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!


DG said...

Answers please :-)

EnglishTeacher365 said...

Answers? I think I must have 'mislaid' them, but I'll go on a hunt for you!