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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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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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