Thursday 13 October 2016

950 years ago today - the battle that changed our language forever

So here we are, exactly 950 years since the English language started to undergo probably its most radical change in history – the loss of its status as a national language and its transformation from an almost exclusively Germanic language into a Latinised Germanic mongrel. Vast swathes of its original vocabulary were supplanted by words from Old North French and standard Old French, with the result that some 60% of the vocabulary of our language comes either from French or from Latin, often via French. However, it's not just the vocabulary that has left a mark on our mother tongue; there have been other influences, and in commemoration of the momentous events of 950 years ago in the Battle of Hastings, I have outlined the main ones in this post. I hope you enjoy and appreciate them.

Basic vocabulary

First, let's look at some basic vocabulary changes. Among the myriad words that have arrived from French, many have ensconced themselves firmly within everyday English. Here is a selection just to give you a taste:

Old English didn't have a special word for what follows first, instead using other, so it borrowed second from Old French. It comes ultimately from Latin secundus and literally means “following”. Related words include sequence, suit and suite.

By Chaucer's time, Middle English had adopted because, which is a combination of English by and French cause, which in turn comes from Latin causa, “reason, matter”.

In modern English slang, a guv'nor, or guv, from governor, means “boss, sir, mate”. It comes ultimately from Greek kybernein, “steer”, via Latin gubernare, which produced gubernator, “ruler, director”, which French handed over as governor.

Every day we use good old English terms like “I hope so, I think so, I guess so”. To that we added “I suppose so”, or, as it's generally pronounced “s'pose so”. The Middle English supposen, “have an opinion, assume”, comes from Old French supposer and ultimately from Latin.

Old English used the word sore as an intensifier, much as Modern German uses sehr. Sore continues in its original meaning of “painful”, while sorely is old-fashioned but clearly an intensifier. However, Middle English went to Old French to borrow verai, from Latin verax, “truthful”, and turned it into very.

There are hundreds more everyday words like these which owe their existence to the Norman Conquest, including these, which you might like to follow up yourselves: chief, defeat, dress, eagle, fashion, grief, injury, judge, leisure, prison, push, quiet, reason, rest, royal, search, tax, trouble and uncle.


It is well-known that Old English names were largely unpronounceable (at least to us). Who can forget the names from the spoof school history book, 1066 And All That: Ethelbreth, Athelthrall and Thruthelthrolth? OK, so the writers were going slightly over the top, but we still have Alfred, Audrey, Cedric, Earl, Edith, Edmund, Ethel, Harold, Oswald, Wilfred and Winifred, to name but a few. However, the Normans brought over a huge swathe of new names for us to choose from, including Alice, Charles, Clement, Felicity, Gerald, Geoffrey, Henry, Janine, Lucy, Marjorie, Matilda, Nancy, Richard, Robert and, of course, William. What's particularly interesting is that many of these names originally come from German, since the Germanic Franks, who gave their name to France when they settled there, supplied many of them. Just look at modern German Heinrich (Henry) and Wilhelm (William).

The Normans were also past masters at supplying us with surnames, most notably those connected with professions. Hence we have the person who makes bows, Archer, the person who chops up your meat, Butcher, the person who makes arrows, Fletcher, as well as the person who cuts the cloth for your clothes, Taylor and Turner, the person who, well, turns. One very interesting aspect of Norman names comes from their occupation of Ireland. All over the world people traditionally take their name from their parents. In English we have a large number of names ending in -son: Johnson, Williamson, Peterson, Harrison to name but a few. The same was true of the Norman French in Ireland. The French word for "son", fils, was prefixed to the father's name and was eventually rendered as fitz, hence: Fitzgerald, Fitzmorris, Fitzpatrick, Fitzsimmons and Fitzwilliam.

When we look at place names, we can see some that the Normans changed from previous names and a few new ones. They are usually names which mix the original English name with the name of the Norman Lord who took over the town or the area. Hence we have Ashby de-laZouch, Stoke Mandeville, Theydon Bois, Beauchamp, Beaulieu and Richmond.


I've written about this already (see 21/4/16), but a few short words won't go amiss here. When the Normans took over and invited more of their countrymen into the conquered land, they only numbered about 10% of the population, but the top 10%. For anyone old enough to remember bottled milk being delivered to your door every morning, you could compare the social structure of England to the contents of a milk bottle – the Norman French cream on top of the Old English milk, accurately reflecting the provenance of these two words.

The same ran through society, most clearly exemplified by words for animals on the English farm and in the forest, and the meat served up on the Norman table: English pig/swine and French pork; English bull and French beef; English cow and French veal; English sheep and French mutton; English deer and French venison. This last one is especially interesting, as venison actually comes from the Latin venari, meaning “hunt”, while deer originally had the meaning of “animal”. Only the king and his nobles were allowed to hunt deer (transgressors did so under pain of death), so venison, literally “hunted meat” was highly prized. There are many other examples of French food from my previous blog post.


Although many Old English words were lost in the face of new vocabulary from Old French, many words which came in with the conquerors happily settled into English and still exist alongside their older neighbours to this day. The differences in meaning and use are often subtle, and you can see for yourself how each doublet plays out. The situation is, in fact, further complicated by borrowings directly from Latin (often through Old French), with the result that we often have triplets! These examples will serve to illustrate the point:

English folk and French people; English stool and French chair (see how the stool is a diminished type of chair); English brotherhood and French fraternity; English kind and French gentle; English some and French several; English smell and French odour; English loss and French defeat;

English kingly, French royal and Latin regal; English twofold, French double and Latin duplicate; English guts, French bravery and Latin valour; English end, French finish and Latin terminate; English tell (cf bank teller), French count and Latin compute.

Throughout its history, French has rendered its Latin roots almost unrecognisable in some cases. Even those words which still bear a resemblance to Latin have undergone some major changes. Another development from the introduction of French into English has been a greater receptiveness to borrowing directly from Latin, or from Latin via Old French. As a result, we have numerous doublets from the two languages, essentially the same word in two forms: French sure and Latin secure; French poignant and Latin pungent; French chieftain and Latin captain; French count and Latin compute; French search and Latin circulate; French grief and Latin gravity; French frail and Latin fragile.

French has even given English doublets from different dialects of French. The Normans spoke a form called Old North French, which became Anglo-French after they settled down. However, many other Old French speakers arrived from other parts of France, mostly speaking standard Old French. Typically, Old North French had initial c- and w- where standard Old French had ch- and gu-, hence: carry and charge, both from Latin carricare, “transport, load”; catch and chase, from Latin captiare, “take, seize”, hence “hunt, try to take”; cattle and chattel, from Latin capitale, “property”; warranty and guarantee, from Frankish warand, “authorisation”; warden and guardian, from Frankish wardon, “watch”.

Meaning change

One of the things we have to remember about the words we've inherited from French is that we've changed the meanings quite a lot. Here are a few differences we shouldn’t forget when we venture to the other side of the Channel. In France, it's perfectly normal to demand things, as it simply means “ask” in French. If someone tells you they're désolé, they're simply sorry, not desolate. And never ask a man if he's embarrassé – men can't get pregnant, at least not yet. Also don't worry if your hotel maid deranges you. She'll just say sorry for disturbing you and come back later. It may not be sensible to fall in love in England, but it certainly is in France as being sensible involves the heart, not the head.


Perhaps one of the most radical effects of French on English has been pronunciation. It's long been a running joke about how the French and the English can't pronounce each other's language properly, and there's some truth to that. English loves to weaken and chop syllables in speech even more than French does. Also, English is a stress-timed language, which means you only hear the stressed syllables clearly, with unstressed syllables swallowed up in between, while French is syllable-timed, which means that no one syllable is heavily stressed, thereby reducing the force of others. What’s more, English likes to stress the first syllable as far as possible, while French prefers the last.

Suffice it to say that there have been numerous changes in the way words of French origin in English are pronounced. Have a look at these borrowings from French, and find out how the related words are pronounced in French, Spanish and Italian: Asia, azure, leisure, pleasure, pressure, temperature, furniture, comfortable, suit, suite, precious, fusion.


Last but not least, we come to spelling. By the time the Normans arrived, Old English was a fully-fledged literary language, with its own spelling rules. The Normans had to write texts in English for the general population to read, but the scribes preferred to use French as the basis, thereby introducing letters such as q and rewriting exclusively English letters and combinations of letters in their own way. Here are a few choice examples: cwic became quick; scip became ship; bricg became bridge; ðæt became that; hwæt became what; heofon became heaven; cese became cheese.


So, I hope you've enjoyed my short account of the changes that the Normans brought to our language. We can still see many of them in action today, 950 years since they began. I would imagine they will continue for many years hence. If you're still around in fifty years' time, then I hope you can dig this out again, wherever it may be, celebrate the full thousand years, and remember that relatively small events in one place at one time can have massive consequences, not least the wholesale restructuring of so much of a language.