Foreign words in French

Some foreign words are used in French just as some French words are used in other languages. Where does this phenomenon come from? Let’s find out.

Foreign words in French

I’m sure you’re aware that many foreign words are used by French people and, equally, lots of French words can be found in other languages. You’ll also know that the French language is rooted primarily in Latin and Greek.

Every language takes words and phrases that exist in a different tongue, and uses them either as they are, or in an adapted form. Linguists call this “lexical borrowing”. Throughout history, conflicts, trade and periods of colonisation have facilitated the process.

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.

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