An average speaker of English knows around 10,000 French words, even before they have learnt French as a second language. How is it that individuals know so much linguistically from a different language?
The English language we know and use today would be extremely different if not for a major event back in 1066.
The Norman Conquest
The Norman invasion of England was not only a physical invasion by William the Conqueror; the conquest had linguistic influences, profoundly changing the whole course of the English language. Language before the conquest is referred to as Old English, and post-conquest it is Middle English.
More than 10,000 French words entered the English language after the invasion and these new inclusions account for more than a third of the English vocabulary which we use today. Stephan Dollinger, PhD, an Associate Professor at The University of British Columbia, explains how, in Old English, “only 3% of the language was from borrowed words. Now, 70% of our language is borrowed.”
A bit of history
With around ten thousand Normans settling in England after the invasion, French became the language of power for the next 300 years. It was used as a means of oral and written communication in the courts of law, the higher echelons of the Church, and in the homes and castles of the new Norman nobility.
“The whole elite were changed, from the King down to the monasteries,” says Dollinger.
However, the native population, numbering around one million, continued to use English in daily life. Evidence for this use can be seen through the large amount of religious writings produced in English after the conquest, as the natives were unable to understand the writings produced by the new Norman churchmen.
Gradually, the centuries following this period saw Norman French having a deeper influence on the English language. Dollinger describes how lexical words and sounds “trickled down over the next few centuries into the English language.”
This trickling happened through the increasing connections between the Norman conquerors and the English conquered. Intermarriage was common at this time, mainly because woman who inherited land due to their husbands and fathers being killed in the invasion were able to keep the land if married to a Norman. Additionally, Norman nobles often had English nurses for the children, meaning many second-generation Normans were bilingual.
So which of our words are actually French? Among the 10,000 words which entered the English language, many of them were related to the areas in which Normans had the most control. Listed below are English words which are used today but are originally of French extraction and bequeathed from the Normans after the 1066 invasion.
Crown and nobility: crown, castle, prince, duke, noble, sovereign.
Government: parliament, government, governor, city.
Courts and law: court, judge, justice, arrest, appeal, plaintiff, jury, prison.
War and combat: army, armour, battle, soldier, peace.
Fashion and high living: mansion, money, beauty, banquet, spice.
Interestingly, Old English words cyning (king), cwene (queen) and cnight (knight) continued to be used. Many simple, low paid jobs such as “baker” and “shoemaker” retained their English names, but more skilled, well paid jobs adopted French names “mason,” “tailor” and “merchant.” Lots of animals kept their English names, “sheep,” “cow,” “ox,” but then became French words when cooked, for instance “beef,” (boeuf) “pork” (porc) and “venison” (venaison).
In some cases, French words completely replaced English ones; the English word “firen” was replaced by the French word “crime.” Sometimes, both French and English words would be combined to create new words; the French “gentle” and English “man” created “gentleman.” Many different English words which had a similar French meaning survived and are still in use now.
However, many new French synonyms accompanied these surviving words.
Motherhood (English) – Maternity
(new French synonym)
Start (English) – Commence (new French synonym)
Fight (English) – Battle (new French synonym)
Work (English) – Labour (new French synonym).
Pronunciation and grammar
Not only were words affected by the Norman Conquest of 1066, particular pronunciations and spellings also changed. English spellings such as “cw” and “sc” changed to “qu” and “sh”. Therefore, we now write “queen” and “ship” rather than “cwen” and “scip”. Some French linguistic structures were also implemented into English grammar, such as, adjectives coming after nouns in certain expressions; for example, “attorney general” and “secretary general”. Letters which were used in the Old English alphabet such as ð (“edh” or “eth”), and þ (“thorn”), did not exist in the Norman alphabet and slowly phased out, eventually becoming replaced with “th.”
With regards to pronunciation, words which previously had a stress on the root of a word, often shifted towards the prefix (beginning) of the word. Vowels were also affected, with the long “a” vowel becoming more like an “o” sound after the conquest; “ham” became “home” and “ban” became “bone” etc.
A modern view
Today, Dollinger recognises the Norman conquest as “the decisive event in the history of the English Language.” The substantial amount of borrowed French words from this period leads Dollinger to view English as an “odd Germanic language.” “The spelling is very strange, for example, ‘night’ used to be spelt and pronounced ‘nit’ in Old English. The ‘gh’ was added because of French influence and changes in lots of other spellings were accelerated by the language contact,” he says.
The influence of the French language is clear. But English itself was never fully replaced. What survives today is a hotpotch of English and French together, both of those languages combining to produce something richer and more descriptive: the English language we know today.