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Beautiful Foreign Words in English

Mark Conn is only the most recent reader of our “100 Most Beautiful Words in English” list to ask why so many seem to be French, not English. I guess it is time to put a reply up for everyone.

The reason is that well over 50% of the English vocabulary is borrowed from French. When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he initiated the Norman Period of English history and the Middle English period of the language. Religious, legal, judicial, educational, and governmental institutions were conducted entirely in French and Old English became the language of the lower classes. Thousands of words were imported into English, a process that continued even after English reestablished itself as the strongly French-influenced national language again around 1300.

We can push the percentage of words borrowed from French and its mother, Latin, even higher if we include medical and legal terms, and higher still if we include the Greek language. The vast majority of current English vocabulary is borrowed, in fact. 

English doesn’t simply borrow words from other languages, it plunders other languages for their lexical treasures like a vocabulary pirate: Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, plus dozens if not hundreds more, have all seen their word stores scanned directly into the English lexicon.

Now, does that mean that English contains only a few thousand English words? That would be a hard case to make. Once we borrow a word like chatoyant (pronounced [shæto] then change its meaning and pronunciation (English [shætoyênt]), it is English. The fact that a French word is borrowed from a language associated with high culture, fashion, and epicurean sophistication does add to its beauty and allure, though.

The aspect of a native word like becoming, fetching, or comely that sets it off from the rest is a sense of being quaintly out of fashion, a warm, and cozy sense like that of a dowdy old aunt or grandmother. Here the distance is in time rather than place but it is still the sense of removal that adds elgance and grace to such such words.

That doesn’t mean that some current native words are not beautiful: love, lilt and offing certainly fill that bill. Certainly other aspects enter the lexical beauty equation. However, just as a sense of anachronism positively inclines us toward native words, the exoticity of distant cultures in words borrowed gains our vocabulary the same advantage.

I’m working on a longer, more detailed explanation of how beauty works in words for the book, The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English scheduled for August publication.

6 Responses to “Beautiful Foreign Words in English”

  1. rod Says:

    English is most revolutionized language in the world. I much appreciate your efforts on singling out the 100 most beautiful words in English.

  2. O Salinas Says:

    I’ve been thinking for awhile that English confuses me. For example we have First class Mail, Express Mail, Priority Mail, Certified Mail, Registered Mail, Air Mail, regular mail and unfortunate black mail. Who came with this definition? Where is white mail? or any other color for that matter.

  3. Janet Trossell Says:

    Blackmail is from the Old Norse, mall, meaning tax.
    The Vikings taxed the indigenous population of Britain,
    anything bad was ‘black’
    hence blackmail.

  4. Jean-Paul Setlak Says:

    The beauty of words can also be viewed in the way one looks at artwork. There are so many different forms and styles. I am a native French speaker and of course love the beauty of my own language reflected in the mirror of English; but when in another mood, I love the rhythm and sounds of Anglo-Saxon words: dell, dale and wood. The flavor is so different, yet it is also delightful. A different art style!
    Sounds directly affect the nervous system, and the sounds we learn in early childhood are the ones we feel most comfortable with. The sounds of other languages are always viewed through the filter of our own. English speakers usually will find “German hard” and “Italian melodious.” So is the instinctive attraction for French words, the distant echo of the Norman invaders’ voices imposing the beauty of their new language – after all they were still Vikings by blood – on the Saxon brain? Does it explain the love-hate relationship that still exists between the culturally-English Americans and the French? The memory of Hastings?

  5. John Says:

    I agree that there are many English words that are borrowed (assimilated is probably the better word). However, there are still a lot of words that English hasn’t taken. Many of those words tend to be untranslatable. I was searching a day or two ago and came across http://www.betterthanenglish.com. It has a lot of beautiful words that do not have an English translation.

  6. Kristin Teplica Says:

    Great stuff, just what I was looking for

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