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Thread: English words and nuances missing in French

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    Post English words and nuances missing in French



    There are about 7 times more words in the English language than in French (500,000 against 70,000). Naturally, most people know between 15,000 and 30,000 words, and even good writers rarely know more than 50,000 (in the same language).

    Languages with less different words will usually have more meanings per word though, to compensate. The drawback with words having a too broad meaning or too many completely different meanings is that the language becomes ambiguous.

    Japanese is a notorious language that in which 5 or 10 words can sound the same phonetically. As the Hiragana and Katakana syllabary are phonetic, the Japanese use Chinese characters to distinguish the meanings in writing.

    French language also has numerous homophones (e.g. vert, vers, ver, verre, vair) because of the silent last consonant and the different ways to write the same vowel sound. Spelling is the key to distinguishing meanings in French. However, like for Chinese characters in Japanese, this only works in writing, leaving oral language ambiguous.

    Being bilingual in French and English, I have often had arguments about which of the two languages was "better". It has long been clear to me that English is richer, more flexible, more nuanced and less ambiguous than French. It goes without saying that most of the native French speakers to whom I make this claim quickly deny it, or ask me for "proofs". Therefore, I thought of making a list illustrating how English typically has several words, with a different spelling and pronunciation, when French only had one word.

    For example, English has 3 words derived from the same Latin root for the French horrible : horrible, horrific, horrendous, each with a slightly different meaning and usage. You could say that "horrific" is closer to atroce in French. But then English also has "atrocious".

    Another interesting example is how English has developed different adjectives depending on the connotation, so that the French terrible translates either "terrible" (negative) or" terrific" (positive). The English language has an abundance of near synonyms with different connotations, usages or levels of formality that few languages have.

    I will start slowly with just a handful of examples that spring to mind. Such a list could have tens of thousands of entries.

    The words in bold are in French.

    - excuse : excuse, apology => French language does not make the difference between excuse and apology, so for a French speaker it would not make sense to say that someone expect an apology rather than an excuse for something (or the other way around).

    - consommation : consummation, consumption => both mean the act of consummating, but the latter is used specifically for marriage (meaning "having sex", quite different from the consumption of a product).

    - intimité : privacy, intimacy => "privacy" means being away from the observation of others to avoid disturbance (usually alone) ; "intimacy" means being very close to someone.

    - domestiquer : domesticate, tame => you can tame a lion, but not domesticate it.

    - critique : criticism (general usage, usually negative), critic (literary), critique (person who does a critic)

    - judiciaire : judicial (decision, general), judiciary (system)

    - jugement : judgement (general), adjudication (legal)

    - annuler : cancel, annul, nullify, rescind, void, overrule...
    => French did not inherit the Latin words cancel (cancellare in Italian) and rescind (rescindere in Italian). The words nullify and void are derived from (medieval) French but don't exist in modern French.


    In some cases English has so many near synonyms lacking in French that I won't try to explain all the nuances. I have removed the words from the thesaurus that had a French equivalent (e.g. to spy = épier)

    - regarder : look, watch, behold, regard, view, gape, gawk, gaze, glare, glance, glimpse, goggle, peek, peep, peer, rubberneck, stare, etc.

    - marcher : walk, pace, march, tramp, trek, hike, troop, stomp, tiptoe, crawl, trespass, swagger, lumber, lurch, pound, shamble, shuffle, stagger, mince, strut, etc.

    - se promener : amble, stroll, saunter, promenade

    - escalader : scale, escalade, climb (up), clamber (up), scramble (up)

    - effacer : delete, erase, rub out, efface, clear, wipe...

    - fou : crazy, mad, foolish, insane, lunatic, etc.

    - faux : wrong, mistaken, false

    - capacité : capacity, capability, ability, skills

    - fil : string, thread, wire, yarn...

    - antérieur, précédent : former, previous, anterior, preceding

    - suivant : following, next, succeeding

    - dernier, ultime : last, latest, late, latter, rearmost, bottom, ultimate

    Words with the same root and the same original meaning have sometimes acquired a quite different modern usage, or even a completely different meaning. French usually kept a single word with a broad meaning covering all the usages, whereas English selected or developed another word from the same root, or used both the Germanic and Latin words to differentiate them.

    - garder : keep ; wake, ward, guard

    - arrêter : stop, quit, arrest

    - politique : politics, policy (n.) // political, politic (adj.)

    - antenne : aerial, antenna

    - blanc : white, blank

    - route : road, route

    - prix : rate, price, prize

    - régime : diet, regime, regimen

    - testament : will, testament, legacy

    - plume : feather, plume, pen

    - moustache : whisker, moustache

    - queue : tail, queue, cue

    - essai : try, trial, probe, essay

    - expérience : experience, experiment, experimentation

    - trésor : treasure, treasury, trove, hoard

    - voyage : travel, trip, voyage

    - vue : eyesight, sight, view

    - bureau : desk, office, bureau

    - histoire : tale, story, history

    - jeter : throw, throw away, dispose ; hurl ; cast ; jettison

    - fort : strong, forcible, forceful

    - informateur : informant, informer

    - sensuel : sensual, sensuous, sultry

    - souvenir : remembrance, souvenir

    - début : beginning, début

    - soirée : evening, soirée

    - fête : party, fête

    - conseil : advice, council, counsel

    - manteau : coat, mantel

    - vendre : sell, vend

    - chasser : hunt, chase

    - fournir : provide, supply, furnish

    Some words basically mean the same, but have a different usage. You could say "give money to charity", but the proper usage is "donate". Likewise, the usage is to say that a poem is profound, but a lake is deep.


    - aggraver : worsen, aggravate

    - agrandir : enlarge, aggrandise

    - augmenter : increase, augment

    - nourrir : feed, nourish

    - donner : give, donate

    - réponse : answer, response, reply

    - proposition : proposition, proposal

    - profond : deep, profound

    - cru : raw, crude

    - humain (adj.) : human, humane

    - enfant : child, kid, infant, toddler

    - adolescent : adolescent, teenager, teen

    - adulte : adult, grown-up

    - mariage : wedding, marriage

    - marié(e) : bride, groom

    - président : chairman, president

    - propriétaire : owner, proprietor, landlord/landlady, landowner, renter, householder

    - frontière : border, boundary, frontier

    - zero : zero, naught, nought, nil, love

    - vrai, veritable : true, truthful, veritable, genuine

    - fidelité : faithfulness, fidelity

    - bouger : move, budge

    - merveilleux : wonderful, wondrous, marvellous

    - amoureux : in love, enamoured, amorous

    - coeur : heart, core

    - doigt : digit, finger, toe (doigt de pied)

    - tristesse : sorrow, sadness

    - seul : only, sole, alone, lone, lonely

    - entier : whole, entire

    - complet : full, complete

    - faible : weak, feeble

    - calme : calm, quiet

    - silencieux : quiet, silent

    - maison : house, home

    - chambre : room, chamber

    - habitation : dwelling, habitation

    - logement : accommodation, housing, lodging

    - habitat : housing, habitat

    - précoce : early, precocious

    - tardif : late, belated, tardy, tardive

    - égoïste : selfish, egoistic

    - égocentrique : self-centered, egocentric

    Some words have the same meaning and usage, but carry a different connotation :

    - caprice : whim (neutral), caprice (negative)

    - tiède : lukewarm (neutral), tepid (negative)

    - solitude : solitude (positive, neutral), loneliness (negative)

    Other words express a nuance in size or intensity :

    - chaud : warm, hot

    - frais : cool, fresh

    - ville : town, city


    English tends to differentiate animal species more accurately than French, for example based on whether they have a tail or not, whether they are land/sea animals, or whether they are diurnal or nocturnal.

    - singe : monkey, ape

    - tortue : tortoise, turtle

    - papillon : butterfly, moth


    Sometimes the extra English word adds little or no nuance. In that case the word coming from French is just more formal (usually).

    - (se) rassembler : gather, assemble

    - aider : help, aid

    - liberté : freedom, liberty

    - dentifrice: toothpaste, dentifrice

    - cravate : neck-tie, cravat

    - intestin : bowel, gut, intestine

    - somnolence : drowsiness, somnolence

    - probable : likely, probable

    - incroyable : unbelievable, incredible, amazing

    - lisible : readable, legible

    - potable : drinkable, drinking, potable

    - comestible : eatable, edible, comestible

    - sombre : dark, sombre

    - morose : gloomy, morose

    - sinistre : bleak, dreary, sinister

    - magistral : masterly, magisterial

    - menace : threat, menace

    - arme : weapon, arm

    - paternité : fatherhood, paternity

    - maternité : motherhood, maternity

    - fraternité : brotherhood, fraternity

    - amitié : friendship, amity

    - maladie : disease, illness, malady

    - respirer : breath, respire

    - transpirer : sweat, perspire

    - répit : break, time-out, respite

    - infatigable : tireless, untiring, indefatigable

    - interminable : endless, interminable

    - visage : face, visage

    - embouchure : (river) mouth, embouchure

    - facile : easy, facile

    - céleste : heavenly, celestial

    - avarice : greed, avarice

    - signification : meaning, signification

    - tempête : storm, tempest

    - repas : meal, repast

    - interdire : forbid, prohibit, interdict

    English words with no single-word French equivalent

    - healthy : en bonne santé

    - cheap : bon marché

    - shallow : peu profond

    - both/either : les deux/l'un ou l'autre

    - hound : chien de chasse

    - to befriend : se lier d'amitié avec, prendre [qn] sous son aile

    - to hug : serrer [qn] dans ses bras
    Last edited by Maciamo; 03-08-10 at 17:22.

  2. #2
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    This thread is being updated frequently.

    See also the analysis the other way round : French words missing in English

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    Here is another category : Germanic nouns with Romance adjectives. One of the peculiarity of English is that these nouns can also be used as adjectives. For example the proper, formal adjective of 'dog' is 'canine', but the most common usage is to say 'dog food' or 'dog training' instead of 'canine food' or 'canine training'.

    This hybrid duality between informal Germanic "noun adjectives" and formal adjectives from Latin is typical of English. I don't know any other European language that has the same wealth of adjectives. Japanese is very similar to English in this regard though, using Chinese words in a formal, scientific or academic context, but native Japanese words in more informal situations.

    In some cases Latin adjectives have been converted back into nouns. Feline, originally the adjective of 'cat', is also used as a noun to describe any animal of the Felidae family (including lions, tigers, leopards, cheetah and so on). The adjective of wall, 'mural', has become so connected to the phrase "mural painting" that it has come to mean any piece of artwork painted directly on a wall.

    The genius of English has been to make the best use of the synonyms it acquired from the languages that contributed to the modern vernacular by specialising each word according to its origin. When it comes to the name of animals, English actually has three, and in some cases four, words where other languages usually have only one or two. The Old French word has been used for the meat. The Latin word as the scientific or formal term. The Germanic word has kept the daily, general usage. This is how sheep take the name of "mutton" when we are talking about the meat, but "ovine" in science. Cow meat is beef, but the mad cow disease is known to scientists as bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

    Modern English has sometimes retained more than one Germanic word for a single meaning, in addition to the variants from French and Latin. This is how a pig can also be called a hog or a swine (the word used in other Germanic languages and also related to the Latin sus and the Suinae subfamily). Likewise a dog can be called a hound (related to the Dutch hond and the German Hund).

    It is easy to see how the range of vocabulary in English is far greater than in any Romance or Germanic language.

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    I’ve noticed that in England (NOT Wales) the words / phrases “excuse me”, “please”, and “thank you” are becoming increasingly rare.

    And while we’re on the subject of French, the number of single mothers in the UK would indicate that the word “Letter” is now well separated from “French”, as is the word “Cap” from the word “Dutch”.

    Also judging by Shoemakers driving where Button was concerned in the case of The Spanish yesterday so is “Safe” from “Driving”. Shoey’s almost as bad as Hamilton, and that’s saying something.

    (I’m having a “grouch” start to the week. At my age and with my arthritis I’m allowed to from time to time.)

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