Sunday, October 29, 2006

King William: from Tyrant to Saviour?

I was reading over the article that I wrote the other week (these long Abu Dhabi weekends can be so tranquil), and it occurred to me that perhaps I did poor old Duke William of Normandy an injustice by misinterpreting his contribution to the English language. So this week I hope to rectify that and award him his place in linguistic history, alongside King Alfred.

For starters, I mentioned that some of our more ‘nationalist’ scholars have tended to view the Norman invasion with great dismay, seeing it as an attempt to destroy our traditional Anglo-Saxon heritage. Now let me try and put some flesh on that statement. Even today some people still feel very strongly about this apparent vandalism, and one modern critic has gone to great lengths to try to distinguish the ‘pure’ Saxon word “freedom” from the plainly unwanted interloper “liberty”. Take a look at the following to see how mad some people can get about mere words.

“The contrast between ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ expresses the difference between the ideas of revolutionary change and established self-reliant discipline. Awful crimes are committed in the name of liberty, whereas one would only strive to defend in the name of that good English thing, freedom”. Strong stuff, eh? The writer then goes on to illustrate, or rather, show (better use the Anglo-Saxon word), how liberty is a foreign and inappropriate term, associated with extreme notions of rights rather than responsibilities. Freedom, however, is a solid Anglo-Saxon term related to independence and honest judicial and property rights. So, now you know.

In fact there are many alternative words that we can choose to use in our English language, which is exactly what makes it such a rich language; and also, of course, so difficult for students to learn. Whereas most languages seem to get by on around 250,000 words or so, English has, because of its mongrel pedigree, in excess of 600,000. Take a look at the following pairs of words and see if you can guess which are the ones of traditional Anglo-Saxon origin, and which the Norman-French refugees. Take off, and remove; strength, and power; stretch, and extend; fake or sham, and pretend or simulate.

Not too difficult, was it? The words of dastardly foreign origin are typically two syllables at least (remember ‘surrender’ from last week?), whereas the solid Anglo-Saxon terms are usually short, one syllable only, and curiously ‘hard’ in their sound. As you can see, if William had stayed back home at the manor in 1066, the English language today would be greatly impoverished. In short, we all owe a great debt of thanks to this adventuring foreigner from the shores of northern France.

But that’s not all. Let’s pick up now on another equally important point, and what could perhaps be called a ‘beautiful paradox’. For if it wasn’t for William the Conqueror and his archers, the English language might well have never even progressed beyond England itself. This is because the Norman monarch and his mates were not the type to sit at home and just count their blessings, neither in French nor English nor Latin. Remember last week I mentioned how keen they were to establish their control over the lands they had conquered, and this was evidenced by the ‘Doomsday Book’ of 1086, in which King William had all property surveyed for ‘taxation’ purposes (nice euphemism there!) and the results recorded.

In fact the Normans encouraged the colonisation of both Wales and then Ireland, and this they did by awarding land to knights in return for their subduing the local population. These colonists came from many parts of the country, and the linguistic upshot was the introduction of many varieties of English into these formerly Celtic territories in the 11th and 12th centuries.

In the case of Wales, the result was the division of the territory into earldoms and lordships, all subject to the English Crown. As for Ireland, Anglo-Norman influence only began in the mid-12th century, with ‘settlers’ arriving from the south-west of England and newly-conquered Wales. However, the Irish eventually regained control of the whole country, except the small area around Dublin known as ‘the Pale’, which remained in English hands; and from which the phrase ‘beyond the pale’ is taken.

Moreover, the Gaelic-speaking monarchy in Scotland offered sanctuary to English refugees fleeing from the Norman tyrant, and later even offered land to Anglo-Norman families. New towns were established and populated with English-speaking merchants. As a result, the English language began to spread northwards, not to mention the English themselves, who attempted to conquer the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. Even to this day we are still unsure as to whether the Scots were ever truly conquered; also up for debate is whether they have ever managed to learn to speak English properly.

One view of this ‘colonisation’ of the British Isles is that a model was established for later English colonisation overseas, notably the colonies in North America at the end of the 16th and in the early 17th centuries. I’ll write more on this aspect at a later date.

However, there is no doubt, in my mind at least, that the nippy Norman and his eye-catching archers brought two most important characteristics to the British Isles. Firstly, his language served to enrich our vocabulary, of that there can be no dispute. Secondly, he brought with him the imperialist and colonising mentality which has stood behind its propensity to spread out and reach parts of the world that other languages can not reach. Well, it’s just a hypothesis.

As for next week, try this question first:

What do the following Middle English words mean in Modern English?

Ich, hale, hule, starc, sumwile, and lud.

Answers next week!

Monday, October 02, 2006

Norman Conquests, but English Survives.

In my previous article on the idiosyncrasies of the English language, we left things in the middle of the 11th century, noting that way back then the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons shared a predominantly oral culture. One other thing that they had in common was the fact that the two tongues were ‘cousins’, meaning they were relatives from the same tree of languages, the Germanic one. However, in 1066 all that became history, as once again the English language suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of foreign invaders - this time from the north of France.

The date 1066 is probably indelibly etched into the minds of every British schoolkid. On October 14th of that year the Norman-French, under their Duke William, defeated the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, thus bringing Saxon rule to a bloody close. I myself can still remember our class producing a series of posters depicting on one side the Norman archers, and on the other the unfortunate King Harold with a large arrow in his left eye. But then, maybe I was just lucky in having a good teacher.

So why is it such an important historic moment? Well, the arrow that struck down poor old King Harold actually pierced to the heart of English society and its language, to such a degree that even today savants are disputing its relevance. The pro-Saxon camp interprets the events of the Norman Conquest as a decline, “a destruction of a relatively sophisticated Anglo-Saxon culture by an alien and tyrannical Norman one”. However, the alternative perspective is that the conquest represented “a milestone on the road to civilisation, playing a key role in the development of modern English”.

Whichever view you hold, the fact remains that the Normans ushered in the fourth of the Seven Ages of English, the period of Middle English from around 1100 to 1450. This stage was without doubt the modern language’s most defining period, so let’s have a closer look at the detail, and see what all the fuss was about.

During this time both the vocabulary and the spelling of the English language became affected by Norman French, which became the ‘official’ language in England. In fact, educated citizens of that time were expected to be proficient in no less than three languages - English, French and Latin!

But let’s stay with Norman French a while longer. The invasion of 1066 caused a startling linguistic division to take place, between ‘low’ Anglo-Saxon and ‘high’ Norman French. French became the language of Courts and Kings; the language of honour, justice and chivalry. Poor old Anglo-Saxon English was relegated to ‘commoner’ status, the language of ‘the people’. In fact, legend tells us that William the Conqueror tried to learn English but failed, and for 300 years afterwards the Kings of England spoke French as their first language.

Moreover, quite soon after the invasion, English landowners became so ‘Frenchified’ that a sub-class called ‘latimiers’ arose. They were interpreters whose sole task was to mediate between the Norman-speaking landowners and their Anglo-Saxon-speaking labourers. In this social division we can partly explain the differences that exist today in modern Britain between the upper and lower classes and their greatly varying accents. Think Prince Phillip, and think Oasis: hardly the same language, is it? Well, at one time it wasn’t!

So just how and why did this linguistic divide along social lines take place? To answer this we need to look at how King William went about his conquering. After reducing the country to submission, he set about building a strong Norman state on the existing Saxon institutions. Therefore the Crown retained great powers over military, legal, economic and church matters: but it was now a Norman Crown, speaking Norman French. Moreover, the Normans’ enthusiasm for keeping records, preferably in Latin, meant that the Saxons’ oral traditions were soon replaced at the cultural and administrative levels too. In short, Saxon English got turfed out into the fields and the gutters. However, here it slowly began to pick up bits of the language that had thrown it there, and in this way English began its progress back towards dominance.

In fact, many words of French origin soon came to be assimilated into English usage. The earliest adoptions were, unsurprisingly, words such as ‘duc’, ‘cuntess’, and ‘curt’ (now duke, countess. and court). Other words like ‘messe’ (mass) and ‘clerc’ (scholar) also reflected the Normans’ dominance in the state institutions of court and church.

Interestingly, as the Dukedom of Normandy fell under the control of the French King in Paris, the Norman-French words were followed by words imported from central France. This serves to explain why in English we have two variants for ‘warden’ and ‘guardian’, ‘convey’ and ‘convoy’, as well as ‘gaol’ and ‘jail’. Estimates put a figure of 20% on the amount of French words that had wheedled their way into Saxon English by the 14th century, although the highest frequency words in the language were still those of Germanic origin.

We can see evidence of the ‘class-division’ of the language in relatively modern times. When Winston Churchill wanted to appeal to the hearts and mind of the common Englander during the last war, he used words of almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon stock. The bare statement “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” contains only one word of French origin - ‘surrender’. Had he chosen to use ‘give up’ instead, he would have been 100% pure Anglo-Saxon!

And with Winston we’ll have to leave things for this week. Sadly, we’ve only really been able to take a quick look at the state of things soon after the arrival of William the Conqueror, his archers, and his language. So next week we’ll see how the two languages developed over the following couple of centuries or so.