Chapter Three the NORMAN CONQUEST transforms English

By Richard K. Munro


Figure 1  William the Conqueror

   In 1066 the Normans, under William the Conqueror, invaded England and killed the last king of the Anglo-Saxons, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings.   There are no loanwords of unquestionably French origin that occur prior to 1066.  Conquered by the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, essentially, ceased to exist as an independent people from that time.[1]  The Anglo-Normans spoke French and used it as a language of administration; they also learned Latin for the Church and the Universities.    There are thousands of French loanwords in English and no language has influenced English so much except Latin (and of course French is a romance language derived from Latin as Spanish is). Much of early common law, however, was written in French.  But the language of everyday community life and commerce in England during this time (1215-1400) remained English.

English might have died out completely except for the fact that England, being part of an island, was separated from France and tended to thus be isolated.  England and France –cousin nations really- fought many wars for supremacy.  At one time England claimed and occupied most of France.  The ruling families which continued to speak French until abut the 1350’s.   But the merchant classes spoke an English-French patois and enjoyed songs and literature in that idiom.  Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in Middle English using thousands of French borrowings.  Chaucer was fluent in French and competent in Latin. Gilbert Highet says “He does not seem to have been a university man, and indeed there was something amateurish about his learning; but it was good for his poetry.”[2] Some of his words may have come from Latin but most come from French, it seems to me.   That because Chaucer often follows French spellings such as “absence” and “ignorance” rather than the Latin “absentia” and “ignorantia.” Also we note that Greek words are present –Chaucer did not know Greek- but at a much smaller proportion as compared to Latin and most of these are Hellenic words which were already Latinized by the medieval Church fathers, Cicero or the Roman Stoic philosophers. The Legend of Good Women [3] the third longest of Chaucer’s works, after The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde  is the first significant work in English to use the iambic pentameter or decasyllabic couplets which he later used throughout the Canterbury Tales. A couplet is two successive rhymed lines that are equal in length; a heroic couplet is a pair of rhyming lines in iambic pentameter.  This form of the heroic couplet, inspired by French literature[4] and popularized by Chaucer would become a significant part of English literature.  Shakespeare often has his characters speak a heroic couplet before exiting: The time is out of joint: O cursed spite/ that ever I was born to set it right. “(Hamlet Act 1 scene 5)

 Chaucer is not easy to read today without a glossary but it is quite remarkable that sometimes he is completely intelligible so close he is to modern English.  His spelling is different and his pronunciation would sound strange or rustic to us but it is clearly English.   Originally, the long vowels of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) were essentially the same as those found in Latin but gradually the values of English vowels shifted. These changes in the quality of the long, or tense, vowels constitute what is known as the Great Vowel Shift. In other words the vowels of Chaucer are closer to Latin or “Continental” and the sounds of English have gradually changed causing pronunciation and spelling problems. “The stages by which the shift occurred and the cause of it are unknown. There are several theories, but the evidence is ambiguous.”[5] We don’t know why it happened but I will venture a guess: in the long periods of bilingualism in England (meaning French and Anglo-Saxon (Old English and Middle English) the English people mixed and matched sounds from different languages. This is a process which still goes on today; an example would be the world “rodeo” which can be pronounced in the Spanish fashion or in a “Western” American fashion.  Note that, while Chaucer’s pronunciation of the long vowels was quite different from ours, Shakespeare’s pronunciation was similar enough to be comprehensible thought it might sound  -I have heard said-  rather “Irish” or “rustic”  or exotic to our ears.  Prior to the Great Vowel Shift, which Chaucer rhymed food, good, flood and blood (sounding similar to goad or a long ō like boat).  By Shakespeare’s time the three words still rhymed, although by that time all of them rhymed with food (ū like mood). This pronunciation would sound perhaps Scottish today.  In American English, particularly works like look, book, nook, as well as good, flood and blood have independently shifted their pronunciations again.   Note it is not INCORRECT to pronounce the words in the “old fashion” but today they would be considered “regional” pronunciations.

            GREAT VOWEL SHIFT CHART (AHD phonetics with examples)[6]

WordME CHAUCER1600 SHAKESPEAREStandard American English (British 21st century)RP
 houseŪ   (like “hoose” or “moose”or “goose” ou like “blouse”Ouou dialect “hoose” Canada; Scotland
foodŌ like “Goad or boat”Ū like moodŪ like moodŪ like mood
boatōōōō slightly longer than American English
sizeīaI (ī) dipthongaI (ī)aI (ī)
greenĕĒ  (like seen)  Ē Note been ≠seenĒ Been=seen
meatĀ (like “mate” or “hate”Ē  like “heat”, “Feet”ēē
goodŌ like “Goad or boat”Good like hood oo  oo  oo  

Here are some examples of Chaucer followed by modern English:

“He knew the tavernes wel in every toun

(He knew the taverns well in every town)

(Canterbury Tales. Prologue 1. 240)

“And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” (Ib. 1, 308)

(and gladly would he learn and gladly teach)

“The carl spak oo thing, but he thoghte another.”(Ib. The Freres Tale 1, 270)

(The Churl (Guy; hick) spoke (spake) one thing but he thought another)

She was fair as the rose in May (Legend of Cleopatra 1.34)

(She was as fair –beautiful as the rose in May)

For of fortunes sharp adversitee

The worst kinde of infortune is this,

A man to have ben in prosperitee

And it remembren, when it passed is.

(Troilus and Criseyde 1, 1625)

For of fortunes sharp adversity

The worst kind of misfortune is this:

A man to have been in prosperity

And it remembered, when it passed is.

Yes, this English but it has a Germanic flavor: “when it passed is.” It is amusing to recall Spencer said that Chaucer, of all people, was a “well of English undefiled” (unpolluted).  Gilbert Highet has written “the importance of Chaucer was that he became not only a well of pure English but a channel through which the rich current of Latin and a sister stream of Greek flowed into England”[7] (via as we have seen chiefly through French). The last quotation is very interesting due to the syntax.  It says “fortunes sharp” rather than “sharp fortunes” –this is the influence of Latin or French where it is typical for the adjective to follow the noun.  “Infortune” exists, I suppose in the English lexicon but must be considered unusual or archaic; the normal word here would be “misfortune.”  Of course, “ben” is spelled “been” today (but pronounced two ways; the American “bin” and the British “be-en” as in bean).   And when Chaucer uses “remembren” rather than “remembered” he is using the old Anglo-Saxon past participle; cf. “spoken”, “taken” or  “forgotten”.   Most modern English verbs have lost the –en suffix in the past participle though we have some adjectives that do retain it as in “sunken ships” or “drunken fool.”

The London dialect, for the first time, begins to be recognized as the “Standard”, or variety of English taken as the norm, for all England. Other dialects are relegated to a less prestigious position.  Over the years the Anglo-Norman French of the ruling classes created an English-French patois with a vocabulary that was heavily Latin and French and a very simplified grammar and inflectional system.  For example, English lost its masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives (a few exceptions survive today:  we say a BLONDE girl but a BLOND boy; we say fox and vixen for a female fox.[8])  Gradually French lost its prestige and popularity with the English ruling class and French though still used in the courts was studied as Latin was as a foreign language.   By 1362 English had replaced French as the common language of the English parliament. 


FrenchEnglishCommentary/Spanish cognate
jongleurjugglerMalabarista; juglar)poet/minstrel  is a false cognate
crimecrimeReplacing the Anglo-Saxon word ‘”sin” Delito ; crimen is MURDER (AS)
boeufbeefCow (Anglo-Saxon)vaca
moutonmuttonSheep (AS) oveja
porcporkPig (AS)  cerdo
veauvealCalf (AS)  ternero
lettreletterCarta (“letras”=words of a song or letters)
magicien;magiqueMagician , MagicAS: Sorcerer/sorcery mago
miroirmirrorAS Looking-glass espejo
questionquestionPregunta; cuestión
recherchesearchBuscar; investigar
sonSound[9] (noise)Sound /saludable(AS)=healthy,solid
dictionnairedictionaryAS word-book (diccionario)
bestiauxCattle (beasties)Ganado
calibreGage (or gauge)Indicador/calibre
garantWarrantyGarantía (limitada)NOT the same as guarantee.Partially FALSE COGNATE
garantguaranteeGarantía de fábrica
Nature/ caractèrenatureNaturaleza/carácter
couragecourageCoraje, valor
aventureAdventure; love affairaventura
spécialspecialSpecially part AS especialmente
chefchefChef o jefe de cocina
machinemachine Note French sound not Greek “K” (máquina)
sauvagesavageWild (AS) salvaje
couleurColor (colour)color
Honor (honour)Honor (honour)honor
Debris; décombresdebrisescombros
De luxeDe luxeDe lujo
denouementDenouement or resolutionresolución
Hors d’oeuvreHors d’oeuvreAppetizers (tapas)
ReveilleReveille “reVALLEY” in British English  La diana RE-valley in Am. English
quitterTo leave (AS)“to quit” abandonar
arrêterTo stop (AS)“to arrest” ê indicates “s” sound was dropped. arrestar
demanderTo ask (AS)“to demand” pedir/demandar
penserTo think (AS)“to be pensive” pensar
amiFriend (AS)Amicable /amistoso “mon ami” is almost universally known in English just as “mi amigo”
pontBridge (AS)Pontoon (temporary Military bridge) puente

         Some mention should be made of “legal doublets” which are common in legal documents and also in cultivated conversation. “Legal doublets” are standardized phrases which we see in wills, legal documents and the Constitution.  These expressions are many centuries old and reflect the heritage of common law which knew legal documents in English, Latin and French and a long period of bilingualism in England from the 11th century to the 15th century.  Usually a Latin word is paired with a French or Anglo-Saxon word so as to clarify understanding (and probably link to a common law document which could have been recorded in any of the three languages)

aid and abet  To assist and to encourage Esp. in commission of a crime(ayudar)
Cease and desist (order)an order of a court or government agency to a person, business or organization to stop an activity is harmful and/or contrary to law.(orden de la corte para para una actividad)
Fit and proper(apropiado)Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address “fitting and proper”
Full faith and credit Article IV, Section 1 of the U. S. Constitution which states: “Full faith and credit shall be given in each State to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state” ( fe y crédito completo)   Thus, a judgment in a lawsuit or a criminal conviction rendered in one state shall be recognized and enforced in any other state, so long as the original judgment was reached by due process of law. ex. Birth certificateHS diplomaDriver’s license
Null and voidNulo y sin valorCancelled and having no value (contacts etc.)
Sound mind and memory (Mente sana)having an understanding of one’s actions and reasonable knowledge of one’s family, possessions and surroundings. “This is a phrase often included in the introductory paragraph of a will in which the testator (writer of the will) declares that he/she is “of sound mind and memory.

 Many English expressions are direct translations (or calques) of French.  For example, if you please (s’il vous plait; RSVP), marriage of convenience (marriage de convenance), that goes without saying (ça va sans dire), reason of state (raison d’etat)), trial balloon (ballon d’essai) even every day expressions like the arm of the professor (le bras d’ professeur rather than the more Anglo-Saxon “the teacher’s arm.” Also we have question de connaissances générales ; general knowledge question ;champion du monde  champion of the world (world champion)

 Many more French expressions entered the English language in the 16th and 17th century when French was the lingua franca of educated people.  Some examples are noblesse oblige (obligation of those of high rank to be generous and noble), de rigueur (required by fashion of custom; wearing a cap and gown at graduation), ancient regime (pre 1789 French monarchy, esprit d’ corps (enthusiasm generated by comradeship and devotion to a cause), vive la difference! (long live the differences between the sexes accepting that men and women and boys and girls will always be a little different from each other).  Other French words and expression still very common for educated people are: Femme fatale (woman of seductive charm who leads men into doom), bon mot (witty remark) vis-à-vis (compared to or in relation to) faux pax (false step; social blunder), tour de force (great feat or accomplishment –a goal, a home run a three point play a great book or performance).  Milieu (surroundings or environment) , je ne sais quoi (lit.  “I don’t know what” –an indefinable elusive quality especially a pleasing one)[10]

[1] In the 19th century Herbert Spencer and others spoke of the “Anglo-Saxon race” but it is certainly more accurate to speak of the Anglo-Celtic or Anglo-British race.  The majority of native Britons are at least partially of Celtic origin.  English people and British people in general do not look like Germans.

[2] Gilbert Highet, The Classcial Tradition (Oxford, 1949) p. 94.

[3]   with modern prose translation.

[4] Li romans d’Alixandre (The Romance of Alexander)  (c.1170), attributed to clergyman Alexandre de Bernay  is based on the translations of various episodes of the conqueror’s life as composed by previous poets ( such as Lambert de Tort)

[5] T. Pyles and J. Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language. Harcourt, 1982)

[6]  for phonics practice online

[7] Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (1949) p 110.

[8] A vixen is also a woman who is regarded as quarrelsome, shrewish or malicious.

[9] SOUND (1)= healthy (basic Anglo-Saxon word); SOUND (2)=noise (Latin) SOUND 3 body of water, bay (Norse/Viking).

[10] Example:  “She may not be especially beautiful , nor very young but she has  a certain je ne sais quoi I find irresistible “