La Joie de Joret

What is the Joret line? And why should I care about it?

To begin, a definition:


noun /ˈaɪsəɡlɒs/ /ˈaɪsəɡlɑːs/ (linguistics)
a line on a map that separates places where a particular feature of a language is different. (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)

Named after Charles Joret, the Joret line is an isogloss that runs through northern France and Belgium, specifically through Normandy, Picardy and into Wallonia. Taking into account the inherent inaccuracy of attempts to pin down the location of linguistic features, and for the effects of French standardisation and modern social mobility, the part of the Joret line in Normandy looks so:

The Joret Line in Normandy

What does the line demarcate? It concerns sounds that the Romance languages of the region took from Latin and Frankish, and their subsequent stories. This article will focus on the inherited Latin consonant /k/ when in combination with the vowel /a/, and the semivowel /w/, which came from the politically prestigious newcomer to the area, Frankish, a Germanic language related to German and English.

The langues d’oïl to the north of the line have been more conservative, preserving the original sounds as they first entered the area. In the various dialects on the south side, including what would become Standard French, these sounds have changed; /w/ eventually became /g/, while /k/ (before /a/) transformed first into Old French /tʃ/ and then into the /ʃ/ consonant of modern French.

Original SoundNorth of JoretSouth of Joret
Latin /k/ (before /a/)/k//tʃ/ > /ʃ/
Frankish /w//w//gw/ > /g/

We can appreciate this better with some example words; in each of the following, we find the original consonants at the beginning of the Latin and Frankish words preserved in Norman and Picard, but transformed in Standard French.

Original WordNorman/PicardStandard French
Latin cantiō ‘song’canchonchanson
Latin candēla ‘candle’candellechandelle
Latin canis ‘dog’quien 1chien
Frankish *werra ‘strife’werreguerre
Frankish *wardon ‘guard’warder 2guarder
1 Also written kien 2 Now defunct


So, you may ask, why should I care about the Joret line and these dialects of France? Well, that’s a very fair question. In short, if you know and use English, the Joret line has had a great effect on you.

Big Billy

In 1066, the Duke of Normandy and his forces conquered England, thus starting a flood of Romance words into the English language. The language spoken by the Normans originated north of the Joret line, but the political ties with France that they established were long-lasting and not limited to its northern regions. In time, words from varieties south of Joret entered English too.

What this means is that English has taken words from both sides of the Joret line – and that many English words exist in pairs, one from the north, one from the south. When two words with a common origin but different stories exist in the same language, we call such words doublets, and if you bear in mind the features that defined the two sides of Joret, many of these doublets start to appear.

For example, English has the words car and chariot. Both descend from Latin carrus (itself from a Gaulish word), but one entered English from Old Northern French, north of the Joret line, while the other underwent the /k/ > /tʃ/ change of Old French, a language south of Joret. It is also interesting that English preserves the Old French /tʃ/ sound, something that French itself has since reduced to simply /ʃ/.

Likewise, Latin captō ‘I try to catch’ is the ancestor of both catch and chase, the latter of which again owes its initial /tʃ/ consonant to the phonological changes of Old French. In a society that with a strong dependence on livestock, it is not too surprising to learn that the original Old Northern French meaning of cattle was not ‘bovine animals’ but rather ‘personal property’; its south-of-Joret equivalent also entered English, giving us the archaic word chattle.

A fine example of a castle.

Sometimes, one doublet comes into a language much later than its sister word. The Normans arguably contributed both the form and meaning of their word castel to English, giving us castle. While this is up for debate, it is clear that chateau, its southern equivalent, crossed the Channel much later (note its initial /ʃ/, rather than /tʃ/). It must be said as well that the affected consonant doesn’t need to be at the beginning of the word, as pocket and pouch demonstrate.

The /w/-/g/ divide of medieval France has been just as successful in producing English doublets. For example, in modern English, a company might offer you a warranty with an assured guarantee of satisfaction. A protector can be either a guardian or a warden; you can give both your regards or a reward; and today it’s normal to store your clothes in a wardrobe, but in medieval times, you could also store them in a garderobe, a room now associated with toilets. All six of these words in fact come from a single Frankish original, *wardon. Moreover, if you run well, a Frankish speaker might employ the compound word *walalaupan (literally *wala ‘well’ and *hlaupan ‘run’), which would endure two fates on the two sides of Joret, the resulting words becoming English gallop and wallop. If, on the other hand, you think well, you will be using both your guile and wiles.


I hope I have successfully demonstrated here what a useful etymological tool knowledge of the Joret line can be. I personally find it fascinating how it tells us precisely where in France many English words come from – how the presence of a /k/ or a /tʃ/ in an English word can narrow down its place of origin so well.

One of my favourite Asterix adventures

However, the words mentioned above are only those which, thanks to the isogloss, form etymological twins in modern English; discussing the full consequences of Joret on French and English would require many more articles. For the moment, let me simply state that Joret can explain hundreds of equivalent words in the two languages, showing us why we translate English war, cauldron and William as guerre, chaudron and Guillaume. It can also, as a final point, help to reveal more obscure connections between English and French, connecting Gaul, the home of Asterix, to Wales and Wallonia – but that will have to wait until another article.

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