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French Language notes - January 2019

The enduring linguistic legacy of the Gauls 

Given that the losers never get to write history, it is hardly surprising that there are so few words still used in the French language with origins dating back to the vanquished Gauls. 

Add to this the fact that the Druids of the time preferred the spoken to written word, and the clutch of 150 or so words in use is small, if perfectly formed. Within 400 years the language was largely redundant. But to which commonly used words do we owe the Gauls a tip of the hat? Nature-based words have stood the test of time...

The oak tree and its evergreen lodger mistletoe were sacred to the Druids, and the word chêne is derived from casnus then cassanos, which means twisted or gnarled. (The word Druid itself has origins in the Greek word for oak – dru.)

The French word for little stones or pebbles (as used to describe beaches, for instance) is cailloux, which stems from the Gaulois word caljo meaning stone. As do galets (also pebbles) from the Gaulois gallos.

The French word for sheep – mouton – resisted the Roman incarnation of the species ovis to survive until today. It comes from the Gaulois word multo. A very pretty sounding Gaulois remnant, so memorably heard in song, is alouette (lark) from alauda.

Caesar is said to have recruited some Alpine Gaulois soldiers in 50BC and gave their legion the name ‘Alauda’, which prolonged the word’s resistance to any Latin successor. Finally, a few dirty words – literally.

La boue in French means mud, and it can be traced to the Gaulois bawa, which itself stemmed from baw, meaning dirt. Glaise, meaning clay, comes from the Celtic gliso, while suie (soot) has its origins in the Gallo-Roman word suda.

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