4

I've noticed that a there are quite a few French words that begin with 'é' or 'e' that have an equivalent in English that begins with 's'. Some examples are:

  • écran : screen
  • école : school
  • estomac : stomach
  • écureuil : squirrel
  • étoile : star

I'm assuming that these words came from French into English so my question is did these words used to begin with an 's' in older forms of French, and if they did, when did this change occur? I'm guessing that they did because the Latin equivalents of many of them also have the 's'.

Merci pour toutes les réponses!

  • One thing that could have happened is that they had a common root in es, that went the é way in French, and the s way in English, rather than é "becoming" s. The words in Latin should be a clue (for the words with a root in Latin). – Frank Mar 30 '17 at 14:21
  • 1
    A look at the etymology of those words (in wiktionary for instance) will show you that it's never been an e turning into an s, but of an e being dropped along the way from an old Latin or Greek root. Some of the words you give (like school or star) did not come into English via French but via a Germanic language. That's more a question for Linguistics than for FL. – Laure Mar 30 '17 at 14:34
  • @Laure - I agree about Star but I think that School is probably Latin, no? – tinyd Mar 30 '17 at 15:22
  • 1
    School cames from Greek to Latin but It was probably already present in the English vocabulary before William the Conqueror's time, thus Laure's comment. – jlliagre Mar 30 '17 at 15:39
  • @jlliagre - that makes sense, thanks! – tinyd Mar 30 '17 at 15:48
7

Note that Star is not from French/Latin but is has anglo-saxon roots (see German Stern.)

For most of the remaining words1, the reason is not that much é became s in English, but that Old French (and late Vulgar Latin in the western part of the Roman Empire) added a leading ie in front of words starting with an s + consonant (s impurum = impure/imperfect "s"). This is called Prothesis.

This phenomenon is more significant in Spanish where almost no word starts with s + consonant: e.g. FR spécial ←→ ES especial, squelette ←→ esqueleto, stade ←→ estadio, style ←→ estilo, standard ←→ estándar, statue ←→ estatua, station ←→ estación, …

Either this leading e was dropped when the French word was adopted by the English or maybe the word was already borrowed directly or indirectly from Latin so without the e in the first place as English like all Germanic languages has no problem with words starting with st-, sk-, sp-, and the likes.

In the meantime, many words starting with es- in French had their spelling changed to é- to match their pronunciation.

There is a counter-example of this evolution, French says spécialement when English can use especially.

1 Excluding school which was probably already existing in the English vocabulary as the Latin schola spread early in northern European languages (Old German scuola (now Schule), Swedish skola, Gaelic sgiol, Welsh ysgol). Ref.etymonline.

  • Thanks - that's very helpful, it hadn't occurred to me to compare to Spanish, but that makes a lot of sense. – tinyd Mar 30 '17 at 15:20
  • Speaking about Spanish: Spanish / espagnol. – Destal Mar 30 '17 at 15:58
  • 1
    @SimonDéchamps Yes and Italian uses spagnolo but it's not exactly the same case because Latin used hispani/hispanorum for "Spanish". – jlliagre Mar 30 '17 at 16:10
  • Bonne réponse :) Tout ce qui manque maintenant : a discussion of the perplexing changing nature of phonotactics that legitimates s+consonant onset clusters, then disallows them, then revives them... – Luke Sawczak Apr 1 '17 at 13:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.