Probably the most regrettable effect of the conquest was the total eclipse of the English vernacular as the language of literature, law, and administration. Superseded in official documents and other records by Latin and then increasingly in all areas by Anglo-Norman, written English hardly reappeared until the 13th century.
The Norman Conquest involved words as well as weapons: an invading army of over 10,000 Old French vocabulary words. About 75 percent of these are still in current use. But while their endurance is impressive, a sinister question emerges: what happened to the other 25 percent?
And are still more French words on their way out?
I see a new invader, a fifth column deriving from within the pre-Norman Germanic core of English. Its M.O.? Two quintessentially English tools: verb + adverb = verb; and verb + adverb = noun. Its purpose? To banish from everyday speech (and from everyday writing, and even from more formal communications) any remaining whiff of French elitism.
- “blow back” for “repercussion”
- “dig in” for “entrench”
- “drill down” for “analyze”
- “push back” for “resist”
- “take away” for “conclusion”
- “walk [it] back” for “retract”/“retreat”
In other words, when I drill down into everyday English, this is my takeaway: the linguistic blow back from the Norman Conquest involves a gradual walk back from words of French origin—part of our more general push back against elitism and digging in against privilege.
Hmm… involve, origin, general, elitism, privilege… We’ve still got a few words to go.
Speaking of the Norman Conquest