Assessing the relative status of languages in medieval Ireland

Assessing the relative status of languages in medieval Ireland

By Raymond Hickey

Studies in Middle English linguistics, edited by Jacek Fisiak (Berlin, 1997)

Introduction: The concern of the present paper is to examine the status of Middle English and Anglo-Norman at the beginning of the settlement of Ireland from Britain in the late 12th century. Both of these languages were introduced after the first invasion from England in 1169. A reliable assessment must take into account the ethnic composition of the newcomers, their internal relations and their relative social position in Ireland. The original settlement of Ireland brought with it Welsh, Flemish, Anglo-Norman and English settlers. The leaders of this group were unequivocably the Normans as these were the military superiors of the rest.

The English had a greater status vis à vis the Welsh and the Flemings as they were the representatives of the majority language of England. The Flemings stemmed froma colony in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, which had come from Flanders some decades earlier. The native Welsh left no traces in medieval Ireland; they either abandoned their language or continued to use it without any influence on the remaining languages in Ireland.  The Flemings were quickly assimilated and the only linguistic evidence of their presence in Ireland is the small number of loanwords which were still to be found in the archaic dialect of Forth and Bargy in the south-east corner of the country at the end of the 18th century when the last recordings of this variety of early Irish English were made.

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