English language

Florian Robert

The Force is Strong With This One
mkrnhr said:
Practicing the language in situ offers a huge advantage, along with language affinities. I've known Spanish and Italian people who learned French within a few months while taking just a few lessons and mostly interacting with people.

Interesting point since I witnessed that too when I was studying English in university a few years ago. I remember an Italian young girl who told us she had not found French particularly difficult, except for silent letters. Of course, the fact that French is a Romance language and has a lot of vocabulary in common with those languages - and sometimes even conjugations - must have made her learning of the language a lot easier. The reverse happens with people born with a Germanic or Scandinavian language who find English quite easy since it has retained its Germanic roots, though having imported countless Romance words in the process (mainly from French after William the Conqueror had seized Normandy, since his aristocracy spoke mostly that language). A friend of mine is both French and German, though having lived in France for most of her professional life, and says that she's never had any trouble learning English.

To speak from my own personal experience, I do agree speaking with natives and having experience as an insider in the country gives a real boost to your language skills. It is also better since you catch the language as it is thriving at the moment, not as it has been frozen in textbooks, especially slang which evolves very very fast.


The Living Force
The years 1066 to 1100 must have been very interesting

Indeed! I was reading about it here and here.

In 1066 the Normans conquered England and it affected strongly the language. Without William the Conqueror's invasion, English would have retained most of its inflections and preserving a predominantly Germanic vocabulary, the characteristic methods of word formation and incorporating words from other languages much less freely. It would have lacked the greatest part of French words that today make English seem on the side of vocabulary more a Romance than a Germanic language. The Norman conquest changed the whole course of English.

The event that began the transition from Old English to Middle English was the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror (Duke of Normandy and, later, William I of England) invaded the island of Britain from his home base in northern France, and settled in his new acquisition along with his nobles and court. William crushed the opposition with a brutal hand and deprived the Anglo-Saxon earls of their property, distributing it to Normans (and some English) who supported him.

The conquering Normans were themselves descended from Vikings who had settled in northern France about 200 years before (the very word Norman comes originally from Norseman). However, they had completely abandoned their Old Norse language and wholeheartedly adopted French (which is a so-called Romance language, derived originally from the Latin, not Germanic, branch of Indo-European), to the extent that not a single Norse word survived in Normandy.

However, the Normans spoke a rural dialect of French with considerable Germanic influences, usually called Anglo-Norman or Norman French, which was quite different from the standard French of Paris of the period, which is known as Francien. The differences between these dialects became even more marked after the Norman invasion of Britain, particularly after King John and England lost the French part of Normandy to the King of France in 1204 and England became even more isolated from continental Europe.

Anglo-Norman French became the language of the kings and nobility of England for more than 300 years (Henry IV, who came to the English throne in 1399, was the first monarch since before the Conquest to have English as his mother tongue). While Anglo-Norman was the verbal language of the court, administration and culture, though, Latin was mostly used for written language, especially by the Church and in official records. For example, the “Domesday Book”, in which William the Conqueror took stock of his new kingdom, was written in Latin to emphasize its legal authority.

However, the peasantry and lower classes (the vast majority of the population, an estimated 95%) continued to speak English - considered by the Normans a low-class, vulgar tongue - and the two languages developed in parallel, only gradually merging as Normans and Anglo-Saxons began to intermarry. It is this mixture of Old English and Anglo-Norman that is usually referred to as Middle English.

The Normans bequeathed over 10,000 words to English (about three-quarters of which are still in use today), including a huge number of abstract nouns ending in the suffixes “-age”, “-ance/-ence”, “-ant/-ent”, “-ment”, “-ity” and “-tion”, or starting with the prefixes “con-”, “de-”, “ex-”, “trans-” and “pre-”. Perhaps predictably, many of them related to matters of crown and nobility (e.g. crown, castle, prince, count, duke, viscount, baron, noble, sovereign, heraldry); of government and administration (e.g. parliament, government, governor, city); of court and law (e.g. court, judge, justice, accuse, arrest, sentence, appeal, condemn, plaintiff, bailiff, jury, felony, verdict, traitor, contract, damage, prison); of war and combat (e.g. army, armour, archer, battle, soldier, guard, courage, peace, enemy, destroy); of authority and control (e.g. authority, obedience, servant, peasant, vassal, serf, labourer, charity); of fashion and high living (e.g. mansion, money, gown, boot, beauty, mirror, jewel, appetite, banquet, herb, spice, sauce, roast, biscuit); and of art and literature (e.g. art, colour, language, literature, poet, chapter, question). Curiously, though, the Anglo-Saxon words cyning (king), cwene (queen), erl (earl), cniht (knight), ladi (lady) and lordpersisted.

While humble trades retained their Anglo-Saxon names (e.g. baker, miller, shoemaker, etc), the more skilled trades adopted French names (e.g. mason, painter, tailor, merchant, etc). While the animals in the field generally kept their English names (e.g. sheep, cow, ox, calf, swine, deer), once cooked and served their names often became French (e.g. beef, mutton, pork, bacon, veal, venison, etc). Sometimes a French word completely replaced an Old English word (e.g. crime replaced firen, place replaced stow, people replaced leod, beautiful replaced wlitig, uncle replaced eam, etc). Sometimes French and Old English components combined to form a new word, such as the French gentle and the Germanic mancombined to formed gentleman. Sometimes, both English and French words survived, but with significantly different senses (e.g. the Old English doom and French judgement, hearty and cordial, houseand mansion, etc).

But, often, different words with roughly the same meaning survived, and a whole host of new, French-based synonyms entered the English language (e.g. the French maternity in addition to the Old English motherhood, infant to child, amity to friendship, battle to fight, liberty to freedom, labour to work, desire to wish, commence to start, conceal to hide, divide to cleave, close to shut, demand to ask, chamber to room, forest to wood, power to might, annual to yearly, odour to smell, pardon to forgive, aid to help, etc). Over time, many near synonyms acquired subtle differences in meaning (with the French alternative often suggesting a higher level of refinement than the Old English), adding to the precision and flexibility of the English language. Even today, phrases combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French doublets are still in common use (e.g. law and order, lord and master, love and cherish, ways and means, etc). Bilingual word lists were being compiled as early as the 13th Century.

The pronunciation differences between the harsher, more guttural Anglo-Norman and the softer Francien dialect of Paris were also carried over into English pronunciations. For instance, words like quit, question, quarter, etc, were pronounced with the familiar “kw” sound in Anglo-Norman (and, subsequently, English) rather than the “k” sound of Parisian French. The Normans tended to use a hard “c” sound instead of the softer Francien “ch”, so that charrier became carry, chaudron became cauldron, etc. The Normans tended to use the suffixes “-arie” and “-orie” instead of the French “-aire” and “-oire”, so that English has words like victory (as compared to victoire) and salary (as compared to salaire), etc. The Normans, and therefore the English, retained the “s” in words like estate, hostel, forest and beast, while the French gradually lost it (état, hôtel, forêt, bête).

French scribes changed the common Old English letter pattern "hw" to "wh", largely out of a desire for consistency with "ch" and "th", and despite the actual aspirated pronunciation, so that hwaer became where, hwaenne became when and hwil became while. A "w" was even added, for no apparent reason, to some words that only began with "h" (e.g. hal became whole). Another oddity occurred when hwo became who, but the pronunciation changed so that the "w" sound was omitted completely. There are just some of the kinds of inconsistencies that became ingrained in the English language during this period.

During the reign of the Norman King Henry II and his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in the second half of the 12th Century, many more Francien words from central France were imported in addition to their Anglo-Norman counterparts (e.g. the Francien chase and the Anglo-Norman catch; royal and real; regard and reward; gauge and wage; guile and wile; guardian and warden; guarantee and warrant). Regarded as the most cultured woman in Europe, Eleanor also championed many terms of romance and chivalry (e.g. romance, courtesy, honour, damsel, tournament, virtue, music, desire, passion, etc).

Many more Latin-derived words came into use (sometimes through the French, but often directly) during this period, largely connected with religion, law, medicine and literature, including scripture, collect, meditation, immortal, oriental, client, adjacent, combine, expedition, moderate, nervous, private, popular, picture, legal, legitimate, testimony, prosecute, pauper, contradiction, history, library, comet, solar, recipe, scribe, scripture, tolerance, imaginary, infinite, index, intellect, magnify and genius. But French words continued to stream into English at an increasing pace, with even more French additions recorded after the 13th Century than before, peaking in the second half of the 14th Century, words like abbey, alliance, attire, defend, navy, march, dine, marriage, figure, plea, sacrifice, scarlet, spy, stable, virtue, marshal, esquire, retreat, park, reign, beauty, clergy, cloak, country, fool, coast, magic, etc.

A handful of French loanwords established themselves only in Scotland (which had become increasingly English in character during the early Middle English period, with Gaelic pushed further and further into the Highlands and Islands), including bonnie and fash. Distinctive spellings like "quh-" for "wh-" took hold (e.g. quhan and quhile for whanand while), and the Scottish accent gradually became more and more pronounced, particularly after Edward I's inconclusive attempts at annexation. Scottish English's radically distinct evolution only petered out in the 17th Century after King James united the crowns of Scotland and England (1603), and the influence of a strongly emerging Standard English came to bear during the Early Modern period.
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