All is the same - All is changed

The Effect of 1066 on the English Language.


Geoff Boxell

The English language that is spoken today is the direct result of 1066 and the Norman Conquest. Modern English is vastly different from that spoken by the English prior to the Conquest, both in its word-hoard and its grammar. In order to understand what happened, and why, it is necessary to look at both English and Norman French before 1066, and then the Middle English that resulted from their interaction.

Old English

Old English was a highly inflected member of the West Germanic language family. It had two numbers, three genders, four cases, remnants of dual number and instrumental case, which could give up to 30 inflectional forms for every adjective or pronoun. Its syntax was only partially dependent on word order and has a simple two tense, three mood, four person (three singular, one plural) verb system. The spelling of Old English is strictly phonetic.

As a result of the Viking wars and the subsequent settlement of many speakers of Old Norse, a North Germanic language, the introduction of new words and a simplification of the grammar had already started to take place. This was more marked in those areas in the North, Midlands and East Anglia where the Danes and Norwegians settled in large numbers. Although the two languages were mutually understandable, a modern day comparison would be a Geordie talking to a Cockney with neither making any concession to the other.

The language had four major dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish. As the kings of Wessex (West Saxons) gradually emerged as kings of all England, West Saxon dominated the written form of the language. As such, it gradually became less reflective of the spoken language, especially in the Danelaw.

Norman French

A legacy of the Roman Empire was the fact that the area west of the Rhine spoke Latin. The Latin they spoke, however, was not the highly inflected Classical Latin, used by the church and scholars, but the common, or Vulgar Latin of the soldiers and the market place. This Vulgar Latin, as it had no one controlling or regulating its use, brought in words from the languages of the local populace. For this reason people who speak Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Occitan, Romanian, Portuguese and French, though similar, even by 1066 were not able to understand one another.

French had brought in many words from the Gauls who originally occupied the land. In addition they had suffered conquest and settlement from various Germanic Tribes such as the Goths and Vandals, and finally the Franks, who gave the country its new name. From these peoples came additional words.

There were two major divisions in French: langue d'oil in the north; langue d'oc in the south (oil and oc being variations of 'yes'). Langue d'oc was nearer to Catalan than it was to Langue d'oil.

Langue d'oil had three major dialects, namely those of Picardy, Ile de Paris and Norman. The Northmen (Danes and some Norwegians) who had taken the land and settled there influenced Norman French. Its proximity to England had also allowed some English words to slip in, noticeably nautical terms.

Middle English

By 1100 English had changed sufficiently to be classed as a 'new' version of English, descended from, but quite different to, Old English.

Middle English had five major dialects, Northern, West Midland, East Midland, South Westerm and Kentish. It was characterised by the extreme loss of inflections, almost complete standardisation of the plural to 's' and the introduction of a large number of Norman French and Low German words. The French came, of course, from the French speakers who now controlled the government, the law and the church. The Low German from the large number of Flemish the Normans had first hired as mercenaries and then used to settle those parts of the country they had harried and depopulated.


So, how had the changes come about? When the Norse had settled in England they brought with them a language that was from the same linguistic family, and indeed enabled them to be understood by their English neighbours. The culture was also similar, not surprising considering that the original English had come from Scania, Denmark and the North Sea coast bordering Denmark. In addition the new comers supplemented, rather than replaced, both the aristocracy and the commons. As a result assimilation was very quick and easy even before the fighting stopped. The Normans brought with them an alien culture and language. Add to this their social status as the new ruling class, and it is no shock to find that assimilation was slower, and the new society and language that emerged was so radically changed from that which they found when they arrived uninvited in 1066.

English, which had been a written language since the conversion to Christianity, was rapidly dropped as the language for royal and legal charters and proclamations, not reappearing until Simon De Montfort's Parliament issued the Provisions of Oxford in 1258. The replacement language was usually Latin, though often duplicated in French. French was the language of the royal court, the legal system and the church. The use of French was reinforced by the fact that many of the new aristocracy and religious houses had extensive holdings in France. This state of affairs changed slightly in 1204 when King John lost Normandy, but did not really end until after the English were finally expelled from France at the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453.

The result of English disappearing as a written language was the removal of any restraints on language development. This assisted the simplification of the grammar as the folk strove to find the simplest way to communicate with people who did not speak English as their first language. The process that had started with the compromises needed to allow English and Norse to understand each other better gathered speed as the Anglo-Scandinavians sought to communicate with both their linguistic cousins, the Flems, and the alien Normans and French. This development was not dissimilar to that of Vulgar Latin as it changed into the various Romance languages as mentioned earlier. By the time the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stopped being written at its last stronghold in Peterborough in 1154, its West Saxon English was already obsolete.

The ruling classes spoke French, as did the many merchants that flocked to England following the Conquest. Those that dealt with them, or had ambitions to join them, had to learn at least some of the language. However, it cannot be assumed that the ruling classes and the merchants did not quickly come to at least understand English if not speak it. It would have been very difficult to oversee an estate or buy and sell unless you could communicate, though it was noted at the time that there was a flourishing job market for translators. This may have sufficed for many of those who arrived with William the Bastard, but surely not for their children, brought up by an English wet nurse and with English servants. It is hard to imagine that those children did not absorb the language at the same time as they supped the milk. It should also be borne in mind that many of the Normans married English wives, often the widows or daughters of the previous English landholder. In such a household both parties would need to learn at least a smattering of the others native language. At a lower level, the need to learn at least simplified English was essential. Many a Norman or Frenchman was granted a holding (which he would re-name a manor) as reward for services rendered during the Conquest. With a totally English workforce and possibly an English wife and no French speakers for miles learning English would have been the number one priority.

From documentary evidence we know that by 1160 an English knight had to retain a Norman to teach his son French. Around 1175 a noble woman warns her husband of danger in English, not French as might have been expected. In 1191 one of four knights in a legal dispute cannot speak French when appearing at a court where the proceedings were still conducted in that language. By 1200 phrase books teach French as a foreign language are being produced. In the same year the poet Brut's 'The Owl and the Nightingale' appears and signals the rebirth of English (now Middle English) as a literary language. By the end of the thirteenth century a poet can write:

Lewde men cunne Ffrensch non,

Among an hundryd unneþis on

(Lewd [common] men ken [(understand] French not

Among a hundred only one)

This Middle English was the basis for the Modern English we speak and write today. The number of words used had expanded greatly, with the French normally supplementing rather than replacing the English, allowing shade of meaning not available to other languages. Thus we can either deem or judge a matter to be right or wrong, with to deem being a personal opinion whilst to judge is a formal declaration. Cattle become beef and swine pork when killed and dressed for the table, yet conversely a flower is a bloom when put on display. Hopefully it will have a pleasant French odour, aroma or scent rather than a Middle English smell or worse, an Old English stench! Also adding to the store of words were French words that had been given an English beginning or ending. For example, the French 'gentle' joins the English man/woman to give gentleman/woman, or gets an English ending to become gently, or even more bedecked with English as ungentlemanly.

The habit of using words from other languages rather than creating our own has continued until this day so that it has been claimed that in The Concise Oxford Dictionary there are words from 87 languages, great small, and often dead. The total number of words in Modern English is estimated to be between 400,000 and 600,000, and many of them have more than one meaning! The nearest language in word count is French with a mere (as in 'a restricted amount', rather than a lake) 150,000.

Despite this, the language is still basically Germanic, and most basic words are still derived from Old English. Taking the body as an example, whilst we may have French 'spirit', our body still has English arms, legs, hands, feet, head, eyes, ears, nose and mouth, plus brain, liver, lungs, arse, and men bollocks.

Many folk when seeing Old English are totally confused and fail to see the commonality. Much of this is caused by the changes in spelling convention, in addition to the fact that Modern English is not spelt phonetically (with the many different versions of English in use today an impossibility).

The Lords prayer is an example:

Thu ure Fæder þe eart on heofunum, Sy þin nama gehalgod. Cume þin rice, Sy þinne wille on eorðan swaswa on heofonum. Syle us todaeg urne daeghwamlican hlaf. Ond forgyf us ure gyltas, swaswa we fogyfaþ þampe with us agyltaþ. Ond ne lae thu na us on constnunge, ac alys us of yfele. Soðlice

Phonetically this reads:

Thu our Father, thee art on heavenum, say thine nama ge-holyod. Come thine rich, say thine will on earth swas-wa on heavenum. Sell us today ourne day-ge-wham-lick hloaf. And forgive us our guiltas swas-wa we forgiv-ath themp with us a-guilt-ath. And no lay thu nah us on costnun-ya, ahsh all-lays us from evil. Soothlike.

Which is quite easy to understand.

Another reason we find Old English so hard to understand is that Modern English (as opposed to dialectal English which is still alive, kicking and confusing to this day) is derived from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, rather than from the West Saxon in which most of the original sources is written.

Just how English would have developed if there had been no Norman Conquest is a matter of conjecture. No doubt it would have continued the simplification that had started with the arrival of the Norse, but it is doubtful if it would have become the wonderful tool it is today.