The French Influence On The Middle English English Language Essay


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The Norman Conquest in 1066 was the beginning of the French invasion in England. For 300 years England was ruled by French kings. "It was not until 1399, with the accession of Henry IV, that England had a ruler whose mother tongue was English"(The Mother Tongue, page 54). During these 300 years the language of the high society, government, law, and administration was French. Nowadays, in the 21st century, English has become a world language. In the Netherlands, more and more English words are used in normal speech. The main field in which English terms are used is the communication and marketing branch. However, also at other places in society Dutch words are replaced by English ones. The influence of the French language on the Middle English vocabulary can therefore be compared with the current developments in the Dutch vocabulary.

After the Norman Conquest, the French people, or strictly speaking Norman French, settled themselves at the highest positions in English society. "Even so, for the common people, life went on. They were almost certainly not alarmed that their rulers spoke a foreign tongue" [The Mother Tongue, page 54]. This shows how little communication there actually was between the different classes in society. Because these common people continued to speak English, the language survived. "Common people did not expect to speak like their masters any more that they expected to live like them. Norman society had two tiers: the French-speaking aristocracy and the English-speaking peasantry. Not surprisingly, the linguistic influence of the Normans tended to focus on matters of court, government, fashion, and high living. Meanwhile, the English peasant continued to eat, drink, work, sleep, and play in English" [The Mother Tongue, page 54]. With the coming of French words, the bilingualism increased. There were of course Old English words that were replaced by French equivalents, for example 'leod' becoming 'people', but it could be as well that an Old English word would co-exist beside a French one, and become a lexical pair like in 'child' and 'infant', and it could also develop a slightly different meaning, like 'house' and 'mansion'[ examples are from The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, page 46].

In modern times, there can be noticed a similar event taking place in the Netherlands. The Dutch language is, mainly in the communication and commerce sector, but also in normal speech, pushed away by the English language. The Dutch language magazine Onze Taal compiled a dossier about the 'verengelsing', the increasing use of English terms, of the Dutch language and listed a few points where English vocabulary is increasing. First of all, due to the technological developments technical English terms come into the language. Secondly, especially among young people, English words are popular. E.g. 'chill', 'cool', 'relaxed'. The media has a large influence, foreign programs, but also by giving television programs English names, such as 'Life and Cooking', 'Dancing with the Stars', etc. The commerce sector widely uses English slogans, product names, and so on to make a product more appealing to the public. Thirdly, the use of English increases due to internationalization. Communication between companies often takes place in English, and higher education also provides more and more classes in English.

Still, the increasing use of the English vocabulary is completely voluntarily. It is not (yet) the case that, like the French language in the Middle English period, the English language is overruling the Dutch. It can also not be seen as a language only for the high society, it is in most cases considered popular speech. Therefore it is not only used in certain business fields or the media, also in daily life English words become normal. Where Dutch people used to say 'kinderen'(children) they now say 'kids'. The same goes for 'shoppen' instead of 'winkelen' and 'sale' instead of 'uitverkoop'. Other words have become completely embedded and accepted in the language. E.g. 'interview' and 'stress'.

When in 1399 the first king with an English mother tongue, Henry IV, accessed the throne, the suppression of the French has significantly declined. Due to intermarrying between Norman French and English people, their children spoke two different languages, and this affected the teaching in French at school. Another important factor for declination was that the Norman French differed so much form Standard French language, that the people in France made fun of them. This resulted in the Norman French gaining pride in the English language. "Norman French, like the Germanic tongues before it, made a lasting impact on English vocabulary. Of the 10,000 words we adopted from Norman French, some three quarters are still in use […] nearly all our words relating to jurisprudence and government are of French origin, as are many of the ranks of aristocracy […]" [The Mother Tongue, page 55]. The English language survived the French suppression, but had undergone great changes. In fact, the influence of French had been so large, that some people even speak of a new language. The language had become richer in vocabulary and the grammar was simpler.

If the English language in the 21st century will overrule another language is of course not sure. The increasing use of English in the Netherlands, but also in other countries, gives rise to a debate about preserving certain languages. However, language changes, so not all aspects of all languages can be preserved.

To conclude, there are indeed similarities between the events in both languages, the replacements of words, in speech and in more formal environments. However, the circumstances in which both these events occur differ. The most important contrast is that the Middle English language was suppressed by the Norman French , while in the Dutch language, English terms are used completely voluntarily.

Word count: 968

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