A Guide to French Word Origins – French Etymology
The evolution of the French language over the last two thousand years has been influenced by the tongues of a variety of peoples – from native Gauls, to Viking invaders and Germanic tribes – and throughout its history French has borrowed words and expressions from a range of linguistic traditions. While some of these, like Latin, have had a profound impact on the language, others, like Old Norse, left their traces only in specific regions of France and certain areas of the language. The history of French is one of a melding of the diverse cultures the country has come into contact with over its long, tumultuous history.
From the Celts to the Romans
When Julius Caesar conquered it in the first century BC, the area now known as France was dominated by the Gauls – a Celtic-speaking people. Celtic was an Indo-European language that was spoken across northwestern Europe, but Gaulish was the specific 'brand' of Celtic spoken in France. Although soon to be supplanted by the Latin tongue the Romans brought with them, Gaulish marks the French language to this day. The names of the four major rivers of the country – the Seine, Loire, Rhône, and Garonne – all have roots in the original Gaulish names the Sicauna, Liga, and Rodonos, with Garonne emerging from the Celtic suffix -onna, meaning 'source' or 'river.' These names, still in use, were thus inherited from some of the earliest inhabitants of France.
Today thousands of places retain names from the Celtic age, and the toponymy of many French towns and regions reveals much about the development of the language. The town of Chambéry (from camboritos – a shallow area of a river, situated in a curve in the landscape) and the Ardennes region (from Arduinna, with ardu meaning 'high') are only two such examples. The name of the French capital itself is marked by the country's Celtic heritage – 'Paris' comes from a Gaulish tribe, the Parisii, who once lived in the area. The name itself may have come from the Celtic word parisio meaning 'the craftsmen.' Apart from toponyms, most modern French words derived from Gaulish are limited to the vocabulary of the countryside and its wildlife. Words like bouleau (birch), bruyère (heath or moor), chêne (oak), and boue (mud), as well as animal names like lotte (monkfish) and bouc (goat) all come from Gaulish origins.
Vulgar Latin and Frankish – The Building Blocks of Modern French
Gaulish slowly died out in the face of the Roman invasion, and as the language of trade, religion, and education, Latin influenced the development of French profoundly. Most of the vocabulary and grammar of modern French derive from Vulgar Latin – the spoken form of the language. However, over two thousands years of linguistic evolution has seen original Latin terms transformed almost beyond recognition. For example, caballus became cheval (horse), auricula became oreille (ear), and stella became étoile (star).
The third century saw the invasion of Germanic tribes from the north and east, and one of these tribes – the Franks – would be vital to the transformation of the French language. The name of the language itself, français, comes from the Germanic word, frankisc, and many modern French words have Frankish origins. Words related to rural life often fall into this group, including bois (wood), from the Frankish busk, saule (willow), from salha, and chouette (barn owl) from kōwa or kāwa. Many verbs also come from Frankish, including garder (to keep), guérir (to heal), and choisir (to choose), as well as many names of colors, such as bleu (blue), brun (brown), blanc (white), and gris (grey). The adjectives laid (ugly), hardi (bold), and the feelings honte (shame) and orgueil (pride) also come from Germanic sources.
Vikings and Renaissance Men – Other Influences
The ninth-century Viking raids in Normandy would see another important, albeit geographically limited, influence on the development of French. Old Norse still marks the place names of the region, with those ending in the suffix –bec (stream), like Houlbec, or ending in –fleur (estuary), like Honfleur, being significant examples. As their fortunes were so tied to the sea, the Scandinavian invaders particularly influenced the vocabulary of fishing, sailing, and marine life, with words like harpon (harpoon), turbot (turbot), and homard (lobster) all having roots in the age of the Viking raids on northern France. With the Normans going on to become a great invading people themselves, the Viking legacy for the French nation and language is perhaps more profound than it might at first seem.
While many French words were borrowed from Latin from the time of the Roman invasion, during the Renaissance the influence of Latin was revived. This resulted in the formation of doublets – pairs of words that share the same etymological origin. For example, the Latin word fragilis was reintroduced in the sixteenth century, becoming fragile, while the popular form of the word had evolved into frêle (frail). The Renaissance also saw a massive importation of Greek words, such as catastrophe, authentique, and démocratie, into the French language. Although there have been no major transformative influences on the language since the age of the Renaissance, English loanwords like le weekend and le hamburger are now a familiar part of modern French, and the language continues to evolve.