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How ancient French dialects have impacted today’s English

We look at some of the modern-day English words and their roots in an old dialect of French

English and French have more similar roots than you might think Pic: / Shutterstock

There are many English and French words which have similar structures despite being different types of languages. 

English is a West Germanic language while French is a Latin one, meaning the way they are constructed is different. 

However, although English mainly stems from West Germanic, it borrows around 28% of its words from French and a further 28% from Latin. 

As a result, there are often similarities in meaning and in appearance between certain French and English words.

Read also: Provençal pronunciation: How does it differ from standard French?

This is frequently true of words in French that begin with ‘gu’ and words in English that begin with ‘w’.

Examples are ‘war’, which means guerre; ‘wardrobe’, which translates as garde-robe and ‘William’, which equals Guillaume

These English words derived from a dialect from Northern France at the time of the Norman Conquest. As with many northern French dialects, this particular one came from a Germanic language, Frankish. 

Frankish was a West-Germanic language spoken by the Franks from the 5th to the 9th century. 

In the northern French dialect which borrowed from Frankish, these words originally started with a ‘w’, like their modern-day English counterparts. For example, in Frankonian, guerre (war) was ‘werra’.  

Meanwhile, in non-northern French dialects the ‘w’ sound became a ‘gu’. It is largely from non-Northern dialects that modern French was established, meaning that in the language we speak today, we have taken the ‘gu’ forms rather than the ‘w’ forms.

Read also: 14 words that change dependent on where you are in France

It is thought that modern French has taken around 1000 stems from Old Frankonian. . 

This means that certain words in English and French have both derived from the Frankish dialect, explaining their similarities. 

Other examples include guepe meaning ‘wasp’ and both ‘warden’ and ‘guardian’, which English has borrowed from the French gardien. In this case, ‘warden’ was used in older English, therefore following the same format as guerre/war, while ‘guardian’ was taken more recently and keeps more faithful to the French origins. 

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