French borrowings into Italian

by Nunzio Rizzi
(the text is published on the Orbis Latinus with author's permission)
 
 
A lexical borrowing occurs when a group of speakers is put in contact with a foreign word and adopt it in their language. This doesn't mean that the adopted word is used as it is in the original language. Usually, there are substantial changes in its morphology, in the pronunciation and even in the meaning. The phenomenon by which two languages are put in contact and borrow words one from the other is known as interference, and such interference occurs several times throughout the language's history. This interference is fluctuate in time, that is, more evident and successful in certain periods rather than in other periods. Such different interference is determined by many extralinguistic reasons: cultural (the importance and sometimes the predominance of a country in the literary or, more generally, artistic field in a given historical period), historical events (such as wars, invasions, military alliances between two countries, military dominations and so on), social reasons (a dominant group, i.e., a cultural or an economic aristocracy, who decide to adopt some foreign words because of the social prestige which derives from such use). Anyway, the prime mover in linguistic borrowings is the individual speaker who, after being put in contact with a written or a spoken foreign word, forms an acoustic image in his mind, which , after a so called processing period, becomes a borrowed term. During the processing period, the speaker adapts the foreign word to the morphology and the phonetics of its own language, trying to transform all the morphological or /and phonetic features which don't exist in the language he speaks.

In the history of a language, some borrowings seem to be more successful in some semantic areas than in others: this is essentially due to the importance and the prestige that the country providing the borrowing has in that period. As an example, in the Middle Ages and up to the Renaissance, the preeminence of France in the art of war, but also the Norman invasion of Sicily and the contacts brought by the four Crusades, determine the success of words in the semantic category of the military vocabulary in the Italian language
 
Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
cavaliere 
chevalier 
knight 
accetta 
hachette 
hatchet 
dardo 
dart 
dart; arrow 
freccia 
flèche 
arrow 

Not to forget the incredible amount of literary words which pass into Italian poetry (think about the presence of Gallicisms in Dante's Commedia). This is due, of course, to the importance of Provencal lyric in the Middle Ages. A key word in the field is romanzo (medieval "romance", later "novel") from Old French romanz (originally referring to the Romance languages, i.e. the vernacular, as opposed to Latin).

On the other hand, there are no medical terms of French origin in this stage in Italian, thanks to the fame of the Italian city of Salerno in the field of medicine. This proves, once again , how the prestige gained in a certain field determines the possibility and ultimately the success of a borrowing.

The 16th century is the Age of Renaissance, a period of overwhelming cultural development for Italy but also a period of political dissolution. During the first half of the century, Italy is subservient to France (and numerous French invasions occurred), while in the second half the role of Spain became predominant. For this reasons, once again, military borrowings are very numerous :
 
Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
trincea 
tranchée 
trench 
artiglieria 
artilerie 
artillery 
miccia 
meche 
fuse 

Noteworthy is the borrowing of many words which refer to fashion and dress (and this is mainly due to the contacts between Renaissance courts in the two countries):
 
Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
frangia 
frange 
fringe (origin. on tents, 
now a type of haircut) 
ventaglio 
éventail 
fan 

Also the commerce semantic area is very interesting. In it, only a few words are borrowed from French. A good example is felpa (ferpe) which is a kind of velvet, but which is a word indicating a kind of clothing in modern Italian.

The 17th century is the age of the Spanish domination and of the political isolation of the Italian peninsula from the rest of Europe. This is the first reason why the influence of French on Italian in this period is minimal. The second reason for this diminished influence is the foundation of the Accademia della Crusca which set a stamp of learning on the vocabulary changes of the century. Such periods in which borrowings tend to diminish are called residuum periods.

On the contrary, the following century (18th century) is a period of extraordinary success for French borrowings in Italian, thanks to the dominant position of France in literature (Illuminism), and politics (the French Revolution). Referring to the lexical contribution made by Illuminism, many philosophical terms pass into Italian:
 
Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
empirismo 
empirisme 
empiricism 
ottimismo 
optimisme 
optimism 

Another extensive semantic group includes terms of trade and commerce and nautical terms, and this is to be referred to the final decline of Venice a a commercial power:
 
Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
scialuppa 
chaloupe 
sloop (one of a ship's boats) 
corvetta 
corvette 
corvette 

As a proof of the influence of the French way of life in Italy, we can remember the huge amount of borrowings that refer to everyday life. These include:

1. food:

Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
filetto 
filet 
fillet 
ragù 
ragout 
ragout sauce 
sciampagna 
champagne 
champaign 

2. utensils:

Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
casserola 
casserole 
saucepan 
teiera 
théière 
teapot 

3. common words:

Item borrowed into Italian
French original
Meaning in English
papà 
papa 
dad 
dentista 
dentiste 
dentist (replaces older "cavadenti") 
comò 
commode 
chest of drawers 
sofà 
sofa 
sofa 

Linguistic borrowings are a dilemma: are they necessary to the development of a language or do they undermine its purity? Borrowings are, of course, necessary. Probably an English language wouldn't exist without the almost 70,000 borrowed terms from French, and the same consideration could be extended to Italian (and French). A pure language actually is a utopia; every language (unless it is a dead language, like Latin) can't avoid interference with other countries and other cultures. Language is an open system and every language is a member of a global linguistic community. Nevertheless, a tendency to an excessive linguistic purism is to observed from time to time, probably because it is tightly connected to the notion of nationalistic pride: the most recent example are the attempts of some French linguistics of discouraging the use of English terms in French.
 



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