[Glossolalia] No More Norman Conquest


In 1066, the Normans crossed the English Channel and invaded Hastings on the Southern English coast. The Norman king, William I, won the battle, killing the English king, Harold II, in the process. Despite winning the battle, the Normans were sick, tired and ready to be done. William I waited in Hastings for the English to submit and when that didn’t happen he took his men riding toward London and destroying much of everything in his path. His attack was halted when he was recognized as king and finally crowned on Christmas Day, 1066 at Westminster Abbey.

The Norman Conquest completely changed the way we talk today. Since the English basically became servants to the Normans, the English language adopted tons of French words like poultry, beef and pork. This isn’t to say that English never had any Latin words, since the British Isles were a favorite trading ground for the Romans. But unlike most languages, we now have around one-third of our words from French, another one-third from Latin, one-quarter from Germanic origin and the remainder from other languages. Without the Norman conquest, we may never have had the Great Vowel Shift or been able to borrow from so many languages around the world effortlessly [my own unsubstantiated speculation]. The BBC cares about teaching you about the (more factual) history of the English language:

So what would English be like without the Conquest? It would definitely be much closer to Old English. We’d actually be able to read Beowulf and understand it, although Shakespeare would probably sound weird. The closest to Old English that we have today is Frisian, spoken in the Northern Netherlands, a close genetic relative represented below:

Paul Jennings in 1966 (the 900th anniversary of the Norman Conquest) wrote a series of articles describing what English would have turned into with the French influence (a language he calls Anglish). The following recounts in Battle of Hastings (which he can’t call a “battle” because that’s a French word), in Anglish:

In a foregoing piece (a week ago in this same mirthboke) I wrote anent the ninehundredth yearday of the Clash of Hastings; of how in that mightytussle, which othered our lore for coming hundredyears, indeed for all the following aftertide till Doomsday, the would-be imaginers from France were smitten hip and thigh; and of how not least our tongue remained selfthrough and strong, unbecluttered and unbedizened with outlandish Latin-born words of French offshoot. Our Anglish tongue, grown from many birth-ages of yeomen, working in field or threshing-floor, ringing-loft or shearing house, mead and thicket and ditch, under the thousand hues and scudding clouds of our ever-othering weather, has been emulched over the hundredyears with many sayings born from everyday life. It has an unbettered muchness of samenoiselike and again-clanger wordgroups, such as wind and water, horse and hound, block and tackle, sweet seventeen. The craft and insight of our Anglish tongue for the more cunning switchmeangroups, for unthingsome and overthingsome withtakings, gives a matchless tool to bards, deepthinkers and trypiecemen. If Angland had gone the way of the Betweensea Eyots there is every likelihood that our lot would have fallen forever in the Middlesea ringpath.

None of the words above have non-Germanic derivation. Cool. Orwell was actually a big proponent for what is called “Anglo-Saxon Linguistic Purism.” I think in practice the whole thing is totally absurd since we would basically just be robbing our language of about 1,000 years of history and gutting it of so many nuanced words, but it’s an interesting scholastic exercise.

You can actually see Latinate words next to their Germanic counterparts on a Wikipedia list. Also cool.


4 Responses to “[Glossolalia] No More Norman Conquest”

  1. Awesomeness

  2. There are a few Latin words in that writ:

    age – from Old French, based on Latin aetas, aetat-, from aevum ‘age, era.’
    clang – I’ll giv you this one, it’s a maybe. It’s akin to or from Latin clangere “resound, ring” and Gk. klange “sharp sound,” from PIE *klang-
    imaginers – from image, from from Old French, from Latin imago
    remain – from Old French remain-, stressed stem of remanoir, from Latin remanere, from re- (expressing intensive force) + manere ‘to stay.’
    trypieceman? – piece: from Old French piece (compare with medieval Latin pecia, petium), maybe from V.L. *pettia or maybe from Gaulish (cf. Welsh peth “thing”, Breton pez “piece”), perhaps from an O.Celt. base *pett-
    tongue – Norman-French spelling of tung(e)

    Battle likely has Teutonic roots (The Gauls and Franks were Teutonic).
    battle – L.L. battualia “exercise of soldiers and gladiators in fighting and fencing” from L. battuere “to beat, to strike”. An old word in Latin, but almost certainly borrowed from Gaulish, from PIE base *bhau- “to strike” (lk. Welsh bathu “beat”, O.E. beadu “battle”, beatan “to beat”, bytl “hammer, mallet”). Same root for battery.

    If you try hard enough to without Latinates, you’ll be amazed at how well you can do it without loss of meaning or the “nuances”. Most of those nooks (nuances) are more a deal of your mindset than sooth. Writing with a bunch of Latinates is not needs the mark of a learned man, only the mark of someone who knows and likes Latinates. And don’t forget that many of the so-called Latinate words are, in truth, Greek-rooted words that came to English thru Latin.

    • Hi all, Really cool post. I agree that this kind of linguistic purism **can** do-away with a lot of nuance, but it needn’t do (as LoboSolo says).

      Anyway, I’ve been writing about this “Anglish” for a while now, and I just set up a blog about it a few weeks ago. If you’re interested, come have a look. I’ll be adding stuff fairly regularly, so there should always be new stuff to mull over 🙂

  1. 1 [Glossolalia] Ye Olde Englisc « This American Strife

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