History of the English Language from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer


The English language has changed beyond recognition since Old English before the 10th century AD.  Radical change before the 10th Century had been the result of successive invasions of England by the Germanic and Nordic tribes.  For more information, read the first article in this series on the English Language from The history of English from its Celtic origin until the Norman Invasion

The Norman conquest

William the Conqueror established the power and authority of Norman rule in 1066 after the battle of Hastings.  The Normans bought armies, architecture, and, most importantly, their language (‘Anglo-Norman’ or ‘Old French.) They imposed their authority through the French language and architecture.  Words of power introduced by the Normans include terms to do with authority, for example, crown, court, castle tower, obedience, treason.  Latin and Old French became the main languages.  English was the third language.

Across England, the French took over every position of power in the state and the Church. It would take 300 years for English to emerge again as the dominant language.

william of MalmesburyWilliam of Malmesbury (1095-1143), an English monk and historian, wrote, “No Englishman today is Earl or Bishop or Abbot.  The newcomers gnawed the wealth and guts of England. Nor is there any hope of ending the misery.” William wrote in Latin; written English was dying.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicles

Around the country and for 650 years, monks had been recording history in English, books known as the Anglo-Saxon chronicles. Peterborough cathedral was the last place the Anglo-Saxon chronicles were recorded.  Since the Norman conquest of 1066, these chronicles had been abandoned one by one.

Since the Norman conquest, English in varying dialects had remained the language spoken by 90% of the population.  In Northern Scotland and Wales, the language had remained as Celtic.  English had continued to develop and change.  The grammar was becoming more straightforward, for example, pluralizing words by adding an’s’ to the end of words. ‘Naman,’ which means ‘name’ became ‘Names.’ Prepositions were being added, and word order was becoming more fixed.  The English language resisted change from the Norman invaders for more than three centuries before it would appear again as the official language of England.

HenryIIThe Peterborough chronicle recorded in 1154 that a new kind had been appointed, Count Henry of Anjou, grandson of William the Conqueror, and he became the first of the Plantagenet kings.

The marriage of Henry to Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, bought together a vast amount of land and wealth. Henry had England and Normandy (northern France), and Eleanor had Aquitaine, which is now southern France.  As Henry’s lands and power grew, the English language became less significant.  French and Latin were further entrenched as the language of the court and government.

A new emerging culture

A new culture was emerging from across the channel, a culture of courtesy and honor, questing and damsels, jousting, and tournaments. Eleanor was a patron of the poets and troubadours. The French vocabulary of romance and chivalry of the poets and troubadours created the romantic image of England in the middle ages.  The word ‘chivalry’ originally meant ‘cavalry,’ the cavalry first established Norman rule in England.  The meaning of the word ‘chivalry’ changed over time to signify honor and altruism, more a mode of behavior.  The mounted soldiers came to be known as knights.  Poets re-told the stories of King Arthur and the knights of the round table in rhyme. The English language was becoming more vibrant and more refined, changing with the culture.

The French language in the 12th Century

French in the 12th Century did not percolate down to the ordinary people.  William the Conqueror had introduced the system of feudalism into England, which defined social and economic relations. Ordinary farmers and French overlords lived very different lives.

French Lords FeastingNinety-five percent of the population lived in the country as serfs, which is another French word. Serfs were almost slaves, tied for life to their Lord’s estate.  The serfs worked for the Lord, and at a subsistence level, for themselves.  The serfs lived in cottages or huts while the Lords lived privileged lives in castles.  English names named farm animals, and meat that made it to the table was called by a French name. For example, Ox, pig, sheep, and Cow; the meat by their French names, Beef, Pork, Mutton, veal.  The English Labored (English), the French feasted (French).

The French influence on English is unmatched compared with any other language. Most of the French words that found their way into English vocabulary do not replace the English words; they become words of similar meaning.  Rather than replacing English words, the introduction of an equivalent French word often narrowed the purpose of the English word.

Examples of French words adopted into the English lexicon

Fields of French influence French words
Heraldry Blazon, argent, gules, passant
Feudalism Homage, liege, peasant, vassal, villain, bailiff, chancellor, council, government, mayor, minister, parliament
Church Abbey, clergy, cloister, diocese, friar, mass, parish, prayer, preach, priest, vestment, vestry, vicar.
Nobility Baron, count, dame, duke, marquis, prince, sir
War and the military Armor, baldric, dungeon, hauberk, mail, portcullis, rampart, army, artillery, battalion, bivouac, brigade, camouflage, cavalry, corps, espionage, guard, infantry, logistics, musketeer, officer, pistol, platoon, siege, soldier, squad, surrender, surveillance, terrain, troop, admiral, captain colonel, corporal, general, lieutenant, sergeant.
Politics and economics Money, treasury, commerce, finance, tax, liberalism, capitalism, materialism, nationalism, regime, sovereignty. State, administration, federal, bureaucracy, constitution, jurisdiction, district
Law Justice, judge, jury, attorney, court, case
Diplomacy Attaché, envoy, embassy, chancery, diplomacy, communique, accord, treaty, alliance, passport, protocol.
Arts Art, music, dance, theatre, author, stage, paint, canvas, perform, harmony, melody, rhythm, note
Architecture Aisle, arcade, arch, vault, terrace, façade, balustrade, niche, pavilion
Cuisine Beef, boudin, caramel, casserole, cream, croissant, custard, fillet, fondue, gateau, mustard, mutton, pork, porridge, pudding, salad
Colors Mauve, beige, maroon, blue, orange, violet, turquoise, scarlet
Vegetables or fruits Courgette, cabbage, carrot, cherry. Cucumber, nutmeg. Quince, spinach, lemon, orange, apricot
Names Richard, Robert, Simon, Steven, John, Jeffrey, William

The wool trade in the 13th Century made parts of England rich, and feudalism loosened its grip on peasants who flooded into towns and cities.  The French built Churches, with services conducted in Latin.  Towns were growing, and the city of London doubled in size.

England in the 13th Century

French was rapidly overtaking the English language, why didn’t the French language entirely engulf England?  One reason is that French speakers became cut off from their linguistic roots.  In 1204 the King of Normandy, Aquitaine, and England lost his Norman lands in a war with a much smaller kingdom of France. With the nobility cut off from their ancestral homelands, French began to lose their grip on the English language.

French speakers, even from Noble families, began to marry English speakers, hence marrying into the English language.  More French speakers were having to learn English, becoming bi-lingual.  Within a few generations, French became a foreign language; however, French vocabulary was still streaming into the English language.

introduction of Words Into EnglishAs a result of increasing trade with the east, Arabic words were also entering into English vocabulary.  Words like ‘Saffron, Mattress, hazard, camphor, alchemy, amber, and syrup.

Examples of English and Old French words that have a similar meaning

Old English French
small axe Hatchett
ask demand
bit morsel
wish desire
might power
room chamber
answer respond

These words seem to be interchangeable. However, there are little differences; they have shades of meaning. The range of ‘almost’ smilies became one of the glories of English, adding to the precision and flexibility of the English language. French, rather than replacing, enriched the English language.

The English Language in the 14th Century

Latin and French were the official languages of Church and state. However, English was the language that people in the countryside used.

The black plague in 1348 gave English the most significant boost.  The black death was a catastrophe; the survivors were mostly country folk who spoke only English.  The infection rate was very high in monasteries, where people lived communally, and spoke Latin.

England changed after the black plague, there was a shortage of labor, and peasants broke from their feudal past.  Peasants demanded higher wages and better working conditions. English replaced French in the schoolroom, and literacy rose, so it made the demand for books.  English was finding its place in the state, law, and official business; too few people understood French.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey ChaucerChaucer was a Londoner with connections to people in high places; he traveled widely and knew English, Latin, and French. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury tales in English, the language of the ordinary people.  The Canterbury Tales’ are a collection of stories from pilgrims from a cross-section of society who passed the time telling stories. Chaucer tailored each of his tales to suit the character.  The English of Chaucer in the 14th Century would become the standard form of English. Chaucer was the first poet to be buried at Westminster Abbey.

Aaron Skudder


  1. Hello there. I must say your article are very helpful and most people they are looking for an opportunity to learn more and understand English language in the new generation and the old generation most importantly about the history I find your blog useful and helpful thank you for the great reviews. 

  2. tremendous article you have here on the history of English. a lot of us has actually made speaking a language we do not know  it’s evolution and that is ignorance I must say. this article of yours will go a long way to a lightning people the history of English language and I believe it is a knowledge that everyone who speaks English should know..
    thanks for sharing such an informative review

    • This is one of a series of articles that I am writing on English Language history.  Please take the time to read the first article covering old English before the Norman conquest.  Please check in a few days for an article that I am about to publish about the translation of the Bible and the impact it had on the English language.

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