Normans And Middle English


     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
present-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
the 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
roles, 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
loanwords 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
for 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
newly 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
diagraph *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,
it 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
into 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
the Middle English period. Many of PDE’s 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
of 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
similar 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
contexts. 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,

OE’s smierwan had the meanings of smear and anoint, but when the French anoint
entered the language, smierwan lost it’s 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
recognize 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.

Bibliography

Alexander, James W. William I, King of England, Grolier’s Multimedia

Encyclopedia, 1996. Burrow, J.A. and Thorlac Turnville-Petre. A Book of Middle

English, Blackwell Publishers; Oxford. 1992. Fisiak, Jacek. A Short Grammar of

Middle English, Oxford University Press; London, 1968. Millward, C.M. A

Biography of the English Language, Harcourt Brace; Boston. 1996. Take Our Word

For It, weekly online publication, available at http://www.takeourword.com

Yerkes, David. English Language, Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1996.

Yerkes, David. Middle English, Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia, 1996.