A few words/names in French strongly resemble their English equivalents but with g substituted for w:

Guillaume ~ William
guêpe ~ wasp
guerre ~ war

I'm curious as to how this came about. Is there a linguistic, etymological or historical background for this correspondence?


The words with W reflect the Norman French pronunciation, those words were borrowed into English early, from the Norman French language. The words with G are from Parisian French, those words were borrowed into English later.

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    @Sverre - It's you who are wrong. William from Anglo-Norman Willame. War (n.): from Old North French werre "war" – Yellow Sky Apr 19 '17 at 16:26
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    @YellowSky: That word came into English from French, but, as with all of them, it was ultimately from Germanic. The OED s.v. "war" says " werre , < North-eastern Old French werre = Central Old French and modern French guerre ,... < Old High German werra confusion, discord, strife [Emphasis added] – Colin Fine Apr 19 '17 at 22:31
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    The source of where the words came to French are beyond the subject of this question, the main point is the North French W corresponds to the Parisian French G. – Yellow Sky Apr 19 '17 at 23:01
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    Indeed, those sources do claim that the words went through the passage Germanic > Romance > Germanic (I doubt very much that this is the case with "wasp", though). Sorry, but I'm not allowed to undo my downvote, for some reason. But note that the words in g- in the OP's question are not words in English, so what do you mean by saying they were borrowed into English from Parisian French? – Sverre Apr 19 '17 at 23:01
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    @Sverre - I meant that there are English words borrowed from Parisian French that have the initial gu- like guard or guide. – Yellow Sky Apr 19 '17 at 23:05

Guillaume and guerre are Germanic (Frankish) borrowings in French, borrowed at a time when French did not have the phoneme /w/ in isolation, and thus realised it as /gw/. French guèpe is from Latin vespa, but was influenced by the cognate Frankish ancestor of New High German Wespe.

English wasp is inherited Germanic (Old English wæsf).

William and war are borrowed from Norman French, where /gw/ had been simplified to /w/.

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  • I thought the situation, rather than "gw" being simplified to /w/, was rather that in Norman they didn't receive the prothetic "g" that they did in other varieties of French. Is there an example of etymological word-initial /gw/ being simplified to /w/ in Norman French? – brass tacks Apr 20 '17 at 11:47
  • @sumelic. I am not sure what you mean by etymological. There are no Latin words beginning with gua-. – fdb Apr 20 '17 at 13:37
  • but are there any words that one way or another had /g/ historically and came to have gu~w in French? – brass tacks Apr 20 '17 at 13:38
  • @sumelic I can think of words of bretonic origin, like the given name Gwennaël (including gwen "white"), but I don't know whether such a word is attested for Norman French and how it looked like there. – jk - Reinstate Monica Apr 20 '17 at 14:55

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