William, Duke of Normandy, is an unlikely contender for a place among the greats of the English language, since for most of his life he could neither read nor speak it, but his political and territorial ambitions, realised in 1066 and the years that followed, changed the language for ever. For 200 years, the Normans were, in the words of ‘1066 And All That’, top nation, and Norman French, as the language of the court, was the country’s official language.
French words were adopted by those English speakers who sought a higher social status. Norman French words came to be used alongside existing English ones, but, because of their prestige, the French ones came to be a sign of refinement. That is why we use words from Old English for farm animals – pigs, cows and sheep – but when they are brought to the table they become French as pork, beef and mutton. Similarly, many medical terms for body parts and functions are French (or Latin), but in our everyday speech they’re thoroughly, and coarsely, English. To that extent, the use of Norman French words and Old English words at the time can be seen as the original U and non-U, as identified by Professor Ross nearly nine centuries later.
Given the way in which the Normans dominated public life, it’s not surprising to find that many of the words that entered English from this period were related to the court, the church and the law. Such words include duke, countess, court, war and peace and many more. The formal use of French life survives in the way in which the Clerk of the Parliaments still announces the royal assent to bills passed by the UK parliament with the words La reine le veult (The Queen wishes it).
The loss of Normandy to the King of France in 1204 had loosened the ties with the dukedom of Normandy, but increased the ties with the kingdom of France, so French, if possibly of a different kind, remained in use. In the fourteenth century, however, English came to be used increasingly in the public arena, and in 1362 the Statute of Pleading decreed that lawsuits should be in English. In the same year Edward III addressed Parliament in English, and at the end of the century Henry IV became the first king since 1066 to speak English as a first language.
One explanation for the rehabilitation of English is that it was needed to control a population that knew no French. Another is that religious groups could more readily communicate with the people in English, and to this end the New Testament was translated into English in the second half of the century. But most of the estimated 10,000 or so French words the language had absorbed remain with us, and it’s hard to imagine how we would do without them.