I was strolling through a gourmet food display recently, when a young companion asked why you don’t pronounce the “-t” at the end of the word, then observed that it must be French. She then went on to wonder why everything in French sounds fancier, and I realized that I might know the answer: William the Conquerer.
William, the Norman duke (“Norman” is originally a contraction of “North man”, so we’re talking about transplanted Vikings at a great remove) came over to claim the crown of England from Harold in 1066. I’ve most recently talked about this in my review of Hereward the Wake, who was one of the rebels resisting the Normans–and supporting a Danish claimant, but that’s another story.
After his conquest, William set about to replace the remaining native nobility with his friends, leading to a whole variety of interesting complications for land ownership in both England and France, and the problem of a king of England who was technically a vassal of the king of France as well. Most of these new nobles and their households spoke primarily or exclusively French, and French remained the language of court for a couple hundred years. The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386) were in part remarkable because they were written in the vernacular–neither in Latin, the language of tradition and the church, nor in French, the language of court.
As a result, the English language expanded to include a wide variety of words borrowed from the French. French was the language of the upper class, a status to be coveted. Many of the words in common use are about food. If you’ve ever wondered why the animal is a pig in the yard, and pork on the table, this is the answer: pigs are raised by the lower classes, while pork is eaten by their betters. (likewise with beef, even leading to the term “beefeaters” to refer to those spiffy red-clad guards at the Tower of London–a term of derision and envy for an elevated place and the diet that came with it.)
It’s interesting that, while many words grow divorced from their origins in fairly short order, never mind the impression of a language in the mind, we in America, hundreds of years separated from our English origins and hundreds more from the initial infusion of French into the language, still perceive French as being somehow superior, to the point of devising faux-French names (and using the word “faux”), especially for restaurants. My personal favorite remains, from “L. A. Story,” the exorbitantly snobbish restaurant, “L’idiot,” pronounced, of course, with a silent “-t”.