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Norman Conquest and the English Language

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history of English language

I find the history of English language and English history fascinating! The English language has undergone numerous changes over the centuries, as have other languages around the world. New words are added regularly, while some older words and terms become archaic and rarely used. These changes often evolve over long periods of time. With the English language, however, a single event radically changed the language from what we now refer to as Old English into what we generally call Middle English. That all-important even was the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings. The English language basically went from Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman to Middle English in a span of just a couple hundred years, which is practically the blink of an eye when you’re talking about the history of a language.

In 1066, the Battle of Hastings began the Norman Conquest. It had a huge impact on the history of the English language.

In 1066, the Battle of Hastings began the Norman Conquest. It had a huge impact on the history of the English language.

Norman Conquest

In 1042, Edward the Confessor became king of England. His mother’s brother was Duke of Normandy, Richard II. Edward had close ties to Normandy and spent a lot of time there, and once he was crowned, he placed numerous Normans in positions of power. Edward had no children, so when he died in 1066, the succession to the throne of England was unclear.

In 1035, William became Duke of Normandy. Supposedly, Edward the Confessor promised the throne of England to William. When Edward died, however, Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was crowned King Harold II by the Witenagemot. The Witenagemot was the political group that was made up of members from the ruling class. Harold II was crowned on January 6, 1066.

As you can imagine, William of Normandy wasn’t happy when he discovered that Harold had taken the throne. William believed that it was rightly his. He began planning the invasion of England and set to work building ships and gathering an army. They sailed for England on September 12, 1066.

On September 28, 1066, William and his forces landed at Sussex, England and constructed a wooden structure to serve as a fortress/castle. When Harold learned of William’s arrival, he increased the size of his army and arrived at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, and a mighty battle ensued. The Battle of Hastings took place on October 14, 1066. The battle lasted mere hours. Harold was killed, and the Normans were victorious. It’s interesting to note that some historians believe that an arrow pierced Harold’s eye, resulting in his death.

The English, however, weren’t ready to hand over the throne to William, despite his victory over Harold’s forces. Upon the death of King Harold II, the Witenagemot gave the throne to Edgar Atheling. William and his army marched to London, defeating several English armies along the way. Finally, the English surrendered at Berkhamsted, and William was crowned on Christmas Day, 1066.

As a result of the Norman Conquest, English landowners lost their lands. William divided large estates and gave them to his Norman supporters, and he appointed Normans to high positions in the Church. William brought French feudalism to England, which was basically a political and military system that can be thought of as a pyramid. At the top was God, then the king, then the vassals, then the knights. At the bottom of the pyramid and by far the largest group were the peasants.

William’s goal was not to eliminate the Anglo-Saxons. He needed them to work the fields and to perform other jobs. English society under William became a mixture of Anglo-Norman customs, laws, and language.

The Normans sailed from Normandy, France to conquer England.

The Normans sailed from Normandy, France to conquer England.

Example of Old English language

Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, was a West Germanic language that looks much more like German than it does like the English language we’d recognize today. Take a look at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:

Faeder ure pu pe eart on heofonum,

Si pin nama gehalgod

Tobecume pin rice,

Gewurpe pin willa, on eoroan swa swa on heofonum.

Would you ever recognize this as an English language?

Normans were appointed to many high Church offices.

Normans were appointed to many high Church offices.

An example of the Middle English language

As I’ve already mentioned, with the Norman Conquest, the English language underwent some dramatic changes. Anglo-Norman, or early Middle English, had direct effects that can still be seen today. Some of our words with an Anglo-Norman origin include chamber, judge, archer, flour, guarantee, parliament, jury, college, and adventure. In addition to new vocabulary words, English grammar underwent changes, too. After the end of the fourteenth century, early Middle English transformed into late Middle English. Take a look at the Lord’s Prayer in Middle English:

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,

Halewid be thi name;

Thi kyngdoom come to;

Be thi wille don, in erthe as in heuene.

Yyue to vs this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce,

And foryyue to vs oure dettis, as we foryyuen to oure dettouris;

And lede vs not in to temptacioun, but delyuere vs fro yuel.

Amen.

Now, compare this version of the prayer to the one written in Old English. Hopefully, you can see how the English language changed in a relatively short period of time, historically speaking. You can actually make out a few words in the Middle English language.

For speakers of Middle English, these were pigs.

For speakers of Middle English, these were pigs.

For the Normans, pigs became pork.

For the Normans, pigs became pork.

An English language riddle - solved!

When I was a kid, I always wondered why a live cow was called a “cow,” but once the animal was cooked, it was called “beef.” The same holds true for pigs, chickens, and sheep. When I was teaching English Literature, I discovered the answer to the riddle. After the Norman Conquest, the people in charge of caring for livestock were the Anglo-Saxons, and they used cow, chicken, pig, and sheep for the animals. Once the animals were butchered and made ready for cooking, however, Norman or Anglo-Norman chefs took over. They applied the terms beef, pork, poultry, and mutton. Don’t you just love an English language riddle with an answer?

Beowulf Prologue in Old English:

Canterbury Tales Prologue in Middle English:

More about the English language, writing, and English grammar:

Comments

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Robert W. Osterweener on September 23, 2012:

Great article.

And, yes, 1066 was an extremely important year, although I forget why.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on June 17, 2012:

Trish, I LOVED teaching Brit lit! I really miss it.

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on June 17, 2012:

Hi :)

Great subject!

I was watching a documentary about 1066 just today. This was, apparently, the most important date in English history. It's fascinating.

And language development is fascinating, too! You must have enjoyed teaching English!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on March 04, 2012:

Thanks a bunch, Anthony!

anthonydeleon on March 03, 2012:

Very good article. I wondered about pig/pork but never thought about cow/beef. Fascinating. And I love the photos.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on November 26, 2011:

Many thanks, htodd!

htodd from United States on November 26, 2011:

Thanks habee Nice writeup

Gustav Le Germain on October 31, 2011:

Jim, your friend sounds stooooopid! But at least he ain't no frog!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 30, 2011:

Lol, Jim!

Jim Filabrush on October 30, 2011:

My friend Norman couldn't conquest his way out of a paper bag!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 24, 2011:

Ankush, I'm glad you enjoyed reading about the history of the English language and the Norman Conquest. Thanks!

Ankush Kohli from India on October 24, 2011:

Great excerpts from history. I was unaware of the Norman part. However, i knew French remained Britain's national language for over 500 years.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 21, 2011:

Thanks, Beata!

Garnet, Great to see you!

Garnetbird on October 16, 2011:

Good solid Hub--I traced my sirname of Loftus to the battle of Hastings in 1066..I have always been drawn to this era and interested in this battle.

Beata Stasak from Western Australia on October 16, 2011:

Love English language and never fail to miss a great article about it...just like yours...well done:)

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 15, 2011:

jenu, huukd on fonix werkd fer mi!! lol

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 15, 2011:

Scary, nice to have you here as a guest! Thanks!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 15, 2011:

Jama, glad I took care of that pesky English language riddle for ya before it had a chance to annoy you! lol

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 15, 2011:

drbj, I'm not a mistress now. He married me over 20 years ago! lol

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 15, 2011:

Leah, I've read that about the Appalachians, as well as the Deep South. Interesting!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 15, 2011:

Right, Paul. Can you imagine how hard it was to speak Old English?? I guess if you grew up with it, you wouldn't think so. Thanks for stopping by!

jenubouka on October 15, 2011:

Very interesting history on language in the beginning the words remind me of hooked on phonics

Derek James from South Wales on October 14, 2011:

I agree with all that's been said, habee. Voted up and useful.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 14, 2011:

Thanks, Bill! Nice to meet a kindred spirit!

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on October 14, 2011:

Well done, habee! Fascinating! Had never wondered about cow/beef, chicken/poultry before, so I'm glad you solved the riddle before I even recognized it as one.

I knew the language we call "English" was Germanic in origin with French overtones, but for some reason until this hub never thought of the Normans as "French", only as the guys who came across the Channel with William the Conqueror.

Thank you for this delightful lesson in English history and linguistics! ;D

drbj and sherry from south Florida on October 14, 2011:

Absolutely fascinating information, Holle, and almost as compelling as that port-riddled gravy recipe of yours. You are masterful with the delivery of information. I mean mistress-ful.

Leah Lefler from Western New York on October 14, 2011:

This is absolutely fascinating! I love the origin of words, and it is astounding how different the old English is from modern English - it is like reading a foreign language! The cow/beef, sheep/mutton, pig/pork language difference is interesting, too. Great article! Bill Bryson has an interesting book out there on the transformation of the English language once it hit American shores - as it turns out, the Appalachian pronunciation of several words is closer to the original English than the modern pronunciation (in England or non-Appalachian America).

Paul Wingert on October 14, 2011:

Thanks for sharing this. Well presented and interesting. From my understanding of the History of English, words like "might", for example, back in the day of the Norman Conguest, the "gh" were actually pronounced. Words like "girl' were once spelled GEHRL.

broadbill from Angmering on October 14, 2011:

Fascinating! I am a lover of the English language, and found this article interesting and useful. Let's have more!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on October 14, 2011:

Daniel, I love "muddled English"! Clever and appropriate! Very good to see you!

Daniel Carter from Salt Lake City, Utah on October 14, 2011:

What a great historical look at a very convoluted language! (I suppose that's true with most languages.) Thanks for all the great info, Holle. I think, based on your information that we have at least migrated to "Muddle English." I can think of examples....probably most can. LOL

Thank you, again, my friend, for a wonderful look at history.

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