Norman French and the uncanny similarity of English and Spanish

 

 How a band of 11th-century French-speaking Scandinavians still powerfully impacts the linguistic map of the 21st-century USA

 

{see table below for English-Spanish-French-German table of common vocabulary}

 

            “Whoa,” you might be musing to yourself.  “That’s a mouthful for a subject heading.”  OK, it takes a little explaining, but it’s one of those cutesy references to the often far-reaching and unintended effects of particular historical events.  The “band of 11th-century French-speaking Scandinavians” refers, of course, to the Normans—the descendants of Scandinavian Vikings who invaded and conquered much of northern France in the 10th century A.D.  Under their leader, Rollo (Hrolf), the Vikings essentially suckered the French king in 911 (a ruler referred to ignominiously in French history as “Charles the Stupid” or “Charles the Simple,” depending on your euphemistic preferences) into granting the Nordic invaders a verdant and valuable slice of arable land, dubbed “the duchy of Normandy,” on the coveted coast of northern France.  Charles may not have been as stupid as his sobriquet may suggest since, in return, the newly-settled Vikings were expected to protect the rest of France from the depredations of future Viking raiders—a responsibility to which they avidly took, since they had become semi-settled in their adopted homeland and had a vested interest in thwarting future pillage by their less-settled Scandinavian cousins. 

            For our purposes here, the most important aspect of the Normans’ history is that they rapidly assumed the customs and culture of their adopted homeland:  converting to Latin Christianity, adopting French (Frankish) military practices, and speaking the French language at home.  Only a century after Hrolf, the Normans had become so Gallicized that the Norman dukes had to send their sons to Scandinavia to learn Norse.  The Normans never forgot their roots and maintained ties to their ancestral homeland.  It seems that many of the commoners (if not the dukes) spoke Norse in their enclaves into the 11th century, and Norse religious traditions and practices remained strong long after the Normans became settled; some of the best historical resources for the design and appearance of Viking longboats derive from the Bayeux Tapestry following the Norman Conquest!  Yet for practical purposes, the Normans by the mid-10th century were Frenchmen in linguistic and cultural identity, and it was the French language which they would carry into England when Duke William of Normandy conquered the island nation in 1066.

            As I’ve written in my other essays, it is perilously easy to overemphasize the Norman Conquest in discussing the French influence on the English language.  French culture and language were powerful forces for almost every European kingdom during the medieval period and thereafter, and German and Dutch (both Germanic languages, like English) were also Gallicized substantially, if to a lesser degree.  Indeed, the speakers of the Germanic dialects that would coalesce as “High German” on the Continent (the language that you would study in a German class at high school or university), at about the time of Martin Luther and his 95 Theses in the 1500s, were themselves, like the English under the Normans, ruled by a French-speaking elite who scorned and suppressed the Germanic “peasant dialects” of the populace.  What is now the nation of Germany was, until the 19th century, fragmented into dozens of shifting principalities and quarrelsome mini-states, whose leaders utilized Latin for administrative purposes and spoke French—the common language of courtly, aristocratic discourse—with each other.  That these aristocrats were themselves of ethnic German stock was of little importance in shaping their cultural and linguistic identification; the Normans themselves, after all, were Scandinavians from Norway who had adopted French culture upon settling in northern France, where the Franks and Burgundians—earlier groups of German settlers who had established kingdoms in the wake of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries—had already adopted the Latin-derived tongue first brought into Gaul by the armies of Julius Caesar, the Romance language we now refer to as French.  Much of Germany was even ruled by French nobles outright during periods such as the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic Conquests.  (French loanwords into High German, therefore, tend to be more of Middle and Modern French extraction than for English, which has a heavier component of Old French.)  It should also be noted that the vigorous assimilation by English of French vocabulary derived in part from an early and especially flourishing literary tradition during the Middle Ages, which drew upon French archetypes prevailing at the time—a linguistic stream also in evidence for other European tongues.  

Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that English was profoundly changed by the French influence in a way that Dutch, German, and other European languages were not, and for reasons that stem directly from the central and official presence that French enjoyed in England in the centuries following the Norman Conquest, when the English language was itself in a formative stage.  England was politically united with Normandy and, in the 1100s, with neighboring Anjou (whose counts had undertaken a marriage alliance with prominent Norman families).  French and Latin became the official languages of England in government documents, law, clergy, and commerce, with English relegated to the status of a peasant tongue.  English subjects would have to be at least conversant in French to plead their case in a law court or communicate with their Norman overlords, or to write poetry or seek posts in government, the clergy, or conduct cross-Channel business.  French had little impact on English for several centuries, and by the time that Normandy itself suffered a permanent conquest at the hands of Philip Augustus’s French Capetian armies in 1206, the language still very much resembled Old English.  However, England was still a sort of cultural satellite of France into the 14th century, and it is in this period that the great influx of French vocabulary into English occurs.  French affected nearly all aspects of English and even lodged itself into areas of basic discourse (see below),

            Myriad conquests befell European tribes, principalities, and proto-states during the medieval period, as rival rulers jockeyed for power and desperately sought to enlarge their domains.  However, with the singular exception of the Islamic Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D., no other conquest would have anything approaching the historical significance and consequences of the Norman Conquest of England.  Indeed, it is difficult to find any other military conquest, since the Roman Empire, with which to match that of the Normans in 1066; since the fall of Roman imperial authority in the 5th century A.D., the cultural outlines of Europe’s nations have remained remarkably intact.  The modern states of France, Italy, Romania, Spain, even Austria and Germany possess a similar culture and closely related language to those dominating the regions shortly after Rome’s collapse in 476 A.D.  (The fall of the Greek-speaking Byzantine imperial domains to the Muslim Arabs in the 7th century, and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, clearly exceeded the Norman Conquest in the cultural shift that ensued; an entirely new culture, language, religion, and ethnic group came to dominate in these areas.  However, these conquests took place in North Africa and western Asia, not in Europe.  The Ottoman conquests of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, and other countries in the 14th-17th centuries did have an important impact on these regions, though in terms of religion—with the exception of Albania and Bosnia—and culture, the pre-Turkish culture survived largely intact until the Ottoman Empire’s fall in the 20th century.)

            One of the many quirky side effects of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 was that it would help to make the predominant language of the early 21st-century US (English) uncannily similar to the fastest-growing language in the same country (Spanish).  No, the Normans probably didn’t plan it this way, and they had little impact on the languages of Spain.  Rather, this effect ensues from the common linguistic roots of the Romance languages:  All emerged from Vulgar Latin, the spoken idiom used by soldiers, settlers, and street vendors of the Roman Empire.  Spanish and French, like English and German, possess an enormous amount of basic vocabulary in common since they are both offspring of the ancient Roman tongue.  When the Normans conquered England and introduced French as the island nation’s standard tongue, the eventual infusion of French vocabulary into English consisted chiefly of Latin-based words (though it did entail a smaller yet significant Germanic contingent as well).  This and subsequent introductions of French and Italian vocabulary—alongside direct borrowings from Latin itself—therefore increased the Latin character of the English tongue, to the extent that a substantial cohort of the English lexicon consists of Latin roots, just as in modern Spanish (which is about 88% Latin-based in its vocabulary).  The Normans therefore, ironically, have done a favor to anyone seeking to familiarize themselves with Spanish, since the Normans have brought the vocabulary of the two languages much closer together than they would have otherwise been.

            People always tend to prefer diagrams and tables to a clutter of words spilled out on a page, so I’ve provided a table below of English words (mostly Latin-based) derived from Norman French (Anglo-Norman, as the dialect was referred to in Britain) as well as other French dialects, alongside their latter-day equivalents in French, Spanish, and German.  Notice that the modern terms in Spanish and French often differ from the medieval Norman French loanword, an inevitable consequence of linguistic evolution.  Conversely, notice also that in about half the words listed below, German has a similar Latin equivalent.  (The percentage is even higher for words taken directly from Latin or Greek, as I will demonstrate in my other essays.)  This contradicts the oft-held and erroneous notion that German is somehow “intrinsically resistant” to borrowing from Latin and the Romance languages.  Although German has borrowed to a lesser extent and from different periods (and more frequently from Latin directly, rather than from a French dialect), it still demonstrates a heavy propensity to soak up Latin-based loanwords.  Observe the table below.

 

 

Modern English word of French origin

French equivalent

Spanish equivalent

 German equivalent

able

habile, capable

hábil, capaz

fähig

absent

absent

ausente

abwesend

active

actif

activo

aktiv

to adjust

ajuster

ajustar

anpassen, berichtigen

advantage

avantage

ventaja

Vorteil

adventure

aventure

aventura

Abenteuer

air

aire

aire

Luft

army

armée

ejército

Heer, Armee

arrogant

arrogant

arrogante

arrogant

attention

attention

atención

Achtung

article

article

artículo

Artikel

aunt

tante

tía

Tante

average*

moyenne

promedio

Durchschnitt

avoid

eviter

evitar

vermeiden

budget

budget

presupuesto

Etat

button

bouton

botón

Knopf

card

carte

carta

Karte

case

cas

caso

Fall

cause

cause

causa

Ursache

center

centre

centro

Zentrum

certain

certaine

cierto

sicher

city

ville

ciudad

Stadt

class

classe

clase

Klasse

clear

clair

claro

klar

coin

monnaie

moneda

Münze

color

couleur

color

Farbe

company

compagnie

compañía

Gesellschaft, Firma

to continue

continuer

continuar

fortsetzen

to control

controller

controlar

kontrollieren

to convince

convaincre

convencer

überzeugen

to cost

coûter

costar

Kosten

to count

compter

contar

zählen

court (of law)

tribunal

tribunal

Gericht

to cover

couvrir

cubrir

decken

crime

crime

crímen

Verbrechen

to cry

pleurer

llorar

weinen

to defend

defendre

defender

verteidigen

to deliver

livrer, délivrer

entregar

liefern

to describe

décrire

describir

beschreiben

dessert

dessert

postres

Nachtisch

different

different

diferente

verschieden

dinner

diner

cena

Abendbrot

doubt

doute

duda

Zweifel

dozen

douzaine

docena

Dutzend

during

pendant

durante

während

duty

devoir

deber

Pflicht

elegant

elegant

elegante

elegant

to enjoy

jouir de

disfrutar

genießen

to enter

entrer

entrar

eintreten

envelope

enveloppe

sobre

Umschlag

to escape

escaper

escapar

entgehen, entfliehen

to establish

établir

establecer

herstellen, etablieren

experience

expérience

experiencia

Erlebnis

face

visage

cara

Gesicht

fact

fait

hecho

Tatsache

family

famille

familia

Familie

flame

flamme

llama

Flamme

flower

fleur

flor

Blume, Flor

fresh

frais

fresco

frisch

fruit

fruit

fruta

Obst, Frucht

to fry

frire

fritar

braten

future

avenir

futuro

Zukunft

grain

grains

granos

Getreide, Korn, Gran

government

gouvernement

gobierno

Regierung

group

groupe

grupo

Gruppe

hospital

hôpital

hospital

Krankenhaus, Spital

hostage

otage

rehén*

Geisel, Bürge

hotel

hôtel

hotel

Hotel

humble

humble

humilde

bescheiden

important

important

importante

wichtig

interview

entrevue

entrevista

Interview, Unterredung

to invite

inviter

invitar

einladen

jealous

jaloux

celoso

neidisch

judge

juge

juez

Richter

lamp

lampe

lámpara

Lampe

language

langue

lengua, idioma

Sprache

large

grand

grande, largo

groß

lesson

leçon

lección

Lektion

letter

lettre

carta

Brief

lettuce

laitue

lechuga

Lattich

level

niveau

nivel

Nivel

line

ligne

linea

Linie

machine

machine

máquina

Maschine

to mention

mentionner

mencionar

erwähnen

mirror

miroir

espejo

Spiegel

to mix

melanger

mezclar

mischen

mustache

moustache

bigote

Schnurrbart

to move

remuer, mouvoir

mover

bewegen

music

música

musique

Musik

mustard

moutarde

mostaza

Senf

natural

naturel

natural

natürlich

nephew

neveu

sobrino

Neffe

niece

nièce

sobrina

Nichte

to observe

observer

observar

beobachten

office

bureau

oficina

Büro

oil

huile

aceite*

Öl

opinion

opinion, avis

opinión

Meinung

order

ordre

orden

Ordnung

organize

organiser

organizar

organisieren

pair

par

par, pareja

Paar

paper

papier

papel

Papier

part

parte

parte

Teil

to pass

passer

pasar

passen

passenger

passager

pasajero

Passagier

pattern

modèle

patrón

Muster

to pay

payer

pagar

bezahlen

peace

paix

paz

Frieden

place

endroit, lieu

lugar

Platz

plan

plan

plan

Plan

point

point

punto

Punkt

poison, venom

poison, venin

veneno

Gift

police

police

policía

Polizei

poor

pauvre

pobre

arm

possible

possible

possible

möglich

power

poder

pouvour, puissance

Kraft, Macht

probably

probablement

probablemente

wahrscheinlich

to press

presser, serrer

apretar

pressen, drücken

to presume

présumer

presumir

vermuten, voraussetzen, annehmen

price

prix

precio

Preis

problem

problème

problema

Problem

project

projet

proyecto

Project

promise

promesse

promesa

versprechen

property

propriété

propiedad

Besitzung

to push

pousser

empujar

schieben, stossen

quality

qualité

calidad

Qualität

question

question

pregunta, cuestión

Frage

 

 

 

 

rare

rare

raro

rar, selten

receipt

reçu

receta

Quittung

receive

recevoir

recebir

empfangen

recent

recent

reciente

neulich

recommend

recommander

recomendar

empfehlen

region

région

región

Gegend, Region

to register

régistrer

registrar

registrieren

remove

enlever, ôter

quitar, remover

wegschaffen, entfernen

repair

reparer

reparar

reparieren

report

rapport

informe, reportaje

Bericht

responsibility

responsibilité

responsibilidad

Verantwortung

risk

risque

riesgo

Risiko

river

fleuve, rivière

río, cuenca

Fluß

role

rôle

papel

Rolle

to roll

rouler

rodar

rollen

romantic

romantique

romántico

romantisch

round

ronde

redondo

rund

to ruin

ruiner

arruinar

ruinieren

rule

reule

regla

Regel

salad

salade

ensalada

Salat

science

science

ciencia

Wissenschaft

season

saison

estacion

Jahreszeit, Saison

secret

secret

secreto

Geheimnis

series

série

serie

Serie

sign (on door)

enseigne, écriteau

signo

Zeichen

to sign (document)

signer

firmar

unterschreiben

simple

simple

simple

einfach

society

société

sociedad

Gesellschaft

soldier

soldat

soldado

Soldat

sound

son, bruit

sonido, ruido

Laut, Geräusch

soup

soupe

sopa

Suppe

state (pol. unit)

état

estado

Staat

stay

rester

quedarse

bleiben

strange

étrange

extraño

fremd, seltsam

success

succés

éxito

Erfolg

sugar*

sucre*

azúcar*

Zucker*

surprise

surprise

sorpresa

Überraschung

to survive

survivre

sobrevivir

überleben

table

table

mesa

Tisch

towel

serviette, essuie-main

toalla

Handtuch

tradition

tradition

tradición

Tradition, Überlieferung

train

train

tren

Zug

to try (attempt)

essayer

tratar, tentar

versuchen

type (kind of)

genre, espece, sorte

tipo

Art, Sorte

uncle

oncle

tío

Onkel

to use

utiliser

usar

gebrauchen, benutzen

vase

vase

florero

Vase

very

tres, vrai(ment)

muy, verdadero

sehr

victim

victime

víctima

Opfer

victory

victoire

victoria

Sieg

view

vue

vista

Anblick, Aussicht

to visit

visiter

visitar

besuchen

 

 

 

            As mentioned above, there are many words where English, despite the Latin-based loanword from Norman French or other dialects, differs from Spanish:  aunt, court, cry, dessert, dinner, envelope, letter, mirror, nephew, niece, place, stay, table, and uncle, for example.  There are also some cases when the English word is cognate to its Spanish equivalent, but differs in modern French: city, during, future, large, office, river, towel.  In a few cases—towel, face, pride, foreign— the English word differs from both.  In most cases, however, the English word retains a close similarity to its Spanish and French equivalents, and in many cases to its German counterpart as well.  This fact, the product of what is in some respects a historical accident on the English battlefield of Hastings, can come in quite handy for you in learning a different European tongue.  The vocabulary here stems from a common linguistic headstream, and by rowing your boat to the sources of this river, you can more smoothly navigate on the waters that are even today still fed by the ancient tongue of the Romans.  There are many more examples akin to the ones I have listed above in the table; keep an eye out for such similarities as you study your foreign language of choice.

 

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