How the Norman conquest can teach you thousands of foreign words instantly

There’s no such thing as starting from zero


Great news!! You are all polyglots! Seriously, if you can read this post, then you can understand and say (albeit with an accent) words in hundreds of languages!

It is impossible to say that you don’t speak anything in a language. Any modern language spoken by a considerable amount of people (I’ll exclude tribal languages) has words that you know in it. I don’t care if it’s Japanese or Swedish, Tagalog or Portuguese, you simply cannot start these languages “from zero”. You already speak some.

No language is an island – they are influenced by politics, technology, trends, religion, history and many other things that us humans tend to share internationally. Since a lot of these topics overlap across the world, you simply cannot avoid seeing recognisable words.

What you already know

Here’s a familiar example:

In Italian you can turn on your computer, and in (Brazilian) Portuguese you move the mouse, in Russian you connect to the Интернет (exact transliteration of Internet, И=I, н=n and р=r, can you read it now? :)), and in Japanese you check your  Eメール(second part transilteration, “me-ru”, their way of approximating the pronunciation of “mail”), the name of the program you use to surf the net in Turkish is Mozilla Firefox, and you may use Microsoft Windows in the Somali language or perhaps Linux in Euskara to do this.

This gives you hundreds of words before you even start – commonly used brand names, music styles (rock, jazz) and notations, some food and several other categories tend to simply be the same! These words are either untranslatable names, or are originally English, or are originally another language that we happen to use in English. The Czech word robot, is used in most languages, Italian food (pizza, pasta, gnocchi) and music (allegro, forte), or words native to a country, like piranhas in Brazil are just a small sample of the many examples!

Granted, you usually have to pronounce them slightly differently, but saying them to someone with an English accent or reading them when printed will usually lead to little or no confusion.

But wait, there’s more!

That’s all well and good, but I claimed to be able to teach you thousands of words, not hundreds. The above words are extremely limited so that still leaves you with a lot of other vocabulary to learn. Well, if you happen to be learning a Romance language like French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese etc., then you are in luck! You can instantly learn thousands of words :)

But first, we should consider the invasion that led to the Norman Conquest! (This should make it clearer why I am dressed up like it’s me and 299 other soldiers against the world) In 1066, the Norman Conquest of England meant that an invasion from France was to have French speaking royalty and aristocracy in power in England for centuries.

The once dominant language precursor of English was originally a purely Germanic language. This gives us words like Hand and Arm, which are exactly the same in German and Dutch, and also pretty much gives us most of the language. This gives English speakers an extra edge when learning languages in this family and the similarities greater outnumber the differences.

However, with Anglo-Norman (a precursor to French) in place, upper society in England was basically speaking French for about 300 years. The lower class continued speaking in English of course. This gave a very interesting influx of French words to English, in formal contexts.

Think of a formal version of your word

This means that if you can think of a more formal way to say something, it is quite possible that that is the way to say it in French. Since French is closely related to the other Romance languages, you will find that word will be the same (with a very slight change in spelling) in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese etc.

So if someone knocks on your door, you can tell them to come in, or you could say enter. French: entrer, Spanish: entrar. If you want share your thoughts with someone to show them your point of view, you could also share your opinion and show them your perspective (Italian: opinione, Portuguese: perspectiva) (although here, “point de vue” in French is also not far off!). Instead of showing someone a city, you could be their guide (same in French). Learning vocabulary could be easy, but it’s better when it’s “simple;)

The English language has more words than most other languages and this is because of this influx of vocabulary and large amount of synonyms for basically saying the same thing, but in formal vs informal registers. One huge category of words that are common across English and the Romance languages are the -tion words. Action, nation, precipitation, solution, frustration, tradition, communication, extinction and thousands more -tion words are exactly the same in French; albeit with a French pronunciation. It’s easy to change them to other languages; Spanish is -ción, Italian is -zione and Portuguese is -ção.

There are thousands upon thousands of examples

That’s just one word ending. There’s also -tude (like gratitude, magnitude), -sion (explosion, expression), -ment (encouragement, segment), -age (garage, camouflage) and loads more. Granted, there is the occasional false friend (preservative is an amusing one), or the meaning may be subtly different, but in general you really can rely on this to vastly increase your vocabulary in a nanosecond! Presuming you also know the basic pronunciation system of that language you can also say it correctly!

These terms are known as cognates and one of the first things I do when I learn any language is find out what these are in the language. has excellent extensive sampling of 1,700 such words in French, most of which are the same in other Romance languages. After some practise you will get used to the word endings and know when an English word is almost certainly the same in your target language!

When you see that list, you can tell that it is huge (but still not exhaustive), however that’s only the true cognates (i.e. not even a single letter is spelt differently). If you are flexible enough to see what the word looks similar to (exemple, hélicoptère… porto, capitano… astronomía, Saturno, etc.) you can bring that number to tens of thousands of words!!

With this in mind, I like to correct someone when they tell me that they know “no” French, or Spanish etc. and even I have a nice headstart of a few hundred words on Asian languages I haven’t even gotten to yet! You have already done the work in learning this vocabulary. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, you have already taken several steps in the right direction for learning your language ;)

I’m sure I’m not the first person to have thought of this, but do share your opinions in the comments below! Are there ways to quickly learn non-Romance language vocabulary that you can share with us? Any experience is trying this out? Leave us a comment to let us know!



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  • Max

    Oh yeah? Then how about Chinese, pray tell? I'm telling you, I don't know about other languages, but in Chinese you ARE starting from ABSOLUTE ZERO! :(

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I don't speak Chinese yet, but I completely disagree with you.
    There are several Chinese words in English. Even if this list is small, it's already a start and not “absolute zero”. I am sure they would have some words that they transliterate from English. How do you say Coca Cola in Chinese? Or Barack Obama? Or “Windows”? I don't know but I would hazard a guess that at least one of these has to sound somewhat like it does in English. Even if you are limited to specialised vocabulary you are still not starting at “absolute” zero.
    A quick google search gave me a discussion others mentioned on “coincidences” (which may or may not be borrowings), read the comments of that post for examples, between Chinese and English
    One example: English:Typhon Mandarin:Tai Fong. Even if the list is small, and if Chinese is a lot less likely to import foreign words, you are still not starting from absolute zero! I found plenty of examples in a 2-minute Google and zero knowledge of Chinese. Someone who knows the language more could definitely provide a few examples.
    Maybe you aren't starting with much, but you are definitely NOT starting at “absolute” zero ;)

  • Max  

    Coca Cola: 可口可乐 (Ke kou ke le)
    Barack Obama: 贝拉克·奥巴马 (bei la ke · ao ba ma)
    Windows: 视窗操作系统 (shichuang caozuo xitong)

    The first two are obviously transliterated (and jfyi 'Windows' means “look out window operating system”), but all of those are personal names or brand names, I have my doubts that those should be counted as 'foreign words'.
    And even if we did that for the sake of the argument, you usually cannot guess from the Chinese to the English word, unless you already know it. And of course there's no way you'd get from the English one to Chinese. And no, 'normal' Chinese people don't understand it, if you just use the English name. :( So how much help is that, really?

    And then, even counting “cognates” such as taifeng-typhoon, shala-salad, and shafa-sofa, you wouldn't get much more than a dozen of those words :-/

    Really, I've been studying Chinese for a while now, and the 'help' you get from European languages is for all intents and purposes zero.

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the transliterations :)
    I would argue that personal and brand names help you communicate, even if it's limited. The transliterations are not precisely the same, but I would find “ke kou ke le” easy to remember because of its similarity to the English version. So if I'm thirsty or hungry, I could ask for chǎomiàn (chow mein) and a ke kou ke le. I'm missing the level of formality and politeness and so on and wouldn't understand their response, but I would not go hungry or thirsty if those options were available and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was ordering :)
    I'm not suggesting that this concept is a “huge” help for all languages (although Chinese does seem to be much stricter in adapting foreign words than say Japanense and other Asian languages), but “for all intents and purposes” zero is not the same as absolute zero. My point is that you have several words when starting, even if they are limited to the examples I gave. I realise that this isn't going to be a huge breakthrough for Chinese learners, but it's a barrier to get over and knowing that you can at least (awkwardly) order stir-fried noodles is something.
    When I take on Chinese (probably not for another year or two), I'll be on the lookout for as many shortcuts as I can find. There is always a loophole to learning quickly :D
    Otherwise, most of the body of this post is more relevant to European languages. I still stand by my “absolute zero not existing” claim for other languages though.
    Good luck with your Chinese – make sure to give me your best tips when I decide to take it on!!

  • elthyra

    Funny you should mention the Norman conquest and its influence on English, since I wrote an essay about it :) In fact, if I remember well about 2/3 of English words are, directly or indirectly, derived from French words! The words were usually adapted to English spelling and pronunciation (for example the French 'oi' doesn't exist in English). Definitely an interesting topic ;)
    (In russian class, we sometimes randomly pronounce a french word with a russian accent and it sometimes work)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    2/3?? I wasn't aware the influence was so deep! Although if that is true, most of those words would be very technical and most people wouldn't be aware of them (I know lots of engineering terms for example are definitely the same in French and English, but most people simply wouldn't need to know them).
    Even so, that is quite the influence! I'm sure you have way more to say about the actual Norman influence itself – the best I could do was link to the wikipedia article and act silly for the war photo :P
    I am confident I'll find plenty of Russian words I'm already familiar with ;)

  • Lauren

    This was one of the best things about learning French for me! If I wasn't sure how to say something, I just used a fancy English word with a French accent. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but I always had a 50/50 shot. If it was the right word, great. If not, I usually learned a new word anyway, so it always worked out! I'm finding the same kinds of cognates in Spanish, but now I have two languages to work off of, not just one. Chances are the word in Spanish will have a cognate in either English or French, and if it doesn't, that's still only 1/3 of the normal vocabulary I have to learn. :)

    The problem I'm having in Spanish now is that when I'm trying to practice speaking, I keep wanting to say things in French, not English! I'm guessing this has something to do with the centers of the brain used for native language vs. secondary language, but I'm not sure. Has anyone else had this problem when trying to learn a third or fourth language? Any advice?? I feel like it's really slowing me down in my attempts at conversation… :S

  • Max  

    Sorry for answering again, it's just that precisely all these things drive me mad with Chinese, so it's hard for me to let it go when somebody says “Oh you know, it's really not all that hard” ;)

    You see, since Chinese is a tonal language (did you learn one of those? I can't remember which languages you speak) you can't just go to a restaurant and order chow mien/chao mian (though coke would probably work, since every foreigner orders that ;) ). You'd have to get the tones more or less right in order for the people to understand what you want. And that alone takes quite a while. And now even if you got the tones right, there's still the different culture that'll stop you. Namely, whereas in the west there's one dish called 'chow mien' in Chinese restaurants, in China 'chao mian' is a class of food, with maybe ten different dishes. So if you ordered 'chao mian', the waitress would ask you which chao mian you'd like. The one with beans? With beef? Sichuan style? But since you don't understand what she's asking you cry a little and go to McDonalds again ;)
    “So what if I can't pronounce it?” you might then think “I'll just point at it on the menu”. Well, that might work if you can find 炒面 (chao mian) somewhere in that vast ocean of characters, which, however, is very much a challenge in itself. So no, you cannot, even awkwardly, order stir-fried noodles in China, when just starting out ;)

    Anyway, I don't mean to discourage anyone, and I'll be more than happy to give you some pointers when you decide to take on Chinese, but yeah.. you do start from zero ;)

  • Corcaighist

    Nice post you have there. And for the most part there is an element of truth in there. By sticking with languages within your languages' family/ families you'll have a significant advantage of people who doesn't speak a language in the same family.

    Just one thing that I wanted to pick on: “However, with Anglo-Norman (a precursor to French) in place,”

    The Anglo-Norman (AN) language died out when the AN speaking nobility switched to speaking English. AN wasn't the mother of modern standard French (MSF). MSF derives from Francien. However, while AN is extinct, related Norman languages survive on the Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey) and on mainland France (the Cotentin and the Pays de Caux).

  • vincentwaitzkin

    Great post! I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent language flashcards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!!

  • Ed

    I think that up until about 10-15 years ago, the majority of Chinese immigrants to the US were Cantonese (Yue) or Shanghaiese (Wu) speakers, so it could be that many loan words might not be intelligible to Mandarin speakers…especially if you don't get the tone correct. (For some reason, if you get a tone wrong in Chinese, native speakers can't seem to be able to use context to grasp what word you were trying to say; they just tilt their heads with a confused look on their faces. It's maddening! My theory is that so few foreigners have tried to learn Chinese, they're not used to hearing non-tonal speakers trying to speak with a foreign accent.)

    There's one other cross-cultural cognate of sorts that may be more universal than anything else, other than perhaps “OK” and “taxi”: numbers. Specifically the numerical characters themselves, often called Arabic numerals. Virtually everyone on earth can understand your telephone number if you write it down, and vice versa. That's why many ethnic restaurants number their dishes, so their non-native speaking waitstaff can understand your order. Ironically, Arabic speakers use numbers that are different. Go figure.

  • Georgie

    Hey… I'll start learning german soon and i realized that even though some words are spelled in an apparently “complicated” way, when i pronounce them i note that they sound a lot like english words, and it makes it easier for me to remember their meaning. If i change letters that have been softened (i don't know the exact english term) with time, like T>D, for example, i get exactly the english word pronunciation. This is really funny for me to find out because my native language is a romanic one.

  • Ty

    Attitude is everything. Chinese is not hard. In fact, I think it is the easiest language to learn. :)

    I suggest James Heisig's Remembering the Hanzi, and that you should check out AJATT (

  • Maxpx0

    Attitude is everything to getting fluent in the end. However, it does absolutely not mean that all languages are equal for everybody. You know what is easy? English. Or Dutch. You know what's not easy? Asian languages. You know what's totally freaking hard, even with all the great attitude in the world? Chinese. So please, unless you're fluent in Chinese and willing to proof that, please don't give me that “Chinese is the easiest language to learn” crap. To me, it sounds like you just started with Chinese, and it all looks nice and logical to you, and you're wondering what all the fuzz is about. That's the same for all beginners. Give it a while.

    For the record, I've been an AJATTer since the beginning, and even though Heisig didn't work out for me, I did give it an honest try. It doesn't matter, I have other stuff that works.

    Good luck with your journey with Chinese.

    • Dian Williams

      Hi Maxpx0, Could you please tell me about the other stuff that works? I am just now starting to learn Chinese this week! Thanks for your help. Dian

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    “To me it sounds like you just started with Chinese”. Do you speak Dutch Maxpx0? Or Czech? Or Swahili? Or Portuguese?
    I am sure Chinese is a difficult language to learn, but so is every language in the world depending on how you look at it. And every language gets hard if you want to truly master it beyond the beginning stages.
    If you have mastered other languages then it's easier to give an unbiased view of which is “not easy”. Otherwise I still don't see anything in your argument other than “my task is the hardest”.

    I find that no matter what language I learn, there is always someone who says it's the hardest language in the world. I'll be writing a post about that soon!

    • stikytape

      Exactly, simply because Chinese is different from English, does not, by any means, make it more difficult to learn than any other! I’ve been learning Mandarin for nearly two years now, and German for about three months. Although I find vocabulary and pronunciation much easier in the latter, I am rather struggling with the Grammar. Chinese, on the other hand, has some of the most simple grammar I’ve ever seen! (I’ve also had experience with learning French and Japanese, neither of which I chose to pursue). It’s simple and logical, and it really doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. Verbs don’t conjugate, there are no plurals, tense is not necessary unless you want to use it, sometimes I find myself speaking English with Chinese grammar by accident, my brain seems to prefer it!

  • Maxpx0

    I speak English. My native language is German. Learning English (I'd even go as far as to say 'mastering it') isn't all all that hard for a German speaker. You've got the standard Latin alphabet, countless numbers of English words that are used in German and the other way around, interesting media, no tonality, same way of thinking, etc. Chinese, on the other hand, has tones, many thousands of characters, no alphabet, different concepts of expressing things, a very different cultural framework, chengyu, and, let's be honest here, for the most part terrible entertainment and hardly any quality dubbing for good shows.

    I stand by it: English is easy, Chinese is terribly hard, even compared to other hard languages. I don't think you'll find any advanced speaker of Chinese who won't agree with that.

    • Victor Berrjod

      I’m on it. ;)

      Mandarin Chinese is the next language I’ll take on, and I will focus on what makes it easy rather than what makes it hard. Tones aren’t so bad, characters are pretty logical (although I prefer the traditional ones, I’ll be learning simplified), no inflexion, and there are very few possible sound combinations.

      Since I won’t get serious with it until I’m back in Norway this spring (university here in Japan is too demanding), I’m cheating and learning one new Chinese word every day, which should give me a nice little head start for almost no invested energy. :)

    • Victor Berrjod

      I’m on it. ;)

      Mandarin Chinese is the next language I’ll take on, and I will focus on what makes it easy rather than what makes it hard. Tones aren’t so bad, characters are pretty logical (although I prefer the traditional ones, I’ll be learning simplified), no inflexion, and there are very few possible sound combinations.

      Since I won’t get serious with it until I’m back in Norway this spring (university here in Japan is too demanding), I’m cheating and learning one new Chinese word every day, which should give me a nice little head start for almost no invested energy. :)

      • Benny the language hacker

        Glad to see it! Best of luck with Chinese :)

    • Ibby

      Maxpx0, without labelling myself as an ‘advanced speaker of Chinese’, (I’m currently studying Mandarin, I lived and studied in Beijing for a year as part of my studies) I definitely agree with you: Mandarin Chinese is not easy.
      What you have to bear in mind though, is that judging the difficulty of a language depends entirely on the native language of the learner. Therefore, English was easy for *you*, and Mandarin is difficult…for us native Europeans, among others. As you correctly point out, English is based on the same Latin alphabet as used in German (give or take a few umlauts), English media (books, TV, films) is extremely widespread, and of course, there are innumerable shared words. Furthermore, the pronunciation isn’t a world apart, it’s not tonal, and (correct me if I’m wrong) you probably have/had plenty of opportunities to practise/use the language.

      Imagine now, a native Chinese speaker for example, accustomed to a tonal language based on characters and extremely simple grammar. English grammar, on the other hand, consists of more exceptions than rules (okay, I exaggerate slightly, but come on… think/thought, for example), and native Chinese speakers often face huge pronunciation hurdles (a good Chinese friend of mine can’t differentiate between smile/smell or micro/macro). I won’t bring up the difficulty of English spelling, because we can equate that to the difficulty *we* face with learning characters.

      Can I just point out though, English has many of its own chengyu (idioms, for those unfamiliar with the term), and metaphorical expressions. “I’m giving him a good grilling. Can you give me a hand?” – A Chinese speaker would think we were absolutely barbaric ;)

      To give some context to my comments, here’s a bit about my linguistic background: I’m a native English speaker. I can speak Gujarati (and thus understand varying degrees of Urdu and Hindi), I have studied some Arabic, I can speak small amounts of Swahili and I studied German to a level good enough to converse with native German speakers. I’m currently studying Mandarin Chinese at degree level.

      Sorry for the lengthy comment, but to conclude: A Chinese speaker might say English is extremely difficult but Malay is much easier, whereas you would naturally say that English is easier to learn than Malay. Doubtless, culture plays a huge part, as does your native language, but attitude does help too. Of course it’s not the case that a positive attitude to language acquisition automatically makes it easy, but a negative attitude will definitely hold you back, without you even realising it. So Maxpx0, I’m not giving you “Chinese is the easiest language to learn” crap, but I stand by it: the difficulty of learning a language is totally dependent on the learner’s native language and way of thinking. :)

      Again, apologies! Great post, Benny, and good luck with the Mandarin, Maxpx0! 加油吧 !:D

  • timb

    Hi, first off Benny – great blog and this post is totally awesome. I'm looking at getting some language learning guides together and this is the sort of positive info that makes people want to discover new language(s).

    Here's some anecdotal stuff with regard to learning/speaking Chinese. I was stopping over in Hong Kong en route to Oz and after a days sightseeing hopped in a taxi outside the ferry station. The taxi driver just pulled away as soon as I was in there and then started talking to me (in Chinese I guess). I assumed he wanted to know my destination so I said, in Queen's English “Kowloon, Waterloo Road”. He obviously had no idea what I meant. So I repeated, louder and slower and he shouted back at me, louder and slower. Eventually I pulled my map out of my pocket to point and show him. Unfortunately, I ripped a massive hole in the page exactly over my destination so I was out of luck there. Then I remembered I had seen some notes on phrasing on some other map somewhere so I looked him in the eye, took a deep breath and said “Wah Dah Loo Rod”. Within 10 minutes I was dropped off right outside my hotel by my new best mate. So there you go, it is easier than you think…just takes a bit of luck and some confidence…

    Keep up the good work – I've learned more in a few days from your blog than in months of language research!


  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I seriously doubt that comes from Portuguese! But I’ll use it as a handy mnemonic to remember the slight similarity ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I seriously doubt that comes from Portuguese! But I’ll use it as a handy mnemonic to remember the slight similarity ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I seriously doubt that comes from Portuguese! But I’ll use it as a handy mnemonic to remember the slight similarity ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I seriously doubt that comes from Portuguese! But I’ll use it as a handy mnemonic to remember the slight similarity ;)

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    I seriously doubt that comes from Portuguese! But I’ll use it as a handy mnemonic to remember the slight similarity ;)

  • Imola Unger

    I also learn this way. I’d love to see what you’d do about Hungarian, though… there’s a challenge for you.

    • Benny Lewis

    • Benny Lewis

    • Benny Lewis

  • Benny Lewis

    Weird – that’s a mistake, but I was sure I linked correctly when I wrote the article!


    I certainly agree with you! I’m taking a Japanese course, and practically half the language is English-pirated. The frustrating part is reading the written language. Any hints for studying that?

  • Kieran Maynard

    Totally true! Sometimes my Japanese friends who know English use English words and are not sure whether these are “Japanese words” or English words that are not (yet) understood by Japanese who don’t know English. I remember I almost laughed when a friend asked me, “How do you say ‘te-pu’ in English?” I forgot she didn’t speak English, and happily answered, “Tape!”