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How the Battle of Hastings Changed the English Language

Suzette is a retired teacher who has been writing online for more than 10 years.

The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is a magnificent piece of artwork and has attracted the attention of audiences and historians for centuries. It depicts a large amount of Norman and Saxon history by its sheer size.

It is 70 metres (230 ft) long and only 20" high. With modern preservation, it has stood the test of time and the entire tapestry has been preserved. Through illustration and words, it tells the incredible story and events leading up to and during the Battle of Hastings.

Of course, the events are all told from the Norman point of view. The conquerers always write history. The tapestry is a tribute to William the Conquerer and his successful invasion of England.

Although it is called a tapestry, it is actually embroidery, not a woven tapestry. Little is known about the tapestry's history, such as who commissioned it, who designed it and who embroidered it.

Today, the Bayeux tapestry is displayed in the nave of the Bayeux Cathedral in Bayeux, France.

William the Conquerer (1028-1087)

When I was in high school and took a course called Language Study, I learned about my own native language, English, and how it originated and was influenced by other foreign languages. I learned how my own language evolved to what it is today.

This same lesson was followed up in college when I studied linguistics of the English language. There were many influences on English that came from outside the English language, but none were as influential as the one event that forever influenced the English language.

Among the dates and different eras of the English language was one date and event that was never to be forgotten and that was 'pounded into our heads,' and that was the Battle of Hastings (England) in the year 1066.

This one event forever changed the culture and language of England.

Up until the Battle of Hastings, England was under the rule of Anglo-Saxon kings. England had endured invasions by Germans, Romans, Celts, and Vikings. The English language at that time had become an amalgam of all the languages of these people.

By 1066, England was under the rule of Anglo-Saxon Harold Godwinson, Harold II of England, but William, Duke of Normandy (France) disputed Harold's claim to the throne asserting he had been promised the throne of England by the previous king, Edward the Confessor.

When Harold refused to give up the English throne, William put together a huge army and the Normandy invasion of England began. At the Battle of Hastings (Senlac Hill, only seven miles from Hastings, England) in southern England, Harold II was killed, legend has it, by an arrow through his eye, and William became known down through history as William the Conquerer and then King William I of England.

This Norman invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings (1066) was the single historical event that had the greatest impact on our English language.

William and his followers spoke Norman French from the northern Normandy area of France just across the English Channel from England. (Yes, of the Normandy beaches during WWII)

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The Norman conquerors spoke Old French, a dialect that was Latin based and known as a Romance language, while English was a Germanic language.

As a result of William ascending to the throne of England, approximately 10,000 new French and Latin words entered the English language. For example, French words such as pharmacy, library and marriage became part of the English language.

Other French words that changed English forever are action, adventure, courage, siege, soldier, and spy. The Norman invasion of England led to a remarkable coexistence of two distinct languages, French and English. No other foreign language has made such an impact on English than French.

William I, now the King of England, worked quickly to take away the land holdings from the Anglo-Saxons and put them under Norman rule. His nobles quickly became the landholders in England as the Anglo-Saxons were subjugated to William's rule and became the tenants to their Norman conquerors.

William and his Norman followers looked upon the Anglo-Saxons as social inferiors and, therefore, French became the language of the upper class and of the royal court and Anglo-Saxon English became the language of the lower class and peasants. This remained so for nearly three hundred years and, therefore, Norman French had the time to greatly influence the English language as a whole.

Norman French replaced the vernacular English at court and Latin became the official language of government administration, further distancing the Anglo-Saxons from the royal court and high office. William himself never learned English and spoke Norman French until his death. And French remained the official language of English law courts until 1731.

Heavy social pressure made it essential for a man to speak Norman French if he wanted to succeed and move up in social circles. English was no longer the language of record in William's court, but it remained the native language of the common man.

By the 14th century when Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, more than half of the English vocabulary consisted of Norman French words. And, by the time the period of Middle English came to a close (1450) Norman French and Anglo-Saxon had merged into a single linguistic form.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales in vernacular English so it would appeal to the common man and he is considered the 'father of the English language' and the creator of English as a literary language in the 14th century.

The more numerous Anglo-Saxon speakers triumphed over the Norman French speakers who came to adopt English in place of French.

No other European language has a vocabulary as mixed as English and the English of Shakespeare's day contained a tremendous number of Norman French words.

During this time, English lost its Nordic, German and Dutch direct influence as French had the greater influence. Marriages to French princesses had reinforced the French status in the royal courts, but during the 13th-century intermarriages with the English population became more frequent.

Borrowed words from French infused into the English language. (Irish / English / Norman French.)

Borrowed words from French infused into the English language. (Irish / English / Norman French.)

As time moved on, French became progressively a second language among the upper classes and with the Hundred Year's War a growing spirit of English nationalism emerged and the status of Norman French went out of style.

French was the mother tongue of the English king, Henry IV (1399-1413), but he was the first English king to take his oath in English. His son, Henry V (1413-1422) was the first English king to write in English.

By the 15th century, English became the official language of Parliament and of legislation, about a half-century after English became the language of kings and most of the English upper classes.

Brown University's linguistic researchers and historians have researched the influence of Norman French on English. To check the French influence they ran one million words from modern English texts on all sorts of topics through a computer and found these texts contained approximately 50,000 different words and over half were borrowed from Norman French. Every one of the one hundred most common words were Anglo-Saxon, thus the core of the English language vocabulary has remained Germanic.

Norman French Influence

Norman French, also known as the Anglo-Norman language, was one French dialect from a wide range of northern French dialects in France. From all these French dialects an amalgam developed into the unique insular dialect known as Norman French or Anglo-Norman.

Norman French originally developed from the central Gallo-Romance dialects and would eventually become Parisian French in France in terms of grammar punctuation and vocabulary. Therefore, the Middle English era was also heavily influenced by Norman French.

This is the French that William brought to England and which influenced the English language. Because French was the language of the royal courts, the borrowings in English became the more sophisticated and elegant terms of use.

While Saxon names were used for the animals the Saxon peasants tended: oxen, calves, swine, and sheep, once on the Norman's dinner table the names used were French: beef, veal, pork and mutton.

Norman French added a richness to the English language it did not have before the invasion. These French vocabulary terms became part of the English language. English came to have a uniqueness that French and other European languages did not have.

This gave English one thing other languages did not have and that is synonyms or words with the same meaning yet having a different shade of nuance or emphasis. For example, we have a slight difference between the words fatherly and paternal in our English language today.

Partial genealogical tree of England's kings.  Every monarch after William I, including Queen Elizabeth II, claim heritage to William the Conquerer.

Partial genealogical tree of England's kings. Every monarch after William I, including Queen Elizabeth II, claim heritage to William the Conquerer.

Only in English can we make such fine distinctions between words like asking, questioning and interrogating. We can express three or four shades of meaning with words like rise, mount or ascend.

French has given English rich and sophisticated words such as melody, music, painting, lieutenant, captain, communion, temptation, and salvation.

Humble Anglo-Saxon traders and laborers retained their Anglo-Saxon names like baker, miller, and shoemaker and the more skilled and professional trades took the French names like physician, painter, and tailor.

Before William the Conquerer, the English word for people was "leod" and the word for beautiful was "wlitg". Once the French invaded the English native words were exchanged by the more melodious French. Today, we admire "beautiful people" instead of "wlitg leods."

Concepts associated with culture, fine living and abstract learning tended to be described in Norman French while literal meanings were described in Anglo-Saxon English. For example: deer, venison; sweat, perspire and Anglo-Saxon: work, hard and Norman French: leisure, profit.

Entire vocabularies were borrowed from Norman French:

  • governmental - count, heraldry, fine, noble, parliament
  • military - battle, ally, alliance, admiral, navy, gallant, march, enemy, escape, peace, war, guerrilla
  • judicial - judge, jury, plaintiff, justice, court, defendant, murder, felony, petty, attorney, marriage
  • ecclesiastical - clergy, altar, miracle, preach, pray, sermon, saint
  • cuisine - sauce, boil, filet, soup, pastry, fry, roast, toast

Anglo-Saxon and Norman French over the years became more blended and with many modern doublet phrases, sayings and phrases that have an Anglo-Saxon word alongside a synonymous French word: law and order, lord and master, love and cherish, ways and means.

English grammar has been influenced by Norman French. English has borrowed prefixes from Norman French and Latin: pre, pro, dis, re, anti, inter are just a few examples

Some French suffixes English has borrowed: -or, -er, -tion, -ment, -ee, -able.

Middle English: Heavily Influenced by Norman French

EnglishNorman FrenchParisian French

cabbage

caboche

chou

candle

caundele

chandelle

castle

caste(l)

chateau

cauldron

caudron

chaudron

catch

cachi

chasser

plank

planque

planche

pocket

pouquette

poche

fork

fouorque

fourche

garden

gardin

jardin

cattle

cate(l)

cheptel

The Vagaries of English – Dave Allen

Modern English

Modern English was considered to have begun by the time of Shakespeare and through to the present. It is generally accepted by historians and linguists that the Middle English period came to a close by about 1450. By this time the Norman and Anglo-Saxon languages had merged into a single linguistic form. An enormous number of Norman French words had come into the English language and about three-fourths of them are still in use today.

When the Normans arrived in England, French scribes and copyists wrote English as they heard it not realizing the peculiarities of Anglo-Saxon English in pronunciation and spelling, and so as a result of the Norman conquest, English spelling went through a change also. We retain many of those spellings today.

Interestingly, Norman French borrowings into English haven't changed in pronunciation for 800 years, but modern French pronunciation has. Today, our English vocabulary has 200,000 common usage words while modern French has a mere 100,000.

Researchers, historians and linguists today have chartered English as an Indo-European language from the Germanic branch of languages. So, today we know the English language has been altered with French Norman influences instead of just Germanic ones. No other European language has a vocabulary as mixed as English.

Since the core of English vocabulary has remained Germanic we have many pithy sayings and statements that date back to Anglo-Saxon English:

  • The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
  • With this ring, I thee wed
  • To have and to hold
  • From this day forward
  • For better or for worse
  • In sickness and in health
  • Thank God
  • I love you

These Anglo-Saxon words have the strength and depth to convey these messages.

Our modern English language is spoken by 300 million people today. Fortunately, the Normans didn't change everything even if the Anglo-Saxon ruling class was submerged. English did finally triumph over Norman French in England but it took almost 300 years.

Much of English's richness and scope comes from its dual inheritance as seen and heard in Shakespeare's sonnet: "Shall I compare these to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate."

And, don't forget that Shakespeare coined many words and phrases that are English and have made their way into our language today.

While good, old William the Conqueror brought his Norman French to England and even refused to learn English himself, the Anglo-Saxon English did survive the invasion and remained, albeit with many French borrowings, the native tongue of England.

And, I have never forgotten the year, 1066, or the Battle of Hastings.

Below is a video about Norman French influencing English starting in 1066. It is narrated by renowned journalist Robin MacNeil. To get to the part when the Norman invasion begins in the first video jump it ahead to 7 minutes 35 seconds. There is a second part available on YouTube that begins where the first video leaves off. I highly recommend viewing these for additional information on the subject.

Norman Invasion Brought French Vocabulary to English

Sources and Further Reading

William the Conquerer's burial site in Caen, Normandy, France.

William the Conquerer's burial site in Caen, Normandy, France.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Suzette Walker

Comments

Glen De Lough on September 21, 2020:

Great Paper.

I have a real interest in the development of the English language and this will add to my study.

I have another fascination with Medieval Genealogy and the chart below fills in a couple of gaps for me. Neat arrangement.

zoetropo on February 11, 2019:

English is our mother tongue. Language is taught by women. English supplanted Brythonic because English-speaking women taught the children, generation after generation. This isn’t a story of macho conquest, but of maids and nurses. Ancient DNA from Cambridgeshire reveals family graves in which the wealthy women were Britons and their servants were Angles. Like the upper class women of our recent past, the mothers were too busy bearing babies and managing households to raise and educate their own children: that was left to a maid or governess.

Some British men may have taken English wives, as the legendary Vortigern’s marriage to Rowena exemplifies.

In Brittany, the danger that non-British speaking women posed to the British language was taken so seriously, according to one brutal account, that the women’s tongues were removed.

In the lists of the early English kings, we find names such as Cerdic and Penda, which are British, not Germanic. Nothing is said of where Cerdic came from, only where he landed, in Hampshire. A contemporary of Cerdic’s was Budic of Brittany, a much more likely place of origin of someone with the name Cerdic than anywhere