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Did the medieval English speak French?

This article in Leeds Today, on the forgotten St. Edmund, says they did:

In the wake of the Norman Conquest of 1066, everything connected to the English nation and its culture were suppressed -- especially the language, literature, and flags. French became the language of everyday life. . . . [N]ot until the reign of Henry VIII was it in more general use across the country.

This is clearly false, as any medieval English literature textbook will suggest — it's all about The Owl and the Nightingale, King Horn, Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, Malory, etc., etc., etc. — all works in English, not French. O.K., so it doesn't answer the question to refer you to a Middle English handbook — where are all the literature-of-England-in-French handbooks? Still, the point is that this is popular literature.

Moreover, from the medieval experts over at Wikipedia, we see (oomphasis added):

Middle English was one of the five languages current in England. Though never the language of the Roman Catholic Church, which was always Latin, it lost status as a language of courtly life, literature and documentation, being largely supplanted by Anglo-Norman French. It remained, though, the spoken language of the majority, and may be regarded as the only true vernacular language of most English people after about the mid-12th century, with Anglo-Norman becoming, like Latin, a learned tongue of the court. Welsh and Cornish were also used as spoken vernaculars in the far west.

English did not cease to be used in the court: it retained a cartulary function (being the language used in royal charters); nor did it disappear as a language of literary production. Even during what has been called the 'lost' period of English literary history, the late 11th to mid-12th century, Old English texts, especially homilies, saints' lives and grammatical texts, continued to be copied, used and adapted by scribes. From the later 12th and 13th century there survive huge amounts of written material of various forms, from lyrics to saints' lives, devotional manuals to histories, encyclopaedias to poems of moral (and often immoral) discussion and debate, though much of this material remains unstudied, in part because it evades or defies modern, arguably quite restricted, categorisations of literature.

Middle English is more familiar to us as the language of Ricardian Poetry and its followers, the 14th- and 15th-century literature cultures clustered around the West Midlands and around London and East Anglia. This includes the works of William Langland, the Gawain Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, Lydgate, Gower, Malory, Caxton, and Hoccleve. Perhaps best known, of course, is Chaucer himself in his Canterbury Tales and other shorter poems, where the poet consistently revalues and reinvents older traditions while managing to avoid completely abandoning them.

Later on, the article explains how Norman French influenced English grammar, for instance playing a part in helping English shed its inflected forms. Even so, it says, this change "cannot be attributed simply to the influence of French-speaking layers of the population. English remained, after all, the language of the majority."

Just another reminder that you should beware of what you read in the popular press. (And this is something that it doesn't take that much knowledge to realize is wrong: The regular folks in the whole country started speaking the language of aristocrats? And went back to the previous language 500 years later?) To his credit, the author very graciously admitted his inexpertise.

Byomtov (mail):
Of course the Norman French penetrated English in many ways. One of the more interesting has to do with farm animals. The meat of farm animals generally goes by names of French origin - veal, pork, beef, mutton - while the names of the animals themselves - calf, pig, bull or cow, sheep - are from old English. This reflects, I believe, the fact that it was the Norman aristocracy who primarily ate the meat, while the Anglo-Saxons cared for the animals.
11.28.2006 5:23pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
I'm remined of the French taunter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Well what are you then!?

I'm French! Why do you think i have this outrageous accent you silly king!

What are you doing in England?

Mind your own business!
11.28.2006 5:31pm
wm13:
This is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, to correct this sort of error in the popular press. If you wanted to call the New York Times every time they refer to witches being burned in colonial New England, or describe the United States as the only industrialized nation with the death penalty, you could spend your life on nothing else.
11.28.2006 5:51pm
OrinKerr:
I for one will never look at Leeds Today the same way again.
11.28.2006 6:04pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
Þænq 3oo, Sasca.
11.28.2006 6:24pm
BobH (mail):
For those interesting in Middle English as a living language, take a look at "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog" at http://houseoffame.blogspot.com/
11.28.2006 6:31pm
James R Dillon (mail):
I'm sure you're absolutely right in this instance, but is it generally a good idea to rebut an article in the popular press with the even-less-authoritative Wikipedia? Other things being equal, were it a subject that I knew nothing else about, I'd be more inclined to trust Leeds Today over some anonymous Wikipedia editor. (I know a couple of them, an experience which does nothing to bolster my confidence in the accuracy of Wikipedia).
11.28.2006 6:36pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
two solid sources to read middle english:

Paston Letters
background:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paston_Letters

the letters:
http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/PasLett.html

and:

Gode Cookery
http://www.godecookery.com/godeboke/godeboke.htm

"Brawn en Peuerade. Take Wyne an powder Canel, and draw it þorw a straynour, an sette it on þe fyre, and lette it boyle, an caste þer-to Clowes, Maces, an powder Pepyr; þan take smale Oynonys al hole, an par-boyle hem in hot watere, an caste þer-to, and let hem boyle to-gederys; þan take Brawn, an lesshe it, but nowt to þinne. An yif it sowsyd be, lete it stepe a whyle in hot water tyl it be tendre, þan caste it ti þe Sirip; þen take Sawnderys, an Vynegre, an caste þer-to, an lete it boyle alle to-gederys tyl it be y-now; þen take Gyngere, an caste þer-to, an so serue forth; but late it be nowt to þikke ne to þinne, but as potage shulde be."
11.28.2006 6:59pm
Thales (mail) (www):
"This is a little like shooting fish in a barrel, to correct this sort of error in the popular press. If you wanted to call the New York Times every time they refer to witches being burned in colonial New England, or describe the United States as the only industrialized nation with the death penalty, you could spend your life on nothing else."

Do you have examples of these errors occurring frequently in the NYT? Also, to my knowledge they are not egregious errors: Witches were sometimes hanged, if not burned, in colonial New England--less brutal but no less senseless; and the death penalty is absent from Europe, much/all of Latin America, most of industrialized Asia, etc. The countries that retain it are a) secular ideologically authoritarian regimes such as China, b) theocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, c) some nonideological dictatorships and d) the United States. China might count as "industrialized," but the term tends to refer to the more developed First World, and I believe the U.S. really is alone in First World nations in imposing capital punishment. Are there any other examples?
11.28.2006 7:56pm
Thales (mail) (www):
Additional note: Japan has the death penalty, but uses it quite rarely.
11.28.2006 7:58pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
Lest this become a kind of who-let-the-Wikipedians-off-of-Brook-Farm kind of thing, you should read last year's Nature article comparing Wikipedia to Britannica.

I've linked to it in this posting:
http://divagator.blogspot.com/2006/11/wickedpedia.html

Yeah, it's got flaws, but you get what you pay for.
11.28.2006 8:05pm
Armen (mail) (www):
Let the jury decide.
11.28.2006 8:14pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
very clever, Armen
11.28.2006 8:21pm
Peter Wimsey:
Lest this become a kind of who-let-the-Wikipedians-off-of-Brook-Farm kind of thing, you should read last year's Nature article comparing Wikipedia to Britannica.



Yeah, that nature article has been pretty widely demolished as being about as accurate as wikipedia (i.e., not very.) Unfortunately, articles pointing out the flaws in the "study" were not nearly as publicized as the study itself. http://tinyurl.com/gwo7l
11.28.2006 8:24pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
Yeah, I remember the fracas. The Economist had a fine piece on it (its search engine is down and I can't link). Should have qualified the remark, but still, you get what you pay for...how much is a copy of Leeds Today? :)

[that's a joke, for humor impaired]
11.28.2006 8:33pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I wouldn't normally have used Wikipedia as my source, but it close at hand and easily citable when I was writing to the author, and plus I already knew from other sources that the Wikipedia article was substantially correct in relevant part.
11.28.2006 8:36pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
how 'bout a nice stuffed porpoise stomach, lads?
11.28.2006 8:57pm
Tek Jansen:
Byomtov:

Of course the Norman French penetrated English in many ways. One of the more interesting has to do with farm animals.


That's a little too much information...
11.28.2006 9:30pm
Ken Stalter:
You may be interested to take a look at a book called "Legal Language." It discusses the use of French in medieval England and traces certain words into legal usage. What was really interesting was the revelation that many phrases that appear in legal usage in the form "A and B", ie, "house and home" are just the english and french-derived words side by side.
11.28.2006 9:34pm
Byomtov (mail):
Tek Jansen,

Very funny, you filthy-minded brute. :-)
11.28.2006 9:42pm
Richard Blaine (mail):
Thales- So, what you're saying is: If the NYT kinda sorta gets it close to... you know... what everybody thinks they mean... then we shouldn't hold the accountable for the exactness of their rehetoric? Your standard of accuracy seems to have quite a bit of weasel room!
11.28.2006 9:55pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
I have a hard time getting my head around the notion of anything being popular literature before the printing press. In their time, the cost of books and the level of illiteracy made it impossible even to conceive of popular literature.
11.28.2006 10:01pm
Bleepless (mail):
Anglo-Norman legal documents show an increasing number of people with Anglo-Saxon first names and Norman French last names. This started about 25 or 30 years after the conquest.
11.28.2006 10:07pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Some of the written literature, for instance the medieval mystery plays (like the very good Second Shepherds' Play), was transcriptions of plays that the common folk were putting on in real life.

Other written literature was short lyric poems (Alisoun, Ich am of Irlonde, Westron Wind, My lief is faren in londe, etc.) that the common folk were singing in real life.

There were fabliaux, the bawdy tales of the sort that folks were probably telling but that some authors decided to write down. Epic-style things like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were probably recited out loud.

Sure, there was medieval printed literature that probably never made it outside of a narrow circle of educated people (probably Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe, perhaps the Gawain poet's Pearl), but there's a lot of stuff like what I listed above -- real common-folk English literature.

And if even the educated people were reading things in English like Chaucer, Gower, Langland, etc., then a fortiori, how much less must the common folk have been speaking French!
11.28.2006 10:09pm
ys:

Ken Stalter: What was really interesting was the revelation that many phrases that appear in legal usage in the form "A and B", ie, "house and home" are just the english and french-derived words side by side.

Pray, tell which of these two is French? And incidentally, when was Iceland conquered by the French-speaking Normanns, rather than uneducated Norwegian bumpkins? (The Icelandic translation is "hus og heim")
11.28.2006 10:57pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
ys: wow, good catch, I can't believe I let that one slip. They're both Old English via northern Europe.

So, are there any examples of the kind referenced by Ken?
11.28.2006 11:20pm
stephen james:
A good deal of the French that entered English soon after the Conquest is not "Norman" French, which was somewhat limited to governmental and similar words. The non-Norman French in Middle English probably entered by way of merchants and trade with the Continent that was not permitted before the Conquest, as well as by English soldiers and crafts people who made the trip to the Continent and back in the numerous wars that resulted from English kings' claims to areas of France. The new words and forms that entered English were largely a reflection of new things and new ideas that entered England with the increased interaction with continental Europe.
11.28.2006 11:30pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
I don't have the source at my fingers right now, but I don't think it's right that trade with the Continent wasn't permitted before the Conquest. There was at least a timber and fur trade with the Scandinavians, and even trade with Normandy in the time of Ethelred the Unready, who died in 1016. There's a law code from the time of Ethelred that even uses a word (can't remember now which one) that derives from the Picard -- Picardy is an area in the north of France. Trade with Normandy was prohibited for a time in the 11th century, but in the time of Edward the Confessor (ruled 1024-1042), who had a Norman wife, there was quite a bit of back-and-forth between Saxons and Normans.
11.29.2006 12:13am
David M. Nieporent (www):
So, are there any examples of the kind referenced by Ken?
I'll give you free and clear title to my answer.
11.29.2006 3:34am
professays (mail):
Everyone who used to study French won't deny the fact that up to 40 per cent of English words are of French origin or come into English through French.
11.29.2006 7:07am
Jay Myers:
English wasn't surpressed but French did become the language of polite society and English survived by adopting both French syntax and vocabulary. Many good, solid Anglo-Saxon words became considered vulgar and replaced by French or Latinate equivalents. Chaucer thought nothing of using the word cunt in his Canterbury Tales but today only a writer of Jim Webb's caliber would so use it. A common euphamism for English profanity is "four-letter words", which alludes to the fact that Anglo-Saxon words are short and often monosyllabic.
11.29.2006 7:42am
Hoosier:
Tek--That's the line of the day! Thanks--I needed the laugh.
11.29.2006 9:43am
Ken Stalter:
It's been several years since I read the book, I can't think of more examples right now, but here's a link to the amazon page:

Legal Language
11.29.2006 10:12am
Sean O'Hara (mail):

This is clearly false, as any medieval English literature textbook will suggest — it's all about The Owl and the Nightingale, King Horn, Chaucer, Gower, Langland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, Malory, etc., etc., etc. — all works in English, not French.



The Middle English textbook I used in college did include several lais by Marie de France and exceprts from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of England, translated from French and Latin respectively. But these were exceptions.

I've often thought that strict grammarians who tell us such nonsense as not to use prepositions to end our sentences with, are in fact Norman sympathizers who wish English was more Frankish.(Same with the Harold Blooms who want the Academy to decide what constitutes great literature instead of letting the public elevate hacks like Dickens.)
11.29.2006 10:39am
Seamus (mail):
The countries that retain it are a) secular ideologically authoritarian regimes such as China, b) theocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, c) some nonideological dictatorships and d) the United States.

In addition to Japan, which you later mentioned, there's Singapore, which, although a fairly authoritarian country, isn't what I'd call a dictatorship.

Oh, yes, and several democratic Anglophone states in the Caribbean. (I guess they didn't get the memo about the death penalty being racist.)
11.29.2006 10:42am
Seamus (mail):
(I'm not claiming, BTW, that those Caribbean states are industrialized, just that they are counter-examples to the claim that the listed states alone are "the countries that retain it.")
11.29.2006 10:44am
Sparky:
I think the notion that the Normans actively "suppressed" the English language is an urban legend that traces back to Scott's "Ivanhoe."

P.S. to Glenn W. Bowen: I could figure out what soused brawn, onions and vinegar were, but thanks for introducing me to sanders (certainly this is the first time I've heard of eating it!) and powdered canel.
11.29.2006 11:14am
Mac (mail):
Tek,

That was brilliant. Thanks. I needed that.
11.29.2006 11:55am
The Divagator (mail) (www):
David,

Of interest re free and clear from the OED:

"Senses 1-13 were already present in French; the further developments of the sense are peculiar to English, and partly due to association with the native word CLEAN, the earlier domain of which has been largely occupied by clear, while in various uses the two are still synonymous. But the now predominant notion of ‘unencumbered, free, rid’ is a further development, not found in CLEAN."

Kind of complicates thing re 'clear'...obviously 'free' is very old English

But good example...anyone got any more?
11.29.2006 1:25pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
"Cease" is credited as both Middle English and French derivation, while "desist" is solidly French.
11.29.2006 1:42pm
The Divagator (mail) (www):
John, good one. Desist didn't make into English until 16th century...cease, centuries before. Makes one wonder, since desist didn't appear until almost the end of the Tudor era, is there not another explanation for these odd pairings in legalspeak? Might they have nothing to do with the Normans, vernacular v. court language, etc?
11.29.2006 2:39pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Yes, similarly, the OED doesn't show "null" appearing until about 1450, and "void" until 1290; both of these words have Latin roots. "Cease" doesn't appear until 1330 and "desist" until the 16th century; both have Latin roots. And "house" and "home," as mentioned above, are both Germanic and both appeared before the Conquest.
11.29.2006 3:01pm
David Smallberg:
will and testament
12.1.2006 3:23am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Maybe... "will" is certainly Old English and "testament" is post-Conquest, but the phrase "last will and testament," rather than being a redundant English+French formation, may have had a non-redundant origin, with "will" being used for disposition of real property and "testament" for disposition of personal property.
12.1.2006 10:09am