The Normans had a profound influence on Britain. Why then do we not speak French?

Answered by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia

Illustration by Glen McBeth

After 1066, with French the polite language of the upper classes, and Latin the language of the church and hence of the clerks employed in government, we might expect English to have declined to the status of a peasant patois. Two factors seem to have been crucial in its survival and eventual resurgence.

Firstly, as with many later experiments in empire (for example, the Hapsburgs in eastern Europe), the simple number of colonists was never large enough to overwhelm the native majority. Instead, a proportion both of the colonists and of the colonised elite became bilingual. In the process, not only was the ‘old’ English spoken before 1066 fundamentally altered into the language known as ‘Middle’ English, but the high-status language, French, became warped into a distinctive ‘Anglo-Norman’ dialect, mocked as early as the 12th century by Frenchmen who found the accents of those Englishmen who attempted to speak French hilarious or bizarre.

Secondly, the rivalry that emerged between the kings of England and France ensured that the ruling classes increasingly emphasised their Anglo-Norman or English identity as a means of distinguishing themselves from their ‘foreign’ enemies. In the 1230s, Henry III became the first king of England since 1066 to give distinctively ‘English’ names – Edward and Edmund – to his sons. At much the same time, official government documents, such as Magna Carta, written in Latin, began to be proclaimed in English as well as in French. By the 1290s, Edward I, himself a French-speaker, was warning his subjects that a French invasion of England might bring about the destruction of “the English language”, here presented as the very essence of Englishness.

Henry IV, after 1399, was perhaps the first king of England for whom English was the language of choice. Even so, by royal command from 1362, all pleas in the law courts – and from 1363, the majority of discussions in the parliamentary Commons – had to be conducted in English. Meanwhile, skills that today we assume to be confined to the bilingual inhabitants of a country such as Switzerland, were a part of daily life for an educated minority of medieval England.

Answered by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia.

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