Politics, The Force of Arms, And Genteel Language

It was on this day, 28 October, in 1066 – nine and a half centuries ago – that Duke William of Normandy, known as “William the Bastard” due to his illegitimate birth, but later styled William The Conqueror, (Guillaume Le Conquerant) received the submission of the Saxons of Kent and their recognition of him as King of England.

William had landed on the English coast exactly one month before. The Norman forces met in battle with the Saxon troops of English king Harold II on 14 October 1066 at Hastings. There, after a long and pitched battle, King Harold was killed by an arrow through his eye, according to legend, and the Norman army proved victorious. Duke William moved quickly to consolidate his victory and to secure the acceptance of his rule among the vanquished Saxons of England’s rich and fertile south. Though the Norman invasion force was comparatively small, they quickly pacified southern England and William marched to London where he would be crowned William I, starting a period of Norman/French rule over England that forever changed England and her peoples.

Perhaps the greatest impact of this invasion and its aftermath is to be found in our modern English language. In 1066, England spoke Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic dialect very unlike what we speak today. William and his Normans spoke Norman French, and French remained the language of the Royal Court for more than two centuries. In the ensuing 950 years, the two more-or-less merged into what we speak today.

Because of the fact that the nobility spoke French and the peasantry spoke Anglo-Saxon, there is still a sense of refinement and niceness attached to the Frenchified way of saying things. This is perhaps most notable at our mealtimes; one does not eat “cow,” (Anglo-Saxon) rather “beef” (French.) And so it is with many meats: pig/pork, calf/veal, buck/venison, and sheep/mutton. For some reason, the pattern is not followed with birds, and it is not followed in vegetables and grains, most likely due to the fact that the meals of the nobility were preponderantly meat, those of the peasants coarse meal and legumes.

In other areas of our tongue this pattern of nicer French-derived words versus meaner Anglo-Saxon words still applies. For example, “Royal” is far more frequently used than “Kingly” (and “Regal”, derived directly from Latin is fancier still.) A mansion is finer than a house, a cottage nicer than a hut. Chivalry is more polished than mere Knighthood, garmentry more stylish than mere clothing. Larceny has a cleaner ring to it than theft, while courage seems elevated above mere hardihood. To deceive is done with greater refinement than to lie, just as to cry out is more genteel than to yell out. And such a list could run to many thousands of examples. Indeed, language is what people of attainment employ whereas a tongue is what the every-day folk speak.

Of course it is true that the Norman Conquest left us many other legacies in Government, Law, and Culture. But the linguistic heritage we received from this invasion touches us all, even today, hundreds of times each day.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

— Rudyard Kipling

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