The Story of French

by Oliver

I’ve just started reading The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow, and it is a fantastic book. Although I’m constantly reminded of reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue in St. Andrews, Scotland, in the winter of 2006 and having my mind blown repeatedly.

I’m a sucker for interesting facts about language and how it changes over time, which leads me to include the following excerpt from The Story of French regarding the evolution of Anglo-Norman and subsequent formation of French, and its effect on the English language.

. . . The English language is an excellent laboratory for examining the different trends that were at work in the formation of French. For the word château, the Norman variant castel produced castle, whereas the Paris variant chastel produced chastelain and châtelaine. There are many other examples; for example, chasser (to hunt), which was pronounced chacier around Paris, but cachier in Normandy, produced chase and catch. Real, royal and regal meant the same thing in Norman, Françoys and Latin respectively, but English took them on and gave them each different meanings. The term real estate comes from two Anglo-Norman terms. Leal, loyal and legal followed the same pattern, although leal (meaning both “loyal” and “legal”) has fallen out of use. Warranty and guarantee are the same word, pronounced with a Norman and a Françoys accent respectively; this difference in pronunciation also explains how Guillaume became William, guerre became war and Gaul became Walloon (p. 33).

What struck me most at first was the weight of the last sentence. I always knew that Guillaume was the French version of William, but I had never realized that in Anglo-Norman and the subsequent early incarnations of the modern French language, the pronunciation of g and w was the same, thereby drawing a relationship between guarantee and warranty that I never knew existed. It’s also notable that guarantee and warranty are essentially the same word, though spelled differently. English is marvelous and fascinating to me because it can get away with making so many of the same sounds look different when written, such as the uar and arr, -ty and –tee of guarantee and warranty, respectively.