Formal & Informal Vocabulary: Using French words in English

Categories English By JadePosted on Format Film
Formal & Informal Vocabulary: Using French words in English

Have you ever wondered why we have so many words for the same thing in English? It’s because we used to speak Anglo-Saxon until the French king William the Conqueror invaded us and brought the French language with him. French never became the language of the peasants and ordinary people; it was only spoken in the court of the king and among the powerful. For this reason, French words in English are more formal than their Anglo-Saxon synonyms. In this lesson, we will look at some English history, and I will give you examples of formal and informal words and where they came from. I am fascinated by the evolution of the English language — how it has developed, changed, and adapted over time. Perhaps English is the world’s number one language for international communication because it always adapts, incorporating new words from different cultures and bringing these into the English language itself.

Striking the right register — knowing the right word to use in the right situation — is incredibly important in English. English learners often use vocabulary that is more formal than a native speaker would use, so watch the lesson to learn how to correct this, so you can sound more natural when speaking English.


Hi, everyone. I’m Jade. What we’re talking about today is a little bit of a history lesson of the English language. We’re going to talk about why English has so many synonyms, why we don’t just have one word to things, sometimes there’s more than one word for it. I’m also going to talk about informal language and formal language, why there’s always so much of a choice in English. And the reason is because we always have this split in English between words that come from an Anglo Saxon origin and words that come from a French origin, and it’s said that about 30… 30% of words actually have a… Can’t speak today. Have a French origin and we still use those words today. And generally, the ones that come from French, they have a more formal quality to them, and the ones that come from Anglo Saxon are more neutral and they’re the ones that native speakers use all time when they’re speaking just among each other.

But first I’m going to recite a little bit of a poem for you because this poem comes from Middle English, and the English that you’ll hear is really different to the English that I’m speaking now. It will be like I’m speaking a different language, but what you will hear is the blend between Anglo Saxon words and French words. Okay? So let’s see if I remember it.

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

And I could continue, but I won’t. And that comes from a really famous poem in English taken from The Canterbury Tales, and it’s the first part of The Canterbury Tales called the general prologue. And it’s in Middle English, the time when the peasants spoke Anglo Saxon English-peasants are the poor people-and all the rulers spoke French. And the reason that happened is because in 1066 there was a big battle when a French king of a part of France called Normandy came and defeated the English king at that time, and then he became king of England. So when he became king of England, he brought all his people over and the language of power in England at that time became French. So everybody who was in a position of power spoke French. So in the course the… Every decision-maker in England spoke French. Meanwhile, all the peasants just carried on speaking Anglo Saxon like they did before, and the words that they used and the language they spoke came from Germany and Norway. They were different tribes and before they came over to England. So there were two different languages going on. Plus it was only much later that the two… The two languages blended to become one language that we speak now that we have both, have both Anglo Saxon words and French words in our language.

What else is important to say about it? I know there’s something I’ve missed. Hopefully I’ll remember what I missed. Oh yes. And because the kings and the ruling people spoke in French and the peasants spoke in Anglo Saxon, I feel like that distinction is still there. So when we’re not trying to be formal or official or anything, we use words of Anglo Saxon origin. Only when we’re trying to express ourselves in a very elegant way or an official way do we use the French origin words. So even though our language has become one thing, we’re still keeping this idea in our language that the French words are sort of higher.