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Essay: How might the English language have been different if the Norman conquest had never happened?

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  • Published: 29 May 2023*
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Throughout history the English language has seen many changes and to this day it can be argued that the English language is constantly evolving as societies reach new eras, new trends and new words are introduced and added to the dictionary such as modern words relating to the modern world they’re relevant to like; nomophobia, (anxiety linked to having no mobile phone). One landmark occasion that had a great effect on the evolvement of the English language is the infamous Battle of Hastings fought by William the Conqueror in 1066. The Norman conquest brought an important change in English history for a number of reasons. This particular battle has a major impact on not only who governed the country as monarch (due to the previous king dying without an heir) but the English language was also effected When William became King it was at that moment in time when Norman French was first introduced into the English language, and therefore became the language of the court as it was the first language of the Monarch for the next three centuries. However. English continued to be used by ordinary people, and Latin was the language of the church.

The coronation of William the Conqueror, which took place ten mere weeks after the Battle of Hasting was conquered, marked the exposition of a long-lived Norman influence upon England and consequently the English language.

More over, Upon the death of Edward the confessor, William of Normandy placed his claim to the throne from King Harold. Ultimately and as history has procured William was victorious in his claim and the battle of Hastings, renowned as being the “one day battle”(1) William the conqueror once crowned King enforced policies that were considered “vicious” due to their destructive nature. It was been documented that his policies entailed the slaughtering of those who may wish to cause an uprising against him and his rule. Also destroying the land and only life line these rebels had to survive from. The arrival of the Norman-French marked the end of old English and beginning a new age referred to by Yule as ‘Middle English’. Yule also notes that because the Norman invaders were positioned in the ruling class, consequently French became a language linked to nobility and wealth, with influences in areas such as; the law, the governing body and “civilised life in England for the next two hundred years”(2).Without such opportunity of influential power from the french being placed in the ruling class the effect it could of had on the English language would be that, certain lexis introduced by the Normans at this time into the English language would ceased to exist in the English language. For instances; terms such as ‘army’, ‘court’, ‘defence’, ‘faith’, ‘prison’ and ‘tax’. However it is important to note that privy to the Norman conquest Old English was already under certain influence that evoked the English language to evolve as such aspects such as spelling and vocab especially in northern dialects. With that said, despite the Germanic origins of the English language, French (as well as other languages) influences are prominent, and quite evident as French as well as words for other origins such as Latin make up nearly half of the English words. Therefore without these influences the English language would either be left with archaic and outdated terms for certain objects, concepts, or terms dating back to different periods of time, some concepts, things, object may in few but definitely some aspects be left without a lexis to refer to them by.

Furthermore, it can be argued that the Norman conquest assisted in speeding up the progression at which the old English language lost its inflectional structure. Northern dialects are claimed to be first of the English dialects to had begun altering first with pronunciation of certain words with sk and g sounds beginning to influence northerner’s spellings and vocabulary. As well as this there was a change to suffixes which caused the loss of Old English case endings which consequently ensued two changes; one being that of an increase of prepositions that were now required in order to signify relationships between nouns. This means a lexis typically preceding a noun and clarifying a relation to another lexis or object creating a clause. For instance , an example of how this is used in modern day English that is the result of this change brought about by the Normans is, “The Man arrived after breakfast”. The second change that was brought about was that it caused a fixed word order to clarify relationships between subjects and objects. In linguistic typology, subject–verb–object (SVO) is a sentence structure where the subject comes first, the verb second, and the object third. For example, “She drinks milk”. This change is still evident in today’s English language as a result of the Norman conquest.

Additionally, other grammatical changes that were evident due to the Norman conquest were that verbs were altered so that they were simplified so that the lexis in the form of past tense was presented with an ‘ed’; for instance , ‘walk’ become ‘walked’. Even centuries after the Norman conquest demised and new a monarchy ensued , whilst the new monarchy brought about new changes to the English language , Norman changes were still very much evident. What’s more, the way in which we use plurals changed dramatically instead of altering the actual word to make it mean more than one effectively; this changed to what we still use today, in which we now simply add an ‘s’ to the word. However there are some words that still stick to the old English pluralism structure , for example “mouse/mice(mūs/mÿs)”(3) and “foot/feet”(fōt/fēt)(4).

Moreover, it is worth noting that, When William the Conqueror was crowned King, he begun to replace English men of high nobility and positioned highly respectable and influential positions and then proceeded to replace English men such as ; bishops, advisors and ealdor men, with Norman men of his choosing. This is worth noting as in the period of time of Williams reign most people where highly religious and heavily influenced by the church, therefore having Normans in the church further aided in the English language. However, although William the conqueror placed these men in influential places and in high society, England still didn’t turned into a French speaking country, French words were introduced and eventually embedded the English language, but regardless French didn’t become the primary language of language of England. One reason for this could be that as these French spoken men were placed in high up places in society the French language started to become a language relate to wealth and high station therefore those of lower class didn’t have the opportunity to access and be able to learn and internalise the language. This would have led to an influx of differentiation of speech. With those of high station speaking French as they have the opportunity to learn the language and enter into modern English. Whilst those of lower station remained speaking old English therefore creating a social divide as well as barriers in communication. Consequently this may have resulted in as referred to by Trevisa as “strange stammering , jabbering , snarling and teeth-gnashing chattering”. What Trevisa may be referring to is the divide that was created leading to a period of adjustment between the higher and lower classes.

Interestingly, some may argue that the Norman conquest had very little effect on the English language and that if the Norman conquest had not occurred the English language would have evolved to what it is now regardless. To some extent this may hold some truth as it is worth noting that before the Norman Conquest occurred and William took residency upon the throne and begun his reign, the English language was already beginning to change. This is argued by the fact that even now in contemporary England today some dialects still have old English evident in their speech, therefore concluding to the fact that the Norman conquest did little to change the English language as increments of old English survived and is used in today’s language. Particularly ,in Northern dialects where old English is very my much present in the pronunciation of certain lexis for instance, ‘house’ can still be seen to be pronounced as “hēm” and ‘down’ spoken as “dūn” . On the other hand however this argument is more times than not proved to be futile and unsuccessful as it is evident the change that was brought about due to the Norman conquest as when Norman French was introduced and made the language of the court, albeit at first instance only people of higher standing gained access and understanding to it, as time progressed more and more people eventually begun to learn it as well as keeping their English. Thus in a way merging their English and French to create the language that is evident today in present day English.

In conclusion, The English language may appear today as different if the Norman conquest had not occurred as we would see an absence of roughly over 4000 Norman French words that made its way into the English language over the three centuries that the Norman conquest was effective. For starters, Linguistically the way in which we would address and approach grammar, pronunciation and the way in which English is structure our sentence i.e. (SVO) would be different it would have lost its Norman-French influences. Therefore if the Norman Conquest had not of occurred then the English Language would have more than likely continued to steadily develop from how old English was developing. Its is likely that the English language would of transgressed on to be heavily influenced by Latin and by the Germanic speaking Saxons.


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