Norman Conquest and the English Language

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:

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Comments 33 comments

Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 5 years ago from Western US

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.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

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


broadbill profile image

broadbill 5 years ago from Angmering

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


Paul Wingert profile image

Paul Wingert 5 years ago

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.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 5 years ago from Western New York

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).


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

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.


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Bill! Nice to meet a kindred spirit!


scarytaff profile image

scarytaff 5 years ago from South Wales

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


jenubouka 5 years ago

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

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!


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

jenu, huukd on fonix werkd fer mi!! lol


Beata Stasak profile image

Beata Stasak 5 years ago from Western Australia

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


Garnetbird 5 years ago

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.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Beata!

Garnet, Great to see you!


AnkushKohli profile image

AnkushKohli 5 years ago from India

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

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


Jim Filabrush 5 years ago

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


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Lol, Jim!


Gustav Le Germain 5 years ago

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


htodd profile image

htodd 5 years ago from United States

Thanks habee Nice writeup


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Many thanks, htodd!


anthonydeleon profile image

anthonydeleon 4 years ago

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


habee profile image

habee 4 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks a bunch, Anthony!


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands

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!


habee profile image

habee 4 years ago from Georgia Author

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


Robert W. Osterweener 4 years ago

Great article.

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


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