The Normans Arrive

How the bastard son of a Norman duke changed English forever

The next big stop in our world wind tour of the History of the English Language comes in 1066 and the Norman Invasion. Now, you’ll remember that to this point folks in Britain have been speaking Old English since roughly 400-500. That’s a little over 500 years’ worth of practice in the Old E. But, as with a lot of things in life, there was an eager Frenchman waiting to take over some more land.

First, a bit of background on that Frenchman: William, duke of Normandy (ie: William of Normandy or William the Conqueror or William the Bastard if you’re feeling froggy). Born as the illegitimate son of Robert I, duke of Normandy, William did as all French bastard dukes-in-waiting did until their fathers died, rode horses, shot arrows, and flayed their enemies on wooden Xs (Note: some of this information might or might not be coming from Game of Thrones). When William’s father did die in 1035, William took over as duke and did duke stuff until 1066, when Edward, King of England, died.

William, all youthful and ready for some conquering, laid claim to the English throne due to some long forgotten promise many years prior, but was stymied by Harold of Wessex. Harold, then, is considered the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, as the entire history of Britain and the English language were soon to change dramatically.England_1066

In October of 1066 William and Harold (and their considerable armies) met on a field in Hastings. After much sword fighting and bagpiping (I’m imaging here), Harold was dead and William on the verge of becoming a French king of England.

That’s all well and good for history, but what does it have to do with English? Well, if you remember, Old English to this point was derived a lot from a mix of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and a bit of Latin. A very guttural and German language. The Normans, on the other hand, brought with them Norman French (a dialect of Middle French). When two cultures are smashed together like Anglo-Saxon and Norman, there is sure to be a bit of overlap in the language. That is certainly true in this case.

Once William was king, he replaced most, if not all, of the elite positions with fellow Normans. Over time, their language began to reflect not only the Norman French, but the Anglo-Saxon as well. It’s this Anglo-Norman that slowly developed into what we now call Middle English.

An interesting side note is that with the merger and the relative positions associated with the two languages (Norman = elite, Anglo-Saxon = common folk), there are synonyms that are clearly demarcated down class lines.  For example, sweat comes from the Anglo-Saxon and perspire from the Norman. Same goes for scite (ie shit) in the Old English and manure of the French. Fun Fact: This is an example of diglossia, or two languages are used by the same community but in different situations (social or economic).

Next up, we’ll take a look at how we moved from sway-tuh to sweet as the Middle gives way to the Modern.


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