Category Archives: French language

French Roots 2: The Romans (twice)

After the Gauls – whose contribution to the French language we looked at here – come the Romans. Julius Caesar launched an invasion of what would be modern-day France in 58 BCE, and by the end of the decade, Gaul was part of the Roman Empire, in which it would remain for the next five hundred years. With them came the Latin language, and the history of the centuries that followed is one of a gradual displacement of the Gaulish language, from the administrators and traders down to the ordinary people, by the language of the conquerors. In grammar and vocabulary, Latin forms the basis of modern French, as it does for modern Spanish and, more closely still, modern Italian.

The crossed swords mark the sites of battles in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul from 58 to 51 BCE.

The Gallo-Romans spoke a language that was coloured by the older languages of their region, and continued to evolve across the centuries into the various French dialects that made up the language by the medieval period. (The spread of a single, dominant variety of French, based largely on the dialect spoken in Paris, is a much more recent story.) The point in this evolution at which people are no longer speaking Latin, but are now speaking French, is a bit of an arbitrary one. Historians of the French language often point to a document written in the year 842, the Oaths of Strasbourg as the earliest example of written French. It’s an pact between two of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Louis the German and the unfortunately nicknamed Charles the Bald, who are ganging up against their brother, Lothair. Would you like a quick look? Here’s the first sentence:

Pro deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro cummun saluament d’ist di en auant, in quant Deus sauir et podir me dunat, si saluarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo, et in aiudha et in cadhuna cosa, si cum om per dreit son fradra saluar dift, in o quid il mi altresi fazet, et ab Ludher nul plaid nunquam prindrai qui mon uol cist mein fradre Karl in damno sit.

And here’s the same thing in modern French:

Pour l’amour de Dieu et pour le salut commun du peuple chrétien et le nôtre, à partir de ce jour, autant que Dieu m’en donne le savoir et le pouvoir, je soutiendrai mon frère Charles de mon aide et en toute chose, comme on doit justement soutenir un frère, à condition qu’il me fasse autant, et je ne prendrai jamais aucun arrangement avec Lothaire, qui, à ma volonté, soit au détriment de mondit frère Charles.

You might not totally agree that it’s right to call the top one French, but it’s definitely not Latin: the oaths actually include a Latin translation of the Old French text (as well as a German one), showing that people at the time thought of them as quite distinct languages.

What’s interesting here, though, is that precisely at this moment that French was breaking free of Latin to become a separate language in its own right, Latin was making a whole new invasion of France. This time it wasn’t being brought by Roman soldiers, but by French scholars.

In late 700s and 800s, when Charlemagne and his successors ruled much of Western Europe, there were rapid developments in literature, law, the arts, architecture and religion. (The period is sometimes called the Carolingian Renaissance.) All this new scholarship needed new, more rigorous terms, and the scholars turned to Latin to coin new words. Over the preceding centuries, the latin words fragilem (fragile), frater (brother) and proxima (near) had drifted into the French words that would become today’s frêle, frère, and proche. In the Carolingian Renaissance, though, French scholars reached back to Latin to coin more formal words like fragile, or to fill in other parts of speech like fraternel (the adjective ‘brotherly’) or proximité (the noun ‘proximity’ or ‘nearness’). French today is full of pairs like these: a noun like père which has evolved  from the Latin pater over the long centuries since Caesar’s invasion is accompanied by the adjective paternel, coined from a return to the Latin from hundreds of years later . Some other double borrowings from Latin you’ll come across are vide and vacuité (empty and emptiness, both from Latin vacuus), entier and intégrité (whole and wholeness, from Latin integer), aigu and acuité (sharp and sharpness, from Latin acutus), even hôtel and hôpital (both from Latin hospitalis), along with many others. Of course, a similar process happened in English, where we often have words of Anglo-Saxon origin (king), Norman French origin (royal), and Latin origin (regal) rubbing up alongside one another, and becoming more formal the closer we get to Latin.

So that’s Gaulish and Latin as the roots of French. There’s one further important influence to come, though, which slots in between the two Latin waves of Caesar and Charlemagne. The last one, which I’ll tell you about in a future post, is a people who not only left their mark on the French language, but also gave their name to it, as well as to the people who speak it and the country they live in. Our last French root will be the Franks.





Bons mots: la licorne et l’écrevisse


posted by Simon Kemp

Today, we have a short piece of bilingual theatre for you:





A long time ago, in a castle in England. GUINEVERE, a damsel, is embroidering a needlepoint picture of a horse with a horn sticking out of its forehead.

Enter BISCLAVRET, a French knight on holiday, and ISEUT, his lady-friend.

BISCLAVRET (to Guinevere, trying out his best English): Is very nice! What is called?

GUINEVERE (without looking up): ‘Unicorn’.

BISCLAVRET: Excusing me, once again, how you say name?

GUINEVERE (with limited patience): Unicorn.

ISEUT (to Bisclavret): Qu’est-ce qu’elle a dit, l’anglaise?

BISCLAVRET : Elle dit que c’est une icorne.

ISEUT : Ah, bon ?



A château, somewhere in France. ISEUT is busy weaving a tapestry based on a new design she saw on a recent trip to England.

Enter BRENGAINE, her maid.

BRENGAINE: Que c’est beau, madame! En fait, c’est quoi le cheval avec la corne au front?

ISEUT : L’icorne.

BRENGAINE : Ah, ça s’appelle donc une licorne ! Je vais apprendre ce mot à tous mes amis !


OK, so it may not have happened precisely in that way. In fact, the route taken from the Latin unicornis to the French licorne more likely travels via the Italian alicorno. Either way, though, the evolution of the French word really does come through this kind of successive mishearings, adding and subtracting letters at the beginning of the word and then crystalizing  the mistake into the accepted form of the word.

Words invented by mistake like this are surprisingly common, especially when two languages are in contact and the speakers of one language are not always entirely clear what the speakers of the other one are on about. Famously, there are place names, such as Yucatán in Mexico, which were diligently recorded by European explorers as the local name for the area, but which apparently mean  ‘What?’ or ‘What are you saying?’ in the local language. With English and French, misunderstandings have happened in both directions between the two languages…



GUINEVERE and her friend MORGAN LE FAY are visiting ISEUT in her château. The three chums are eating crisps* and paddling in the moat.

MORGAN LE FAY (suddenly): Ugh! There are horrible things scuttling about under the water! Ow! One of them has pinched my toe! Iseut, ma chérie, comment s’appelle cette bête?

ISEUT (indistinctly, through a mouthful of crisps): L’écrevisse.

MORGAN LE FAY: Elles s’appellent les créviches?

ISEUT (already bored and not really listening): Oui, c’est ça.

GUINEVERE: What did she say it was? A cray-fish?

MORGAN LE FAY: Yeah, something like that.

GUINEVERE: Funny, looks more like a lobster to me.

*In pre-Columbian Europe, crisps were made out of thinly sliced fried turnips.


Again, a certain amount of dramatic licence is involved in this reconstruction. Strictly speaking, both the modern French  écrevisse and the English crayfish are descended from the Old French word, crevice. But the fish of crayfish most definitely arises from a corruption of the sound of that last syllable,‘veece’ in the French word, which someone at some point misheard as ‘fish’. And that, dear reader, is how this little fellow…


…who is clearly not a fish at all, came to be known in English as a crayfish.

Terry Pratchett, Death and Grammar

posted by Simon Kemp

As you probably know, Sir Terry Pratchett, beloved author of the Discworld novels, died on Thursday. In France — yes, he was beloved by the French as well — his death was reported by Libération as follows:

Peut-être la mort s’est-elle approchée et lui a dit «ENFIN, MONSIEUR TERRY, NOUS DEVONS CHEMINER ENSEMBLE». Car c’est ainsi, en lettres capitales, que parle la Mort, personnage récurrent de l’œuvre immense de Terry Pratchett, décédé aujourd’hui à l’âge de 66 ans.

Perhaps death approached and said to him, AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. That’s how Death speaks, in capital letters. Death is a recurring character in the immense series of novels written by Terry Pratchett, who died today at the age of sixty-six.

(The full article is here.)

In the comments below the online version of the article are the same expressions of sadness that have accompanied every mention of Pratchett’s death on this side of the Channel. But not all of them. The first comment is cross, as are one or two of the others. And they are cross about grammar.

Sérieusement Libé : peut-être également la mort s’est-IL approché de lui. Car pour Sir Pratchett la Mort est un mâle, un mal nécessaire.

And again:

Il fallait écrire : Peut-être la mort s’est-il approché et lui a dit «ENFIN, MONSIEUR TERRY, NOUS DEVONS CHEMINER ENSEMBLE»

What they are annoyed about is the use of the feminine pronoun, elle in the original article to refer to Death.

What’s going on? Well, la mort in French is a feminine noun, so the correct pronoun to refer to it should be elle, as in this line by the Romantic writer, Chateaubriand:

La mort est belle; elle est notre amie.

In Discworld, however, Death is most definitely male. He’s a guy with a skull face and a big scythe who rides around on a pale horse called Binky, ushering souls into the next life. Pratchett’s creation unintentionally trespasses on one of the most fraught areas of the French language: the question of what to do when the grammatical system of masculine and feminine nouns comes into conflict with the real-world existence of male and female people (as well as male and female animals, supernatural entities or symbolic personifications).

In all such cases, as Libé failed to realize, the pronoun is determined by the actual gender of the person, not by the grammatical gender of the noun.

So, for example, une star/une vedette (a movie star) and une sentinelle (a sentinel) are feminine nouns that can refer to men:

La sentinelle s’est assoupie. Il n’avait pas bien dormi la nuit précédente.

Gaspard Ulliel est une star francaise. Les anglais le connaissent surtout pour des publicités d’une marque d’après-rasage, dans lesquelles il dit: “I am nert going to be ze person I am expected to be any more.”

Feminine nouns that can apply to men are rare. (Apart from la personne, those are the only two I can think of right now.) Masculine nouns that can apply to women are far more common, and include many job titles and other roles in life, for instance:

un architecte – architect

un juge – judge

un médecin – doctor

un professeur – teacher

un témoin – witness

The same rule applies as above, so:

Mon professeur de français s’appelle Mme Vergnaud. Elle est très intelligente.

This rule, however, has turned into a feminist issue, with many women objecting to being referred to in the masculine, and with new feminine alternatives being coined, such as une avocate for a female lawyer, or une écrivaine for a woman writer. Sometimes it’s simply the article that’s at issue, as with the ongoing debate as to whether it’s acceptable to continue to refer to women government ministers as madame le ministre, or if madame la ministre is more appropriate. Here is a nice video of a male politician calling his female colleagues ‘madame le ministre’, and ‘madame le président‘ to their evident displeasure, and getting very much owned in response when they refer to him as ‘monsieur la députée’:

“Monsieur la députée”, “Madame le président” by LeHuffPost

Libération, at least, managed to sort itself out, when, a little later the same day, they published a proper article on Pratchett. Not only do they get Death’s gender right, they also add a little explanation as to who he is and what he does:

A la toute fin, la Mort, avec sa faux et son long manteau noir, vient tous nous chercher. Il (car, il a beau s’appeler «La Mort», c’est un homme, si vous ne le saviez pas) ne voulait pas forcément que tout cela soit terminé. Il n’y a pas d’intérêt particulier, c’est simplement son travail. Jeudi, Il est venu chercher, peut-être à regret, l’un de ses plus grands amis : Terry Pratchett.

At the very end, Death, with his scythe and his long black cloak, comes for us all. He (for, even if he’s called ‘La Mort’, he’s a man, in case you didn’t know), didn’t necessarily want it all to end. He doesn’t have any particular axe to grind, it’s just his job. On Thursday, he came, perhaps unwillingly, for one of his greatest friends: Terry Pratchett.

P.S. Before I saw the Pratchett grammar nerds, I was planning to use this post to urge you to go and see Suite française, a rare chance to see some French literature on the big screen (albeit an English-language Hollywood adaptation of some French literature, but we take what we can get). I was also going to tell you the story of how Suite française came to be published, which is if anything a more extraordinary story than Suite française itself. I’ll save it for the DVD, but in the meantime, here’s the trailer:

P.P.S. That first comment from the grammar nerd I quoted, the one that began, Sérieusement Libé, also contained an untranslatable pun, which the commenter no doubt thought was very clever. Did you spot it?

Great French Lives: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s legacy to the French language may not be as useful an addition to your everyday vocabulary as that provided by Eugène Poubelle, but it’s perhaps more distinctively French. As well as the name for the execution device itself (la guillotine), Guillotin has also supplied us with a verb, (guillotiner, to guillotine), two further nouns (le guillotineur/la guillotineuse, who does the guillotining, and the rather less fortunate le guillotiné/la guillotinée at the business end of the device), plus, the excellent term, la fenêtre à guillotine, which sounds very much more architecturally exciting than the English sash window. Note that, like la Bastille (and unlike, say, la ville), the double-l of Guillotin and guillotine has a y-sound rather than an l-sound in French (and apparently also commonly in American English – it’s only the British that always get it wrong).

Here are three things that many people can tell you about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin:

1. He was keen on executing people.

2. He invented the guillotine.

3. He ended up getting executed himself by the device he invented.

Here, on the other hand, are three facts about Joseph-Ignace Guillotin that are actually true:

1. He was strongly opposed to the death penalty.

2. He didn’t invent the guillotine.

3. He died of natural causes in 1814.

Guillotin considered the death penalty barbarous, and was particularly sickened by the suffering inflicted by botched executions, and by the double standards that afforded more humane forms of execution to the aristocracy than to the common people.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1789 Revolution, abolition of the death penalty was most definitely not on the cards, but as an alternative measure, and a step in the right direction, he proposed to the National Assembly the following legal reform:

“Les délits du même genre seront punis du même genre de supplice, quels que soient le rang et l’état du coupable; dans tous les cas où la loi prononcera la peine de mort, le supplice sera le même (décapitation), et l’exécution se fera par un simple mécanisme.”

Crimes if the same type will be punished with the same type of penalty, regardless of the rank and estate of the guilty party: in every case where the death penalty is given out, the method will be the same (decapitation), and the execution will be carried out by simple mechanical means.

The motion was accepted, and the Assembly set about finding itself an inventor to come up a device that would fit the bill. The credit for the design and construction of the prototype guillotine goes to the trio of Jean Laquiante, Tobias Schmidt and Antoine Louis (for a short while, it seemed possible that the machine might become known as a ‘Louison’). Guillotin’s name attached to the machine as the legislator who proposed that something should be done, not as the man who created the actual solution to the problem. In fact, the naming of the device after him proved an enduring embarrassment to Guillotin and his family, so much so that the family later petitioned the government to rename the machine, and, when this was rejected, changed their own surname to avoid the association.

The story that Guillotin ended up guillotined himself is entirely mythical. There was in fact a certain Dr J. M. V. Guillotin from Lyon (no relation) who met that fate, and it’s also true that Joseph-Ignace fell foul of the Revolutionary authorities and was imprisoned for a short time during the Terror. From these two facts the myth seems to have arisen, and as usual, the truth has trouble getting in the way of a good story.

Lastly, guillotine is not the French word for that machine your school has for cutting multiple sheets of paper with very straight lines. The French call that un massicot. And yes, it’s because it was invented by a certain M. Massiquot.

100 Good Reasons to Study Modern Languages at University: Reason 95

A planetary disk of white cloud formations, brown and green land masses, and dark blue oceans against a black background. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disk, while Antarctica is at the bottom.

There are seven billion people on the planet. Fewer than four hundred million of them speak English as their first language. Five billion of them don’t speak English at all. If you want to talk to them, you’re going to have to learn a foreign language.  Even with the ones that do speak English, you’re not going to get very far if you know nothing of their culture, and can’t understand anything they say to each other.

That should be reason enough to be considering a degree in modern languages. At Oxford, we offer courses in the two most widely spoken first languages on the planet, Chinese and Spanish,  the other major languages of Europe (German, French, Italian, Czech, Slovak, Greek, Polish, Portuguese), and of the increasingly important BRIC economies (Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Bengali), and of East Asia and the Middle East (Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish), as well as minority languages like Catalan, Galician, Yiddish, Gaelic and Welsh. Most of these are available to learn from scratch, on their own or in tandem with another language or another subject. You can explore all the possibilities and combinations on our admissions pages.

How does French measure up against these other choices? Well, according to the French government, there are more than 220  million French speakers in the world, spread across five continents and 77 countries with French as an official language. It is the second most widely learned foreign language after English, and the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. French is also the only language, alongside English, that is taught in every country in the world. France operates the biggest international network of cultural institutes, which run French-language courses for close on a million learners.

The majority of French-speakers live outside Europe (which has approximately 87.5 million French speakers).

There are:

16.8 million French speakers in the Americas and the Caribbean (notably in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Quebec and French Guyana),

2.6 million speakers in Asia and Oceania (particularly in the former colonies of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia),

33.6 million in North Africa and the Middle East (especially the ‘Maghreb’ countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and Lebanon and Syria in the Middle East),

and 79.1 million speakers in sub-Saharan Africa (including Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mozambique, Niger, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Togo, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, and several others.)

French is very much a global language of the twenty-first century, and studying it at university opens doors that lead far beyond our nearest European neighbour.

Fun with Grammar: Cooking with “de”

Today’s task is to make this cake:


To assist you, you will be provided with a state-of-the art kitchen, plus a glamorous French movie star to pass you the ingredients as you need them. You can choose between Gaspard Ulliel or Ludivine Sagnier:



There are two slight issues with Gaspard and Ludivine. The first is that neither of them speaks a word of English, so all your instructions will have to be in French. (To be fair, Gaspard is able to tell people in English that he’s nert going to be ze person ′e is expected to be any more, but that’s frankly more of a hindrance than a help in a baker’s assistant. You should maybe have gone for Ludivine.) Secondly, like many film stars, they’re actually not that bright, and need to be told clearly and precisely what to do and when to do it.

To start with, then, you’re going to have to show them each of the ingredients. Go through the list below with your chosen assistant. The French is in magical inviso-text that you can reveal by highlighting it. (I’ll include all the answers at the bottom of the post too, in case you’re on a touch screen and can’t highlight easily.)

Voici le sucre. (the sugar)

Voici la tablette de chocolat. (the chocolate bar)

Voici les pépites de chocolat. (the chocolate chips)








Voici un bol. (a bowl)

Voici une cuillère en bois. (a wooden spoon)

Voici des oeufs. (some eggs)

Voici du beurre. (some butter)

Voici de la farine. (some flour)

That list, as you may have noticed, covers all the articles French uses. There are definite and indefinite articles for masculine and feminine, singular and plural, countable and uncountable nouns. If you’re not familiar with that last distinction (also known as ‘count’ and ‘mass’ nouns), it’s simply that in English and French, some things can be counted (one egg, two eggs/un oeuf, deux oeufs) and some things can’t ( you can have some flour/de la farine, but you can’t have two flours/deux farines).

As in English the definite article le/la gets used for both countable (the egg/l’oeuf) and uncountable (the flour/la farine) nouns.  The indefinite article un/une can ONLY be used for countable nouns (an egg/un oeuf), which is why we need to use the alternative du/de la, sometimes called the partitive article, for uncountables (some flour/de la farine).

Now it’s time to get baking! As you require each item, you need to tell your glamorous assistant that you need it, using the construction ‘j’ai besoin de’, I need, or literally translated, I have need of. That will mean combining the French de, meaning of, with each of the possible French articles. Inviso-text on!


J’ai besoin du sucre. (I need the sugar)

J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. (I need the chocolate bar)

J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. (I need the chocolate chips)









J’ai besoin d’un bol. (I need a bowl)

J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. (I need a wooden spoon)

J’ai besoin d’oeufs. (I need some eggs)

J’ai besoin de beurre. (I need some butter)

J’ai besoin de farine. (I need some flour)

How did you do? As you can see, it’s basically a matter of grammar maths, of knowing what you get when you add de/of to each of the three definite articles, the three indefinite articles, and the two partitive articles (the reason there are only two partitive articles is because uncountable nouns don’t have plurals). Here’s the arithmetic laid out:


de+le = du

de+la=de la

de+les= des

de+un= d’un


de+des= de

de+du= de

de+de la= de

As usual, the French have confused things by having different words that look and sound identical scattered through the system. So du, de la and des can either mean ‘some’ or ‘of the’ depending on their function in the sentence. This doesn’t help the learner who’s trying to memorize how it all works. One thing that may help, though, is to notice that in the last three sums on the list, where you’re adding ‘de’ to ‘du/de la/des’, the ‘de’ simply takes precedence over the ‘du/de la/des’, which disappears.

If you have all that straight, there are two further advanced baking manoeuvres you may like to try in order to complete the lesson. Firstly, what happens when your feckless celebrity whines that they don’t have the ingredient you need (je n’ai pas…)? (Answer below.)

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

And finally, what difference does it make if the hapless screen-idol hands you a substandard item, and you’re forced to tell them to give you another one/the other one (use ‘autre’) ?

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)

I hope that was useful. At least Gaspard seems to have enjoyed it.

gaspard ulliel

Inviso-free answers:

Voici le sucre. Voici la tablette de chocolat. Voici les pépites de chocolat. Voici un bol. Voici une cuillère en bois. Voici des oeufs. Voici du beurre. Voici de la farine.

J’ai besoin du sucre. J’ai besoin de la tablette de chocolat. J’ai besoin des pépites de chocolat. J’ai besoin d’un bol. J’ai besoin d’une cuillère en bois. J’ai besoin d’oeufs. J’ai besoin de beurre. J’ai besoin de farine.

Definite articles work the same way in negative sentences (I don’t have the…) as they do normally : Je n’ai pas le sucre. Je n’ai pas la tablette de chocolat. Je n’ai pas les pépites de chocolat. However, ALL the indefinite and partitive articles (I don’t have a/any…) are replaced by de: Je n’ai pas de bol. Je n’ai pas de cuillère en bois. Je n’ai pas d’oeufs. Je n’ai pas de beurre. Je n’ai pas de farine.

Adding an adjective before the noun makes no difference to seven of the eight sentences: Donne-moi l’autre sucre; donne-moi l’autre tablette de chocolat, etc. The one exception is with ‘des’ meaning ‘some’, which changes to ‘de’ before an adjective. So you’d say ‘Donne-moi des oeufs’ for ‘give me some eggs’, but ‘donne-moi d’autres oeufs’ for ‘give me some other eggs’. (This rule isn’t always strictly obeyed by French speakers, by the way, but you need to use it if you’re speaking or writing formally.)


Bons mots: l’éponge et le bâtard


posted by Simon Kemp

The French language, as we know, is never that keen on pronouncing words as they’re spelled. Almost any French word you care to mention contains a consonant or two that doesn’t make it to air. This explains why French schoolchildren still spend time doing dictées, trying to write out a precise transcription of a passage being read aloud by their teacher.

All of these silent letters used to be pronounced in Old French, but while pronunciation gradually shifted over the centuries, spelling was less inclined to move with the times. It did, however, allow for a certain degree modernization. In 1740, the Académie Française introduced spelling reforms that went through the dictionary and deleted more than ten thousand silent letters. All of them were in fact the same letter: an ‘s’ following a vowel in the middle of a word. They hadn’t been pronounced for years, and so they finally got the chop. Espier became épier, ancestre became ancêtre, coste became côte. The disappearance was marked by an accent over the vowel that came before the ‘s’ (in most cases a circumflex accent, or an acute accent over a letter ‘e’ where appropriate). And that’s the spelling that has persisted until today.


Rewind back to the middle ages. In the wake of the Norman conquest, English was helping itself to great swathes of the French language. The language of the conquerors was the language of power and administration, and Old French terms found their way from the royal court into the everyday language of the British people. A millennium later, many are still here, with their Old French ‘s’ still alive and well, hundreds of years after it disappeared from modern French.


The upshot is that there are now scores of words in modern French with an ‘é’ or a circumflex vowel, where the addition of an ‘s’ after the vowel produces a recognizable English word. Let’s try a little exercise in reconstitution. Answers at the bottom of the post.

Easy ones first. How about these?

le mât

la crête


la hâte

la tempête

la forêt

le bâtard


And these ?




une épice


en dépit de

une éponge


And what about these, which are slightly trickier, but still just about recognizable :

l’huître (f.)

le maître

la guêpe

la pâtisserie

l’écureuil (m.)

la coutume

For English speakers, when faced with an unfamiliar French word that has an acute-accented ‘e’ near the start or a circumflexed vowel in the middle, it’s always a good idea to try adding back in the missing ‘s’, to see if an English word magically appears.



  1. Mast, crest, honest, haste, tempest, forest, bastard (in the literal sense of illegitimate son – the French don’t use the word as an insult!).
  2. Scarlet, strange, study, spice, respond, despite, sponge.
  3. Oyster (it doesn’t look much like it, but if you think of the French pronunciation – ‘wee-truh’ – and add an ‘s’ into the middle of that, the similarity is clearer), master, wasp (the shift from Old French ‘gu-’ to English ‘w-’ is quite common, e.g. ‘Guillaume le conquérant’ to ‘William the conqueror’), pastry, squirrel, custom (‘coutume’ used to be spelled ‘coûtume’ but later lost its circumflex. ‘Le coût’ (cost) still has it).



Fun with Grammar: ‘She has broken the leg to herself!’

posted by Simon Kemp

I’d like this blog to be useful for all aspects of studying French, including grammar, but I don’t want reading it to feel too much like work. So here’s a new thread of occasional posts, offering a highly unsystematic dabble here and there in the French language to come up with a few choice nuggets of tricky grammar.  I’m going to pick out the things I wish someone had put straight for me when I was learning… the things examiners slip into the grammar questions in our first-year exams to trip up the unwary… the things my undergraduates are STILL getting wrong after having it pointed out half-a-dozen times….

Let’s start with this sentence:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe.

It means, ‘She’s broken her leg’, or literally, ‘She’s broken the leg to herself.’ French grammar tests are always full of women breaking their legs, cutting their fingers, washing their faces, not due to a worrying obsession with female body parts, but to see whether you’ll translate it correctly as:

Elle s’est coupé le doigt.

Elle s’est lavé le visage. (etc.)

…or whether you’ll succumb to the temptation to add an extra ‘e’ to those past participles. So why is it cassé, coupé and lavé, not cassée, coupée and lavée? To answer that, we need a little excursion into the rules of French agreement.

As you probably know, past participles in French, like the ‘cassé’ of ‘elle s’est cassé la jambe’, agree with a preceding direct object. (There is the exception of the sixteen special verbs whose past participle agrees with the subject — Elle est allée, Ils sont tombés, etc — but they don’t concern us here.)


‘Où est ta voiture?’

‘Je l’ai vendue.’

There’s an ‘e’ on the end of the participle, ‘vendue’, because the ‘l’ is the direct object of the verb vendre (I sold it), because it’s feminine (the ‘l’ is a ‘la’, referring to ‘la voiture’), and because it precedes the word vendue in the sentence.

On the other hand, there’s no agreement here:

J’ai vendu ma voiture.

because there’s a direct object, ‘ma voiture’, but it comes after the participle in the sentence.

And there’s no agreement here:

Je leur ai vendu ma voiture.

because the ‘leur’ preceding the participle is an indirect object (I sold my car to them.)

OK so far?


The problem comes when you have something in the sentence that’s clearly a preceding object of the verb, but you’re not sure whether it’s direct or indirect. Sometimes it’s easy to tell, because they’re obviously two different words. The French direct object pronouns, le, la and les (him/her/it, them) are clearly different from their indirect equivalents, lui and leur (to him/to her/to it, to them).

But more often than not, they’re spelled and pronounced the same. The direct object, ‘us’ in French is ‘nous’, and the indirect object, ‘to us’ in French is also ‘nous’. Even so, they’re still two different words every bit as much as the bark on the outside of a tree is different from the bark that next door’s dog does when you’re trying to get to sleep. Here are the direct object pronouns in French:

me —- me

te —- you

le —- him/it

la —- her/it

nous —- us

vous —- you

les —- them

And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to me

te —- to you

lui —- to him/to her/to it

nous —- to us

vous —- to you

leur —- to them

 The same rules apply for pronouns with reflexive verbs, which are the ones where the object of the verb is the same as the subject (i.e. when you’re doing things to yourself). Here are the direct object pronouns for reflexive verbs:

me —- myself

te —- yourself

se —- himself/herself/itself

nous —- ourselves

vous —- yourself/yourselves

se —- themselves

  And here are the indirect ones:

me —- to myself

te —- to yourself

se —- to himself/to herself/to itself

nous —- to ourselves

vous —- to yourself/to yourselves

se —- to themselves

With the reflexive pronouns, as you’ll have noticed,  every single one of them looks the same in direct and indirect forms. It’s a cunning ploy by the French to confuse language learners as much as possible.


So, finally, back to our original sentence. The key to understanding how it works is to remember that there are two different ‘se’s. There’s the direct object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavée. – She washed herself.

Here, ‘se’ (herself) is the direct object of the verb laver. (What did she wash? She washed herself.)

And there’s the indirect object ‘se:

Elle s’est lavé le visage. – She washed the face to herself

…which is just the French way of saying that she washed her face, I know, but the literal translation helps me keep the grammar straight in my head. Here, ‘se‘ (to herself) is the indirect object of the verb laver.

(By the way, it’s important not to get distracted by the fact that reflexive verbs take être rather than avoir in the perfect tense: ‘Elle s’est lavé le visage’. That doesn’t make them part of that list of sixteen verbs with past participles that agree with the subject — aller, tomber, etc. — which also  take être. Reflexive verbs follow the same rules of agreement as avoir verbs.)


And the same goes for:

Elle s’est cassé la jambe. – She broke the leg to herself.

The verb has a direct object, la jambe (What did she break? The leg), but it is not preceding the participle: it comes after.

And the verb has a preceding object pronoun, the reflexive pronoun ‘se’, but it is not a direct object: it’s an indirect object (to herself).

Therefore, there’s no preceding direct object.

Therefore, no agreement.

Therefore, cassé.

Thank you, and good night.

Medieval French Phrasebooks: Encore Tricolore, circa 1400

‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’ [A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]‘… a parler, bien sonere et parfaitement escrire douce frances qu’est la plus belle et la plus gracious langage et la plus noble …’[A detail from a manuscript of the Manière de langage, Cambridge University Library, MS Dd.12.23, f. 67v.]

posted by Edward Mills

For those of us who are fortunate enough to study languages, holidays can be a great way to practise: there’s nothing like embarrassing your parents by ordering their train tickets for them. If you don’t speak the language, though, there is one trusty route to fall back on: the phrasebook. As an idea, phrasebooks have a long history; much longer than you might otherwise think when leafing through a Collins or a Berlitz. Some of the earliest manuals that we possess today were written for learners of French in England in the high and late Middle Ages; still objects of study today, they offer a fascinating insight into how languages were taught over five centuries ago. To illustrate this, I’ll be taking three examples, from consecutive centuries: the Tretiz, written by the wonderfully-named Walter de Bibbesworth around the second half of the 13th century; a Manière de langage from 1396; and a fifteenth-century general primer, the Liber Donati (named after the Latin grammarian Donatus).

These three texts were all written in England, and the circumstances in which they were produced reveals a great deal about the esteem with which French was held in the later Middle Ages. French was widely spoken in what is today Britain in the wake of the Norman Conquest, as part of a (very interesting indeed) triglossia[1] with Latin and English, but as interactions with the continent became more frequent the value of learning French for non-native speakers greatly increased. This is why the Manière de langage is able to state its purpose so boldly: ‘Ci comence la maniere de language que t’enseignera bien a droit parler et escrire doulz françois selon l’usage et la coustume de France.’[2] Assuming on the part of the reader a basic knowledge of the Anglo-Norman dialect of French, all three of these texts aim to educate an English audience that needs vocabulary specific to certain situations.

Of course, all of this may well ring bells — that essentially remains the purpose for the modern phrasebook today. Nor is it an alien concept for textbooks to be written in what is termed the ‘target language’: how many times have you read the phrase ‘corrigez les phrases suivantes’, or else ‘écoutez et répondez’? In a wonderful example of differentiation by prior knowledge, Walter of Bibbesworth’s Tretiz and the Liber Donati even include annotations (‘glosses’) offering English translations for more complicated French terms — ‘berce’ is glossed as ‘cradel’,[3] ‘espaule’ as ‘scholderbon’,[4] and ‘autre fois’ as ‘anoth tyme’.[5]

Another similarity with present-day phrasebooks comes in the way in which new material is presented. We’re all familiar with the hackneyed, slightly stilted dialogues that fill the pages of Encore Tricolore or Élan, so it should come as no surprise that most of the new terms in the medieval texts are first seen in dialogue form. The Manière de langage and the Liber Donati both present the characters of the traveller and his servant (intriguingly called Jehan in both texts) as a focalising device through which the reader can see themself. Here again, similarities abound, as the topics of conversation — a good indication of what it was judged as important to learn — are practically identical to today. The Liber Donati provides an example of how to book into a hotel:[6]

— Hostilier, hostilier.
— Sir, sir, je su cy.
— Purrons nous bien estre loggez ciens?
— Oy, certez, mez maistrez … Combien estez vous en nombre?

While on the road, whether in 1300 or today, it’s also important to be able to ask for information from people you meet. Thankfully, the Manière de langage is here to help, providing multiple ways of how to ask for the time:[7]

Et puis le sr s’en chivalche sur son chemyn, et quant il venra ou my lieu de la ville, il demandera du primer homme qu’il encontrera, ainsi : « Mon ami », vel sic : « Biau sire », vel sic : « Biau filz, quelle heure est-il maintenant ? » Vel sic : « Qu’est ce qu’a sonnee de l’oriloge ? »

But perhaps the most striking similarity between the Collins Gem in your pocket and its medieval equivalent is to be found not in vocabulary, but in grammar. The concept of gender, always tricky to explain, is dealt with in the Tretiz just as it often is today: by looking at the body. Just as we introduce the concept of gender by focusing on the agreement in the phrases ‘j’ai les cheveux noirs’ ( or ‘j’ai de longues jambes’ (, the Tretiz explains the best way to teach your children the concept of gender is through the human body. Plus, it will stop your darling child from being mocked:[8]

Et quant [un enfant] encurt a tele age
Qu’i[l] prendre se poet a langage,
E[n] fraunceis lui devez dire
Cum primes deit sun cors descrivre
Pur l’ordre aver de ‘moun’ e ‘ma’,
‘Ton’ e ‘ta’, ‘soun’ e ‘ça’, ‘le’ e ‘la’
Qu’i[l] en parole seit meuz apris
E de nul autre escharnis.

There’s a huge amount more to be said about these books, whether it be what happens in the narratives that they construct, the individual manuscripts in which they survive, or the complicated relationship between French and English during this period. For now, though, I hope this short foray into the medieval world through the medium of tourism has left you with a sense that your A-Level textbook has a long history behind it. When you’re next grappling with the pluperfect tense, just remember that you’re not the first — some time around 1447, readers of the Liber Donati were faced with another element that would not look out of place today:[9]

J’avoy enseigné, tu avoiez enseigné, il avoit enseigné, nous avoions enseigné, vous avoiez enseigné, ils avoient enseigné.

I find it fascinating to think that all of the things we think of as ‘modern’ tools to learn a language — vocabulary primers, sample conversations, even verb tables — have existed for centuries, in forms we can still look at today. While the medieval learner of French may not have had WordReference on his iPhone, the influence of the tools that he did have can still be felt today. As the (nineteenth-century) French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr would say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’

If you’re interested in reading more about medieval French literature, there are many excellent websites out there. Websites such as the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog and the Medieval Fragments project are a great place to start; I also wrote a more general introduction to medieval French over at the University of Cambridge’s Be Cambridge blog. The Manière de langage is also available online here.


Edward Mills is a postgraduate student in medieval French literature at Wolfson College. Thanks very much to Daron Burrows for proof-reading prior to publication.

1. ‘Triglossia’ refers to a situation wherein three languages are spoken in a given space. See also ‘diglossia’, the phenomenon of two languages being spoken in a given space, and Polyglossia, the University of Cambridge’s student-run modern languages journal (which I definitely wasn’t involved with. Nope. Never.) [↵]
2. Manière de langage, p. 382. “Here begins the Manière de langage which will teach you the proper speech and writing of sweet French as it is used in France.”[↵]
3. Tretiz, l. 7. [↵]
4. Tretiz, l. 98. [↵]
5. Liber Donati, p. 18. [↵]
6. Liber Donati, p. 20. “Innkeeper, inkeeper. / Sir, here I am. / Can you house us here? / Certainly, sirs … how many are you?” [↵]
7. Manière, pp. 394-95. “And then the sire continues on his way, and when he finds himself half an hour away from the town, he asks the man whom he meets, thusly: ‘Friend,’ or ‘Good sir’, or ‘Good man, what time is it now?’, or ‘How many times has the clock sounded?'” [↵]
8. Tretiz, ll. 21-28. “And when [a child] reaches such an age / That he may apply himself to languages, / You should first tell him in French / How to describe his body / By proper order of ‘mon’ and ‘ma’, / ‘Ton’ and ‘ta’, ‘son’ and ‘sa’, ‘le’ and ‘la’; / So that he be better educated in speech / And not be mocked by others.” [↵]
9. Liber Donati, p. 11. [↵]

French (Tree) Roots: The Gauls

posted by Simon Kemp

One of the things you can study as a modern linguist at Oxford is linguistics, either within the French course or as a subject in its own right. Linguistics is the analysis of how languages work, and how they change over time. One option in our degree is a  course that traces French right back to its roots, and then examines how it gradually develops over the course of centuries into the language we recognize today. I thought you might like a little taste of this, with a trip back through the mists of time to the earliest peoples to have left their mark on the French language: the Gauls, the Romans and the Franks. First up, the Gauls. gauls_color[1] The Gauls were a Celtic people who settled France some time around 600 BC. They weren’t the first people to arrive in France: the cave paintings at Lascaux were painted fifteen thousand years earlier, and stone tools have been found in the Hérault département that date back one and a half million years. The Gauls came to dominate the culture and language spoken in the territory that would become France, however. Only the Basque language spoken in the far south-west and across the border in northern Spain preserves an echo of the speech of earlier populations. For French, the Gauls are our starting point. While the Gauls may be the ancestors of many modern French people (and many more, raised on the adventures of Asterix and Obelix, would very much like to think so), their language has left much less of an imprint on French than that of the invaders who were to conquer them, the Romans. Latin is the real root of modern French, as we’ll see in a later post, imported into France by the conquerors to be the language of trade and administration, and gradually filtering down to supplant the Gaulish language over the course of six centuries. Gaulish was not entirely wiped out, though: it survives as a language through Breton, one of the family of modern-day Celtic languages that includes Welsh and Gaelic. And if you look carefully you can find a few Celtic remnants scattered in the French spoken today as well.

A map of minority languages spoken in France today. You can find Breton and Basque in the far north-west and south-west respectively.

According to Henriette Walter, there are no more than about seventy words in modern French that are of Gaulish origin. As you might expect, they mostly relate to a simple life of hunting, fishing and farming, and include terms for common animals and plants. Une alouette (a lark), le mouton (sheep), la tanche (tench, the fish) are some of the creatures that still have Gaulish names. La charrue (plough), le soc (ploughshare), la mine (mine), le sillon (furrow), le gobelet (beaker) and le druide (druid) are a few of the surviving words that testify to the Gaulish way of life. There’s also one single part of the body that still has a Gaulish name, which is l’orteil (toe), plus an old-fashioned word for poo, le bran, which survived at least into the last century. Many of the other Gaulish words describe the natural world, such as la dune (dune), la bruyère (heather), le galet (pebble) or la lande (moor). Among these, since we’re talking about roots, a good number are types of tree, including le sapin (fir), le chêne (oak), le bouleau (birch) and l’if (yew). It’s nice to think that yew and oak trees in particular, often the most magnificent and ancient thing you’ll see in a landscape, are also magnificent and ancient in their names if you say them aloud in French. Le chêne and l’if  are words which link the speaker right back to the time of Julius Caesar, and of the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix who led the Gauls in revolt against him, and further back to other people who saw these things around them and spoke their names, pronouncing them in a way that may not sound much like the modern names, but which have evolved gradually in an unbroken chain down a hundred generations to us today.

 Oak tree