Along with most Western European languages, English and French derive from proto-Indo-European. French like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Catalan is a Romance language, which descends from proto-Italic via Latin; English like Dutch, German, and Yiddish is a Teutonic language, which descends from proto-Germanic via West Germanic. French and English branched off the Indo-European family tree a long time ago, but the complicated history of English and French’s role in this history create some interesting issues in French/English translation. English is often described as a Germanic language with a Romance vocabulary. Old English began as the language of several northern European tribes the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons who drifted to the British Isles and displaced the Celts. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, Norman French became the language of the court and English was relegated to the vernacular of the common people. Only used for quotidian affairs, English became simpler and thus turned into Middle English, the language of Chaucer. The Normans controlled England for over 300 years; during this period, many French words drifted into English. By the time English came back into favor as the primary language of the Isles, it had transformed into Early Modern English, Shakespeare’s language. It is estimated that between one fourth and one third of modern English vocabulary is derived from French.Linguistic borrowing has gone both ways in the history of French-English relations. As English has gained ground as the international lingua franca of science and business, many English words have been borrowed directly into French. Though the French Academy, the watch-dog body that polices the French language, has tried to limit the number of borrowings, it has had limited success.Latin has also been a significant source of borrowing throughout the history of the English language. Before relocating to the British Isles, the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons fought and bartered with the Romans; they had thus already acquired some Latin words prior to the melding of their languages into Old English. Christian missionaries to England brought with them Latin terms for their religion and more words were borrowed during the English Renaissance. From the Industrial Age and up to modern times, English tends to give Latin names to new knowledge and technology names, these names being either direct borrowings or neologisms created from Latinate roots. This has led to the famous doubles in English: a native Germanic noun and a Latinate adjective, for example: spider and arachnids, eye and ocular/visual. One fourth of English words are Latin derivatives.The unusual history of the English language and its interrelationship with French facilitates French/English translation as their many cognates require little to no change, for instance: direct borrowings from French into English (ballet, moustache); direct borrowings from English into French (weekend, marketing); and Latin derivatives common to both languages (allusion, molecule). Those dealing in French/English translation do need, however, to watch out for the many false cognates in the two languages, called ‘false friends.’ Some are homographs that look the same but whose meaning is unrelated, such as coin (a form of money in English, ‘neighborhood’ in French) or chair (a place to sit in English, ‘flesh’ in French). Similar words that have evolved easily mistakable meanings are trickier and often mistranslated, such as actually/actuellement (‘currently’), eventually/eventuellement (‘possibly’), or to attend/attendre (‘to wait’).In short, due to the vagaries of history, French/English translation is generally less complicated than translation between other language pairs. The vast body of cognates and common Indo-European ancestry make the two languages more easily compatible for translation.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Armando Riquier is a freelance expert translator and writer. He works in collaboration with Tectrad, a professional service agency specialized in the translation of financial, legal and corporate matters. Learn how Tectrad will help you maintain a professional image and increase sales volume with accurate French English translations of your websites or documents.