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When William the Conqueror led the Norman invasion of England in 1066, he, his nobles, and many of his followers from Normandy, but also those from northern and western France, spoke a range of Oïl dialects (Northern French dialects). One of these was Norman. Other followers spoke varieties of the Picard language or western French. This amalgam developed into the unique insular dialect now known as Anglo-Norman French, which was commonly used for literary and eventually administrative purposes from the 12th until the 15th century. It is difficult to know much about what was actually spoken, as what is known about the dialect is restricted to what was written. But it is clear that Anglo-Norman was to a large extent the spoken language of the higher social strata in medieval England.
It was spoken in the law courts, schools, and universities, and in due course amongst at least some sections of the gentry and the growing bourgeoisie. Private and commercial correspondence was carried out in Anglo-Norman or Anglo-French from the 13th to the 15th century, though its spelling forms were often displaced by continental spellings. Social classes other than the nobility became keen to learn French: manuscripts containing materials for instructing non-native speakers still exist, dating mostly from the late 14th century onwards.
Although Anglo-Norman and Anglo-French were eventually eclipsed by modern English, they had been used widely enough to influence English vocabulary permanently. Thus many original Germanic words, cognates of which can still be found in Nordic, German and Dutch, have either been lost or, more often, exist alongside synonyms of Anglo-Norman French origin. Grammatically, Anglo-Norman had little lasting impact on English, although it is still evident in official and legal terms where the noun and adjective are reversed, for example attorney general: the spelling is English but the word order (noun then adjective) is French. Other such examples are heir apparent, court martial, and body politic.
The literature of the Anglo-Norman period forms the reference point for subsequent literature in the Norman language, especially in the 19th century Norman literary revival and even into the 20th century in the case of André Dupont's Épopée cotentine. The languages and literatures of the Channel Islands are sometimes referred to as Anglo-Norman, but this usage, derived from the French îles anglo-normandes, is wrong: the Channel Islanders spoke and still speak a variety of Norman, not Anglo-Norman.
Anglo-Norman was never the main administrative language of England: Latin was the major language of record in legal and other official documents for most of the medieval period. However, from the late 12th century until the early 15th century, Anglo-Norman French and Anglo-French were much used in law reports, charters, ordinances, official correspondence, and trade at all levels; they were the language of the King, his court and the upper class. There is evidence, too, that foreign words (Latin, Greek, Italian, Arabic, Spanish) often entered English via Anglo-Norman.
The language of later documents adopted some of the changes ongoing in continental French and lost many of its original dialectal characteristics, so that Anglo-French remained (in at least some respects and at least at some social levels) part of the dialect continuum of modern French, albeit often with distinctive spellings. Over time, the use of Anglo-French expanded into the fields of law, administration, commerce, and science, in all of which a rich documentary legacy survives, indicative of the vitality and importance of the language.
By the late 15th century, however, what remained of insular French had become heavily anglicised: see Law French. It continued to be known as "Norman French" until the end of the 19th century, even though philologically there was nothing Norman about it.
One notable survival of influence on the political system is the use of certain Anglo-French set phrases in the Parliament of the United Kingdom for some endorsements to bills and the granting of Royal Assent to legislation. These set phrases include:
Soit baille aux Communes ("Let it be sent to the Commons", on a bill sent by the House of Lords to the House of Commons)
A ceste Bille (avecque une amendement/avecque des amendemens) les Communes sont assentus ("To this Bill (with an amendment/with amendments) the Commons have assented", on a bill passed by the House of Commons and returned to the House of Lords)
A cette amendement/ces amendemens les Seigneurs sont assentus ("To this amendment/these amendments the Lords have assented", on an amended bill returned by the House of Commons to the House of Lords, where the amendments were accepted)
Ceste Bille est remise aux Communes avecque une Raison/des Raisons ("This Bill is returned to the Commons with a reason/with reasons", when the House of Lords disagrees with amendments made by the House of Commons)
Le Roy/La Reyne remercie ses bons sujets, accepte leur benevolence et ainsi le veult ("The King/Queen thanks his/her good subjects, accepts their bounty, and wills it so", Royal Assent for a supply bill)
Soit fait comme il est désiré ("Let it be done as it is desired", Royal Assent for a private bill)
Le Roy/La Reyne s'avisera ("The King/Queen will consider it", if Royal Assent is withheld)
The exact spelling of these phrases has varied over the years; for example, s'avisera has been spelled as s'uvisera and s'advisera, and Reyne as Raine.
Among important writers of the Anglo-Norman cultural commonwealth is Marie de France.
Trilingualism in Medieval England
Much of the earliest recorded French is in fact Anglo-Norman French. In France, almost nothing was at that time being recorded in the vernacular because Latin was the language of the nobility, education, commerce and the Roman Catholic Church, and was thus used for the purpose of records. Latin did not disappear in medieval England either: it was used by the Church, the royal government and much local administration, as it had been before 1066, in parallel with Anglo-Saxon. The early adoption of Anglo-Norman as a written and literary language probably owes something to this history of bilingualism in writing.
Around the same time as a shift took place in France towards using Parisian French as a language of record in the mid-13th century, Anglo-Norman French also became a language of record in England, though Latin retained its pre-eminence for matters of permanent record. From around this point onwards, considerable variation begins to be apparent in Anglo-French, which ranges from the very local (and most Anglicized) to a level of language which approximates to and is sometimes indistinguishable from varieties of continental French. So, typically, local records will be rather different from continental French, with diplomatic and international trade documents closest to the emerging continental norm. English remained the vernacular of the common people throughout this period.
Language of the king and his court
French was the language of the king and his court until the end of the 14th century. During this period, marriages with French princesses reinforced the French status in the royal family. Nevertheless, during the 13th century, intermarriages with English people became more frequent. French became progressively a second language among the upper classes. Moreover, with the Hundred Years' War and the growing spirit of English nationalism, the status of French diminished.
French was the mother tongue of the English king until Henry IV (1399–1413). He was the first to take the oath in English, and his son, Henry V (1413–1422), was the first to write in English. By the end of the 15th century, French became the second language of a cultivated elite.
Language of the royal charters and legislation
From the conquest (1066) until the end of the 13th century, Latin was the language of all official written documents, and Norman French was almost exclusively used as a spoken language. Nevertheless, some important documents had their official Norman translation, such as the Magna Carta signed in 1215. The first official document written in Anglo-Norman was a statute promulgated by the king in 1275. So from the 13th century, Anglo-Norman became used in official documents, such as those that were marked by the private seal of the king, whereas the documents sealed by the Lord Chancellor were written in Latin until the end of the Middle Ages. English became the language of Parliament and of legislation in the 15th century, half a century after it had become the language of the king and of most of the English upper classes.
Language of administration and justice
During the 12th century, development of the administrative and judicial institutions took place. Because the king and the lawyers at the time habitually used Norman French, it also became the language of these institutions.
In the royal and local courts
From the 12th century until the 15th century, the courts used three languages. Latin was used for writing, Norman French was the main oral language during the trial, and English was used in less formal exchanges between the judge, the lawyer, the complainant or the witnesses. The judge gave his sentence orally in Norman, which was then written in Latin. Only in the lowest level of the manorial courts were trials entirely in English.
During the 15th century, English became the main spoken language. But Latin and French continued to be exclusively used in official legal documents until the beginning of the 18th century. Nevertheless, the Norman language used in England changed from the end of the 15th century into law French. This variety of French was a technical language, with a specific vocabulary, where English words were used to describe everyday experience, and French grammatical rules and morphology gradually declined, with confusion of genders and the adding of s to form all plurals. Law French was banished from the courts of the common law in 1731, almost three centuries after the king ceased speaking French primarily.
Language of the people
Though the great mass of ordinary people spoke Middle English, French, because of its prestigious status, spread as a second language, encouraged by its long-standing use in the school system as a medium of instruction through which Latin was taught. In the courts, the members of the jury, who represented the population, had to know French in order to understand the plea of the lawyer. French was used by the merchant middle class as a language of business communication, especially when it traded with the continent, and several churches used French to communicate with the non-religious people. A small but important number of documents survive which are associated with the Jews of medieval England, some featuring Anglo-Norman written in Hebrew script, and typically in the form of glosses to the Hebrew scriptures.
Middle English was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French. W. Rothwell has called Anglo-French 'the missing link' because many etymological dictionaries seem to ignore the contribution of that language in English and because Anglo-Norman and Anglo-French can explain the transmission of words from French into English, and fill the void left by the absence of documentary records of English (in the main) between 1066 and c. 1380.
Anglo-Norman morphology and pronunciation can be deduced from its heritage in English. Mostly this is done in comparison with continental Central French. English has many doublets as a result of this contrast:
warranty - guarantee
warden - guardian
catch - chase (see below)
wage (Anglo-Norman) - gage (French)
wait - guetter (French, Old French guaitier)
war (from Anglo-Norman werre) - guerre (French)
wicket (Anglo-Norman) - guichet (French, from Norman)
The palatalization of velar consonants before the front vowel produced different results in Norman to the central langue d'oïl dialects which developed into French. English therefore, for example, has fashion from Norman féchoun as opposed to Modern French façon (both developing from Latin factio, factiōnem).
The palatalization of velar consonants before /a/ that affected the development of French did not occur in Norman dialects north of the Joret line. English has therefore inherited words that retain a velar plosive where French has a fricative:
= cheptel (Old French chetel)
Other words such as captain, kennel and canvas exemplify how Norman retained a /k/ sound from Latin that was not retained in French.
However, Anglo-Norman also acted as a conduit for French words to enter England: for example, challenge clearly displays a form of French origin, rather than the Norman calenge.
There were also vowel differences: compare Anglo-Norman profound with Parisian French profond, soun 'sound' - son, round - rond. The former words were originally pronounced something like 'profoond', 'soond', 'roond' respectively (compare the similarly denasalised vowels of modern Norman), but later developed their modern pronunciation in English.
Since many words established in Anglo-Norman from French via the intermediary of Norman were not subject to the processes of sound change that continued in parts of the continent, English sometimes preserves earlier pronunciations. For example, 'ch' used to be /tʃ/ in Medieval French; Modern French has /ʃ/ but English has preserved the older sound (in words like chamber, chain, chase and exchequer).
Similarly, 'j' had an older /dʒ/ sound which it still has in English and some dialects of modern Norman, but which has developed into /ʒ/ in Modern French.
The word veil retains the /ei/ (as does modern Norman in vaile and laîsi) that in French has been replaced by /wɑː/voile, loisir.
The word mushroom preserves a hush sibilant in mousseron not recorded in French orthography, as does cushion for coussin. Conversely, the pronunciation of the word sugar resembles Norman chucre even if the spelling is closer to French sucre. It is possible that the original sound was an apical sibilant, like the Basques, which is halfway between a sibilant and a shibilant.
The doublets catch and chase, both derived from Low Latin *captiare. Catch demonstrate the Norman development of the velars, while chase is the French equivalent imported with a different meaning.
Distinctions in meaning between Anglo-Norman and French have led to many faux amis (words having similar form but different meanings) in Modern English and Modern French.
Since, although a Romance language, Norman contains a significant amount of lexical material from Norse, some of the words introduced into England as part of Anglo-Norman were of Germanic origin. Indeed, sometimes one can identify cognates such as flock (Germanic in English existing prior to the Conquest) and flloquet (Germanic in Norman). The case of the word mug demonstrates that in instances, Anglo-Norman may have reinforced certain Scandinavian elements already present in English. Mug had been introduced into northern English dialects by Viking settlement. The same word had been established in Normandy by the Normans (Norsemen) and was then brought over after the Conquest and established firstly in southern English dialects. It is therefore argued that the word mug in English shows some of the complicated Germanic heritage of Anglo-Norman.
Many expressions used in English today have their origin in Anglo-Norman (e.g. the expression before-hand derives from Anglo-Norman avaunt-main), as do many modern words with interesting etymologies. Mortgage, for example, literally meant death-wage in Anglo-Norman. Curfew (fr. couvre-feu) meant cover-fire, referring to the time in the evening when all fires had to be covered. The word glamour is derived, unglamorously, from Anglo-Norman grammeire, the same word which gives us modern grammar; glamour meant first book learning, and then the most glamorous form of book learning, magic or magic spell in Medieval times.
The influence of Anglo-Norman was very asymmetric, in that very little influence from English was carried over into the continental possessions of the Anglo-Norman kings. Some administrative terms survived in some parts of mainland Normandy: forlenc (from furrow, compare furlong) in the Cotentin Peninsula and Bessin, and a general use of the word acre for land measurement in Normandy until metrication in the 19th century, but these words are probably linguistic traces of Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian settlements between the 4th and the 10th century in Normandy. Otherwise the direct influence of English in mainland Norman (such as smogler - to smuggle) is because of direct contact in later centuries with English, rather than Anglo-Norman.
When the Normans invaded England, the Anglo-Saxon literature had reached a very high level of development. The important Benedictine monasteries wrote Chronicles in Old English and guarded other works written in this language. But with the arrival of the Normans, the Anglo-Saxon literature came to an end and the literature written in Britain was in Latin or in Anglo-Norman. The Plantagenet kings encouraged this Anglo-Norman literature. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the 14th century, some authors chose to write in English, but it is only during the late 14th century that English literature was at its best with Geoffrey Chaucer. The authors of that period were influenced by the works of contemporary French writers, whose language was culturally and literally prestigious. Chaucer is considered to be the father of the English language and the creator of English as a literary language.
Influence of Anglo-Norman French on English
The major Norman-French influence on English can still be seen in today's vocabulary. An enormous number of Norman-French words came into the language, and about three-quarters of them are still used today. Very often, the Norman-French word supplanted the Anglo-Saxon term. Or both words would co-exist, but with slightly different nuances, for example ox (describing the animal) and beef (describing the meat). In other cases, the Norman-French word was adopted to signify a new reality, such as judge, castle, warranty.
In general, the Norman-French borrowings concerned the fields of culture, aristocratic life, politics and religion, and war, whereas the English words were used to describe everyday experience. When the Normans arrived in England, their copyists wrote English as they heard it, not realizing the peculiarities of the relationship between Anglo-Saxon pronunciation and spelling, and in this way the spelling changed. There appeared different regional Modern-English written dialects, of which the one that the king chose in the 15th century became the standard variety.
In some remote areas agricultural terms used by the rural workers may have been derived from Norman French. An example is the Cumbrian term sturdy for diseased sheep that walk in circles, derived from etourdi meaning giddy.
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