Normans effects on the LanguageCategory: 12th century
The victorious Normans made up the new aristocracy and the Anglo-Saxon people became their servants. The Norman aristocracy spoke a Norman dialect of French, a longue of Latin origin, while the Anglo-Saxons spoke English, a tongue of Germanic origin. Thus there were two different languages spoken in the country at the same time. Norman-French became the official language of the state. It was the language of the ruling class spoken at court; it was the language of the lawyers, and all the official documents were written in French or Latin. The learned clergy whom the Normans brought into the country used Latin for the most part. The richer Anglo-Saxons found it convenient to learn to speak the language of the rulers. But the peasants and townspeople spoke English. The Normans looked upon English as a kind of peasant dialect, and continued to speak their own language. They despised anyone unable to speak their language.
But the Normans could not subdue the popular tongue which was spoken by the majority of the population, those who cultivated the land and produced goods. The conquerors who settled down on English estates had to communicate with the natives of the country and they gradually learned to speak their language. Many of them married Anglo-Saxon wives and their children and grandchildren grew up speaking English. In a few generations the descendants of the Normans who had come with William the Conqueror learned to speak the mother tongue of the common people of England. In time English became the language of the educated classes and the official language of the state.
This was a gradual process, however, and many years passed before the Normans forgot their old tongue. At the time when the two languages were spoken side by side the Anglo-Saxons learned many French words and expressions which gradually came into the English language. They borrowed many French words the equivalents of which did not exist in their own language. For example, the wife cf an English earl is called “countess”, a French word, because there was no Anglo-Saxon word meaning the wife of an earl. Many synonyms appeared in the English language, because very often both French and English words for the same thing were used side by side.
Words of Germanic origin make up the basic vocabulary of Modern English. The Anglo-Saxons spoke the simple countryman’s language and in Modern English simple everyday words are mostly Anglo-Saxon, like eat, land, house and others. But as there were English words to describe the more complicated feudal relations many words were adopted from the French language. Thus the vocabulary of the English language was enlarged due to such Norman- French words dealing with feudal relations as manor, noble, baron, serve, command, obey; or words relating to administration and law, such as charter, council, accuse, court, crime; or such military terms as arms, troops, guard, navy, battle, victory and other words characterizing the way of life and customs of the Norman aristocracy.
As a result of the Conquest, the English language changed greatly under the influence of the French language. The two languages gradually formed one rich English language which already in the 14th century was being used both in speech and in writing. Gradually the Normans mixed with the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes and from this mixture the English nation finally emerged.
NOTES AND MEANINGS
- Domain. Land held by the king (or a lord) himself and not granted to vassals.
- Forest. The word forest comes from the Latin word fores which means “out-of-doors”. The land kept for the royal hunting was called forest. It was not a woods, though some parts of it were covered with trees.