Comments From Our Readers
Dear Ms. Barlow and M. Nadeau,
Thank you for your efforts on the several of your books I’ve read, which have been enjoyable, particularly The Story of French but also Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. Being something of a linguist myself, I decided to read the Pas si Fous version of the latter, too. In the course of it, I was surprised to take note of a reference as to how removed Anglophones in many cases are, compared to the French, from awareness that meats, for example, do not in fact originate in styrofoam plates under clear plastic wrap. I hope you will forgive that I can’t recall exactly where in the book I read this.
As valid as this observation may be, in my estimation, I recall that you went on to reflect that this alleged lack of perceived connection between food on the plate (or in the market) and its actual origin was reflected in the different vocabulary in English for the meat, as opposed to animal that is the source of it. This is where I differ with you. According to everything I’ve ever read on the subject, this feature of English, which is unique as far as I know, has nothing to do with what you suggest. On the contrary, it has to do not with a lack of connection between Anglophones and the animals they eat, but rather with the vast social (and for a long time, linguistic) distance between the Norman aristocracy and the Anglo-Saxon peasantry between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and circa the late 14th century when, for a variety of reasons, English regained dominance in England.
As I have seen it explained in a number of places, the Anglophones during this period were in fact intimately familiar with the animals meats came from, for it was they, peasants on manors, who did the dirty work out in the barnyard. And appropriately enough, they called the animals they killed by Anglo-Saxon names, as Anglophones still do. Any separation from the animals being butchered was on the part of the Norman aristocracy, whose members called meats on the table by the same French names that Anglophones use, in evolved form, today. So it makes good sense, as well as conveying British social history, that we have calf (from something close to German kalb) and veau, swine (from something close to German schwein) and pork, deer (from something close to German tier (animal), curiously, rather than hirsch (deer)) and venison, and so forth.
Henriette Walter’s excellent l’Aventure des langues en Occident: leur origine, leur histoire, leur géographie (Paris: France Loisirs) takes note of this curious dual vocabulary as follows, quoting Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in both English and French:
Old English, in any event, seems to have badly needed to have its vocabulary enriched by the circa 10,000 words it acquired, along with its verb tenses, from French: to this day, virtually any word that deals with an intellectual or abstract matter is of French or Latin (often via French) origin, while modern English vocabulary from Old English and Viking sources tends to deal with relatively down-to-earth matters. Likewise, even relatively simple things like fireplaces don’t seem to have occurred to the Anglo-Saxons; until the Normans showed up, they thought a hole in the roof worked just fine.
In any event, I’ve enjoyed your books, and look forward to reading more of them.
How interesting! Long after finishing SMFCBW, I was doing some reading and research on French food and realized there was indeed more to the food vocabulary enigma that what we originally wrote. We are talking about doing a new edition of the book next year, so I’ll definitely look into what Henriette Walter has written about it (she wrote the forward for the Quebec edition of The Story of French, by the way).
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.