Foreign words in French


You may be aware that many foreign words are commonly used by the French, just as French terms are incorporated into other languages. The French language, also known as the language of Molière, has its roots mainly in Latin and Greek. Each language actually appropriates words from other idioms, retaining or adapting them. Experts call this phenomenon "linguistic borrowing".

Throughout history, conflicts, commercial exchanges and periods of colonization have favored these exchanges of words, making the etymology of terms often complex. This is one of the fascinating aspects of learning French in France.
French courses in France for adults offer the opportunity to explore these linguistic borrowings and to understand the richness of the French language.

How are these words integrated?

There are a number of ways in which a word can be integrated into a language. One is for the word to be borrowed directly, or perhaps with just a slight change to spelling or pronunciation. Have you noticed that words like clown, cowboy and square are pronounced differently in French than they are in English? French people say [klun], [kɔbɔj] and [skwaʁ]. As for zoo, you might hear [zo] or [zo.o]. It can be tricky to get to grips with when you’re learning French! For plurals, French spelling can tolerate the English form (even if it’s really better to form the plural with just an ‘s’!).

Another way of integrating words is to create a “calque” by translating the foreign word or phrase literally. For example, French speakers in Quebec use the delightful expression tomber en amour as a direct translation of to fall in love. Quite romantic, don’t you think?

Words with diverse origins

If you were to try and make a list of all the languages which have helped to enrich French vocabulary, it would be a very long one – linguists believe that there are more than ninety of them! There are examples from German (nickel, ozone, plexiglas...), Spanish (paella, matador, patio...), Italian (graffiti, soprano...), and so on. There are also loan words from some quite unexpected sources: anorak comes from Inuit (yes, really!), lama from Tibetan and pyjama from Persian.

What about English?

As for English, you might be wondering if it’s a good idea to use a few words derived from the language of Shakespeare when you’re practising your French. Should you say “fin de semaine” instead of “week-end”? There’s no reason to stop using common words like steak, shampooing, wagon or smartphone, but there are some Anglicisms that can’t be justified where an equivalent word exists in French. That’s why it’s better to stick to surmenage rather than burn-out and faire une pause rather than faire un break.

Study French in France at the Centre International d'Antibes

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