The year 1066 had a resounding impact on the course of English history. William the First, Duke of Normandy, conquered England and took it as a stronghold in his reign. The French rule over England lasted for several centuries and brought about innumerable changes to the English state, language, culture and lifestyle. William imported French rulers to take over English government and religious posts. The French were not only the new aristocracy in England, but the new society. The English amended their language and their culture in an effort to more resemble the French and to communicate with their new lords.
The English language was more changed by the Norman Conquest than by any other event in the course of English history. Middle English is defined as the four hundred year period between the Norman Conquest and the time the printing press was introduced to England in 1476. This essay will explore the specific effects that the French had on Middle English morphology, phonology, syntax, semantics and lexicon. During the period of French rule in England the standing of English as a valid language dropped substantially as French took over as the status language. Because so much of the French influence has been nativized by resent-day speakers, many do not realize the impact that our language took in the years following 1066.
Not one aspect of English life went untouched by the Norman presence in England, notably, its language. Phonology In addition to introducing new words into the English language, the Normans also introduced some new sounds. The English had previously had no phonemic distinction between /f/ and /v/; /v/ was merely an allophone of /f/ that occurred between vowels. However, with the influx of French loans which began in /v/ and contrasted as minimal pairs in English, this distinction made its way into Middle English:
French loans English vetch fetch view few vile file The French also influenced the adoption of several new diphthongs into English. Diphthongs are two vowel sounds which are pronounced as one. Diphthong Old French Old English /eu/ neveu neveu (nephew) /au/ cause cause /Ui/ bouillir boille (boil) point point / i/ noyse noise choisir chois (choice) The new English diphthongs were not exactly like they were in French – they were modified by existing English vowels to create brand new diphthongs. The stress pattern of Old French words differed from that of Old English words, and often both stress patterns were present.
Germanic languages, such as English, tends to place primary stress on the first syllable, unless that syllable is an unstressed prefix. French, on the other hand, prefers to stress the heavy syllable (one containing a coda) closest to the end of the word. Middle English loans from French often retained their native stress pattern, however, in Present-Day English, the majority of these borrowed words have conformed to the Germanic pattern. Lexicon Irrefutably, the largest influence that the Normans had on the English language was on its vocabulary.
From the time William usurped the English throne until the end of he Middle English period, our language was inundated with French vocabulary terms. In fact, of the 2,650 words in the epic English poem “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” at least 750 are estimated to be of French origin. Even in Present-Day English, some of our most commonly used words are of French origin; table, tax, religion, trouble and pray are all derived from French words borrowed into Middle English. Hardly one syntactic category was left untouched by French loan-words during Middle English, although the majority of English words borrowed from Old French tended to be nouns, verbs and adjectives.
The following is a very brief sample of some now-common words which had recently joined English in the Middle English period: Adjectives: inequales inequal, principalis principal, naturales natural Verbs: strive, please, waste, join, cover Prepositions: French contributed to the constructions of according to and during Interjections: gramercy thank you Nouns: ancestor, cellar, dinner, garment, kennel, music, noun, plague, statute The French gave the English language many specialized words, such as those used in culinary or legal situations. Because the Normans had taken over judicial and aristocratic oles, their high-prestige vocabulary was passed on to the lower-class English who acted as their clerks and servants. Thus, many cooking terms such as broil, goblet, and beverage were passed on by masters to their servants. The French influence on the lexicon was nearly nonexistent in areas where the French masters would have had little or no contact with their servants, for example, in the field. Orthography The Present-Day English writing system is notorious for being a poor representation of the sounds it is supposed to denote. Much of this confusion has roots in the time of Norman rule. The onslaught of French oanwords and a few new French phonemes caused English orthography to worsen as an accurate portrayal of English phonology. While Old English had used the grapheme *c* to spell the phonemes /k/ and /c/, French loans introduced that grapheme to represent the phonemes /k/ and /s/, and the digraph *ch* to spell /c/. In fact, the French influence was so strong in these respects, the French *ch* replaced the English *c* even in native words, and the *c* spelling of /s/ was adapted into such indigenous English words as mice and since. When the French phonemes /j/ and /v/ became prevalent in English, there was no standard method or transcribing these sounds. Most English speakers wrote them simply as allographs of the existing /i/ and /u/. Throughout the Middle English period, both the graphemes *i* and *j* could be used to represent /i/ and /j/, and the graphemes *u* and *v* represented the phonemes /u/ and /v/. French introduced two novel graphemes to Middle English, *q* and *z*. Although the phoneme /z/ was new to ME, the sound /kw/ was already prevalent in such Old English words as cwic and cwen. After the introduction of *q*, these native English words came to be spelled quicke andquene in Middle English. The Anglo-Norman grapheme *w* was ewly borrowed into English orthography in the Middle English period. Although this grapheme was new to the language, its phoneme was not. Old English scribes had used the runic wynn to represent this sound. French introduced several new digraphs to the English orthography. A diagraph is a two-letter combination used to represent a single sound. French introduced the combinations *ou* and *ow* to represent the phoneme /u/, in loans such as hour and round. This spelling was so prevalent in loan-words that it spread even to native English words: Old English Middle English hu how hus house hlud loud brun brown While Old English used the iagraph *sc*, French loans used the letter combination *sh*, and this spelling came to entirely replace the earlier spelling. Thus, OE scamu became ME shame. The common French diagraph *ch* replaced the Old English *c* in words such as ceap and cinn. In Middle English, those words came to be spelled cheap and chin. One more diagraph, *gu* was introduced by the French in the form of such loan words as guard and guide. Thus, even native English words adopted this spelling (OE gylt fi ME guilt ) as well as non-French loans (ON guest, guild ). Morphology Not only did French contribute to the words in the English language, t also contributed to its morphology. Words in Old English were highly inflected, but these inflections were largely lost during Middle English and the structure of words was drastically changed. Some researchers speculate that the onslaught of French loan-words contributed to the loss of English inflectional endings, due to the fact that it was difficult to assimilate the new words into a highly inflected language. However, English had already lost some of its inflections before the Normans landed on English shores, and therefore there must have been multiple contributors to the simplification of English. Because
French nouns were borrowed without their own native inflections, they were adapted to English strong male declension, contributing to a more regular noun declension system as the sheer number of loan nouns increased. French verb loans, however, entered English as part of the existing weak verb class. Weak verbs were characterized by their regularity of tensed forms, whereas the strong verbs were those which were irregular. Because all of these new verbs were regular in the language they supported the form regularity and the majority of the irregular forms were dropped from use. French adjective loans were borrowed nto English along with their inflected endings for number. Adjectives in Old English had also carried this distinction, however, the singular form came to be used more regularly in the Middle English period. At the onset of the borrowings, French adjectives were borrowed with the French noun-adjective construction (houres inequales) but as English word order became more rigid and the French terms were modified to fit the English adjective-noun construction, the inflected number endings were dropped from the adjectives (dyverse langages). The French language contributed many new affixes to the English language during he Middle English period. Many of PDEs most common prefixes and suffixes appeared in the language after the Normans appeared on English soil. Prefixes such as re-, de- and in- and suffixes like -able, -ist, -ify and -ment are all relics of the period of French rule in England. Several less productive, but recognizable, affixes also entered English from French during Middle English. Prefixes counter-, inter and mal-, and suffixes -age, -al, -ery, -ess and -ity directly descend from the French. Syntax Old English was characterized by a much freer word order than Present-Day English allows. However, because of the loss f many of its inflections, Middle English was typified by a more rigid word order. Despite the increasing regularity of English sentences, the more prestigious French language left its mark on this aspect of the English language. For this reason, although ME preferred the native adjective-noun construction, the French noun-adjective pairs were acceptable in loan phrases. French supported the continuation of Old English constructions that were French-like. In addition to the noun-adjective construction, Middle English continued to treat certain adjectives as nouns, a practice that was common in
Old French as well as Old English. Although the use of adjectives as nouns has dropped out of the PDE grammar, that practice was kept alive through Middle English by the assistance of the French influence. One syntactic construction that was new to Middle English was the use of the preposition of to convey the possessive. This new usage was probably supported by the French particle de which was already being used in a possessive sense. Yet another new construction to Middle English was the use of the perfect infinitive tense (“to have held them under”). This construction was most likely created by influence from imilar Latin and French constructions. Middle English saw an emergence of polite second-person pronouns, a practice that was influenced by and modeled from the French. For example, in Gawaine and the Green Knight, Arthur uses one form of you when addressing Guinevere and another when addressing Gawaine. Gawaine himself uses even a third second-person pronoun when addressing the Green Knight. Semantics One of the more difficult areas to see change in is that of semantics. From the limited set of data that remains from the beginnings of the English language, we can only surmise about how words were used and in what ontexts. Therefore, it is difficult to see where there are shifts in denotation or connotation because records may not exist which demonstrate the full use of certain words. However, despite the parcity of surviving texts, researchers have been able to note several cases of semantic shifts between Old English and Middle English that were influenced by French. For example, the OE word freo originally had two meanings, free and noble. However, when the French word noble entered the English language, the existing freo lost that meaning. Similarly, OEs smierwan had the meanings of smear and anoint, but when the French anoint ntered the language, smierwan lost its positive connotation. Many speakers of Present-Day English notice that English has different words for animals when they are alive and when they are served as food. This distinction has its roots in Middle English. In OE, an animal had the same name whether it was in the barnyard or on the table. However, when the Normans moved in as English aristocracy, they had different terms for their meat dishes. The English servants needed to learn the French terms for these dishes, and these terms have survived into PDE. Several animal/meat distinctions are due to the French: Old
English Old French Present-Day English sheep mouton mutton cow boeuf beef swine porc pork calf veal veal fowl poulet poultry flitch bacon bacon Conclusion Clearly, when the Normans invaded the Saxon shore in 1066 they influenced much more than the existing language. Almost every aspect of English life was changed when the French took over their rule. However, one may argue that the longest-lasting impact of the Norman Invasion was that on the English language. Although The English spoken during the Middle English period may hardly resemble, to the lay person, the language spoken today, it is not difficult to ecognize the areas where French influence still dominates the language. The most salient example is that of vocabulary. Any student of Modern French is struck by the sheer vastness of similar lexical terms between it and Present-Day English, despite the fact that French and English derive historically from different sources. It would be impossible to speculate what the English language might look like today if the Normans had never invaded Britain. However, suffice it to say, the present English language has been extensively enriched by the quantity of this foreign influence.