England became bilingual on Oct. 14, 1066.
The English language borrows more words than any other language in the world. Whenever our linguistic ancestors conquered, or were conquered by, the people from another culture, they appropriated whatever words they found useful, making minor changes in spelling or pronunciation, and added them to their own word stock.It is quite surprising to most Americans, therefore, to learn that the root source of their English language is not Latin or Greek, but German. In fact, the modern language that most resembles ours today is Dutch, along with its Belgian variant, Flemish, and its much-talked-about South African variant called Afrikaans.
Our linguistic ancestors - the tribes known as the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes - came to England from their home in Northern Germany. (The name England comes from "Angle-land" or "Land of the Angles.") Here they encountered the Roman culture, which added many Latin and Greek words to the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, and later the Vikings, who contributed a Danish stock of words. (The phrases "They are ill" and "Take the knife and cut the steak" contain only two Anglo-Saxon words, "the" and "and"; the rest are pure Danish.) The point here is that children can learn early on that English is a collection of other languages, and that if you are curious enough about the words you use, you'll find history and geography and the story of human culture all bound up in your own vocabulary.
Next Sunday, Oct. 14, marks the anniversary of a time when all those elements came together in an event that changed the way we speak and write today. When William, Duke of Normandy, (look at a globe or a world map to see how close the peninsula in northwest France called Normandy is to England) invaded England in 1066, and when he defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, he brought the French language and culture into the land of the Anglo-Saxons. For the next several centuries, the French language identified the Norman conquerors, while Anglo-Saxon speech identified those who had been conquered.
All the kings of England during this time (including Richard the Lion-Hearted), spoke French, as did all the noblemen and ladies, as well as everyone who dealt in politics, education, science, the arts, and all areas of refined living. Anglo-Saxon speech, on the other hand, was used among the lowest, the basest of occupations and workers.
We can see this division of cultures and languages in the words we use today. The language of the Saxons who worked in the fields and in the sheds with live animals is the basis for our words ox, cow, bull, calf, steer, chicken, sheep, pig, sow, swine, and deer. But the names for the meats that came from these animals and were served in the Norman castles are distinctly French in origin: beef, veal, pork, bacon, sausage, mutton, venison, and poultry.
During this Norman occupation of England, several hundred words that we commonly use today were co-opted from French into English. Most pertain to the affairs of the ruling Normans, who dominated such fields as religion (prayer, friar, clergy, baptism, chaplain, miracle, sermon); government (court, crown, govern, reign, country, authority, baron, duke); law (justice, jury, plaintiff, defendant, attorney); art (beauty, image, tower, choir, design).
The word origins that follow each entry word in a good dictionary will usually designate Anglo-Saxon roots as "AS" or "OE" (for "Old English"), while words that came to us from the Normans are labeled "OF" (for "Old French").