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Author Topic: French in Early Middle English  (Read 4629 times)


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French in Early Middle English
« on: September 30, 2011, 05:43:01 AM »
When I read this interesting and important thread I learnt many knew things, but the below quoted section intrigued me.

Since I had to put him straight about Old Norse, still, accounting for the majority of borrowings into Early English ( the Norman-Angevin Period) and that it wasn’t until the end of the Hundred Years War ( when England’s aristocracy at last made its once-and-for-all plump for speaking English as their normative Mother Tongue) that French words came in en masse, I dropped a few other hints whilst I was about it.  Like the way the Ancrene Riwle is still closer to Old English than Chaucer, and does anyone think Germanic languages that retained normative Germanic vocabularies are somehow tongue-tied or straitjacketed because they haven’t borrowed enough French vocabulary, and was this a criticism anyone ever made of Goethe’s Faust?  Then I used forty-two of the sixty words in the same line note I wrote as examples of the half of Modern English’s vocabulary that goes back to Old English, and whereabouts in his own textbook he had given other reasons why half of Chaucer’s vocabulary was certainly not from French.

Since reading this, I've been at the Early middle English again. I've been dipping in and out of Ancrene Wisse in Sweet's Middle English Primer, and I've read excerpts from the Peterborough Chronicle here - a great site for several reasons not least of which because it highlights the loans, orange for Norse, purple for French, and because you can look at the texts in different standardized spellings. And, I notice that, indeed, there are very few French loans. I should really have noted this before but I didn't.

I've also been at this site from the University of Texas which has links to literature I've not read before such as the Love Rune, but more importantly, gives a potted history of post conquest English - one of the best I've found using Google as it does not repeat the above mentioned myth that the Norman kings immediately brought in thousands of French words which enriched the impoverished brutish speech of the English.

So, I was thinking about this myth which I've always accepted despite having enjoyed reading Ancrene Wisse and the Peterborough Chronicle many times, and I was just wondering, why didn't the newly conquered English immediately start taking on French vocabulary? I mean it's a bit odd that the language of administration, law and the church was all French and Latin and yet nearly 200 years later Ancrene Wisse is written in essentially late Old English with a handful of French loans.


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Re: French in Early Middle English
« Reply #1 on: October 02, 2011, 11:00:22 AM »
I hesitated to reply Horsa because it is a good question, isn’t it?  You can’t call it a foolish mistake.  Nobody would have jumped out of their skins if a flood of French words had followed in the wake of the Norman Conquest, or indeed a lot sooner than it actually did.

I can think of only two, possibly not very good suggestions.  ‘What you grow up with you think is normal’ and maybe we, children of the modern age, have difficulty knocking out of our heads blind assumptions that medieval life must necessarily be as well organised, and closely governed, as modern life.  One good ‘reality check’ for this risk I do know about is the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, touched off by a poll tax.  IIRC, what precipitated the Revolt was the fact that the cash economy was at last pulling ahead of barter as accounting for the majority of economic transactions.  Giving rise to the optical or administrative illusion, amongst the better off who alone elected the Parliament of 1380 that tried to levy it, that whole swathes of the peasantry could easily raise the cash with which to pay the poll tax.  Point being that we, too, can be jolted awake to the fact that barter had been the normal means of exchange for centuries, and that normal folk spent most of their time getting by without cash. 

Another example may be the one Stephen Pinker, the neurolinguist, was surprised to stumble upon: that many hunter-gatherer societies surviving in the world today get by quite happily not knowing how to count.  At all.  I’d read about Australian aborigines not being able to count above four ( after that it’s “many”), but I was astonished as he was to learn, from an anthropologist he checked with who’d lived amongst one group in Central America, that your typical hunter-gatherer doesn’t need to count his arrows to know he’s running low.  He goes by weight and feel, much as a squaddie in Afghanistan can tell when his water canteen is getting low, and that asking a hunter-gatherer to count his arrows is like asking you or I to count our relatives.

In this light, maybe we should not be surprised to find that, in the Norman-Angevin Period and for a long time after, your typical English-speaking peasant could get by quite happily picking up only the bare minimum of Anglo-Norman words ( like ‘crown’, which I think was an early borrowing) needed for his, on the whole, rare and brief involvements with the language of government and high society.

The other suggestion is one I raised on the old board but nobody developed the point: women.  Yet they get into all sorts of things.  One observation well known to sociolinguists is the way accents and dialects linger longest and strongest amongst men rather than amongst women.  This is because there can be a right masculine kudos to having a thick local accent ( chuck), whereas amongst women there is a feminine kudos in speaking ‘nicely’ ( dahling).  So feminine pride offers a prima facie suspect for who would still bother to speak Early English as well as they knew how, even without any social advantage to so doing.

In this light one may wonder if it is any great co-incidence that the Katherine Group should be so female-centred.  Not so much that medieval women were amongst the least likely to be able to read ( at all, never mind in French or Latin) so much as to read or hear read the standard of English in Hali Meiþhad and the Ancrene Wisse.  Professor Tolkien made the case for the English of the Katherine Group retaining “some of its former cultivation”, leaving the only mystery that anyone was bothering to maintain anything like scholarly or socially polished standards in English when there was no social advantage to doing so.  As we know, English broke back down into its dialects in the wake of the Conquest, some of the grammar came unravelled, spellings diversified etc.  So why on earth would someone maintain the old standards, and anyhow… how?  Rustic illiterates may have been under less pressure to use their conqueror’s language than we easily imagine, but they were surely under pressure to do many other more urgent things than attend to pre-Conquest standards of clear, polished English.     

Yet we do know that abbesses dropped out of the witanmoots at the Conquest.  William the Conqueror formally separated Church and State and issued parliamentary writs to abbots, not abbesses.  But oft evil hurts itself because, tragic end though this was to the world’s first female legislators ( and only, that I’m aware of, until the 1890s) it may mean that, relatively speaking, the nunneries got left alone.  And to run a nunnery one can imagine reasons why clear, written English was still needed.

I raised this suggestion that, a) good old Feminine Pride and b) the Needs of Nunneries supply the right jigsaw piece to fit in this hole on the old board because I do feel this line of reason worth exploring, not least for reasons David Cowley raised on his thread.  In today’s political climate, a Feminist case for How English Was Saved From The Conquest ( ‘Twas our sweet nuns, the Unsung Heroines who kept our Mother Tongue’s light burning through its Darkest Night!) might make a good spanner to throw in the works of glib and ignorant attitudes towards the Old English, such the “farmers in mud huts”/ “beer bemused Anglo-Saxons” mentality. 

The moral right of the author to be identified by “certain marks” after the Battle of Hastings has been asserted.


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Re: French in Early Middle English
« Reply #2 on: October 04, 2011, 11:42:29 PM »
The other suggestion is one I raised on the old board but nobody developed the point: women.  Yet they get into all sorts of things.

Great line. Made me snort tea out of my nose.

I've read that Pinker book too. I also remember one particularly interesting sociolinguistic factoid that I think could have been from that book, but could otherwise have been from a sociolinguistics course I took in Gothenburg in 1998. A sami community in Norway transitioned from their native sami to Norwegian precisely because the women consciously decided to speak Norwegian at home so that her children would grow up knowing the more useful language. This despite the fact that the woman didn't speak Norwegian nearly as well as the men. The reason for this was because it was the men who more often came into contact with Norwegian speakers, yet they were quite happy to bring their children up speaking Sami. Yet, the native sami language suffered in the following generation.

Another couple of theories that I had was that the Normans inherited a relatively stable and efficient admininistration and while they completely replaced the top layer, everyone underneath them was English and the original documents were in English. They relied on English speakers and documentation in English. English therefore retained a cache despite being the language of a conquered people. Also, the society they brought with them was heavily stratified and the nobs could quite easily have had very little contact with plebs other than their servants and vice versa. They didn't try to force the country to speak French and the English had very little reason to use French other than for the new stuff that the Normans had brought with them 'castles' for example.

Then when the nobs finally did start speaking English there was more communication across the classes with a result of more French words coming into English.