The influence of French on Shakespeare's language

Published on 11/07/2022

Countries can adopt a lingua franca that is different from their mother tongue and use it in different areas of everyday life. According to the linguist David Crystal, a second language is necessary for countries and their citizens to be integrated into diplomacy, business and science. Several generations ago, people opted to learn French as their second language, but after a few decades English took over.

Two nations (France and England) and also the United States, have been rivals in politics and economics for decades and when it comes to language, the world struggle for leadership still seems to be real. It is a very complicated issue related with many questions: Why is English the “world language”, how was French displaced and what influence does French have on English?

1. French conquering Europe and the Western World

The process of language evolution has before and after since the Battle of Hastings (1066), led by William the Conqueror. When England was occupied by the Normans, French became the English aristocracy’s new language. However it was not until 1634 internationally recognised throuh the Académie Française and its founder Cardinal Richelieu.

Classical French originas date back to the 18th century as a diplomatic language, displacing Latin for international treaties after the Treaty of Rastatt (1714). Most European courts began to incorporate French; therefore, it was the predominant language in many European legal systems, like in Britain until 1733.

The thoughts of the Enlightenment that emerged in France shed their light throughout Europe in this language. In the meantime, French ideas spread all over the world in great part due to the French Revolution and reached countries like Canada or the West Indies. French was used for loads of texts and philosophical works such as Diderot's Encyclopédie.

This language’s era of prestige reached a new peak in the 19th century when the Ottoman diplomacy implemented French as legal language for more than million people in 1914. French conquered Europe lexically, culturally and militarily in the midst of the age of Enlightenment and with the help of the French Revolution.

2. How did French permeate English after the Norman conquest of Britain?

The Norman Conquest in 1066 affected the relationship between the French and the English. The Norman dialect, Old French, became the new court’s official language. As a result, English was clearly influenced by French.

At that time, English was not one solid language, but a collection of dialects, which allowed French to penetrate on a linguistic level.

Today’s English vocabulary contains many French terms. Between 1250 and 1400, the influence of the French lexicon on English was most intense, and then declined, but was never completely lost.

In addition to the borrowing of commonly used words, also less frequently used but equally valid synonyms also permeated the English language. Another change was the use of some plurals, such as 'shoes' or 'houses', which end as in French with ‘s’, due to its Latin origin. However, before that the English plural used to be 'housen' and 'shoen'.

3. Two languages seek global dominance in contemporary times

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the influence of the English language increased worldwide, partly because of the Industrial Revolution that began in England. The country developed new technologies and scientific breakthroughs; people had to learn English in order to understand these innovations.

England built its empire on the English language. After the First World War and after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, many countries all around the world noticed English influence. The end of World War II left Europe destroyed and England bankrupt. The United States exercised de facto dominance over America, so there was not much left of the hostility and rivalry between the English and the French.

4. How did French and English relate to each other after World War II?

The British Empire managed to overcome France's influence with the post-war financial recovery, in which its scientific and commercial power spread from India to Australia and the West Indies. The Empire founded universities and global commerce, which made it became a superpower in the 19th century. Britain and the United States independently made use of the same language, generating a more productive and efficient economy with tremendous influence.

English dominates in economic matters, leaving aside the power of French in philosophy. Nevertheless, French is still used in European countries, Canada and some English colonies.

5. The globalisation of English

American English is more globally influential in its spoken and written expression. That’s why also British English has integrated some American English words such as “kids” and “cool”. Instead of pronouncing he British English ‘sh’ it has become more common to use ‘sk’.

English grammar is changing; the British present perfect (“I've just eaten”) is becoming rarer as it is replaced by the American “I just ate”. The American English spelling is also taking over the British English encyclopaedias.

This enables a coexistence of many English variants that share a common core language. The vocabulary, phonetics, expressions and dialects of native and non-native speakers are different, so one might think that this combination is typical for the globalisation of English.

6. French keeps being valuable

Yes, English is in control of many areas. But is French no longer valuable? Culturally, the best known and most relevant European philosophers and thinkers are from France: Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Baudrillard and their French contemporaries who dominate intellectual discourse in the West. The French language remains relevant and a wide-spread language in the world, with 79 million native speakers and 370 million non-native speakers.

Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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