I’ve been vainly searching for some of my papers about the development of the English language, but failing to find them (I’m not well-organized) I thought I would write about the subject here on the blog, rather than look for my missing work.
Obviously I think that in historical accounts of Britain, the Normans are given short shrift, alluded to as rapacious and cruel people who invaded the island of Britain in 1066 and spoiled (in all senses of the word) the idyllic existence of the Saxons. They are often reduced to a “mocking and a byword”, seen as aliens even these centuries later. It seems most people either know little about the Normans at all, or they know them to be bad guys, of whom we are well rid. People do talk about the Normans, if at all, in a very negative way for the most part. Everyone seems to speak of them in the past tense, as if they are gone and left no progeny.
But just by surnames, it’s evident that there are many descendants of those Normans both in the British Isles and in all of the Anglosphere. I don’t know if DNA testing can differentiate Norman DNA from the other kindred peoples of the places where the Normans ruled. In my own extended family we all show some Norwegian descent though in our family tree we have scant documentation of recent Norwegian ancestry. But as we all know, the Normans, (‘Northmen’) came from Scandinavia, and mostly Norway and Denmark as far as British Isles ancestry is concerned.
Another evidence of the influence of the Normans is the presence of many words in our English vocabulary which had Norman origins. Since I can’t seem to find my own list of Norman words, I’ll refer to the website,The History of English:
“The Normans bequeathed over 10,000 words to English (about three-quarters of which are still in use today), including a huge number of abstract nouns ending in the suffixes “-age”, “-ance/-ence”, “-ant/-ent”, “-ment”, “-ity” and “-tion”, or starting with the prefixes “con-”, “de-”, “ex-”, “trans-” and “pre-”. Perhaps predictably, many of them related to matters of crown and nobility (e.g. crown, castle, prince, count, duke, viscount, baron, noble, sovereign, heraldry); of government and administration (e.g. parliament, government, governor, city); of court and law (e.g. court, judge, justice, accuse, arrest, sentence, appeal, condemn, plaintiff, bailiff, jury, felony, verdict, traitor, contract, damage, prison); of war and combat (e.g. army, armour, archer, battle, soldier, guard, courage, peace, enemy, destroy); of authority and control (e.g. authority, obedience, servant, peasant, vassal, serf, labourer, charity); of fashion and high living (e.g. mansion, money, gown, boot, beauty, mirror, jewel, appetite, banquet, herb, spice, sauce, roast, biscuit); and of art and literature (e.g. art, colour, language, literature, poet, chapter, question). Curiously, though, the Anglo-Saxon words cyning (king), cwene (queen), erl (earl), cniht (knight), ladi (lady) and lord persisted.
While humble trades retained their Anglo-Saxon names (e.g. baker, miller, shoemaker, etc), the more skilled trades adopted French names (e.g. mason, painter, tailor, merchant, etc). While the animals in the field generally kept their English names (e.g. sheep, cow, ox, calf, swine, deer), once cooked and served their names often became French (e.g. beef, mutton, pork, bacon, veal, venison, etc). Sometimes a French word completely replaced an Old English word (e.g. crime replaced firen, place replaced stow, people replaced leod, beautiful replaced wlitig, uncle replaced eam, etc). Sometimes French and Old English components combined to form a new word, such as the French gentle and the Germanic man combined to formed gentleman. Sometimes, both English and French words survived, but with significantly different senses (e.g. the Old English doom and French judgement, hearty and cordial, house and mansion, etc).
But, often, different words with roughly the same meaning survived, and a whole host of new, French-based synonyms entered the English language (e.g. the French maternity in addition to the Old English motherhood, infant to child, amity to friendship, battle to fight, liberty to freedom, labour to work, desire to wish, commence to start, conceal to hide, divide to cleave, close to shut, demand to ask, chamber to room, forest to wood, power to might, annual to yearly, odour to smell, pardon to forgive, aid to help, etc). Over time, many near synonyms acquired subtle differences in meaning (with the French alternative often suggesting a higher level of refinement than the Old English), adding to the precision and flexibility of the English language. Even today, phrases combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French doublets are still in common use (e.g. law and order, lord and master, love and cherish, ways and means, etc). Bilingual word lists were being compiled as early as the 13th Century.”
The English language as it is today would not be what it is if not for the infusion of Norman-French words which are part of our daily usage. My personal belief is that the language would not be as complex and nuanced without the Norman influence. Some see that as a bad thing; some time ago I wrote here about the movement started by one scholar to de-Normanize (if there is such a word) the English language, and turn to the old Englisc tongue, which is more basic, using more one-syllable words and compound words to convey the message.
We can’t know how things would have happened had history taken a different course; had William and his knights failed in 1066, had the Normans never ruled, we can’t envision the result. To insist, as many do, that nothing but good would have befallen (there’s a good English word) England if the Norman Conquest never happened, is idle supposition.
The website which I quote above is a very interesting one if you are at all interested in the history of England or Britain and in the language we speak and the quite different language our ancestors spoke in the times of Chaucer, as the writer discusses. There are sound clips here and there on the web page so that you can listen to the Prologue to Canterbury Tales, for example, to hear the sound of the language of Chaucer.
I admit I love our language; I’m a partisan when it comes to the English language. Now, our cousins across the Atlantic may think our American version of the ‘tongue that Shakespeare spake’ is not very English at all but the language is a part of The Old Inheritance, and it’s very much a part of the English people and of our history and culture.
I expect I will probably have more to say of the Normans; they are a neglected part of the story of England/Britain, at least as it is told in our day.