Norman invasion of 1066 is said to be a turning point of English history, which determined the entire further historical development of the country. Drastic changes, caused by it, touched the whole social, economic and cultural life of the conquered country and set it’s seal on the language.
First and foremost, Norman French spoken by the invaders became the language of England’s ruling class, which makes a contrast to the Vikings invasions two centuries earlier, when the linguistic structure did not reflect social stratification, and the ruling class continued to speak the same language as the lower classes. Also, Vikings were the tribes of Germanic family of languages same as the Anglo-Saxons were, and Normans brought the language related more to Latin and Romanic languages .
After the Norman conquest, the lower classes, while remaining English-speaking, were influenced nevertheless by the new vocabulary.
The conquerors provided the conquered with brilliant opportunity to get acquainted with their language while drafting the Domesday Book. French became the language of the affairs of government, court, the church, the army, and education where the newly adopted French words often substituted their former English counterparts. The linguistic influence of Norman French continued for as long as the Kings ruled both Normandy and England.
When King John lost Normandy in the years following 1200, the links to the French-speaking community subsided. English then slowly started to gain more weight as a common tongue within England again.
A hundred years later, English was again spoken by representatives of all social classes, this new version of the English language being strikingly different, of course, from the Old English used prior to the Norman invasion.
This new English was also much more integrated, since immediately after the conquest William, took care about cancellation of the ancient kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex and others, and centralized the State .
The influence of the Normans can be illustrated by looking at two words, beef and cow. Beef, commonly eaten by the aristocracy, derives from the Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic cow.
Many legal terms, such as indict, jury, and verdict have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. This split, where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and words frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can be seen in many instances.
In some fields an original English terminology did not exist.
Therefore, many French terms were borrowed.
One example is the names of animals and their meat. Whereas the names of the animals remained the same, their meat was renamed according to the Norman custom. This correlated to the sociological structures: the farmers that raised the animals were predominantly English natives and could afford to keep using their own vocabulary while farming – those serving the meat at the diningroom table to the mainly French upper classes had to conform to the French language.
Thus, many new doublets appeared in English that were stylistically marked: cow/beef, calf/veal, swine/pork, sheep/mutton, deer/venison, sweat/perspire. (This once again makes a contrast to Norse/Anglo-Saxon doublets like raise/rear, etc., remained stylistically neutral, since both peoples held an equal social position.)
Sometimes French words replaced Old English words; crime replaced firen and uncle replaced eam. Other times, French and Old English components combined to form a new word, as the French gentle and the Germanic man formed gentleman. Other times, two different words with roughly the same meaning survive into modern English. Thus we have the Germanic doom and the French judgment, or wish and desire. In total about 10 thousand of words have been taken from French into English, most of which exist till present time. Also, many Anglo Saxon words narrowed in meaning to describe only the cruder, dirtier aspects of life.
Concepts associated with culture, fine living and abstract learning tended to be described by new Norman words .
As far as grammar is concerned, a reduction of inflections began.
The grammatical gender disappeared and inflections merged. As the inflections of the Old English disappeared, the word order of Middle English became increasingly fixed. This change made for a great loss of strong verbs. At a time when English was the language mainly of the lower classes and largely removed from educational or literary domains and influence, it was natural that many speakers applied the pattern of inflecting weak verbs to verbs which were historically strong.
This linguistic principle of adopting the pattern of a less common form to a more familiar one is called analogy.
The exclusive use of the pattern SVO (subject – verb – object) emerged in the twelfth century and has remained part of English ever since.
Changes in word-building were mainly confined to the borrowing of derivational affixes.
All native prefixes dropped out or became unproductive during this time; the few that survive today are non-productive: be- in besmirch, or for- in forgive, forstall; they were replaced by Latin: ex-, pre, pro, dis, re, anti- inter. Many Norman French suffixes were borrowed: -or vs. -er; -tion, -ment, -ee, -able as a suffix.
Norman French influence on phonology of English was relatively minor.
Initial [v] and [z] were adopted into the language: very is a Norman word. Initial [z] is still considered marginal in English .
By the late 1300’s when Chaucer wrote the Cantebury Tales, more than half of the English vocabulary consisted of Norman French words, and this period marked the end of French influence on formation of English .
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1. A. C. Baugh. A History of the English Language. (5-th edition), Prentice Hall, 2001
2. P. N. Williams. England: Narrative History. Britannia Magazine. At https://www.britannia.com/history/narmedhist.html. Last viewed: May 1, 2006
3. D. Burnley, The History of the English Language: A Source Book. (2nd edition), Longman, 2000