1399-1413) had French as a mother tongue. Meanwhile, the lower classes continued speaking vernacular varieties of Anglo Saxon (Old English).

Over the centuries that followed, Anglo Norman French gradually evolved into Middle English. In the domains of politics, law and literature, the English lexicon acquired a plethora of French-origin words including government, parliament, bailiff, money, tax, sovereignty, embassy, treaty, and others.

A second legacy of England’s bilingualism under Norman rule is our current linguistic situation, where two words can refer to a single concept. We can use words like ghost/phantom, follow/ensue, shirt/blouse, answer/respond almost interchangeably.

If you ask someone to explain the difference between the two, they might tell you that the latter sounds slightly more formal or perhaps snobbish. ‘Class-divided doppelgängers’ is how the writer Lynne Peskoe-Yang describes them in a article that traces the evolution of the word vegetable (link in sources).

Take a look at the following words:
• cow and beef
• chicken and poultry
• pig and pork
• sheep and mutton

Do you notice a pattern? Leave your answer in the comments!

English language purists have suggested removing French and other loanwords and replacing them with etymologically ‘pure’ words. See, for example, the suggestion to use “waterstuff” instead of hydrogen. All such efforts have failed so far. Languages constantly evolve in response to innovations and contact with external influences. In the case of English, the language has only become richer as a result.

Weber, J. & Horner, K. (2017). Introducing multilingualism: a social approach (2nd ed). London & New York: Routledge.

Written by Anabel Mota – Study Visitor in Communication at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg) and student in the Master program in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. She speaks Spanish, English, and French and she is learning German.

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