Rumor has it that Americans are more bilingual than they think. In fact, this might not be so hard to believe once you hear that roughly one-third of all English words are of French origin! Who would have thought that the words ‘nice,’ ‘very,’ or ‘stuff’ came from French?
French was first introduced to the English vocabulary by the Normans who conquered England in 1066 A.D. Since then, more than 80,000 French words have traveled across the Channel to find a home in the English language over a period of about 900 years.
True cognates — vrai amis [real friends]
As you can see, the influence of French on the English language is quite considerable. And with many words spelled exactly the same in both languages, anglophones (English-speaking people) are regularly using French words without even realizing it. Still don’t believe us? Check out the following list of everyday words used by both English and French speakers:
An important strategy when learning to speak French is to look at true cognates. However, you need to keep in mind that while the words look the same, their pronunciations are often completely different. When pronounced in French, the word ‘fruit’ sounds more like ‘frooEE’ rather than its English cousin, ‘froot.’ Francophones [French-speaking people] wouldn’t dream of pronouncing the ‘t’ in ‘accident,’ and you’re going to need to perfect your from-the-throat guttural sounds to correctly say ‘original’ in front of a Parisian.
False cognates — faux amis [false friends]
Adding to the confusion are the infamous faux amis, or false friends. These are words that, while spelled the same in both French and English, not only have different pronunciations, but also completely different meanings. For example:
Sensible [se(n)-SEEBL] vs. sensible
To the English speaker, it means having or showing good judgment, but the French speaker uses ‘sensible’ to describe a sensitive person or thing.
Formidable [fohr-mee-DAHBL] vs. formidable
The French speaker uses ‘formidable’ to mean ‘great’ or ‘terrific,’ nearly the opposite of the English speaker who would use this word to mean ‘alarming’ or ‘frightening.’
Cent [se(n)] vs. cent
In French, the word ‘cent’ translates to ‘hundred,’ while in English ‘cent’ is a monetary unit that is worth one-hundredth of a dollar.
Assister [ah-see-STEH] vs. assist
To the English speaker, it means to help or aid someone or something, but to the French speaker ‘assister’ means to attend something, like an event.
Attendre [ah-TE(N)DR] vs. attend
To ‘attend’ an event in France you would use the word ‘assister,’ otherwise you’ll be ‘waiting’ an event.
Linguists talk about a mutual influence between French and English. The use of the word ‘people’ in French, for example, to refer to celebrities comes from the English word ‘people.’ And even though ‘bacon’ is a French word, it is pronounced with an English accent in France today.
You’ll know your French skills have truly arrived when you start searching for the meaning or pronunciation of a faux ami in English rather than en Français. By this point, the previously unfamiliar language will probably start coming to you naturally. And if it doesn’t, you can always blame the Normans.
Interested in learning more about French language and culture? Learn to confidently speak French like a local wherever your adventure takes you — whether to la tour Eiffel [the Eiffel Tower] in Paris, or through the vineyards and chateaux [castles] in Bordeaux — you won’t get lost with Mango’s French language course.
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