Monday 29 February 2016

950 years, and all that.

So it's 2016, quite a big year, especially if your name is Shakespeare. Don't get me wrong. The Bard truly deserves to be celebrated for the 400 years since he died. It seems like his birth/death day anniversary is the biggest thing we are going to remember this year. I mean, last year, there was the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2, the 100th anniversary of a variety of WW1 battles and the 200th anniversary of Waterloo (no, not ABBA winning the Eurovision Song contest, though, I admit, it does seem like 200 years ago), not to mention the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt (Shakespeare again – O for a Muse of fire that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention…) and the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. All of them are worthy of great attention.

Yet, the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, mighty though it is, can be superseded by the anniversary of another event, one which is (or at least used to be) imprinted in the mind of every schoolchild in Britain. It's not really a sexy anniversary because the real sexy anniversary arrives in another fifty years, but as I don't think that I, and most probably you, will be around then, it seems prudent to remember it this year, especially as its effects are so pervasive in our culture.

As a way of measuring the significance of this event, let me look back at the first two paragraphs of this text and list these words: quite, especially, Shakespeare, deserves, celebrated, anniversary, remember, variety, battles, Eurovision, contest, admit, mention, ascend, invention, signing, attention, superseded, event, imprinted, school, sexy, real, arrives, probably, around, prudent, effects, pervasive, culture.

If it were not for this event, it is highly unlikely that many, if any, of the words listed would exist in our language. And the reason is this: 950 years ago, on 14th October 1066, a gentleman by the name of Duke William II of Normandy engaged in battle and defeated another gentleman by the name of King Harold Godwinson on a hill situated around seven miles from the town of Hastings on the Sussex coast in England. William was descended from a group of Vikings who had settled in Normandy some 150 years earlier. They soon discarded their native Norse language, adopting the French language and expanding their influence in the area. Harold had been crowned king of England on the death of Edward the Confessor, but both King Harald of Norway and Duke William claimed the throne, and both prepared to invade England to realise their claims. King Harold defeated King Harald in the north of England before hurrying back south to face William, as a result of which his army was not at their operational best. Harold famously died on the battlefield and is reputedly the figure depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry with the arrow in his eye.

Up to that time, Old English had been a thriving language of government, education, literature, culture and everyday use, although Latin was also used for liturgical and educational purposes. If we look at Modern German, we can see to an extent the grammar, structure and vocabulary that once characterised Old English. However, fate struck a mortal blow to Old English on that day. That one day is the reason why the words listed in italics above exist in our language. Soon after William consolidated his control of the whole country, Old English ceased to be the language of all the people and all the classes. It became submerged, downgraded, relegated and ignored. In short, it became a third-class language. Latin remained the language of the church and of education, Anglo-French became the language of law, culture, literature and the elite, and Old English belonged to the downtrodden hordes.

The Norman invaders, comprising maybe no more than 10% of the entire population, ruled over the English masses. You could say it was like the bottles of milk of yesteryear that the milkman used to leave on our doorsteps: the rich 10% at the top was cream, a French word, and the 90% under that was milk, an English word. To make it in the Norman world, you had to learn French. No king of England ever spoke English for some 200 years after the conquest. Forget Richard the Lionheart talking posh English to Robin Hood in Hollywood films – he spoke only French. For some 200 years after the Norman conquest, the English royalty controlled large parts of French territory and many people from all parts of France came and settled in England, bringing Norman French and standard French, which we can still see in our language today.

It would take until the 13th century for the nobility to start speaking English and the 14th century for Middle English to emerge as a language of culture and literature, as so wonderfully and entertainingly shown by the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. By that time, huge changes had taken place, and French words had replaced vast numbers of Old English words, transforming the face of our language forever. The vocabulary of Modern English retains only 20-30% of the original Old English vocabulary, albeit the most common words in use, but over 60% of our vocabulary comes ultimately from Latin, most of that courtesy of the French introduced by the Normans.

And that is what this blog will celebrate in the lead up to the 950th anniversary of that famous, fateful day. It will look at some of the strange phenomena, unusual journeys, fascinating coincidences and bizarre histories of some of these words and word families, and answer these and many other questions:

How did one word that originally meant “light” give rise to the word “journey”, and another word that originally meant “three stakes” give rise to “travel”?

Why are animals English when they're alive, but French when they're cooked?

Why is our spelling so confusing, and our pronunciation so ridiculous? Try explaining the pronunciation of “temperature” and “comfortable” to a Spanish or Italian native speaker.

Why is a noble “count” a completely different word from an election “count”?

Why do we have so many words for the same thing? Why do we have warranties and guarantees? Why can monarchs be kingly, royal and regal?

Over the next few months leading up to the great day. I hope you will be my companion (literally, the one who shares my bread) for the whole journey. I'll try to make it as fascinating and entertaining as I can, but I don't really have to – it does the job by itself. So, welcome to 950 years: What have the Normans ever done for us? And in answer, I think you will find – a hell of a lot!