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Normans And Middle English Essay, Research Paper

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.


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.

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