The Importance of Being English: A Look at French and Latin Loanwords in English

The Importance of Being English: A Look at French and Latin Loanwords in English

By Hjördís Elma Jóhannsdóttir

BA Thesis, University of Iceland, 2011

Introduction: When people study the social history of England, they realize that after the battle of Hastings, in 1066, not all classes spoke English. For many years England was under French rule and the upper classes were French and spoke only French. English became the language of the lower classes, the servants and farmers. This meant that the farmer who brought the meat and wheat to the manor spoke English, but the residents of the manor, who ate the food, spoke French. Those who made the decisions spoke French, but those who executed their will most likely spoke English. The Church used Latin and the courts of law used French. What influences did that have on the English spoken in England? Those who study English language history see that English is of a Germanic root, but it is littered with French and Latin (L.) loanwords. When languages coexist for such a long time as French, Latin and English did in England, transference of words is inevitable. Since English was the language of the lower classes, often the Old English (O.E.) word would be pushed out of the language in favour of either a Latin or French loanword. But in some cases the O.E. word still stands proud side by side with either a Latin or French word. And sometimes the O.E. word stands next to words from both languages. Those cases are very interesting, and raise the question of why the language needs so many versions of the same word. Have all these words kept their original meaning or has it changed in any way? In this essay my plan is to look at some of those pairings and see when the loanword found its way into English and how and if either word has changed its meaning.

The question might arise why and how all these words came into English then you will have to take a look at the social history of England. In 1066 the battle of Hastings resulted in a Norman conquest over England and the Duke of Normandy William II took over the reign over England from King Harold II and became King William I. With a French King came a French court and French nobility. Many of the English upper class had been killed in the Battle of Hastings and the rest was treated as traitors. Because of this most of the Old English nobility was wiped out.

In the Church much of the same happened as in the court. Gradually all important positions were filled with Norman prelates. The English were allowed to hold their positions, but as soon as someone died or was deprived their positions were filled by foreigners.

The main difference in those who spoke English and those who spoke French became more of a social standing rather than ethnicity. The upper classes spoke French while English was the language of the masses. So much did the upper class speak French that the literature produced for the upper class was written in French.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Iceland

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