The Influence of a Glorious Bastard

That would be William of course, who was re-dubbed William the Conqueror after his victory at Hastings 946 years ago today. Alan Massie reflects on how the Norman Conquest changed the law and history of England, as well as its language:

So, if you were to begin by asking, in Monty Python style, “what have the Normans ever done for us?” you might first reply that the most enduring consequence of the Conquest is the richness of the English language, with its Anglo-Saxon base and Franco-Latin superstructure. This mixture gives us a huge vocabulary, and many words with essentially the same meaning, yet a different shade of emphasis: fatherly and paternal, for example.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

17 thoughts on “The Influence of a Glorious Bastard”

  1. William also abolished chattel slavery in England by decree (although he also went a long way towards formalising feudal relations instead). Monty Python style: “He was a hard man, but fair.”

    (I was always lead to believe that he was called “Conqueror” for his activities in Maine and Brittany before he ever set foot in England. Is that not so?)

  2. Here’s the description of the Battle of Hastings by the English writer Paul Jennings, written as if the English had won and those French and Latin words had not come into our vocabulary:

    “In a foregoing piece (a week ago in this same mirthboke) I wrote anent the ninehundredth yearday of the Clash of Hastings; of how in that mightytussle, which othered our lore for coming hundredyears, indeed for all the following aftertide till Doomsday, the would-be imaginers from France were smitten hip and thigh; and of how not least our tongue remained selfthrough and strong, unbecluttered and unbedizened with outlandish Latin-born words of French offshoot. Our Anglish tongue, grown from many birth-ages of yeomen, working in field or threshing-floor, ringing-loft or shearing house, mead and thicket and ditch, under the thousand hues and scudding clouds of our ever-othering weather, has been emulched over the hundredyears with many sayings born from everyday life. It has an unbettered muchness of samenoiselike and again-clanger wordgroups, such as wind and water, horse and hound, block and tackle, sweet seventeen. The craft and insight of our Anglish tongue for the more cunning switchmeangroups, for unthingsome and overthingsome withtakings, gives a matchless tool to bards, deepthinkers and trypiecemen. If Angland had gone the way of the Betweensea Eyots there is every likelihood that our lot would have fallen forever in the Middlesea ringpath”.

    Jennings also rewrote a passage of Shakespeare without Latinisms. Perhaps someone can find a link. (The ‘betweensea eyots’ are the Channel Islands – by Jennings’ hypothesis the Normans did conquer them, so their language turned out as modern English actually has – useful for comparisons in his tongue-in-cheek but often very funny imaginings.)

  3. Anniversaries of events that occurred before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar are tricky things. In the 11th century, the Julian calendar was six days behind the calendar we use today, so the date this year which will be 496 years after the Battle of Hastings, to the day, is actually October 20. (Just as the anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia is November 7, the Julian calendar lagging by thirteen days in 1917.)

    1. Quite true, but for events that long ago, it’s simpler and sufficiently accurate to commemorate them on the calendar date that is the same as the one at the time. We’ve been on the Gregorian calendar for a long time now (well, not in Russia, but say Western Europe and its cultural derivatives…) England was suspicious of the papistry of the calendar named for a pope, so resisted the change for many years after ‘the continent’ had changed.

      Another source of confusion involved changing the first day of the year from April 1 to January 1, which occurred (at least in the UK) in the 18th century. One sees tombstones marking the date of death as e.g. March 1, 1737/38. So counting the number of years from now back to a 17th century or earlier date falling in January, February or March can be dicey.

      But the spirit world knows better – according to James Barrie, author of Peter Pan and a noted consorter with faeries (as was Arthur Conan Doyle). In a play of his I once saw but cannot recall the name of, spirits appear in the garden of the country house where the play is set on ‘old Midsummer’. They are not distracted by humans’ messing with the calendar.

      1. The first day of the year Old Style was Lady Day, March 25. In most of the English-speaking world, the change in New Year’s Day and to the Gregorian calendar happened in 1752. The Julian calendar was eleven days behind in the eighteenth century, so they skipped the dates between September 2 and September 14. The riots in England over the stolen eleven days apparently never happened.

        1. Herschel’s version is more accurate than mine (but the sprites won’t care…) Apparently the tax year in England to this day starts on April 6, because that’s where March 25 landed by the time the English gave in to Gregory.

          1. Apparently the tax year in England to this day starts on April 6, because that’s where March 25 landed by the time the English gave in to Gregory.

            The riots over the stolen eleven days as popularly recounted never happened, but there was some understandable objection to being charged a full quarter’s rent for a significantly truncated period of tenure. People aren’t as dumb as they look. I don’t believe it came to rioting in most places.

  4. This seemed just a tad too triumphalist so I, being monolingual, asked my German and Spanish speaking GF about it. She said her other languages had plenty of such near-synonyms. I believe her.

    1. I have heard fairly serious and well-educated speakers of English, French, German, and Portuguese put forward the claim that their particular language has more words than any other language. I would have thought this claim more likely true of English than the others, but hearing the certainty with which speakers of other languages make the claim about their own, I wouldn’t press the claim about my own.

      1. The Grand Robert, the major historical dictionary of French,has 100,000 words and 350,000 senses.(From the dictionary websites.) The OED has 600,000 words. Dipping into it is a strange experience: you recognize one in ten if you are lucky.

        The lexical richness of English isn’t an illusion. Part of the explanation is that it escaped pruning by a Royal Academy in the neoclassical 17th and 18th centuries. French would be very different if it had continued on the path of Rabelais’ profusion rather than Racine’s austerity (he’s said to use only 600-800 words). Another part is the abiding influence and stature of the (Rabelaisian) Shakespeare (21,000 to 29,000 depending on the definition). It’s still natural for an English writer or scientist to invent a word; for the French, it needs an official committee to overcome a strong inhibition.

  5. I speak Spanish and English and am tempted to rebut, but a nice guy like you should believe his girlfriend, so I will instead agree strongly with her and wish you both the very best.
    Be well,

    1. I expect all languages have synonyms or near synonyms with shadings of difference. Human beings are born to make distinctions. But English is particularly rich in such terms because of the different origins in Latin either directly or through the French, and from Germanic (all ultimately from Indo-European). So we have regal and royal and kingly, we have a fortress and a stronghold, etc. It is (at 900+ years’ remove) almost worth the conquest to enjoy having animals with one name while alive but with another name when they’re cooked, thanks to the French: pig/pork, deer/venison, ox-cow/beef, sheep/mutton. (This only works for animals – and meals – common in England in the middle ages. so: lobster/lobster, foie gras/foie gras…)

      Back when solicitors in England were paid by the word (up to the 1830s, I think), the availability of words of French and English origin was useful to expand one’s texts to a more lucrative length: right and title, null and void, aid and abet, etc. ( Lawyers being conservative folks, they just kept on – and keep on – using the doublets where one word would almost always suffice. No doubt the tendency had been aided by the use of French as the official language of the courts until the early 15th century. Lawyers still need to know a few law-French terms, like ‘en ventre sa mère’ (sic) for the state of a person yet unborn, or ‘cy-pres’, for a charitable transfer under some circumstances, or ‘force majeure’, which has entered common language.

  6. Another thing you have to concede to Guillaume. After he and the Pope finally managed to get rid of the undistinguished last Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, in 1070, he didn’t call on a pliant nobody but on the reformer and theologian Lanfranc, who set the post-Conquest English Church on a path of prickly independence from the King. William’s even more thuggish successor William Rufus in turn appointed Anselm, who wasn’t just able by the standards of the time but by the standards of any time. “Why not the best?” indeed.

  7. The Latinate words were usually considered the more sophisticated, not only because of the Conquest, but because of the use of Latin in scholarship. So precipitate instead of rain, domicile instead of home; or among the bawdy words, copulate, defecate and urinate are acceptable, but their Anglo-Saxon equivalents are not.

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