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Effect of the Norman Conquest on the Linguistic Situation

§ 285. The Norman Conquest was not only a great event in British political history but also the greatest single event in the history of the English language. Its earliest effect was a drastic change in the linguistic situation.

The Norman conquerors of England had originally come from Scan­dinavia (compare Norman and Northman). About one hundred and fifty years before they had seized the valley of the Seine and settled in what was henceforth known as Normandy. They were swiftly assim­ilated by the French and in the 11th c. came to Britain as French speakers and bearers of French culture. They spoke the Northern dialect of French, which differed in some points from Central, Parisian French. Their tongue in Britain is often referred to as "Anglo-French" or "Anglo-Norman", but may just as well be called French, since we are less con­cerned here with the distinction of French dialects than with the contin­uous French influence upon English, both in the Norman period of history and a long while after the Anglo-Norman language had ceased to exist.

In the early 13th c., as a result of lengthy and inefficient wars with France John Lackland lost the French provinces, including the dukedom of Normandy. Among other consequences the loss of the lands in France cut off the Normans in Britain from France, which speeded up the de­cline of the Anglo-French language.

§ 286. The most immediate consequence of the Norman domination in Britain is to be seen in the wide use of the French language in many spheres of life. For almost three hundred years French was the official language of administration: it was the language of the king's court, the law courts, the church, the army and the castle. It was also the every­day language of many nobles, of the higher clergy and of many towns­people in the South. The intellectual life, literature and education were in the hands of French-speaking people; French, alongside Latin, was the language of writing. Teaching was largely conducted in French and boys at school were taught to translate their Latin into French instead of English.



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For all that, England never stopped being an English-speaking country. The bulk of the population held fast to their own tongue: the lower classes in the towns, and especially in the country-side, those who lived in the Midlands and up north, continued to speak English and looked upon French as foreign and hostile. Since most of the people were illiterate, the English language was almost exclusively used for spoken communication.

At first the two languages existed side by side without mingling. Then, slowly and quietly, they began to permeate each other. The Nor­man barons and the French town-dwellers had to pick up English words to make themselves understood, while the English began to use French words in current speech. A good knowledge of French would mark a person of higher standing giving him a certain social prestige. Probably many people became bilingual and had a fair command of both lan­guages.

§ 287. These peculiar linguistic conditions could not remain static. The struggle between French and English was bound to end in the com­plete victory of English, for English was the living language of the entire people, while French was restricted to certain social spheres and to writing. Yet the final victory was still a long way off. In the 13th c. only a few steps were made in that direction. The earliest sign of the official recognition of English by the Norman kings was the famous PROCLAMATION issued by Henry III in 1258 to the councillors in Parliament. It was written in three languages: French, Latin and Eng­lish.

§ 288. The three hundred years of the domination of French affect­ed English more than any other foreign influence before or after. The early French borrowings reflect accurately the spheres of Norman in­fluence upon English life; later borrowings can be attributed to the con­tinued cultural, economic and political contacts between the countries. The French influence added new features to the regional and social differentiation of the language. New words, coming from French, could not be adopted simultaneously by all the speakers of English; they were first used in some varieties of the language, namely in the regional dia­lects of Southern England and in the speech of the upper classes, but were unknown in the other varieties. This led to growing dialectal dif­ferences, regional and social. Later the new features adopted from French extended to other varieties of the language.

The use of a foreign tongue as the state language, the diversity of the dialects and the decline of the written form of English created a situation extremely favourable for increased variation and for more intensive linguistic change.


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The Norman Conquest | Early Middle English Dialects. Extension of English Territory

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