The Norman Conquest is arguably one of the most crucial events to have happened in British History. The arrival of the Normans completely changed the society created by the Anglo-Saxons and defined the future of the British Isles. They brought a new king and court with their own political structure, as well as their own culture. Therefore, as might be expected, such an event did not only impact the was society and politics worked, but also the way in which people communicated. The Norman Conquest transformed the English language unlike any other event in history.
In the year 1066, two of the most important events in British history took place: the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings. One may wonder why this battle and this invasion are so important. The Battle of Hastings is known as one of the longest in medieval history, and it was certainly bloody, but it was not the first defeat the Anglo-Saxons suffered. Before the Norman Conquest, the British Isles had already been subject to a continuous wave of invasions for over a millennium, after all the House of Wessex had just returned to the throne after years of Danish rule. So, what sets these two events apart from everything that happened before?
After centuries of invasions, one particular group, the Anglo-Saxons, had succeeded in forging some sort of proto-national identity for themselves (Kramer, 2007, p. 34). They were known as English, and despite the differences between the territories, they had the same cultural, social and political bases. In fact, they had just managed to put an Anglo-Saxon king on the throne in 1055, Edward the Confessor, after half a century of Danish kings. However, King Edward died childless and his brother Harold succeeded him. He was crowned king in Westminster Abbey in January 1066 and in September 1066, he defeated Harald III, King of Norway when he tried to invade the territory. Afterwards, the Normans arrived.
Only a month after the English victory against the northern invaders, William, Duke of Normandy, crossed the channel with an army, and the Norman Conquest began. On October 14, the Battle of Hastings started. By nightfall, Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was killed, and the English survivors had fled. William was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066. So, paradoxically, in the same year that the Scandinavian threat was eliminated (the previously mentioned Harald III), the English throne passed to a descendant of Scandinavians who had previously settled in Normand (William the Conqueror) (Kramer, 2007, p. 34). Some of the great Anglo-Saxon families protested against William and he answered by “harrying” (ravaging) them. A very important part of the country was destroyed as a consequence, but “William was interested in ruling first and rebuilding second” (Kramer, 2007, p. 34). According to some data recorded a few years after the Conquest, there were only four Anglo-Saxon great landlords, the rest were all Norman. Therefore, the year 1066 was the beginning of a new royal family and a new ruling class, and also a new culture and a new language.
With the new foreign families ruling the English, everything changed regarding the language. Before the Normans, people from the British Isles spoke what has later been known as Old English. It was basically a Germanic language brought from the continent when the Anglo-Saxons arrived at the Isles and overtook the Celts, the original settlers. Only a few Celtic words remained in the language and not many Latin words could be found, they were mainly related to the church after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity (Durkin, 2017b). But after the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans, Norman French became the language of the court, administration, and culture. The lower classes (the vast majority of the population) continued to speak English, which was considered by the Normans a low-class, vulgar tongue. Latin was used by the Church and in official records, it was mostly a written language.
The use of French was not exclusive to foreigners, also those who wanted to be in contact with the ruling class soon learned how to speak it; it was becoming a mark of social distinction (Boxell, 2022). However, the fact that English was the language spoken by most of the population made it rather likely that the higher classes would also acquire some familiarity with it. Even some churchmen had the ability to speak English, as sermons were still in English. The language situation that resulted from these is called triglossia; three different languages were used at the same time, but for different contexts: English for the lower classes, French for the higher classes, and Latin for the Church. A consequence of this can be seen in present-day English with beef and cow, cow (Old English cu) (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2022) was used by the servants until it reached the table of their master, when it would be called beef (from Old French buef) (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2022).
However, if the year 1066 was a crucial point for British history, that of 1214 does not fall far behind. King John was determined to recover the land he had lost in Normandy and Anjou in 1204 (Kramer, 2007, p. 42). His barons were angry at the way he excluded them from the court and, as a consequence, they refused to fight with him. He tried to make international alliances but was very unsuccessful and not only did he lose a battle, but he also lost Normandy to the French. John had to return to England, humiliated, to face the barons whose lands he had lost. After that, he received the nicknames of “lack land” or “soft sword” (Kramer, 2007, p. 42).
The loss of Normandy was definitely an important event for the English higher classes as they had lost economical and territorial power. This was obviously reflected in the language use, since the popularity of a language relies on its speakers and, therefore, on the social influence they have. As it has been explained before, French was the main language for the upper classes, yet after losing territories in France, they were forced to look more to their English properties. They grew detached from the French court and culture in general, and soon began to see themselves as English. Norman French was gradually losing its influence. It started to be seen as provincial and unfashionable against the French of the court in Paris. This situation got to a point where everyone, from the highest to the lowest, spoke English. It gradually became the official language of the nation once again, and a marker of nationality.
However, the English from the 13th century onwards is very different from the English before the Norman Conquest. English had suffered a very strong French influence, this was the time when the biggest number of French words was introduced to the language (Leith, 1992, p. 156). The Norman lords, whose mother tongues were French, were all learning English in order to adapt to the new social situation. Even though Norman French was gradually degenerating, their speakers influenced the English language. It would have been impossible not to, considering that all these new speakers had the same mother tongue. The mixture between both languages was inevitable.
Old English was a Germanic language, like present-day German, hence it used inflections in nouns, adjectives, and pronouns; and the verbs reflected the person, number, tense, and mood (Durkin, 2017b). However, after the French influence, it lost grammatical gender and relied less on inflectional endings and more on word order. The vocabulary would become a mix between the Germanic Old English and the new French borrowings (Durkin, 2017a). This means that the English language suffered a shift big enough to be considered a different stage in the language: from now on it will be called Middle English.
It has now become apparent the huge impact that the Norman Conquest had on the English language. Furthermore, even though Middle English is still very different from present-day English, Norman French left a clear imprint, visible even in the English that is spoken today: the pronunciation of certain words, the spelling, but mostly the huge amount of words with a French origin. It is almost impossible to find a text nowadays without any word that was not originated from French.
Boxell, G. (2022). The Effect of 1066 on the English Language. http://geoffboxell.tripod.com/words.htm
Durkin, P. (2017a). Middle English—an overview. Oxford English Dictionary: the definitive record of the English Language. http://public.oed.com/aspects-of-english/english-in-time/middle-english-an-overview/
Durkin, P. (2017b). Old English—an overview. Oxford English Dictionary: the definitive record of the English Language. http://public.oed.com/aspects-of-english/english-in-time/old-english-an-overview/
Kramer, J. (2007). Britain and Ireland: a concise history. Routledge. New York
Leith, D. (1992). A social History of English: “Languages in Contact”. London, Routledge.
Online Etymology Dictionary. (2022). https://www.etymonline.com/
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