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Great moments in the English language

On this date in A.D. 1066, the invading forces of Duke William of Normandy did battle with the army of King Harold II of England at Hastings. Harold died in the battle, leaving his claim to the throne moot, and William, subsequently styled William the Conqueror, and his Norman nobles assumed power.

One unintended and unforeseen consequence of this battle was that Anglo-Saxon, the vernacular language, was abandoned to an illiterate peasantry. By the 14th century, this rabble had radically changed the heavily inflected Germanic language, and wholesale borrowings from Norman French and Latin had enriched the vocabulary, producing Middle English, the language of Chaucer and the recognizable predecessor of our own supple tongue.

No doubt there were a few Saxon monks and nobles who deplored all the Continental neologisms creeping into the language and who were shocked at the ignorant populace’s abandonment of gender for all nouns. They would have mourned the decay of the language and decried the creeping barbarism overtaking it. They would have harked back to a day when, by God, you were taught proper grammar and given a good thrashing for any lapses. Not the degenerate times we live in now, grumble, grumble, grumble.

All the same, it looks today as if William did us a good turn.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:43 AM | | Comments (4)


Ah yes, it's funny how military conquest can take you from being William the Bastard to William the Conqueror in a few short days.

I remember reading on one of the USENET newsgroups that one of the results of the use of French was that the food name was derived from French, but the name of the animal was still from the Anglo-Saxon, i.e., beef and cow, pork and pig, or mutton and sheep.

One my favorite things about English is how painfully specific we can be - which I am sure is quite maddening for second language speakers of English.

Example: If I want something I may: ask, demand, query, request, propose, seek, solicit and so on and so forth.

Each one of those words has a specific meaning and a specific context in which they may be used.

Don't also forget that we borrow whole words and phrases from Latin, French and German regularly. Though, those expressions are fading from common parlance.

One of my favorite AP blunders attributed this victory to "Norman the Conqueror."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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