The Impact of ‘Old Norse’ and Norman French on English.   Leave a comment

One of the important results of Danish and Norwegian settlements was its effect on the English language, though archaeological evidence suggests that, apart from the obvious variations in place-names, this may have been exaggerated, especially given the relatively short periods of Danish hegemony, even in northern England. There are a large number of proper names, including place-names, of Scandinavian origin in both OE and Middle English (ME) documents. Also, English and Norse speakers lived in communities which were close enough for exchanges in transactional language to take place, and sometimes they lived in the same settlements, albeit, as in York or ‘Jorvik’, in distinct districts.

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Above: A tenth-century Anglian helmet found in Jorvik (York) during the Coppergate excavations.

In these trading centres, inter-marriage took place, as in Ireland, but the distinctive patterns of English and Viking villages suggest that rural farming and family life was not widely integrated. In time, some of these communities merged, but English dialects emerged as the dominant forms of everyday speech, with some modifications in pronunciation, vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, in grammar. The earliest written evidence, however, does not appear until the Middle English period, as most written forms of late OE are in the Wessex dialect, which had become the standard form under the ruling House in England from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of Norse are still present in the modern-day dialects of East Anglia, the Midlands, northern England and lowland Scotland, the latter in the Scots dialect based on Northumbrian English.

Unlike the English, the Danes and Norwegians did not develop a system of writing other than in runes, so no contemporary evidence of the Norse spoken in the Danelaw is available. Norse must have been spoken throughout the territory, and would have continued in large Viking settlements like York throughout the tenth and early eleventh centuries, but in most areas it must have become assimilated into English. Some physical evidence of this can be seen in a small church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, St Gregory’s Minster. In the porch, a sundial dating from about 1055 has been preserved, with the following inscription carved in stone (given here in translation):

ORM GAMALSON BOUGHT ST GREGORY’S MINSTER WHEN IT WAS ALL BROKEN (AND) FALLEN DOWN… HE CAUSED IT TO BE MADE ANEW FROM THE GROUND TO CHRIST AND ST GREGORY IN KING EDWARD’S DAYS… IN TOSTI’S DAYS… HAWARTH (AND) BRAND PRIESTS MADE ME.

 

Tostig was Earl of Northumberland and brother of Harold Godwison, who became King Harold in 1066, on the death of Edward the Confessor. Orm and Gamal were Norse names, but the languages of the inscription are Old English and Latin. ‘Orm Gamalsuna’ (in the original) meant Orm, son of Gamal, and this way of creating personal names by adding a ‘patronymic suffix’ (a name derived from the father) was a Scandinavian custom, just as the Welsh custom was to add the prefix ‘ap’. This custom must have been adopted throughout the Danelaw, if not other parts of England, hence its prevalence in modern surnames such as Davidson, Jackson, Johnson, etc. The fact that even the Saxon Earl Godwin’s sons were christened in this way is testimony to its widespread use in England, probably from the time of the Danish King Cnut, possibly a means by which they could demonstrate their loyalty to the foreign ruler, who was, by the end of his reign, keen to represent himself as a naturalised King of the English as well as the Danes.

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West Saxon, Latin and Old English:

The Saxon suffix was –ing, shown in the naming of the young Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, as the Aetheling, the rightful heir of King Aethelred and the Kings of Wessex, and therefore a rival to the throne of both Harold and William I. Henry I’s unfortunate son was also known as ‘Edward Aetheling’. The names with the ‘ing’ suffix were also incorporated into place names such as Walsingham, Billingham, Birmingham, Kidlington, but the ‘ing’ was also used in a more general way as well, so that it must not always be taken to mean son of the family of… The suffixes that indicate place-names in OE included –hyrst (copse, wood), -ham (dwelling, fold), -wic(k)(village), -tun (settlement) and –stede (place), as in Wadhurst, Newnham, Norwich, Ipswich, Heslington and Maplestead. The detailed study of these place-names provides much of the historical evidence for the serttlement of Danes and Norwegians in England.

Some words of Latin origin in OE had already been adopted by the West Germanic languages brought over by the Angles and Saxons. The Germanic peoples had long been in contact with the Romans. However, since there are no written records from this period, the evidence for the early adoption of Latin words lies in the analysis of known sound changes. Although Latin words were spoken in Britain during the fifth century by educated Britons, and transferred into Brythonic and Old Welsh, hardly any words were passed on to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. One exception were the –caster/-chester suffixes in names like Doncaster, Cirencester and Manchester meaning camp, and the –car prefixes in name like Carshalton and Carstairs, meaning fort. Other Latin words were adopted into OE in later periods in the Anglo-Saxon settlements, mainly through the conversion of the kingdoms to Christianity and the gradual establishment of the Roman Catholic Church from the seventh century onwards. The only available version of the Bible was in Latin, the Vulgate, and church services, learning and scholarship all took place solely through the same medium.

 

In Old English, the order of words in a clause was more variable than that of Modern English, and there were many more inflections (prefixes and suffixes) on nouns, adjectives and verbs. So, one of the main differences between OE and MnE is that the latter has lost many of inflections of OE. We can observe the beginnings of this loss of suffixation from the evidence of the surviving manuscripts, in which spelling irregularities become frequent. Therefore, although in late OE times the West Saxon dialect had become the standard written form of OE, and therefore did not reflect differences of pronunciation, scribes sometimes ‘mis-spelt’ because changes in pronunciation were not matched by changes in spelling.

Change and Continuity: The Conquest and Middle English:

In 1066, when Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold at Hastings and went on to become William I, there were profound effects of the subsequent ‘Conquest’ of England on every level of society, but especially in every sphere of the language – spelling, vocabulary and grammar, but it was Anglo-Saxon, in the form of Middle English, which remained the dominant written and spoken language of the new Norman territory, not Norman French. However, this was no longer the standardised West Saxon of the House of Wessex and its scribes.

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Above: The Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 1066, written in the West Saxon standard OE  

We call the linguistic period from 1150 to 1450 Middle English (ME), because from the Modern point of view in time it comes between the periods of Old English and Early Modern forms of English. The evidence for change and continuity from in Middle English comes from before the setting up of the printing press by William Caxton in 1476, and therefore comes in the form of manuscripts, just as with OE. Every copy of every book had to be written out by hand, as well as copies of letters, wills and charters, but only a few of the existing manuscripts in ME are originals, in the hand of their author. On the other hand, some works are known through a single surviving original copy.

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As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest, the standard West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation gradually went out of use. Writers used spellings that matched the pronunciation of their spoken dialect. After several copies, therefore, the writing might contain a mixture of different dialectal forms. As a result, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of different OE dialects into ME. After the Conquest of England, from 1066 to 1086, Norman French replaced the West Saxon standard English as the language of the ruling classes and their servants, because nearly all of the former Saxon greater nobility were dispossessed of their lands. The chronicler Robert Mannyng, writing in the NE Midlands dialect in 1338, referred to this takeover of estates by Franks, Normans, Flemmings and Picards who came over with the Conqueror. Another short account of the Conquest, written anonymously in the fourteenth century, in the dialect of the South West Midlands, and in metrical ‘verse’, reveals continuing Saxon hostility towards Norman domination of England:

After reigned a good man

Harold Godwin’s son

He was called Harefoot

For he was runner good

But he ne-reigned here

But nine months of a year

When William bastard of Normandy

Him disposed that were a villainy

Harold lies at Waltham

And William bastard that this land won

He reigned here

One and twenty years

Then he died at (the) home

In Normandy in Caen

 

(Word-for-word translation).

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William’s policy of dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobility from their tenures held even more firmly in the Church. The invasion had begun as a ‘crusade’, undertaken with the blessing of the Pope who had been angered by the ‘independence’ of the English church in making appointments. French-speaking bishops and abbots were appointed to the principal offices, and many French monks entered the monasteries. Latin remained the principal language of both Church and State in official documents, while French became the ‘pestige’ language of courtly life and communication with and between the King’s tenants-in-chief. This situation was described by a Plantagenet chronicler, writing in about 1300, given again in word-for-word translation:

…thus lo the English folk, for nought to ground came*…

…for a false king that ne-had no right, to the kingdom…

…came to a new lord… that more in right was…

…but their neither (of them) as one may see… in pure right was.

…thus was in norman’s hand… that land brought certainty …

 

…thus came to England, into Normandy’s hand…

…the Normans ne-could speak then, but their own speech…

…spoke French as they did at home… their children did also teach

…so that high-men of this land… that of their blood come…

…hold all the same speech… that they from them took…

…for but a man knows French… one counts of him little…

…but low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.

…i believe there ne-are in the world countries none…

…that ne-hold to their own speech… but England alone…

…but well one knows for to know… both well it is…

…for the more that a man knows… the more worthy he is…

…this noble duke William… him(self) caused to crown king…

…at London on mid-winter’s day… nobly through all things…

…by the archbishop of york, aldred was his name…

…there ne-was prince in all the world of so noble fame.

(* = were beaten)

The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written at Peterborough Abbey is important for both historical and linguistic reasons. Firstly, it is the only copy of the chronicle which describes events up until the middle of the twelfth century, the end of the Norman period and the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, in 1154. Secondly, it gives us the first direct evidence for the language change taking place in the 1150s. We know that the monastery’s library was destroyed by fire in 1116, including its original copy of the chronicle. It had to be re-written using a borrowed copy. This copy is the one that has survived to this day and is called the Peterborough Chronicle. The entries for the years up to 1121 are all in the same hand, copied in ‘classical’ West Saxon OE. But there are also two ‘continuation’ volumes of the annals, one recording events from 1122 to 1131 and the other continuing from 1132 to 1154, where the chronicle ends.

The language of these later volumes is not classical West Saxon but is markedly different, providing good evidence of the English usage of the Fenland area at that time. The Peterborough scribes were probably local to that area, speaking the (East) Mercian dialect. Since it was also within the Danelaw, there is some evidence of ON influence as well. As the annals were probably written from dictation, the scribes tended to spell the English as they heard it and spoke it themselves. As the monks were also trained in the writing of French by this time, some of these spelling conventions also influenced their record. These detectable differences in the later annals are what mark the boundary between the Old English of the House of Wessex and their scribes and the Middle English of the next three centuries before the advent of printing to Britain.

Main published source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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