French Loan Words in Irish: The Forgotten Viking Connection

Unrelated languages have more in common than you think. Here’s how Viking settlers brought the French language to Ireland to create borrowed French loan words in Irish

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
French influence on Irish language
French influence on Irish language

Irish is a Celtic language, English is a Germanic language, and French is a Romance language. These seemingly unrelated languages have more in common than you think.

It’s estimated that around 30% of English words have French origins, i.e., they’re French loanwords. Some common French loanwords in English include “restaurant,” “croissant,” and “RSVP,” to name just a few.

French loanwords are also present in the Irish language and have been since the Middle Ages when the Normans conquered England and brought their language to Ireland. 

Here’s how Viking settlers conquered and settled in Northern France and brought the French Romance Language to Ireland. Plus, some examples of French loan words the Irish language borrowed.

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The Irish language has an amazingly long and rich history.

The Irish language is one of 16 ancient Celtic languages that were once widespread mainly across Europe, spoken by the Gauls, who were Celtic tribes.

The Gauls lived in what is now modern-day France, parts of Belgium, western Germany, northern Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and even Turkey.They arrived in modern-day Britain and Ireland around 500 BC. 

Of the 16 original Celtic languages, only six are still spoken today. The rest are extinct.

  1. Ireland (Irish) aka (Irish Gaelic)
  2. Scotland (Scottish Gaelic)
  3. Isle of Man (Manx)
  4. Wales (Welsh)
  5. Cornwall (Cornish)
  6. Brittany in Northwestern France (Breton)

Although Gaelic Irish, also called “Gaeilge nah Eireann” in Standard Irish, is the national and first language of Ireland, most Irish people living in Ireland speak English in their day-to-day lives.

The bulk of the people who do speak Irish learned it as a second language because, since 1922, children must learn it in school and no longer learn it as a mother tongue at home.

UNESCO has labelled Irish as a language that is “Definitely Endangered.”

It’s estimated that there are roughly 138K native Irish speakers in Ireland. 

What does the Irish Language Sound like?

Here’s a sample of some Irish words and numbers and how to pronounce them. 

YouTube video player

How did French words infiltrate the Irish language?

The Normans, from Old Norse for “north men,” were the descendants of Vikings who colonized the northwestern part of France, now known as Normandy, in the early 9th century AD. And they spoke Old Norse, a North Germanic language and the predecessor to modern Scandinavian languages such as Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.

The name ‘Viking’ comes from the Old Norse language and means “pirate raid”.

Norse French and the Irish connection

These early Germanic-speaking Vikings were indigenous Scandinavian sea pirates from modern-day Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland who raided and traded across northern, central and Eastern Europe. Gradually, the Viking raiders began to settle in the lands they seized and intermarried with the local Romance-speaking population.

Norman-French Language (Viking French)

By the year 1000, the Viking descendants were no longer Viking pagans but French-speaking Christians. But the French they spoke didn’t sound like the French spoken today. The Normans spoke Norman French (Viking French). 

In 1066, the Normans from current-day Normandy in France crossed the English Channel and invaded England in the Battle of Hastings, which led to “The Norman Conquest” of England.

 It took place approximately 7 miles (11 kilometres) northwest of Hastings, close to the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex. 

William the Conquerer: The First Norman ruler (a Viking descendent) 

The army was made of Normans, Bretons, Flemish, and men from other French provinces and was led by the Duke of Normandy (the first ruler of Normandy France), who later became known as William the Conquerer. 

After the Norman conquest, William became the first Norman King of England.

He was the great-great-great-grandson of the Viking chieftain Rollo.

If you’ve ever watched the Irish-Candian TV series “Vikings” on the History Channel, you know who I’m talking about.

Vikings history chanel tv series. Ruler of Normandy in France

Rollo was a Viking leader (either Danish or Norwegian) who began raids on France in the ninth century. The West King of the Franks in Paris, known as Charles the Simple, gave Rollo part of the area now called Normandy (for Northman’s land) as well as Brittany. In exchange, Rollo agreed to protect them against Viking raiders. Rollo also agreed to be baptized and to marry Gisela, the king’s daughter.

Rollo’s Old Nordic or Old Scandinavian name was Hrólfr . Rollo is the Latin version of his name. After Rollow was baptized, he became known as Robert or Robert the Rich. 

 Queen Elizabeth II and the British Royal Family are direct descendants of Rollo through William the conqueror. 

Norse French became the official language of England and Ireland

William the Conqueror didn’t speak much English.

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, he established French (Norman French) as England’s official language. 

In 1169, the Normans invaded Ireland and soon controlled much of the country, and Norman-French also became the language of English officialdom in Ireland for more than two hundred years. 

Although Irish eventually won out as the most commonly spoken language, Norman-French gave new words to the Irish language, especially in the southern dialects.  

If you’re interested in learning more about the Vikings, this is a really fun video done in a kind of Southpark style

Viking Rollo's grave at Cathedral of Rouen in France

What does old Norman French sound like? 

I was curious about what Norman French sounded like, so I looked up a few videos and was surprised at what I heard.

To my ear, Norman French sounds like a distant relative to French Canadian: My family all hail from Quebec and speak Quebecois. Although I couldn’t understand everything, the intonations sounded more similar to French Canadian than standard French from France. 

Have a listen to the video below. 

YouTube video player

Here are a few examples of borrowed French Norman vocabulary words.

Many “French” words in both English and Irish Gaelic have more to do with older Norman French than with modern, standard French. 

As I mentioned before, Norman French is a variation of French. It’s a result of various Viking dialects intermingling with the French in the areas the Vikings colonized.

In fact, Norman French is classified as an Oïl language and is considered the ancestor of many local dialects that were spoken in various regions of France, including standard French, Picard and Walloon. These languages developed in their own way from Norman French. 

Some of the southern dialects of Ireland are still detectably influenced by Norman French and contain several typically French words like “garsún,” meaning (boy).

French loan words and names borrowed in the Irish language

Here are some words, English: Irish and the modern French word equivalent… 

  1. AIR: Aer = Air 
  2. BODY: Cór = Corps
  3. BOY: Garsún = Garçon
  4. BEER: Beoir = Bière
  5. CHANCE: seans = Chance
  6. COFFEE: Caife = Café 
  7. EGG: Ubh = Oeuf
  8. FLOWER: Flur = Fleur
  9. GOD: Dia = Dieu 
  10. GOLD: Ór = Or 
  11. HOSPITAL: Ospidéal = Hôpital
  12. IDEA: Idé = Idée
  13. LIQUOR: Licéar = Liqueur
  14. LIST: Liosta = Liste
  15. MAYOR: Méara = Maire
  16. MONDAY: Luan = Lundi 
  17. TUESDAY: Máirt = Mardi
  18. PAPER: Páipéar =  paper
  19. SAINT: San = Saint
  20. SEA: Mar = Mer (sea)
  21. SILVER / MONEY: Airgead = Argent 
  22. SUGAR: Siúcra= Sucre
  23. TEA: Tae =Thé

Counting in Irish vs French

  1. a haon (ah hain) = Un
  2. a dó (ah dough) = Deux
  3.  a trí (ah tree) = Trois
  4. a ceathair (ah cah-her) = Quatre
  5. a cúig (ah coo-ig) = Cinque 
  6. a sé (ah shay) = Six (sis)
  7. a seacht (ah shocked) = Sept
  8. a hocht (ah huck-t) = Huit
  9. a naoi (ah nay) = Neuf
  10. a deich (ah deh) = Dix (dis)

Irish Surnames of Viking Origin

Although the Vikings were in Ireland for a relatively short time, they left a considerable legacy behind. From traces of their language to their culture and even their surnames from the Vikings who settled in Ireland.

Even the royal family is a direct descendant of the Great Viking warrior Rollo. 

New research shows that the Irish are more genetically diverse than most people assume. The Irish have Viking and Norman ancestry in similar proportions to the English. Many people who think they are of pure Galic Irish descent are surprised to learn that they have considerable Viking DNA coursing through their veins. 

According to Dochara, an insider guide to Ireland, Norse names that still survive in Ireland include Cotter, Dowdall, Dromgoole, Gould, Harold, Howard, Loughlin, Sweetman and Trant. 

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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