The Norman Conquest:
Old English to Middle English
1) Excerpts from A History of the English Language (1935)
by Albert C. Baugh
Towards the close of the Old English period an event occurred which had a greater effect on the English language than any other in the course of its history. This event was the Norman Conquest in 1066. What the language would have been like if William the Conqueror had not succeeded in making good his claim to the English throne can only be a matter of conjecture. It would probably have pursued much the same course as the other Teutonic [i.e., Germanic] languages, retaining perhaps more of its inflections and preserving a preponderatingly Teutonic vocabulary . . . and incorporating much less freely words from other languages. In particular it would have lacked the greater part of that enormous number of French words which today make English seem on the side of vocabulary almost as much a Romance as a Teutonic language. The Norman Conquest changed the whole course of the English language. An event of such far-reaching consequences must be considered in some detail . . .
On the northern coast of France directly across from England is a district . . . known as Normandy. It derives its name from the bands of Northmen who settled there in the ninth and tenth centuries, at the same time as similar bands were settling in the north and east of England . . . A generation after Alfred reached an agreement with the Northmen in England a somewhat similar understanding was reached between Rollo, the leader of the Danes [Vikings] in Normandy, and Charles the Simple, king of France. In 912 the right of the Northmen to occupy this part of France was recognized; Rollo acknowledged the French king as his overlord, and became the first duke of the Normans. In the following century and a half a succession of masterful dukes raised the dukedom to a position of great influence, overshadowing at times the power of the king of France . . .
Readily adopting the ideas and customs of those among he came to live, the Norman had soon absorbed the most important elements of French civilization . . . But most important of all, for us, he soon gave up his own language and learned French. So rapidly did the old Scandinavian tongue disappear in the Norman capital that a second duke was forced to send his son to Bayeux that he might learn something of the speech of his forefathers. In the eleventh century, at the time of the Norman Conquest, the civilization of Normandy was essentially French . . .
For some years before the Norman Conquest the relations between England and Normandy had been fairly close. In 1002 Aethelred the Unready had married a Norman wife, and, when driven into exile by the Danes, took refuge with his brother-in-law, the duke of Normandy. His son Edward, who had thus been brought up in France, was almost more French than English. At all events, when in 1042 the Danish line died out and Edward, known as the Confessor, was restored to the throne from which his father had been driven, he brought with him a number of his Norman friends, enriched them, and gave them important places in the government. A strong French atmosphere pervaded the English court during the twenty-four years of his reign . . .
When in January, 1066 . . . Edward the Confessor died childless, England was again faced with the choice of a successor. And there was not much doubt as to where the choice would fall. At his succession Edward had found England divided into a few large districts, each under the control of a powerful earl. The most influential of these nobles was Godwin, earl of the West Saxon earldom. He was a shrewd, capable man and was soon Edward’s principal adviser . . . His eldest son Harold succeeded to his title and influence, and during the last twelve years of Edward’s reign exercised a firm and capable influence over national affairs. The day after Edward’s death Harold was elected king.
His election did not long go unchallenged. William, the duke of Normandy at this time, was a second cousin to the late king [i.e., Edward the Confessor]. While this relationship did not give him any right of inheritance to the English throne, he had nevertheless been living in expectation of becoming Edward’s successor. Edward seems to have encouraged him in this hope. While William was on a brief visit in England Edward had assured him that he should succeed. Even Harold had been led, though unwillingly, to acknowledge his claim . . .
Only by force could William hope to obtain the crown to which he believed himself entitled. Perhaps the difficulty involved in an armed invasion of England would have discouraged a less determined claimant. But William was an exceptionally able man. From infancy he had surmounted difficulties. Handicapped by the taint of illegitimacy . . . he had succeeded to the dukedom of Normandy at the age of six. He was the object of repeated attempts upon his life, and only the devoted care of his regents enabled him to reach maturity . . . William the Great, as the chroniclers called him, was not the man to relinquish a kingdom without a struggle.
Having determined upon his course of action, he lost no time in beginning preparations. He secured the cooperation of his vassals by the promise of liberal rewards, once England was his to dispose of. He came to terms with his rivals and enemies on the continent. He appealed to the pope for the sanction of his enterprise and received the blessing of the Church . . . In September he landed at Pevensy, on the south coast of England, with a formidable force . . . [131-134]
For two hundred years after the Norman Conquest French remained the
language . . among the upper classes in England. At first those who spoke French were of those of Norman origin, but soon through intermarriage and association with the ruling class numerous people of English extraction must have found it to their advantage to learn the new language . . . The language of the masses remained English . . .
In the years following the Norman Conquest the sting of defeat [was] gradually forgotten. People accepted the new order as something accomplished; they accepted it as a fact and adjusted themselves to it . . .The fusion of Normans and English was rapid . . . This early fusion of French and English in England is quite clear from a variety of evidences. It is evident in the marriage of Normans to English women . . . It is evident from the way in which the English gave their support to their rulers and Norman prelates . . . It is evident in many other ways. . . Norman nobles identified themselves with their new country by founding monasteries on their estates, and chose burial for themselves and their families in their adopted land rather than in Normandy . . . Everywhere there are signs of convergence. The fusion seems to have gone forward rapidly in the reign of Henry I, and by the end of the twelfth century an English jurist was able to write: “Now that the English and Normans have been dwelling together, marrying and giving in marriage, the two nations have become so mixed that it is scarcely possible today, speaking of free men, to tell who is English, who of Norman descent.” [139-147]
In your own words (4-5 sentences MAXIMUM) summarize the main points of the above excerpts.
2) Excerpts and examples from Origins of the English Language (1975) by Joseph M. Williams
After the migration of the Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century from the Continent to Britain, the Norman Conquest was the single most significant event in the external history of the English language. The Danes [i.e., Vikings] added many words to the vocabulary . . . but because Danish was somewhat like OE [Old English] to begin with, its impact could not have been as influential as Norman French. The Norman Conquest has led to a language that is qualitatively different from what it was before 1066. . .
In retrospect, the linguistic consequences of this invasion and colonization are easy enough to recognize . . . The enormous influx in Middle English of not only French but also Latin words certainly would never have occurred without the Conquest. But if the effects are easy to discern, the precise social milieu [i.e., environment] in which they occurred, the specific reasons for their occurrence, are less easy to reconstruct . . . [65-67]
[Consider the following statistics about the English language:]
If we group [English] vocabulary into the first most frequent thousand words, second most frequent thousand, third most frequent thousand, and so on, then compute the percentage of native [i.e., English] versus borrowed words in each of these groups of a thousand, we find figures such as these:
English French Latin Danish Other
1 83% 11% 2% 2% 2%
2 34% 46% 11% 2% 7%
3 29% 46% 14% 1% 10%
4 27% 45% 17% 1% 10%
5 27% 47% 17% 1% 8%
6 27% 42% 19% 2% 10%
7 23% 45% 17% 2% 13%
8 26% 41% 18% 2% 13%
9 25% 41% 17% 2% 15%
10 25% 42% 18% 1% 14%
A. Can the statistics above be understood without any historical knowledge? Explain.
[Partial list of French words that came into English, ca. 1066-1250]
abbot, cardinal, clerk, countess, empress, duke, court, rent, justice, miracle, dame, prince, chapel, image, reason, pilgrim, saint, virgin, religion, sermon, prophet, patriarch, archangel, sacrament, sepulchre, custom, admiral, baron, crown, astronomy, nunnery, abbey, physician, parishioner, city, crucifix, purgatory, tournament, unicorn, journey, medicine, witness, constable, uncle, aunt, cousin, lamp, rose, war, arrive, pay, poor, rich, mercy.
[Consider the following lists of words deriving from Old English and French respectively]
Old English: calf, cow, boar, swine, deer, chicken, sheep
French: veal, beef, brawn, pork, venison, poultry, mutton
Old English: farmer, woodsman, fisherman, shepherd, hunter, skinner, miller, baker, cook
French: tailor, butcher, glazier, physician, mason, barber, carpenter, attorney, painter, chandler, haberdasher, draper, merchant
B. Explain the differences in the lists of words above. Offer an educated guess for each set. [Hint: Can the types of words tell us something about English society after the Norman Conquest?]