English has changed enormously over the centuries due to migration, more than any other language, and we estimate that as much as 29% of all English words derive directly from French. These exchanges have happened as a result of peaceful trade between the two territories, but the really rapid changes in language came with successive invasions imposing new leaders. This explains why French words were initially used primarily by the ruling elites, while the rest of the population carried on in their own language.
The greatest influx of French vocabulary hit our shores in 1066, when King Harold lost his throne as well as his life (although not as dramatically as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry where he is hit by an arrow in the eye.) This was the year when William the Conqueror became King of England, having gone through the greatest image overhaul of all time from his meagre beginnings as William the Bastard. He took his Norman barons with him, who all spoke French, and replaced the Saxon nobility to impose their own culture, architecture and language.
The farmers, however, remained overwhelmingly Saxon and continued speaking their own language. They raised an ox, which arrived as beef at the Lord’s table. The same went for their pig, which became pork when consumed, and sheep was transformed into mutton when prepared as a meal.
The French influences are particularly felt in the military field today, which is logical given the affluence of the French military from the Middle Ages up to Napoleon. Words like siege, musketeer, artillery, camouflage and espionage are embedded in the English language.
Fortunately the diplomatic vocabulary was not left out, and the words passport, reconciliation, treaty and alliance have all been put to good use in English.
France has always been seen as an artistic nation, and English has borrowed a whole library of words relating to artistic styles, materials and techniques: Art Deco, Impressionism, music, theatre, gouache – the list goes on. Keep your eyes and ears open and you will notice all the history embedded within your own language!