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The Norman Conquest and the English Language

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1243
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1243c

Accompanying the news article “From heofonum to heavens” by Y. Bhattacharjee in the Special Section on the Evolution of Language (27 Feb., p. 1326) is a photograph of a page from an Old English manuscript. The caption states that the photo is of a “poem, written in 937 C.E. about a battle…” In fact, the photograph shows a page describing the events of 1086, 20 years after the Norman Conquest of England. The manuscript shown is indeed written in Old English, and the “hand” is a very clear example of late Old English writing.

The Norman Conquest, a defining event in the development of the English language, is not mentioned in the article. As every school child used to learn, William, Duke of Normandy, defeated Harold, King of the Anglo-Saxons, at the battle of Hastings in 1066. When William had himself crowned King of England, Norman French became the language of court and castle, and English was left to the lesser folk to speak.

In the long run, the gain was immense. English speakers, however grudgingly at first, began to borrow—and reshape—the French words they needed, not only for their commerce with Europe but also for dealings among themselves. In this way, English began to develop the flexibility that has helped take it to its present position among the languages of the world.

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