The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 11th century

In the words of every language, there is much of the his­tory of the people that speak it: the very fact that English is much less pure than (say) Greek or Italian explains why it is, at the same time, much more revelatory of the influ­ences that have affected it, hence of the influences to which the English people have been exposed, hence of the phases and periods of its history.

Of the earliest immigration into England— that of the Celts (or Britons or Ancient Britons) — there are few traces; the clearest being in the names of rivers, for many rivers con­tain Celtic terms for ‘water’ or ‘river’: avon.

The period of Roman colonisation, beginning with Julius Caesar’s curiosity in 55 В. C. and lasting some four hundred years, left comparatively little trace. The stock example is that Latin castra (a camp) which has given us Chesterand the endings of Chichester,Gloucester,Lancaster, and Win­chester.

Then during the fifth and sixth centuries of our era, the Angles and Saxons began to flow in from the Continent, bringing old Aryan words like dew, night, star and wind, which they had never forgotten, new words which they had developed in their wanderings, and Latin words which they had learnt as provincial subjects of the Roman Empire.

To the Northmen, who were Scandinavian Teutons, we owe some of the basic words of our language: for instance, the pronouns they, them, their, she.

Then comes the Norman invasion, the most powerful of all influences (properly so called) on the English language. These Normans were the descendants of a Teutonic Danish tribe, which had taken possession of Normandy about a hun­dred and fifty years before; a tribe that had adopted French as its language.

A.D. 1066, the Battle of Hastings, is a date even more famous than 55 В. C.; the Norman Conquest of England changed, profoundly and permanently, the character of the English language.

The Normans, much more than the Danes were felt as an alien race; their occupation of the country attracted much more notice and lasted much longer; they became the ruling class; and finally, they represented a higher culture than the natives and had a literature of their own. Their influence was as dominant in language as in political and social life.

But though the conquerors were both powerful and numer­ous, their influence would have been much less if they had not, for centuries, kept in touch with the French of France, of whom many were induced by later kings to settle in England. The Normans, who, as soon as they had ‘settled in’, formed the upper classes, left intact the two words king and queen, but gave to English nearly all words relating to government and to the highest administration: witness, sovereign and crown and reign, realm and country, state and government (and to govern), council and counsel, parliament and excheq­uer, chancellor and minister; the Old English theod had soon to give way to people and nation, both of French origin. With feudalism, there came such feudal terms as feudal, prince and peer, duke and duchess, marquis and viscount and baron, count and countess, though earl and lord (and lady) were retained from Old English.

The English armies were henceforth officered byNor­mans; military affairs were controlled and directed by the Norman upper class, from whom the English learnt a host of French military terms.

Even more far-reaching was the Norman influence on the law ofEngland: for naturally the law fell into the hands of the invaders. Indeed, most law terms are of Norman French origin: justice and the case, defend and prove, marry and marriage and heir, male and female.

Although English was made the official language of the courts as early as 1362, Law French (an extraordinary mix­ture of French and English) continued to be used there until 1731, when it was abolished by Parliament, even Cromwell having been unable to get rid of it.

From other domains, but most significant of the relations between English subordinate and Norman superior, are sir and madam (the form madame being French—and pronounced as such); master, mistress, servant, obey and command; rich (and riches), poor (and poverty).

First remarked on by amid-17th century grammarian and popularised by Scott in “Ivanhoe” is the fact that animals alive bear English, animals dead and served as food bear French names: thus the English bull, cow, ox, steer, heifer become beef, calf becomes veal, sheep duly changes to mut­ton; swine and boar turn to pork or, at another stage, bacon; deer is eaten as venison; the explanation being, not (as used to be said) that the Normans left the animals to the care, though not the meat to the teeth, of the lower classes (the English), but that the French cuisine was vastly superior to the English cooking.

As early as the 12th century, John of Salisbury remarked that, French word being considered fashionable, to sprinkle one’s speech with them was the modish thing to do.

There were, however, a few medieval writers that “went all Anglo-Saxon” and employed almost no Gallicisms and very few French-derived words, but they were fighting a hopeless battle.

Statistics concerning French words reveal that this lin­guistic influence did not begin immediately after the Con­quest, and that it was strongest in the years 1251 —1400, to which nearly half (43%) of the borrowings belong; and if we proceed to the Age of Dryden (say 1670—1700), we find that at this period far fewer French words came into English than philologists used to suppose.

From A Short History of England by R. M. Rayner; The World of Words by E. Partridge

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