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Melvyn Bragg on England’s verbal twins

Whenever I learn of a book about the history of the English language, then provided the price is not too steep, I tend to buy it. Only this month, I bought another such book. Although short, as promised, this one looks like being very good.

You may recall learning about how some Normans conquered the English speaking rulers of England in the eleventh century. 1066 and all that. You may even know something of the bit of the story of English that most fascinates me, which is when, in the late fourteenth century, English, in England, conquered Norman French as the language of those ruling England.

That I like wallowing in this story is why, when I was today looking for something to read while answering nature’s call, I noticed in and picked out from my large and disorganised book collection The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, to rediscover what he had said about this particular moment in the history of English.

What got my attention, though, was a passage written about the time just before English put in its big fourteenth century sprint that took it past Norman French to national linguistic victory. Here is something Bragg says about English during the times when its very future, in the face of Norman French, was still in doubt (pp. 58-60):

Because French was at that time the international language of trade, it acted as a conduit, sometimes via Latin, for words from the markets of the East. Arabic words that it then gave to English include: ‘saffron’ (safran), ‘mattress’ (materas), ‘hazard’ (hasard), ‘camphor’ (camphre), ‘alchemy’ (alquimie), ‘lute’ (lut), ‘amber’ (ambre), ‘syrup’ (sirop). The word ‘checkmate’ comes through the French ‘eschec mat’ from the Arabic ‘Sh h m t’, meaning the king is dead. Again, as with virtue and as with hundreds of the words already mentioned, a word, at its simplest, is a window. In that case, English was perhaps as much threatened by light as by darkness, as much in danger of being blinded by these new revelations as buried under their weight.

Yet the best of English somehow managed to avoid both these fates. It retained its grammar, it held on to its basic words, it kept its nerve, but what it did most remarkably was to accept and absorb French as a layering, not as a replacement but as an enricher. It had begun to do that when Old English met Old Norse: hide/skin; craft/skill. Now it exercised all its powers before a far mightier opponent. The acceptance of the Norse had been limited in terms of vocabulary. Here English was Tom Thumb. But it worked in the same way.

So, a young English hare came to be named by the French word ‘leveret’, but ‘hare’ was not displaced. Similarly with English ‘swan’, French ‘cygnet’. A small English ‘axe’ is a French ‘hatchet’. ‘Axe’ remained. There are hundreds of examples of this, of English as it were taking a punch but not giving ground.

More subtle distinctions were set in train. ‘Ask’ – English – and ‘demand’ – from French – were initially used for the same purpose but even in the Middle Ages their finer meanings might have differed and now, though close, we use them for markedly different purposes. ‘I ask you for ten pounds’; ‘I demand ten pounds’: two wholly different stories. But both words remained. So do ‘bit’ and ‘morsel’, ‘wish’ and ‘desire’, ‘room’ and ‘chamber’. At the time the French might have expected to displace the English. It did not and perhaps the chief reason for that is that people saw the possibilities of increasing clarity of thought, accuracy of expression by refining meaning between two words supposed to be the same. On the surface some of these appear to be interchangeable and sometimes they are. But much more interesting are these fine differences, whose subtleties increase as time carries them first a hair’s breadth apart and then widens the gap, multiplies the distinctions: just as ‘ask’ has evolved far away from ‘demand’.

Not only did they drift apart but something else happened which demonstrates how deeply not only history but class is buried in language. You can take an (English) ‘bit’ of cheese and most people do. If you want to use a more elegant word you take a (French) ‘morsel’ of cheese. It is undoubtedly thought to be a better class of word and yet ‘bit’, I think, might prove to have more stamina. You can ‘start’ a meeting or you can ‘commence’ a meeting. Again, ‘commence’ carries a touch more cultural clout though ‘start’ has the better sound and meaning to it for my ear. But it was the embrace which was the triumph, the coupling which was never quite one.

That’s the beauty of it. That was the sweet revenge which English took on French: it not only anglicised it, it used the invasion to increase its own strength; it looted the looters, plundered those who had plundered, out of weakness brought forth strength. For ‘answer’ is not quite ‘respond’; now they have almost independent lives. ‘Liberty’ isn’t always ‘freedom’. Shades of meaning, representing shades of thought, were massively absorbed into our language and our imagination at that time. It was new lamps and old; both. The extensive range of what I would call ‘almost synonyms’ became one of the glories of the English language, giving it astonishing precision and flexibility, allowing its speakers and writers over the centuries to discover what seemed to be exactly the right word.

Rather than replace English, French was being brought into service to help enrich and equip it for the role it was on its way to reassuming.

This reminds me of things I have read about how twins, even identical twins, by each twin being a big part of the environment for other twin, even (especially?) in the womb, can develop distinct and divergent personalities, more so than their mere genes would seem to indicate would happen.

It’s interesting how Bragg includes those verbal twins that we here are all familiar with, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. I get that ‘liberty’ (the French one) can mean taking a liberty, which is bad, and that this makes liberty different from ‘freedom’ in that particular way. Otherwise, the differences tend to defeat me. But ‘ask’ and ‘demand’ is a divergence that everyone gets, as Bragg says. Ask is liberty/freedom. Demand is nearly the opposite.

I often wonder just what impact the subsequent rise of English to something at least resembling world domination has had on the advance of liberty. (Or do I mean the advance of freedom?) Anglosphere, etc. But that’s a whole different story.

29 comments to Melvyn Bragg on England’s verbal twins

  • Julie near Chicago

    Fascinating ruminating, Brian. Thanksabunch!

    Notice, also, that were my two-word opinion taken with no context whatsoever, a modern Anglophone, or English-speaker (not the same thing as an English speaker, you will note: hyphens do real work) — a modern speaker of English would not be able to tell whether I am a lexiphile or a vet.

    I notice that I have written “speaker” as if it meant “one who understands English.” But what I really had in mind was one who comprehends written English, even if he be dumb. On this small piece of written homework, I therefore deserve only a “B,” because of this excursion into murk. :>))

  • Mr Ed

    in the late fourteenth century, English, in England, conquered Norman French as the language of those ruling England.

    Reversing that could be one more concession that Mrs May might wish to chuck into her deal with the EU. It would also align us with the Channel Islands.

    French is really, like Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Mirandese and other cousins, degenerate vulgar Latin.

  • Bragg notes good things that came from English’s enriching from French. As a literary device, he tells the story as if intentional – personifying an ‘English’ that took thought and cleverly ‘looted the looters’

    Almost no-one planned any of this. A ‘cow’ gives us ‘beef’ because an English cowherd raised one whose meat was eaten by a Normal french noble. Etc. A planner – an Academicien Francais for example – would never have allowed it.

  • Patrick Crozier

    How’s about language makes next to no difference? Has speaking French prevented the French from writing (Moliere?); building (Suez Canal?); discovering (Pascal?); fighting (Foch?) or thinking (Bastiat?)? Not really.

    My guess is that there is a means in French to express the difference between “ask” and “demand”. In much the same way there is a means in English to express the difference between “oui” and “si”.

  • staghounds

    Julie near Chicago, and some English speakers would wonder, upon reading your whole comment, what about your two-word opinion suggests your prior military service.

  • Lloyd Martin Hendaye

    “Freedom” is of Old Norse origin, connoting a choice of life-paths, even destiny, as one’s “free doom”.

    “Liberty”, however, derives from Latin “liber”, book, linking codified permission with discretionary options rather than mere “license” in the sense of behavioral constraints subject to common-law “legal” or officially enacted (statutory) rules.

  • Dom

    Does anyone know if “assault and battery” are just twin words for a single crime or are they two different chargers?

  • terence patrick hewett

    The most important phases for me are the Great Language Shift circa 1100-1350 and the later Great Vowel Shift. The drivers for both these events are complex and fascinating and not much covered in academic papers or books – which seem to concentrate on language analysis instead of taking a holistic approach.

  • Lee Moore

    it used the invasion to increase its own strength; it looted the looters, plundered those who had plundered, out of weakness brought forth strength

    Or as cousin Friedrich would have it :

    “Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker”

  • Mr Ed


    An assault is actually the apprehension of immediate violence or use of force, and a battery is the use of force, which can be the merest touching. The words ‘Were it not Assize time, I would run you through’ uttered by a man grasping his sword handle, did NOT amount to an assault as the words negated the action, since it was Assize time and the King’s judges were in town.

    The two offences were codified as summary offences (like misdemeanours in most of the US AIUI) by the Criminal Justice Act 1988.

  • Fraser Orr

    Definitely interesting. I always find Melvyn Bragg a bit too fancy, elitist and “arty” for my taste, but the subject matter might be enough for me to overcome my prejudice.

    But the thing that it made me think of is that which is an ongoing battle in language — which is to say, who gets to say what is right and wrong. Dictionaries of the Merriam Webster persuasion are very much of the thinking that “right” and “wrong” are defined much more by the common manner of speaking of the owners of the language than the rule books and grammars that demand the right to define English.

    And this seems to be the story here. The elitist French may well have tried to impose their snail eating, garlic breathed, accent ridden foreign muck language on us. But rather than genuflecting kneeling to their linguistic suzerainty overlordship we kicked their butts, tossed their morphologies, dumped their accents and took all their good stuff, like a viking raiding the local village. It is kind of like a 14th century linguistic Brexit, really.

    Of course many other languages have organizations created with the elitist authority to define language Académie française or Real Academia Española for example. But to me one of the glories of English is that there is no such academy. Moreover it is something that leaves the elitists of the language churning in discomfort, something that causes me no end of delight. The idea that the masses might well rob them of their subjunctive or their semicolon is just too much for them to bear. And the very idea of wiktionary is surely an abomination?

    For example, my children often said they did something “on accident” rather than “by accident”. I would frequently correct them on this “error” but if you look it up in the dictionary you will find that it is now considered correct usage, from having become so common.

    One of my favorite TED talks is by a lady called Corey Stamper, who is an assistant editor at Merriam Webster, and a really fascinating person, Here she talks about this subject and the related topic of linguistic identity.


    In fact MW has a whole series called “ask the editor” on you tube that deals with many specific instances of this, and those of you who find such things interesting might well enjoy them.

  • bobby b

    Fraser Orr
    December 23, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    “One of my favorite TED talks is by a lady called Corey Stamper . . . “

    I had two quibbles with her talk about dialects.

    First, I think she gives too much credit for intentionality to dialect users. She’s very big on the whole “expression of personal identity” concept, but I think it has far more to do with a lack of exposure to the teaching of language than to an intention to make language one’s own. Dialects, whether they be Ebonics or Spanglish or hillbilly, occur most often in communities that lack educational opportunities. Communities with good education – well-off communities, for the most part – are exposed in school to “proper” language, while poor kids more often aren’t, and I think that deviant dialect develops through the lack of knowledge of proper language, not through some intention to be different from “proper” society. You have to be exposed to “proper” before you can rebel against it. I grew up speaking Spanglish, not because I wanted to establish identity, but because that’s all that we learned in Compton.

    Second, I think that she’s improperly praising an anti-educative effort that ends up destroying the communicative purpose of language. The purpose of language isn’t to express individual identity, but to communicate. Standardization across communities is the best way to ensure that communication is possible between communities. What she celebrates with her “personal identity” theme is a breakdown in our ability to communicate with others.

    But, irregardless of all that, she gives a great talk. 😉

  • Julie near Chicago


    Yes, indeed. Youse gets an A+ for noticing. Does this imply that my final word in the first para. was chosen carefully, or carelessly? Only the authoress knows for sure…. ;>)



    Standardization across communities is the best way to ensure that communication is possible between communities. What she celebrates with her “personal identity” theme is a breakdown in our ability to communicate with others.

    Amen, brother. :>)))

    Also, to flog my particular hobbyhorse once again, to have a very clear idea of what our words is central to clear thinking. This is what allows us to figure out whether what we are trying to consider is what we really are considering.

    This is really at least half of the root of what Miss R. calls “package dealing,” and of her “smuggled concept,” which philosophers and pundits ought to be at great pains to avoid. It is required of mathematicians when they lay out arguments.

    Of course, the words we use do not rain down upon us from Heaven, attached as tags to their referents; in the end, usage prevails whether or not it is pronounced “correct.” So usage will, in the course of time, cause people’s understanding of words as used in their own time and place to change somewhat. My own conclusion is that we ought to resist such changes as best we can, so as to preserve core meanings as best we can, while acknowledging that changes will inevitably occur.

    This is maybe the single most important reason why a dictionary worthy of the name ought to include every scrap of etymology and of historical usage of every word in it. The gold standard, of course, is the 1933 OED, with errata and addenda added up through (I believe) 1971. I haven’t seen the 2nd Edition, but today’s online OED is nowhere near up to scratch. Since its fall from grace some years ago, I have thought Webster’s 1828 (!) the best of the bunch, followed by Webster’s 1913, for the etymologies and the various meanings and nuances of meanings given; but now that Webster’s publishers have mooshed everything together, they are not all that useful either.


    In closing: “What is this ‘moosh,'” you may say. “I can’t find it nowhere in the Dictionary!” To which I reply, youse is bright guys, figger it out! 😉

  • Julie near Chicago

    Addendum, re Ms. Corey Stamper’s suggestion that words express (or ought to express) one’s “personal identity”), I mention again Wolcott Gibbs’s notes to editors of the New Yorker:

    Try to preserve an author’s style, if he is an author and has a style.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Personal Linguistic identity.”

    Mea culpa.

  • Fraser Orr

    @bobby b
    First, I think she gives too much credit for intentionality to dialect users. She’s very big on the whole “expression of personal identity” concept, but I think it has far more to do with a lack of exposure to the teaching of language than to an intention to make language one’s own.

    I’m not entirely sure why it can’t be both. I am Scottish, originally, and the Scots English language is certainly notably different in many aspects than “standard” English — whatever that means. However, I can generally make myself understood by the colonists here with their bastardized version of the English language. (I don’t remember if Korey talks about this in this particular talk, but American English was deliberately fiddled with by Webster to give the country a linguistic identity. So perhaps you all should start putting those u’s back into words that so desperately crave them.)

    But I will tell you that talking Scots English to another speaker is an immediate bonding experience, and it is wrapped in all sorts of cultural, nostaligia and self identification. Gonna giez a brak? Yer talking wi yer bum hingin oot the windae. I’m pure gutted that ye didnae get ma point.

    Dialects, whether they be Ebonics or Spanglish or hillbilly, occur most often in communities that lack educational opportunities.

    I think it is true that communities of that sort do have less access to “standard English”, but I also think that most communities develop their own linguistic character to distinguish and identify themselves. The difference is that often these communities have to power to deem that to be “standard” English. And to ignore these dialects like Ebonics, Spanglish and so on is to rob the English language of some fabulous developments that it could readily take on board. Ebonics for example has verb tenses and aspects that are not easily expressible in English.

    English’s power comes from the fact that it is a mongrel. That is why Norse and Norman French could so readily be assimilated by it (and why we simplified verbs and nouns by almost completely eliminating semantic morphology.)

    Second, I think that she’s improperly praising an anti-educative effort that ends up destroying the communicative purpose of language.

    I don’t agree with that at all. I think accent can make language difficult to understand, but the very definition of “language” is mutual understanding. Again the nature of English, with its simple structure, means that variations are readily assimilated and easily understood. Now my example of Scots English above is probably difficult to understand, but no Scottish person would talk to an American in that manner. It is evident to them how to cut the dialect down and keep it more standard. (Having said that you would probably find it quite difficult to understand some Scottish accents though.)

    “I’m done my homework” doesn’t leave one in any doubt as to the completeness (or claimed completeness) of the homework. However, it is uncomfortable on the ear. And in that sense is similar to that most powerful of tools in language — the figure of speech. Figures of speech are deliberate violations of the normal rule of language to make you jump up and take notice. “I am a rock, I am an island.” Well, that is riduclous, obviously I am a person, not either of those things. Oh wait, I get it you mean you share some characteristics of a rock or an island. We call this a metaphor, and it is a very powerful tool. Similarly too, “I’m done my homework” is understandable and jarring, just as it is designed to be. I think it unlikely that this lady’s daughter was unable to get access to an excellent education, but he chose to jar to communicate something in her language, about who she was and her relative position to her mother.

    The purpose of language isn’t to express individual identity, but to communicate.

    Says who? Certainly communication is one purpose of language. But if that were the only purpose one must surely toss out poetry which often obscures the communication to make one think differently or feel a particular way. And musical lyrics too, often poor English but designed to make you feel.

    (The subject of music for communication is actually a really fascinating one that I have thought about quite a lot, but that is far to much of a diversion for this subject.)

    In fact much of language, and a large percentage of communication is for the establishment and maintenance of bonds between people — which is one of the most important things people, herd animals as they are, do. If you have asked someone “He how are you doin’?” and they had the audacity to actually respond by telling you how they are doing, then perhaps this point will become more clear.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Julie near Chicago
    Also, to flog my particular hobbyhorse once again,

    FWIW, I love this delicious expression. It actually emphasizes a point I was making earlier about deviations from the norm being points to make you pause and think. I read this and though, “wait, one rides a hobby horse and flogs a dead horse”, but put together they are quite delightfully complimentary.

    It reminds me of another difference. Where I grew up one “preached to the converted” and “sung to the choir”, however, it seems that here in the midwest one may only “preach to the choir”. I think the loss of this distinction is quite lamentable.

    to have a very clear idea of what our words is central to clear thinking. This is what allows us to figure out whether what we are trying to consider is what we really are considering.

    I think you are going to have to flog a lot harder because that horse ain’t dead yet. My experience is that most arguments on the web come down to a non shared meaning of a word or concept (that and a belief that one’s own moral code is universal and irrefutable, which is almost always isn’t.) But people don’t accidentally weaponize words. Often it is done deliberately. Because, despite what your dictionary might tell you, words are really just nodes in a complex web of semantics. For example, “climate change denier”: the meaning of each word is perfectly plain, however, that word “denier” has second order associations that are meant to offer a sinister coloring to the phrase that the literal meaning doesn’t hold. “Pro life” and “pro choice” are excellent examples of this too.

    So ride your hobby horse and flog it raw in the hopes that it’ll gallop fast enough to overtake the tsunami of mendacious manipulation of vocabulary. However, I think old nag just doesn’t have it in her. (See I can mix metaphors with the best of ’em.)

    This is really at least half of the root of what Miss R. calls “package dealing,” and of her “smuggled concept,”

    Who is “Miss R.”?

  • Bruce

    Someone of my acquaintance once described English as “the greatest syncretic language in history”.

    That may or may not be hubris or hyperbole, but few other languages have absorbed so many “foreign” influences and grown both in volume and territorial range.

    German had a long tradition of devising long and interesting, descriptive compound nouns as opposed to the English practice of “shortcut jargon”. The French apparently have a “linguistic purity” committee to standardise “proper French” words for new objects or phenomena. English appears to have cheerfully adopted “new” words, if in sometimes a slightly mangled version. The whole language is rife with Greek, Latin, Norse, French, Hindi, etc. words. The other thing is that wonderful practice of having specific jargon for every field of endeavor, often re-purposing words. A “dog” is something quite different to a Vet than a rigger. A Fitter and a plumber use the word “Tap” for different things.

    Then there is the widely-accepted cultural imperialism in the arts: Italian in music and French in Ballet, for starters. See also Russian as the basis for soil-science terminology.

    Just look at the vast array of nautical terminology; names for types of vessel for starters; “dinghy” is straight-up Hindi, “Schooner” comes from Dutch, “lateen” is a corruption of “Latin” and so forth.

    Interestingly enough, the Viets have their own committee to standardize the spelling and pronunciation of “foreign” words that find their way into common usage. They seem to have worked out that is a more practical than linguistic isolationism in a country that has been invaded by every man and his dog in the region and then some.

  • Fraser Orr

    Just to add to the discussion and the points I made above about “approved” language, and more particularly how it is the use of unapproved language, giving the finger to the aspirations of an “Royal Academy of English” that has made it what it is today. Its mongrel character makes it extremely difficult to spell but it bristles with a rich vocabulary brought both from the widespread British Empire but also from the nature of the language, its whorishness, its willingness to jam any liguistic structure into a square hole into which it doesn’t quite fit, its ability to denude foreign speech of all the frilly nonsense (like declination or conjugation) and force it in to a general framework that isn’t quite consistent, but is utilitarian. It is its lack of self control that makes English such a great language.

    However, there was a bigger point I wanted to make that relates to this. There is a growing movement lamenting the use of tech speak. You know texting language, email language and so forth. With the usual moral panic about “how will they ever learn cursive if they are fiddling with their phones all day?” However, I think that this misses what I consider to be the most important development in the English language in five hundred years.

    Initially English was basically a spoken, verbal, language. Not that it wasn’t written down, but it was primarily used by the common folk to talk. Latin, and later French, was the language of books an learning. However, starting in the 13th century in England English began to become the dominant language, even of court. Laws were, for the first time, written in English. This was further consolidated with the printing press, the second wave of English when it went from being a primarily verbal language to a primarily written language. Now, what I mean by that is that the spoken language because strongly influenced by the written language. Different regional dialects were synchronized, without loosing their individual character, spelling became normalized, and, so some extent grammar became normalized. English had become available in two modalities — spoken and written.

    About 20-30 years ago a new version of English emerged. It was a kind of verbal/written form of English, with the casualness of spoken English in the form of written text. This started really with email and net news, but was lit on fire when such things moved out of the lofty realm of academia into the hands of the general population, particularly exploding with the growth of SMS systems.

    These new technologies opened an explosion of innovation in the English language that really hasn’t happened for five hundred years. This new tech speech has its own vocabulary, syntax, grammar, punctuation, even its own orthography and phonology. Let me offer a couple of examples.

    Early on it became clear that casually written English did not have the ability to convey nuances of feeling such as sarcasm or joking, or disapproval and so forth. These were readily available in the wider bandwidth communication of spoken English through tone, body language, cadence and so forth. But written English did not have them. In a more formal English such subtitles were either ignored or expressed explicitly or through figures of speech (which ironically are more needful in writing rather than speaking. However, you’d never know, because written English has very poor ways to express irony.)

    This new tech English was liberal enough that it introduced a whole range of emotion expressors, such as the smiley, traceable way back to the early days of email. This lead to a whole family of expressive tools that had never been allowed in printed English, controlled as it was by the big printing houses.

    These emoticons have actually changed the orthography of tech English both by way of creating special arrangements of symbols like : – ) and later (with a hat tip to the Koreans) into actual little graphic images that become part of the alphabet of the language. (BTW, I had to space : – ) out so that it didn’t get converted into one of these new alphabet glyphs.)

    One such tool is “lol”. This is an interesting word in how it developed. Originally short for “laughing out loud” it mean that you literally found the preceding funny. In those wild west days of early tech English there was massive innovation even in this tiny phrase. rotflol, lmao, etc. A lot of these are less used today, but lol has actually become a word in the English language. I don’t know if it made it to the dictionaries but I hear it used all the time. lol used to be pronounced “el oh el”, but now it is a monosylabic word. Moreoever, its meaning isn’t really “I am literally laughing”, rather it has almost come to be a marker of agreement or alignment of view.

    Another example is the hashtag. Completely an invention of tech English, I believe it originated at Twitter as a way to connect together ideas in a searchable related fashion. However, its usage has changed in an important. Although it can serve this original function, I think its main function is to offer a kind of summary statement of the preceding. I just posted a comment on FB about something my daughter did and added #proudparent. It was not my expectation that anyone would link their proud parenting moments to mine, but rather it offered a concise summary of my statement. This is further done sometimes without a hashtag but by the use of a group of emoticons.

    I could go on and on about this. There are a thousand innovative sticky ideas in tech English that will no doubt eventually make it in to the other branches (in fact they already have to some degree.) But my point is twofold — this is not something lamentable, rather it is the most radical innovation in the English language in five hundred years and we should all embrace it and learn from it. And second, although these developments have happened in other places (especially in the phone obsessed orient), English, because of its naturally open, uncontrolled, liberal approach has embraced and lead this dynamic revolution.

  • terence patrick hewett

    @Julie near Chicago

    Entirely agree with you about the OED: your 1933 ed. is the one I have: and Merriam-Webster is both the older and the better – but I believe both have their faults – you can’t have everything!

  • Rudolph Hucker

    Surely the French language is as old as the English language?

    Actually no. As Graham Robb has eloquently explained in “The Discovery of France”, France (as we know it now) is a recent invention. By recent, we mean from the French Revolution onwards. Only after that was French imposed as a single language on the region. It had not always been one country, and for many centuries had existed with several different languages and many different dialects.

    This helps make sense of what at first appears to be baffling and daft idea – that French was invented in England. According to David Howlett, the author of “The English origins of Old French literature ” :

    Dramatic differences between Latin texts written before and after the settlement of the Normans in England imply that the conquerors inherited from the conquered a tradition of Anglo-Latin composition. They also derived from a 500-year-old tradition of Old English literature the idea and the formal, generic, and thematic models of Old French literature. The earliest examples of nearly every genre of Old French verse and prose were composed in the Anglo-Norman dialect or written by continental authors working in England or preserved in English manuscripts. These, with the Insular heroes and stories of Brendan, Havelock, Horn, Arthur and Tristan, suggest that for the first century of its existence most French literature was English in origin and execution.

    Similarly, in “Language Made Visible: The Invention of French in England After the Norman Conquest” by David Georgi,

    The English origins of French literature remain something of an open secret, backed by impressive evidence, but known only to a relatively small audience. In 1992, Ian Short lamented that “standard histories of medieval French literature persist in ignoring the fact that French Literature begins, to all intents and purposes, in 12th century Anglo-Norman England”. Many years later, this fact is still not universally recognised, even among Anglo-Norman specialists. A recent book devoted entirely to post-conquest England remarks “in the twelfth century England seems to have been a key region for the production of French writing, in some ways ahead of French-speaking areas on the continent.” As late as 2005, the team of eminent scholars who prepared the chapter on “Vernacular Literary Consciousness” in the Middle Ages volume of the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, called the development of French literature in England “curiously precocious” and don’t seem to know what to make of it.

  • Lee Moore

    My experience is that most arguments on the web come down to a non shared meaning of a word or concept

    Often a meaning not shared between one sentence and the next, uttered by the same person.

    eg “gender”seldom appears in the same coat, all the way through a whole paragraph.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Lee Moore
    Often a meaning not shared between one sentence and the next, uttered by the same person.

    I am sure that happens, but I don’t agree that it is all that common. Disagreements about subjects very often come down to differences in core, root values as expressed in words. And the reason why internet discussions (and non internet discussions for that matter) never resolve is that the discussion is about words several levels away from the root core values. It is only by getting to these core values that you can come to some resolution, even if that resolution is “we will never agree about this.”

    Brexit is a perfect example of this. There is lots of disagreements about the particulars of the Irish border, and the amount we should pay the EU to resolve our obligations, and what degree we should incorporate EU regulation into British law, and whether we should have a second referendum. But these are all window dressing on the fundamental core value — namely what you think about sovereignty, what you think about what Britain is. If you don’t address that core value then all the rest is just irrelevant fluff, pointless proxy arguing without addressing the core issue. It is why Ms. May’s dealing with this has been such a disaster. Her core beliefs about Britain are not aligned with the idea of Brexit, and so she isn’t really capable of negotiating a Brexit.

    I listened to a TED talk recently that I thought was interesting. It is given by a snarling, snippy liberal who says things like “you can understand why people would eat at Applebees, but not anyone you know.” FWIW, I like eating at Applebees, god forbid that one should be so crass as to eat at a place that serves lettuce rather than arugula. So be warned, there is lots of that ugliness going on. But if one can get past that and understand his academic point I think it is pretty interesting. (I think that the ability to learn from people with whom you disagree is an important skill that a lot of people lack. But I imagine the denizens of these parts can probably do so.)


  • Julie near Chicago

    Very good and interesting comments! A most enjoyable discussion.


    1. Thank you. I’m not quite sure whether that hobbyhorse has already left the barn (been flogging it for a long time now, see no need to discontinue) or whether it’s to be stuck in there forever, yeah though the flaming Internet consume it (and me) — ditto.

    2. Miss R. Sorry, I always think everyone understands my pet names. “Richard” always = Richard Epstein,” for instance; other Richards must be specifically specified. Thus, “Miss R.” = Ayn Rand, a Guiding Light to a great many libertarians and even some pseudo-libertarians (v. bleeding-heartiensis). Still a fan of much, though now only a fellow-traveller.

    Merry Christmas, Fraser, and all you lovely Samizdata fans and conspirators world-wide! (Even the Jewish and atheist ones, plus miscellaneous others.) We are having chicken (“roasted,” but not spit-roasted, on the grill…sigh); but I’ll be glad to join anyone for roast beef or roast lamb or roast duck or goose. Just invite me, and send the airline tickets post-haste.

    😀 😀 😀

  • Fraser Orr

    @Julie near Chicago
    “Miss R.” = Ayn Rand

    Ah, I should have guessed that one. I’m a little uncomfortable to admit that I haven’t read much Ayn Rand. I tried a couple of her novels but found them a little too snoozy and turgid. And I think I also and in deep disagreement with the idea that any philosophy can be objective. But perhaps the latter is due to the former.

    Merry Christmas, Fraser, … but I’ll be glad to join anyone for roast beef or roast lamb or roast duck or goose. Just invite me, and send the airline tickets post-haste.

    Ah, sorry my friend, we are having roast beast this year not the delicacies you mention. Which BTW, reminds me that I recently watched the new Grinch movie with my daughter. [Spoiler Alert — but you knew the end already anyway] One couldn’t imagine political correctness could invade, but one would be wrong. A large part of the movie is about why the Grinch is mean. It was because of his mean childhood, the abandonment of his parents and bullying at school. Apparently one cannot just be mean, there has to be a reason. And of course, the moment little Cindy Lou shows him a fraction of kindness and some charity, he immediately transforms. Is that all in the original book? Not as far as I remember it.

    Nonetheless, a Merry Christmas to you and to all who celebrate it, and a Happy Holidays to the rest of you.

  • Julie near Chicago

    And what might be the variety of beast? I also eat pork, and have been known to surround venison, opossum, squirrel, rabbit, pheasant, and Cornish Game Hen. As well as various sea- and fresh-water creatures….

    Food is good! *Yum*

    As for Miss R., I think that as the song (almost) goes,

    She got along without ya before she met ya
    Gonna get along without ya now….

    Of course the Grinch is not nasty for no reason! Nothing’s for no reason!

    Cheerio & pip-pip!

  • Runcie Balspune

    Almost no-one planned any of this. A ‘cow’ gives us ‘beef’ because an English cowherd raised one whose meat was eaten by a Normal french noble. Etc. A planner – an Academicien Francais for example – would never have allowed it.

    This is more obvious in the words for meat, eating it is French (beef/veal, mutton, venison, pork), but the animal is english (cow, sheep, deer, pig).

  • Mr Ed

    Here is a YT video by a linguistics chap on the movement to recast English without non-Germanic loan words, Anglish.

  • Paul Marks

    I suspect that the come back of English started with Edward III – he paid for works written in English, it may have even started with Edward II (who was infamous for his close connections with ordinary people).

    Why did it happen? Why did English replace Norman French?

    Because the Kings of England were NOT also Kings of France – had that happened (and so many English Kings tired to become Kings of France) then the language of the united realm would have, eventually, have become French (of one form or another) – as that is would have been the language of most people in the Realm, and would have spread.

    As it was a Norman (Norman French speaking) aristocrats were in an English speaking “sea” of people – and intermarried with the locals. Even King Henry the First married an English speaker – a direct descendant of Alfred the Great.

    No one (other than a lunatic) likes to place their claim to land on “conquest” – that implies that anyone can just take the land away from you by force (without committing an injustice). So it was only natural to marry local women – especially the daughters of people who had owned the land. For then one’s sons could say “we have always been here” even if (technically) that meant the people of their mother.

    But had France and England become one Kingdom (and that almost happened – many times) then, eventually, French would have won out – because France had the larger population.

    Even as it was, with a tiny Norman French speaking section of the population (less than 1% of the population) French had a big impact on English – we are not speaking Anglo Saxon.

    Would history have been more peaceful had England and France become one country? Well perhaps – but think of what would have been lost, for example trial by jury died in France with the influence of Roman Law. And with a united Realm it would have died (or not developed) on this island to.

    A monarchy with judges with Roman Law (judicial torture and all) – the Common Law tradition would have been killed in its cradle.