Origins of the English Language: The Norman Conquest

Other titles in this series: Anglo-Saxons; Vikings

Let’s get one thing out of the way before we start… whether you call him William: Duke of Normany, William the Bastard or William the Conqueror the man who invaded England from Normandy was not French. He hated the French and they hated him. He was actually of Norse descent. Yes, he was a Viking.

Nevertheless, his impact on the fabric of England was profound – our architecture, government form and even the language.

The first important point to note is that William the Conqueror primarily spoke French. It quickly became the language of the court, replacing Old English in official circles. Yet England and English were not completely Normanised or Francified (that’s probably not a word). The conquest of 1066 introduced many facets of the French dialect into English, changing forever the grammar and pronunciation until the birth of modern English at the end of the Hundred Years War and the rise of the Tudors – partly political and partly due to the printing press (another post!)

Copyright: MG Mason

His architectural influence had a French flavour and we see this no better than in the changes wrought upon castle and ecclesiastical design. Churches stopped being square and took on the familiar cross shape that we see today. Arches decorate the inside and the outside. Here on the left, we see the immense arches of the interior of Canterbury Cathedral. The country is full of examples like these.

The typical castle keeps, such as that seen at The Tower of London, are also synonymous with Normanesque architecture and would nominate the buildings of England for the next few hundred years. Even today we seem to prefer churches built on this style. In the 19th century, Truro Cathedral and Buckfast Abbey were built in the style and form of much older buildings despite having been built in a time of the motor car.

Francification of a Germanic Language

The word “English” is a derivative of “Anglo” or “Angles” an area of Germany. Old English followed many of the conventions of the Germanic language out of which it was born. Today, modern German and English have much in common but have several critical grammar differences. When you have a good basic understanding of German, it’s fairly easy to decipher English translated from German. French and German languages come from the same stock and with the injection of Norse, grammar and words were bound to assimilate.

What William The Conqueror and his successors did is impose French on the nobility. Yet English was not abandoned or abolished, it remained a common tongue for the lower orders and classes. Intermarrying between Norman, French and English people meant that some 10,000 words were injected into the English language. Several characters in the older alphabet disappeared and the phonetic spelling of words dropped.

Some of these new words include:

Beef:  Why do we refer to meat from a cow as beef rather than simply “cow”? I’ve heard vegetarians say it’s because we want to forget that they are animals but this is not true. The French word for the meat that comes from a cow is “du bouef” which comes from the Latin “bov(ine)” which means cow.

Mansion: This in itself is another corruption of a Latin word. In this case it is “mansio”, though these buildings under Roman law was a government holding house, like a hotel used for the exclusive preserve of government officials to stay overnight in the course of official duty. A bit like a B&B for officials. Today, mansion means a large and luxurious house.

I say porcine, you say swine, let’s call the whole thing off?

Pork: Another meat, the Old English was variations of the word “swine” such as “swein”. Once again, French adopted the Latin version of porcine and today, we call a certain cut of meat from a pig as pork.

Indict, Jury, Verdict: Who do you think ran the courts? Mostly the Norman aristocracy and their offspring, not the peasants of Anglo-Saxon descent. As well as a conqueror, William was also a great legal eagle. Who else but a lawyer would have gone to the effort to compile such an extensive land survey as The Domesday Book which was, basically, a tax record?

Many words ending with y or ie: Navy, enemy, army. Most words ending or including a ie, ee, or y sound come from French which uses this sound quite common. Old English is quite guttural with “gh”, “k” sounds.

These adoptions from Latin were minimal before The Norman Conquest. Those words that came from the language of the Romans were rare direct influences, and most it seems, came by way of Franco-Norman. Talk about a mongrel language, more like a mongrel of a mongrel born of an immigrant! Talking of which, I will do an article in future of language influences during the British Empire – kushty!

The lack of control and enforcement of standarised spelling and pronunciation, including the variety of backgrounds of the people who used the language – gave rise to a slapdash style of writing and speaking. It’s why Chaucer and other contemporary writers would often spell the same word 3-4 different ways in the same text. It would be a long time before we would see standard grammar and spelling.

Hundred Years War & Black Death

The first official government document written in English during the reign of the Normans and their successors came some 100 years before The Hundred Years War. It was the Provisions of Oxford, published in 1268, and it set the seeds of the resurgence of the English language. Yet it would be some 80 years before a monarch (Edward III) would address his nobles in English in official capacity.

The 14th century saw such profound changes in the use and presentation of English and these changes were almost certainly politically motivated. England no longer saw itself as merely a province of France. Further, the kings of both countries believed it had a right to rule over the continental kingdom and England. France was flexing its muscles after absorbing the principalities and eliminating the Cathars. The long, drawn out conflict gave rise to national identity over both the concept of Christendom and fealty to local Lords. In this century, chivalry died, the feudal system came to an end and the nation state was born.

It is no great surprised that the period of 1337 (the start of the Hundred Years War) and 1346 (the first year of The Black Death) wrought changes everywhere. An England determined to assert itself as its own autonomous kingdom led to the decline of French, but the Old English was not revived – it remained the Franco-Anglo-Norman hybrid that had been slowly brewing over those centuries. In 1362, the law was changed so that English was the only language that could be used in court proceedings.

The assertion of English literature in the 14th century is no better represented than the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. But in truth, by the time of writing his Tales in the later 14th century, Anglo-Norman was effectively dead as a spoken and written language.

The early to middle 15th century would see further changes and standarisation of English, now an officially recognised language for legal purposes, official documentation and communcation in the form of Chancery Standard and that leads us into my next post which I hope will not take another two years.

The most interesting thing about Chaucer if you ever read it, is that it it feels like modern English when read aloud. When you see through the strange spellings and attempt to speak it, it’s not all that different from what we speak today.

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