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The Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066 was the single most significant event in the history of the English language. The Norman Conquest led to a language that was very different from what it had been prior to 1066. The story of the Norman Conquest and its influence on today’s English language is more than the simple story of a battle between two political and military powers.

The Normans:

By 790 the Vikings were raiding along the coasts of western France. Initially they raided in the summer and returned to Scandinavia in the winter. Following the death of Louis the Pious in 840, the Vikings established a colony in the southwest. In 911 the legendary Viking leader Rollon forced Charles the Simple to sign the Treaty of Saint Clair sur Epte which established the Duchy of Normandy.

Normandy takes its name from Northmanorum which means “men of the North.” The Scandinavian settlers in Normandy were primarily Danish with a strong Norwegian element and a few Swedes. Within a generation the descendents of these Vikings were speaking French and the Norman Dukes were counted among the peers of France.

Norman Influence in English Prior to 1066:

Prior to assuming the throne of England in 1042, Edward the Confessor had spent a long exile in Normandy where he was strongly influenced by the Norman clergy. With regard to language he probably spoke better French than English. He appointed Normans to high positions in the English clergy and government and allowed Norman merchants access to London. He was more interested in being a monk than in being a king and remained faithful to his monkish vow of chastity. With his death in 1066 he left no direct heir and a divided and weak England.

Harold II, a distant relative, was declared king. Within a few months, Scandinavians under Harold Haardraada, King of Norway, invaded. At the battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold II defeated the Scandinavian force. Four days later, however, he faced an invasion of Normans under William, Duke of Normandy. William was victorious and England was to be ruled by the Normans.

Norman Conquest

Norman Influence on English:

The Norman conquest of England brought into English a large number of French and Latin words. Diffusion of French came from the top down: William replaced the English nobility with Norman barons and by 1076 not a single English earl remained. At this time, only 3 of 21 abbots were English.

The hierarchy of England following 1066 looked something like this: ruling over all were the king and his court; below him were the barons; below them were eneoffed knights. The enoeffed knights had been granted right to land by the king through his barons for service to them. All of this upper class was French-speaking.

Next in the hierarchy was a middle-management layer of officials who ran the estates and local affairs. Since they interacted with both the nobility and the commoners they were most likely bilingual.

On the bottom of the hierarchy was the great mass of English peasants. It is quite likely that most of the peasants had only limited fluency in French.

In the towns or boroughs there were skilled and unskilled laborers, tradesmen, and businessmen. Many of these may have had some fluency in French.

With regard to population, it is generally estimated that the English population in 1066 was between 1.1 and 1.7 million. After the conquest, 5,000 Norman knights were enfeoffed. Estimates on the total number of Normans who settled in England following the conquest range from as few as 20,000 to as many as 200,000.

The “paper trail”—the use of written English, French, and Latin--provides some insights into language use following the conquest. In 1070, William issued writs in English, some in Latin, and none in Norman French. Within the next decade, writs in English disappeared and William had the laws written in Latin.

A century after the conquest, the most common written language of government was Latin. The first laws which were originally written in Norman French appear about 1150.

In general Norman French was spoken by: (1) the French invaders and colonists, (2) the upper class English (particularly by the second generation following conquest), (3) middle class merchants who had business dealings with the Norman French, and (4) the middle-management personnel on the large estates who served French lords. The vast majority of the English remained monolingual, speaking no French or only a few words. However, within a generation or two after the conquest, most of the Norman conquerors were probably bilingual to some extent. The French royalty was probably able to maintain a French environment in which they did not need to speak any English.

During this Middle English period, England was essentially a trilingual culture with French as the language of political administration, culture, and courtiership. Latin was used as the language of religion, education, and philosophy. English continued as the language of popular expression and personal reflection.

The words borrowed from Norman French into English tended to be prestige words usually related to government, political organization, high culture, and educated discourse. For example, some of the religious terms that came into English from Norman French during the 11th-12th centuries included: prophet, abbot, sermon, cardinal, saint, Baptist, miracle, paradise, and sacrament. Some of the social and political terms included: prince, duke, dame, master, court, parliament, crime, judge, jury, bail, verdict, rent, poor, rich, prison, crown, purple, and prove.

In general, French loan words are indicated by: spellings with –ei-, -ey-, or –oy; endings in –ion, -ioun, -ment, -encen,–aunce, -or, or –our.

Origins of English:


Working Words

American Indian Words in English

Words from A to Ant

Politics and Government

The Anglo Saxon Roots

Other Languages:

The Sounds of Ancient Greek


Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sat Feb 18, 2012 at 08:34 AM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Pink Clubhouse, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, J Town, and DKOMA.

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