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The Impact of the Norman Conquest on the English Language

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 4934 words Published: 13th Aug 2021

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By the end of the Old English period an event took place which had a major impact on the English language. This event was the Norman Conquest, in 1066, which marks the beginning of the Middle English Period. The invasion is a milestone in the history of England, and played a key role in the development of Modern English. But another view sees the events of the occupation as having a negative effect on English, and as a national catastrophe that destroyed a ‘sophisticated native Anglo-Saxon culture’ (Graddol et al, 1996:120) and disrupted the progression of the English language. Short states that Higden Ranulf, an English chronicler and Benedictine monk, saw French as one of the principal reasons why the English language had degenerated in Medieval England (2007: 29). Nevertheless, others claim that the Norman Conquest contributed to ‘an enormous enrichment of the English vocabulary’ (Hughes, 2000: 111).

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English would probably have pursued another evolution had William the Conqueror not succeeded in appropriating the English throne. It would most likely lack the immense amount of French vocabulary that characterizes the English language today, and that make English look, on the side of lexicon, like a Romance language. No other previous event had had such an impact on the language. The Scandinavian invasion in the eighth century had affected English, but not as profoundly as the Norman Conquest. This is because the speakers of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse could understand each other, since they were communicating through similar Germanic-root words. Whereas, Norman French was a foreign Romance language which was completely alien to a population speaking a Germanic language. The conquerors continued to speak their own language in Britain. Watson argues that Normans were ruthless people who had no interest in the culture, literature and learning the language of the conquered people. English, which had been the official and literary language, was demoted to be ‘the language of the serfs’ (Watson, 2002: 17). Since the two languages, Norman French and English, were not mutually understandable and French was the language of the rulers, English speakers had to adapt to the newcomers and learn some key expressions. Thus, the Norman invasion brought bilingualism in the British Isles with French and English living alongside each other for a long time. It is estimated that around ’10 000 French words’ (Mcrum et al, 1986: 82) poured into English during the Norman rule. These words are found in every sphere: art, literature, law and government. Modern English has retained a large number of these words which have been completely assimilated into English in their structure, pronunciation and spelling.

The Normans represented a small proportion of the population, however, their language had a massive impact upon society, since they were in position of power. According to Short, the number of French speaking incomers at the start of the 12 century was around 15 000, which would represent less than 1% of the total population of some 1.75 million (2007: 26). This is the reason why Norman French is not the spoken language of England today, despite its dominance in Britain for almost three centuries. Baugh & Cable claim that the Norman Conquest ‘changed the whole course of the English language’ (2002: 208). Thus, such a consequential event deserves to be explored in detail.

First Chapter

Historical Background

Normans were descendent of Vikings from Scandinavia who settled down in the northern region of France in the ninth and tenth centuries. This region was known as Northmannia, the land of the Northmen, later shortened to Normandy. The Normans became Frenchmen ‘culturally and linguistically’ (Pyles, 1964:153) soon assimilating the French customs, marrying local women, converting to Christianity, and giving up their own language and acquiring French. England had had close ties with Normandy long before the conquest in 1066. In 1002 Æthelred the Unready, king of England between 78-1016, had married a Norman woman and his son known as Edward the Confessor, who was raised in France, was more French than English. During the 24 years of his reign, Edward brought many of his Norman friends over to England giving them important positions in the government. When Edward the Confessor died childless, William the Conqueror, who was a second cousin of the late king, believed he was entitled to be Edward’s successor even though he had no right to inherit the English throne. (Loyn, 1991: 65-67). So when the accession to the throne was denied to him, he attacked England, and with his exceptional abilities he won the battle of Hastings and ‘on Christmas Day 1066, William was crowned king of England’ (Baugh & Cable, 2002: 112). The rule of William the Conqueror brought with it vast changes ‘to the social, political, religious and linguistic’ (Fennell, 2001: 95) structure of England.

Dominance of the French language in England

William’s possession of the English throne had far-reaching consequences. One of the repercussions was the introduction of a new nobility. The old English nobility was virtually annihilated and replaced with Norman followers. Mcrum et al. (1986: 73) argue that William also purged the English church: gradually Norman bishops and abbots occupied the cathedrals and monasteries, and for many generations after the conquest, the great estates and important positions were held by French-speaking Normans. The most significant consequence, however, was the dominion that the French language acquired in England. The Norman Conquest brought not only a new way of life but also a new way of speaking. The Norman incomers’ mother tongue was French and it remained so until the second half of the 12th century. French became the language of the ruling class and their servants. It was adopted across the entire range of written registers: literature, legal proceedings, commerce, government businesses and private correspondence (Ingham, 2010: 1).

The members of the new commanding class continued to use their own language once they settled in England. First, only those of Norman origin would speak French, but soon through intermarriage and relation with the supreme class, many English people found it to their benefit to master the new language. Therefore French became the ‘language of power and prestige’ (Hughes, 2000: 13). The status of French in England from 1066 onwards is comparable to the importance of English in the British Empire in the 19th and 20th century (Freeborn, 1998: 81). For almost three hundred years after the conquest English ‘ceased to be the official language of the land’ (Hughes, 2000: 110), existing only as language of the masses. Short claims that the survival of French for three centuries, even after the loss of Normandy in 1204, is the result of a desire on the part of the Norman descendants to retain and strengthen their ‘sense of separate identity’ (2007: 13). He believes that Anglo-Norman was a means of social and political self-definition and self-preservation.

All the kings of England spoke French as their first language. Command of French would also be found amongst the middle class. Knights also had a tendency to using it, even if they were English natives. Merchants and tradesmen spoke French, and also clerks and bailiffs would use the language due to the fact that different services were conducted in that language. Nonetheless Latin remained the language of church and scholarship. It was the language of records used for any documents that were felt to be important to be left to posterity. Though French had cultural and social prestige in this period, both English and French were regarded ‘as inferior to Latin’ (Knowles, 1997: 47). So from 1066 there were three languages that pervaded medieval England: Latin, French and English, and ‘literature, religion, law, science were all conducted in languages other than English’ (Mcrum et al, 1986: 73). Short estimates that 80% of the population in Britain was monolingual English speakers, 16.5% bilingual French speakers, and 3.5% trilingual Latin, French and English (2007: 28). Latin was the ‘unifying European language’ par excellence (Totter, 2000: 23). It was learned and studied in the schools and universities in England. Latin was the language of religion, culture and power and it was established all over Europe. Nonetheless Latin was mainly used for written purposes. The language was spoken by a tiny minority of the English and it was employed only in the ‘highest ecclesiastical circles’ (Trotter, 2000: 24). Latin, however, was certainly not the spoken language used in court. French was ‘the language used in the king’s court’ (Ingham, 2010: 95). Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that English was ousted by the two prestigious languages, it was never wiped out. It had a low status and it was reduced to an informal- colloquial vernacular, but it was still used to a great extent by the lower classes. Fennell states that there was diglossia in England for a long time with ‘French as the High language and English as the Low language’ (Fenell, 2001: 117). However, Baugh & Cable maintain that if the Normans did not appreciate English as a vernacular this should not be interpreted as an oppressive language attitude towards English. A few generations before they had themselves renounced their own Germanic language in favour of Latin and French.

The perception that Normans were ‘hostile to the English language is without foundation’ (Baugh & Cable, 2002: 117). It is true that English was considered to be an unsophisticated tongue, however there is ‘sufficient evidence of mutual respect and peaceful cooperation between the English and the Normans’ (Baugh & Cable, 2002: 117). William the Conqueror himself made an effort at the age of forty-three to learn English without succeeding. In general, the upper classes were indifferent towards the English language because their activities in England did not require the use of it, and French was for them more useful.

Survival of English

How did English manage to survive and not get absorbed in the dominant Norman tongue? Mcrum et al (1986: 75) suggest that there are three important motives that explain the survival of English. First of all, Old English was ‘too established, too vigorous, and, thanks to its fusion with Scandinavian languages, too hardy’ to be wiped out (Mcrum et al, 1986: 75). Despite the written records becoming Latin and French, English continued being the speech of commoners and it would have needed many centuries of French rule to obliterate it as the vernacular of ordinary people. They were not going to stop speaking English just because they had been conquered by a foreigner. Second, the fusion between Normans and English was rapid, as Normans intermarried with English people.

The French-born mixed with the English-born. Thus, future generations living in Britain would feel more English. The Norman ancestors were forgotten with time and young people identified with the natural language of most inhabitants in Britain. One hundred years after the invasion, an anonymous chronicler wrote that ‘The two nations had become so mixed that it is scarcely possible today, speaking of free men, to tell who is English and who is of Norman race’ (Baugh & Cable, 2009: 120). The Francophone incomers seemed to have become fully integrated with English people. Third, and most important reason, the Anglo-Normans lost control of their French territory across the Channel. When King John lost Normandy in 1204, conflict began to develop between France and England, which concluded with the Hundred Years War. The ex Norman nobility became English, as many nobles had to declare themselves either French or English. The loss of Normandy established an independent English nation and a feeling of ‘national consciousness and identity’ began to arise in the British Isles (Short, 2007: 31). English people began to be more interested in their native language, therefore the trilingual setting of medieval England existing following the Norman Conquest started to disappear. The initial trilingual situation developed into oral bilingualism, although it was not omnipresent in England, and progressively culminated into vernacular monolinguism (Trotter, 2000: 25).

Chapter 2

Re-establishment of English

The rivalry created between England and France meant that interests between English and French were no longer the same. This resulted in the decline of French and re-establishment of English. Fennell believes that if England had remained in the control of France, French might have continued to be used ‘in England forever’ (Fennell 2001: 117). This did not happen though. While French had been necessary to the English upper class during the two centuries following the Norman Conquest, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries its use was artificial. French lost its importance gradually and became a second acquired language after English till it disappeared. Evidence of the passage of Anglo-Norman from a mother tongue to an acquired language has its roots in 1160s but also the first murmurings of discontent surfacing form those of Anglo-Saxon stock who see themselves as excluded an denied professional advancement by their ignorance of French (Short, 2007: 26). At the start of the fourteenth century Anglo-Norman seemed to have lost its prestige completely. Slowly English won its way back to being ubiquitous in England.

French passed into oblivion in the fifteenth and English was re-established, but it was a new language ‘in vocabulary and in spirit, wholly different in character, rhythm and feeling from the Anglo-Saxon’ (Watson, 2002: 18). Under the influence of Chaucer poets began to write in English, but also literature was highly influenced by French. When English re-emerged as the written language of England, it was extremely altered in structure; however, Romaine claims that debate still continues about the extent to which ‘change was internally or externally motivated’ (1998: 7). These differences in the English language remained immutable. Freeborn (1998: 51) argues that when reading English texts from the 12th century onwards, there are changes in grammar, vocabulary, spelling and word form. Of course, the English language did not change overnight in response to the Norman Conquest. Fennell, on the other hand, maintains changes in English did not happen as a result of the conquest. He states that the ‘influence of French on English is neither extreme nor special’ (Fennell, 2001: 130). Many loan words have been borrowed from French, but there is no marked structural change that can be revealed. It is also hard to demonstrate French influence on word order. There is no influence on concord as well. According to Fennell, changes in the English language are simply due to ‘gradual change’ (2001: 131).

The Lexicon: Loan Words from French

While the loss of inflection was only indirectly due to the use of French in England, French impact is much more noticeable on the vocabulary. A huge body of French words became part of the English language. The influx of French words began slowly and continued with varying pace for a long time. Most of the Norman French loanwords entered English during the Middle English period, and they actually came fastest when ‘French was dying out’ (Barber et al., 2010: 155). Some scholars argue that actually the main borrowings by English tool place ‘from 1250 onwards’ (Hughes, 2000:110). In the eleventh and twelfth century the number of words borrowed from French was minimal, and in the thirteenth and fourteenth century the amount of loanwords increased significantly. When bilingual speakers changed over to English for such purposes as literature and government, they needed ‘specialized terms’ that they were habituated to in these domains (Barber et al., 2010: 156). The influence, however, was reciprocal. Numerous English words were introduced into the French spoken in England as well. From the very start of the century it is possible to find Anglo-Norman poets incorporating words of Old English origin into their works (Short, 2007: 22). Where two languages live alongside each other for a long time a substantial transference of words from one language to another is unavoidable. Despite that, English had more to gain form French than vice versa, therefore the number of French words that entered English was incredibly vast.

Many of the words borrowed by English are words to do with war, ecclesiastical matters, heraldry, hunting, the law, arts and fashion. The earliest adoptions from Norman French are encountered in 1137: tresor ‘treasury’, Canceler ‘Chancellor’ prisun ‘justice’ and tenserie ‘protection money’ (Hughes, 2000: 111). These words indicate a whole new Norman vocabulary of power. Other words that infiltrated English in the 12th century are: duc ‘duke’, cuntess ‘countess’, curt ‘court’, messe ‘mass’, clerc ‘scholar’ (Graddol et al, 1996: 123). Also these loanwords demonstrate the domination of the Normans in influential institutions such as the church and the royal court. The Norman Conquest made French the language of the official class in England. Therefore it is not the least bit astonishing that many word having to do with administration and government are of French origin. Some of the earliest loans from French are: service, prison and castle (Pyles, 1980: 324). Other words include: crown, state, empire, authority, sovereign, parliament, assembly, treaty, alliance, country, attorney, chancellor, judge, jury, noble, royal. The word office and the titles of many offices are also French: coroner, treasurer, marshal, governor, councillor, minister, warden, and castellan (Baugh & Cable, 2009: 169). In the religious domain amongst many words there terms such as: abbot, clergy, preach, sacrament, vestment. As English was the language of the masses, it is not surprising that the original terms for livestock were retained: ox, sheep swine, deer, calf. Whereas words such as – beef, mutton, pork, bacon, venison, veal – were used for the flesh of the animals, eaten mostly by the higher classes (Fennell, 2001: 107).

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Family relationships such as: mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter kept their Germanic names. Nevertheless, family relationships expressing more compound social relations such as: uncle, aunt, cousin, nephew, niece were designated by French terms. The terms father-in-law and mother-in-law show native English words, but they are in fact calques, loan translations from Old French. Numbers did not lose their original, native names, and parts of the body kept their English terms. This is because such terms are core words and resistant to borrowing except in situations of exceptionally long and fervent contact. One remarkable example is the word face: this term was borrowed from French in the late thirteenth century as an informal term (Fennell, 2001:107). Titles of rank were taken from French such as: baron, count, duke, marquees, peer, prince and sovereign (Barber et al., 2010:156). However, English words were retained such as: earl, king, knight, lady, lord, and queen. Literary borrowings of French only entered English in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. English writers started borrowing French words, as they were certain about an acquaintance with French on the part of their readers. While a considerable amount of French words came into English through this method, many are no longer in use since they filled no real communicative need.

Norman French vs. Central French

An interesting fact in Modern English is that despite many words being borrowed from French, the pronunciation of the English words differs considerably from their French counterparts. An important thing to be pointed out is that Modern French is not like eleventh-century French. There were two main dialect groups in Old French: the language of the north – langue d’oïl, and the language of the south and central France – langue d’oc also known as the dialect of Paris (Knowles, 1997: 47). The Norman Conquest brought with it the Northern dialect which developed characteristics of its own and then is called Anglo-Norman. There were significant differences in the pronunciation between the two vernaculars. In Anglo-Norman ca- was pronounced as cha- chie- in Central French. So for instance, the Anglo-Norman word caitif ‘caitiff’ changed its pronunciation into chaitif in Central French. The same can be said for other words that are pronounced with ca in English and cha in French such as: ‘catch’ which has derived form Anglo-Norman catel, became chacier in Central French and subsequently chaser in Modern French. Other differences in the manner of speaking of the two dialects are the pronunciation of some consonants. Where the langue d’oïl had [w, k, ts] would be pronounced as [g, ts, s] in the langue d’oc. The English word ‘wicket’ (AN wiket) was transformed into guichet in the Parisian dialect. In the same way ‘waste’ representing the Anglo-Norman waster was in Central French guaster. Consequently, there were two French sources often leading to the same word being borrowed twice. Many adoptions from Norman French coexisted with the Central French equivalent words which were assimilated at a later date. So we have ‘Norman French: catch, warranty, launch, wage, warden, convey, gaol, beside Central French: chase, guarantee, lance, gauge, guardian, convoy, jail’ (Graddol et al, 1996: 123).

In the thirteenth century, the Anglo-Norman dialect lost some of its importance in England, and the Anglo-Norman realised that the French they spoke was no longer fit for purpose. The Central French dialect of Paris had begun to exercise a strong influence in France, therefore the Anglo-Norman patois was regarded as uncouth and obsolescent (Barber et al. 2009: 151). Giraldus Cambrensis, a writer of the early Middle Ages, contrasts the elegant French of France to its unsophisticated Insular counterpart which he disregards as ‘gutter French’ (Short, 2007: 14). Due to its prestige, the dialect of Central France became the standard language in court and fashionable society in England. As Central French became fashionable it was from this dialect that many words were borrowed at this period.

After the Norman Conquest duplications in English were very common. Many of the French words that came into use conveyed meanings that were already expressed by a native English word. In this case one of two things occurred: either one of the words was lost, or they both survived but they had different meanings. In some cases the French word died out, but in most cases it was the Old English word that ceased to exist. For example the OE word anda competed for its status with the word envy and managed to survive until the time of Chaucer, but at some point the word became obsolete and died out. The replacement was not always sudden; often both words carried on to being used for some time, and the English word often persists in the dialect today. The Old English word eam which has been substituted by the French word uncle is still used in Scotland (eme). Where both the French and the English words existed they acquired different significations. English was not deficient in vocabulary, and in many cases when a new word poured into English it existed side by side with newer borrowed word. Hence, there are many pairs of words in English whose meaning is similar. So there are the native words which survive alongside the French words such as: begin/commence; freedom/liberty; child/infant; happiness/felicity; friendly/amicable; hearty/cordial; house/mansion (Watson, 2002: 19). Watson argues that the native words are ‘vivid and homely’ whereas the French words are ‘colder, more aloof, formal, dignified’ (Watson, 2002: 19).

French had also an impact on the increase of the number of prepositions, which was already considerable in Old English. Strang (1970: 274) maintains that during the period 1170-1370 the number of prepositions was ‘larger than any before’. She attributes this process to two processes. The first of these is ‘compounding and analogical formation’. The second process includes loans from French. A number of prepositions such as countre, sans and save were borrowed directly from French. Others, such as during, excepting and saving were anglicised versions of French words. Some prepositions are calques on originally French equivalents, e.g. notwithstanding derives from Old French non obstant.

The borrowing of French words had also an impact on English grammar. Many grammatical points were reconstructed on the French model. For instance, the use of who was remodelled on French qui. Old English used who just to ask questions such as who are you?, and this the equivalent of the use of qui. But qui was used in French also in a relative clause, such as the boy who lives next to me, for which English used the. Middle English started to use who as a relative pronoun under French influence (Mustanoja, 1960: 187-206). English was influenced by French also in the formation of passive forms. Old English used the verb weorpan (to become) to form passive idioms, but this became unusual after the Norman Conquest. Modern English uses the verb to be to construct passive sentences just like Modern French (Mustanoja, 1960: 438-9).

Another point of Middle English grammar such as the counterfactual modal perfect is attributed to the influence of French. Old English lacked the modal and auxiliary have combination. Its appearance starts in southern Middle English and then it seems to have spread in the north, given that the use of Anglo-Norman was more prevailing in the south of England. Fischer, on the other hand, claims that French did not play any role in the development of the modal perfect construction in English. Kida (2007: 285) argues that there was also some French influence on word order in Middle English which changed from VO (verb + object) to OV (object + verb). When analysing the word order pattern in Foedera, she notices that Norman French was more in favour of the OV word order positioning than of the VO ones, and this fact led to the development of OV word order configuration in the English language after the Norman Conquest. Kida believes that this change in word order disposition in English must have probably come via an increasing quantity of bilingual speakers, speaking both English and Norman French, who created more OV word order structures in English than monolingual native speakers. Nonetheless, this influence was not permanent as English went back to its VO word order few years subsequent to the Norman Conquest. Another grammatical characteristic of Norman French comparable to the English grammar is the placement of modifiers in front of the noun. This explains why English did not dispose of premodification in the Middle Ages and still preserves this feature in Modern English. Premodification is generally a feature of OV languages and English had a VO structure. Hence, it can be deduced that Anglo-Norman played also a role in the conservation of premodification in English up to the present day (Kida, 2007: 285-290).

French influence is most obviously marked in the spelling. New conventions were used for the [S] sound creating spellings such as and eventually . The word house had an [u:] sound, so the Old English spelling was . However the [u] sound was represented by [ou] in French, therefore, the spelling was changed to . The pronunciation of the word changed later in time (Knowles, 1997: 40-50). Other French conventions were adopted in English such as the use of for and for (Freeborn, 2001: 82).

Mustoja (1960: 45) affirms that the influence of foreign languages such as Latin and French plays a considerable role in the development of gender in Middle English. This is due to a large proportion of ME literature being translated directly from French. Additionally, the authors of original works were usually acquainted with French. Therefore, it frequently occurs that a noun is assigned the gender of the corresponding French noun even though it is not a direct loan. For example, death (OE masculine) becomes feminine in ME under the influence of French la mort. Also moon (OE mone), which is masculine in Old English, has become feminine in ME, again influenced by French la lune. Ship (OE scip, neuter) becomes feminine in ME on the analogy of OF la nef. But the nouns moon and ship have often been encountered as masculine nouns as well. This dual application of genders to the same noun is explained as the ‘general confusion between the masculine and feminine forms of the definite article in Picard and Anglo-Norman’ (Mustanoja, 1960: 47) two OF dialects which played a key role in the influence of French upon Middle English.


The Norman Conquest has had a significant impact on the English language. As the examples above demonstrate, the invasion has influenced English considerably not only in terms of vocabulary but also spelling, pronunciation and grammar.


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