It is often said that the Norman invasion of AD 1066 was the single most important event in the history of the English language. After William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, French would be the spoken language of the English royal court and governing class for generations to come. English certainly did not die, or suffer any lack of speakers; it merely went “underground,” as it were. In the thirteenth century it would reassert itself and soon gain the upper hand, even among the aristocracy. When it re-emerged, however, it had been radically changed from Old English, having acquired (among other new features) a substantial stock of Latin-derived French vocabulary, as well as a considerable number of new words borrowed directly from Latin. Though Latin was no longer spoken by large numbers of people, it continued to serve all medieval Europe as the language of Christian religion and scholarship—within the emerging new universities, for example. Because the native Germanic vocabulary of English had become somewhat impoverished from disuse, English would continue to borrow very actively from French and Latin over the next two centuries.
The framing dates of the MIDDLE ENGLISH period are often given as 1066 and 1476—from William the Conqueror to William Caxton, whose establishment of the first printing press in England signalled a new era in the history of the language. We can round off these dates, and say that the Middle English period extended from 1100 to 1500 AD, encompassing the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. The era of Norman dominance covered only the first quarter of that period, and was not by any means the most productive in terms of Latinate vocabulary.
Because of the scarcity of written evidence before 1200, it is often hard to tell whether a loan-word entered English from Norman French in the early stage of the Middle English period, or was derived later from Central or Parisian French (Francien). Nevertheless there is one area of vocabulary where we do have a very reliable indicator. If a Latin word began with ca-, it was still pronounced and spelled ca- in Norman French—whatever other changes it might have undergone. We know, therefore, that cattle (< L capitalis) must have entered English during the Norman supremacy, before 1200. In Central French, however, Latin ca- was pronounced and spelled cha-, as we see in E chattel, a DOUBLET of cattle that was borrowed at a later date. Accordingly, the following Latin derivatives must be Norman-French: castle (< L castellum, = modF château), canker (< L cancer, = modF chancre), and cauldron (< L calidarium, = modF chaudron). English has several other pairs of doublets like cattle and chattel: canal and channel, catch and chase, car and chariot. In every instance, the ca- form is Norman French.
Literally thousands of Central French words entered our language during the later Middle English period, and the vast majority of them, of course, came ultimately from Latin. Their numbers easily surpass the combined total of all Latin derivatives prior to 1200. Because these French loan-words occur in almost every area of social and economic life, they bear witness to the all-pervasive influence of French culture at that time. It is important to remember, however, that they were being brought into an English language that was now thriving at all levels of society; it was no longer the case that one class spoke only English, while another spoke only French.
Six or seven hundred years later, these borrowed words don’t seem at all alien or exotic. Most of them are as English as the joint of beef or pork on your plate at the dinner table. However, a few look every bit as learned and “correct” as derivatives that would later come directly from Latin, during the Renaissance; medicine, audience, recreation, university, inquest, and evidence are all French loan-words of the Middle-English period.
In A Biography of the English Language, C.M. Millward provides an interesting list of short and familiar words that came into Middle English from French. Their Latin origins are often heavily concealed; many are explained elsewhere in this book:
- Beware of a confusing problem of terminology. Most English dictionaries apply the label “Old French” to any French source-word from the 12th to the 14th century. In English lexicography, therefore, the term Old French (OF) corresponds far more closely to Middle English (ME) than to Old English (OE). ↵
- p. 173; see Chapter 2, §16. ↵