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 [shætoyã] 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.