How Did the English Language Survive after 1066?

The Norman Conquest of 1066 was arguably ‘the final cataclysm’ which awaited the English language, facilitating the evolution from an intensely economic language to a more refined English. Logically, we might not have expected the English language to survive.[1] Generally, when one nation subjugates another as a result of political expansion, the language of the weaker nation is replaced by that of the dominant culture. However, Norman French in England was an exception to the rule.

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The Norman culture had an enormous impact on the development of the English language, actuating a transition towards a language that seems today, on the side of vocabulary ‘almost as much a Romance as a Germanic language’.[2] For some years before the conquest, the relations between England and France had been relatively close: in 1042 when the Danish line died out and Edward was restored to the throne, he brought with him a number of Norman friends and appointed them to the government.
As a result, England and France became culturally united and a strong French influence ‘pervaded through the English court’.[3] As expected, the Conquest had significant repercussions for the entirety of English society and, as a result, the evolution of their language. The demolition of the English nobility, the inauguration of a feudal system, and the adoption of Norman prelates into the church changed the course of the English language, establishing French as the language of public state business and the court.
The English language was incredibly persistent, withstanding the gradual deconstruction of English society, and was officially reasserted at the opening of parliament in 1362. The use of French was largely characterised as the language of the elites, and so for the most part, the French influence existed as a reflection of the contemporary social climate of the eleventh century. The Anglo-Norman presence in England was vital to the evolution of the English language however, it would have taken a ‘sociolinguistic shift of immense proportion to knock English off course’.[4]
During the ninth and tenth centuries, a group of Northmen settled along the northern coast of France. In 912, the right of the Northmen to occupy this part of France was recognised and the Normans readily adopted the customs of the people they had come to live among, absorbing the ‘most important elements of French civilisation’.[5] Most importantly, the Normans gave up their native Scandinavian language and learned French. Significantly, Anglo-Norman French differed from the standard French of Paris in several ways. Francien tended to avoid the ‘w’ sound in words such as quarter and question and instead favoured a hard constant ‘k’ sound. The Normans pronounced quarter and other such words as if they were spelt kwater, emphasising the ‘w’ approximate common to Modern English. Equally, the Normans used the suffixes -arie and -orie while the French used ‘-aire’ and ‘-oire’, giving us pairings such as victory/‘victoire’. [6]Furthermore, Anglo-Norman kept the ‘s’ in words such as August whilst Francien gradually forsook the unit for a circumflex: Auot. These differences became more pronounced when the Normans invaded England. If the Normans had adopted the French standard, English would have developed very differently. However, both Norman-French and English have Germanic roots, thus reducing the extent of the impact of Norman-French on the English language, in terms of phonology and grammar.
By the eleventh century, the Normans were among the most advanced and progressive people of Europe. In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, England was faced again with the choice of a successor. The day after Edward’s death, Harold was elected king of England. William, the duke of Normandy, had expected to become Edward’s successor, with Edward previously encouraging him in this hope. However, when the time came, it seemed that the English had had enough of French favourites; William could only hope to obtain the title by force.
In December 1066, William was crowned the King of England and the infringement on the English language began. One of the most significant implications of the Norman conquest was the introduction of a new nobility.  Unsurprisingly, William’s coronation did not win immediate recognition throughout England and, upon his return from Normandy, he was faced with rebellions across the nation. To exhibit his control over the invaded people, William devised a series of campaigns that effectively wiped out the Old English nobility. The new arrivals ‘inevitably transferred their everyday tongue to their officials’ and Norman-French became established in corridors of power.[7]
As part of his effort, William commissioned a country-wide census known as the Domesday Book. Written in Norman Latin, the account was designed to influence the political and legal climate of the country, using language to solidify William’s ownership. An example of this exploitation is the term antecessor. In Old English ecclesiastical law, the term was used to ‘indicate someone who had held ecclesiastical office before the current clergy’.[8] Calais, however, used the term to denote land ownership; antecessor was redefined as the one who held land ‘at the moment of Edward’s death’.[9] As the rightful heir, William was the antecessor, thereby authenticating his ability to distribute land. This clearly illustrates the impact of socio-political factors on the evolution of the English language, as William secured the place of Norman-French through political documentation. The redistribution of land caused a crisis at the highest level of society, however, the book was never translated into English and as a result, the nuances could not be challenged.
The Church was also affected, as seen through the demise of Early English architecture. French architects adapted continental sources for their designs, introducing features such as the arch, ‘arc’. As a result, a new French inspired architectural nomenclature was adopted, inadvertently propagating the idea of Norman supremacy. 
The social climate of eleventh century had a major effect on the integration of specific elements of the Romance language, illustrated by the gradual evolution of the English vocabulary; ‘after the Norman conquest it has been estimated that approximately nine percent of the English vocabulary has been derived from French but has increased to twenty percent’.[10] Bryson has noted ‘that nearly all our words relating to jurisprudence and government are of French origin’, among them jury, justice, and parliament.[11]
Immediately after the conquest, French was confined to the upper class and legal domains but, in 1258, the French language experience a hey-day. A knowledge of the language became useful for the aspirations of the middle class and as a result, French featured in the ‘broadest spectrum of activities’ in the thirteenth century.[12] Language contact often triggers shifts in usage and interpretation and has the effect of releasing speakers from the ‘computationally burdensome disambiguation process involved with polysemous words’.[13] The development of synonymic pairs is evidence to suggest the influence of French on the refinement of the English language. Many of the words borrowed from French were synonymous with the words already used in English, necessitating a purification of the latter language to avoid an excessive vocabulary. French influenced English from above and thus, many Old English words would be rendered obsolete in favour of the French alternative.[14] However, in some cases, both the French and English words remained.
This produced a large number of synonyms, adding to the potential for precision and flexibility in the English language, with phrases combing Norman French and Anglo-Saxon doublets, such as law and order, still in use today. However, the notion of a choice between English and French only encouraged social stratification. Vocabulary of French origin tended to the prestigious (mansion, beef, and mutton) whereas words of Germanic status were associated with labour and the working class (house, cow and sheep). Thus, the contrast between pre-existing English words and those taken from the French clearly illustrates the extent to which language change is reflective of socio-political factors. However, The influx of French borrowings also resulted in the simplification of English through emancipation from context dependence.[15]
The OE word sheep can only be used to describe the animal itself, and not its meat, as a result of partial blocking: the option to construe the word with animal’s meat is blocked by the specialised word mutton. Whilst French did not have the social support needed to replace English, linguistically it had a major influence on the refinement of the language.
Latin influenced many dialects within Old English, including the native dialect of the Normans, and therefore, when the two languages collided, they already shared similar features. The lowly position of the English language almost certainly helped it become a simpler, less inflected language. Baugh and Cable have suggested that ‘by making English the language mainly of uneducated people, the Norman conquest made it easier for grammatical changes to go forward unchecked’.[16]  In Old English, most verbs were highly inflected. However, as the period progressed English became simpler, partly due to the instability of the language. The process of inflection was gradually regularised and only one such form survives today – was/were. The Peterborough Chronicle can be used as evidence of this simplification. In the earlier sections of the chronicle, the writing is in old English, but by 1154, the language is ‘immeasurably simpler’ – many of the declensions and conjugations have been eliminated and the spelling has been simplified, signalling the beginnings of the Middle English period.[17]
In 1204, King John of England came into conflict with King Phillip, resulting in the loss of Normandy. English nobility lost their estates in France and ‘antagonism grew between the two countries’, leading ultimately to the diminished status of the French.[18] It gradually became apparent that the island kingdom had its own political and economic ends that were different from those of France. This resulted in the reestablishment not only of England as a nation, but also a more extensive use of the language.
Isolated from the rest of Europe, Norman rulers gradually came to think of themselves as Englishmen. The thirteenth century was a period of shifting emphasis upon the two languages as the English language began to permeate the nation once again. French was still spoken by the upper classes, but its maintenance became increasingly superficial. Meanwhile, English was becoming a matter of general use among the upper classes. It is from this point that the influence of French on English can be considered the result of a concern with refinement, rather than a complete foreign disruption.
French was still considered a cultivated language, ‘representing chivalrous society in its most polished form’, with the majority of official documents still being written in French.[19] One of the strongest areas of French influence was derivational morphology.     In Old English, native words were created through ‘native-form affixation and compounding’.[20] The Old English verb ‘forbear’ was eventually affixed to the suffix ‘-ance’, a common word ending in French ‘used to form similar nouns of action’.[21] Not only does this process reflect how the English language has evolved to become more sophisticated in terms of affixation, but it also reflects how English was changing to resemble the complex structure of Romance words. However, the morphological structure of the new borrowings was not always clear, some elements failed to be considered as separate morphemes.
Kastovsky claims that this resulted in the simplification of stems as affixes and roots no longer formed ‘a breakable systematic unit’.[22] The word lieutenant can illustrate this process. Lieu, meaning ‘place’ is from the Latin locum, and the second root is tenant, derived from the verb tenir (‘to hold’). Socially, people accepted the new order as something accomplished, with the new process augmenting the English language to resemble the polysyllabic appearance of the Romance language. These new French words form the derivative of many words found in Modern English today and are indicative of the process of refinement and evolution that English experienced after the influx of foreign word.
The rise of a substantial middle class significantly helped the English language to recover its former prestige. It is indisputable that the importance of a language is largely determined by socio-political factors. During the latter part of the Middle English period, the conditions of the labouring class were rapidly improving there was more incentive for individual effort and more opportunities for a person to reap the rewards of enterprise. The process by which the changes were brought about was greatly accelerated by ‘The Black Death’ in the summer of 1348.
As in most epidemics, the rich suffered less than the poor, and as a result there was a serious shortage of labour. In short, ‘the effect of the Black Death was to increase the economic importance of the labouring class and with it the importance of the English language which they spoke’.[23] Whilst there seems to have been very few victims at the higher levels of society, the clergy were on the frontline of the disease, bringing comfort to the dying and hearing final confessions. As a result, more Englishmen entered the clergy, to replace those who had been killed, leading to an increase in the use of the English language in corridors of power once more.
In 1362, an important step was taken. The use of French for legal proceedings was without justification and accordingly, the Statute of Pleading enacted that ‘the king, desiring the governance and tranquillity of his people…hath ordained […] that all pleas… shall be pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English tongue’, constituting the official recognition of English.[24]
The final step that the English language had to make in its ascent was its use in writing. The use of Latin for written communication was founded in the belief that it was a language that had become fixed, while the modern languages seemed variable. French, as the language of education and the socially prominent, was the first language to challenge the ‘monopoly of Latin’ in written matter. In the fifteenth century, English succeeded in displacing both. Following the Earl of Kent in 1397, the countess of Stafford wrote her will in English, stating ‘I…ordeyne and make my testament in English tonge, for my most profit, redyng, and understanding in yis wise’
The integration of Norman-French was an inevitable stage in the evolution of the English language. Undeniably, language change reflects social change and thus, the assimilation of Norman culture into English society, and the eventual decline of French usage can be explained by socio-political factors. The English language is constantly evolving, shaped by historical events, social situations, and attitudes towards the language itself. The Norman Conquest ultimately engendered the change towards a more refined English through promoting French as the language of the elite. Its prominence in Modern Day English, in both the rhetoric of law and the everyday, suggests that its influence on the language was by no means negative, but instead a reflection of the social and political climate of the eleventh century. Whilst French did not succeed in replacing the English language, as a result of its growing superficiality and the rise of the middle class, the tangible changes it made to the English language are unparalleled today.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
PRIMARY SOURCES
Statutes of the Realm, I, 375-76 in A.C Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of The English Language, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002)
Quinley, Jason and Roland, Muhlenbernd, ‘Conquest, Contact and Convention: Simulating the Norman Invasion’s Impact on Linguistic Use (21st Annual Conference on Behaviour Representation in Modelling and Simulation, BRiMS, 2012), pp. 1-7
SECONDARY SOURCES
Alkazwini, Azhar A, ‘The Linguistic Influence of the Norman Conquest (11th Century) on the English Language’, International Journal of Linguistics, 8.3 (2016), 141-151 [accessed 20 February 2020]
Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable, A History of The English Language, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002)
Baker, Curt, ‘The Effects of the Norman Conquest on the English Language’, Tenor of Our Times, 5, (2016)
Bryson, Bill, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way (NY: William Morrow, 1990)
Crystal, David, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)
Crystal, David, The Stories of English (UK: Penguin UK, 2005)
Fischer, Andreas, ‘Lexical Borrowing and the History of English: A Typology of Typologies’, in Language Contact in the History of English, ed. by Dieter Kastovsky and Arthur Mettinger (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2003), pp. 107
Hogg, Richard and David Denison, eds. A History of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 17
Kastovsky, Dieter, ‘Vocabulary’, in A History of The English Language, ed. By Richard Hogg and David Denison (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 199-270
Kibbee, Douglas A., For to speke Frenche trewely: The French Language in England, 1000-1600: Its Status, Description and Instruction, (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1991), p.4.
Singh, Ishtla, ‘The History of English’, (London: Hodder Arnold, 2005), p. 107

[1] Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way (New York: William Morrow, 1990) pp. 53-54.
[2] A.C Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of The English Language, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002) p.104.
[3] Ibid. p.105.
[4] David, Crystal, The Stories of English (UK: Penguin UK, 2005) p.123.
[5] A.C Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of The English Language, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002) p.104.
[6] Bill, Bryson, pp.53-55.
[7] Ishtla Singh, ‘The History of English’, (London: Hodder Arnold, 2005), p.107.
[8] Curt, Baker ‘The Effects of the Norman Conquest on the English Language’, Tenor of Our Times, 5, (2016) 43-44.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Azhar A, Alkazwini, ‘The Linguistic Influence of the Norman Conquest (11th Century) on the English Language’, International Journal of Linguistics, 8.3 (2016), 141-151 in http://www.macrothink.org/journal/index.php/ijl/artocle/view/9562 [accessed 20 February 2020]
[11] Bill, Bryson, pp. 55.
[12] Douglas A. Kibbee, For to speke Frenche trewely: The French Language in England, 1000-1600: Its Status, Description and Instruction, (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1991), p.4.
[13] Jason, Quinley and Roland, Muhlenbernd, ‘Conquest, Contact and Convention: Simulating the Norman Invasion’s Impact on Linguistic Use’ (21st Annual Conference on Behaviour Representation in Modelling and Simulation, BRiMS 2012) pp.1-7.
[14] Andreas Fischer, ‘Lexical Borrowing and the History of English: A Typology of Typologies’, in Language Contact in the History of English, ed. by Dieter Kastovsky and Arthur Mettinger (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2003), pp. 107.
[15] Jason, Quinley and Roland, Muhlenbernd, ‘Conquest, Contact and Convention’, pp. 1-7
[16]  Bill, Bryson, p. 56.
[17] Ibid.
[18] David, Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2018) p. 31.
[19] A.C Baugh and Thomas Cable, 5th ed, p. 134.
[20] Richard, Hogg and David Denison, eds. A History of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 17.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Dieter Kastovsky, ‘Vocabulary’, in A History of The English Language, ed. By Richard Hogg and David Denison (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp.199-270.
[23] A.C Baugh and Thomas Cable, 5th ed., p.137.
[24] Statutes of the Realm, I, 375-76 in A.C Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of The English Language, 5th ed. (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002), p.144.