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Words from French

Before the Modern English that we speak today was fully settled, the French of the Middle Ages—a direct offshoot of Latin—was widely spoken in the British Isles, as a result of the conquest of Britain by France in 1066. English is so rich in vocabulary today partly because we often have words with similar or overlapping meanings, one of which came via the Germanic route (that is, from Anglo-Saxon or another Germanic language) and one via French. So, for example, we may call the animal a hog (Old English), but the meat it produces is pork (from French).

Today, English words with French credentials are everywhere in English. Our pronunciation of vowels and consonants is quite different from the modern French of today, but there are many consistent spelling patterns that can help us make educated guesses about how to spell words that come from French.

Tip from the Top

French has many different vowel sounds and diphthongs that are distinctly French, but it has only the same 26 letters to spell them with that English has. Therefore, French relies on certain combinations of vowels and consonants in spelling to show what vowel sound is meant. When pronounced in English, many of these sounds are simplified. The result is that many different English spellings stand for the same sound in French words.

All Around the Mediterranean

If you're getting an odd sense of déjà vu looking at some of these French words, you're not mistaken! Some of them are purely French—that is, they have no obvious roots in another language. A large number, however, have roots in Latin (such as ambulance, and renaissance) and Greek (such as diplomat, neologism and stethoscope). Long before France was an independent country it was part of the Roman Empire, and its language was close to Latin. The Roman Empire was, in turn, influenced by the civilization of classical Greece that preceded it. With so rich a heritage, the French did not have to travel very far to find a word for just about everything! Diorama is a special case. If you see elements in it that remind you of Greek words, you are correct; but the French actually modeled this word on a word they saw in English—panorama—which was, in turn, made from Greek roots!

Now You Try

  1. 1. Read these two pronunciations of non–study-list French words and then spell them. You'll discover two other ways that a long a sound (\ā\) can be spelled at the end of a word from French: \ka-ˈfā\ and \ˈmā-ˌlā\

    The words are café and melee.

  2. 2. The consonant w is rare in French. You get ten points for using it in French Scrabble®! Find the four words on the study list that have a \w\ sound and tell how this sound is spelled in each word.

    The \w\ sound is spelled with u in suave. In repertoire, boudoir, and croissant the oi is pronounced \wä\.

  3. 3. The word mirage has two common related words in English that come ultimately from the Latin root mirari, a word that means "wonder at." One of these English words has three r's; the other has only one. Can you guess the words?

    has three r's: Show Answer
    has one r: Show Answer

    That's Correct! The two words are mirror and miracle.

  4. 4. English has dozens of words from French that end in ee. Some, like melee, have a long a pronunciation (\ā\). Others, like levee, have a long e (\ē\). Can you think of two other words from French ending in ee that have the long a sound and two that have the long e sound?

    Some words ending with long a (\ā\) are entree, lycée, and soiree.

    Some words ending with long e (\ē\) are agree, apogee, degree, disagree, lessee, pedigree, and refugee.

    The ending of the words divorcee and repartee can be pronounced with either a long a (\ā\) or a long e (\ē\).

  5. 5. Of the words on the study list, three could also have been listed on the Eponyms because they are based on the name of a person or character. Which three words are these?

    The three eponyms are leotard, clementine, and chauvinism.

Spelling Tip

French nearly always spells the \sh\ sound with ch, and this spelling of the sound is very common in words from French. Chagrin, chauvinism, and crochet are examples.

Spelling Tip

A word from French ending with a stressed \et\ is usually spelled with ette as in layette and croquette.

Spelling Tip

A long a sound (\ā\) at the end of a word from French can be spelled a number of ways. One of the more common ways is with et as in cachet, croquet, and crochet.

Spelling Tip

One way to spell long a at the end of a word from French is with er as in dossier and in foyer. (Most Americans, however, do not pronounce the ending of foyer with a long a.)

Spelling Tip

A long e sound (\ē\) at the end of a word from French can be spelled with ie as in prairie and sortie. (But see exercise 4 under Now You Try for another spelling of the long e ending.)

Spelling Tip

Words ending with an \äzh\ sound are common in French. This sound is spelled age as in collage, mirage, dressage, garage, barrage, camouflage, entourage, and fuselage.

Spelling Tip

A \k\ sound at the end of a word from French is often spelled que as in physique, mystique, and boutique.

Spelling Tip

The \ü\ sound (as in rouge and many other words on the list) in words from French is usually spelled with ou. Sometimes, however, it is spelled with u as in tutu and ecru.

Spelling Tip

When the \sh\ sound occurs at the end of a word from French, there is nearly always a silent e that follows it, as in quiche and gauche.

Spelling Tip

Words ending with an \äd\ sound are common in French. This sound is spelled ade as in fusillade.

Spelling Tip

French speakers have a number of vowels that English speakers modify in pronunciation. Our way of pronouncing the French aise (pronounced \ez\ in French) is usually \āz\.