Language Contact in the second phase of the French Influence on Middle English

Term Paper, 2012

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Languages in Contact
2. 1 What is Language Contact?
2. 2 How do languages come into contact?
2. 3 What happens to languages in contact?

3. French influence on the English language
3. 1 First Contact Situation
3. 1.1 Norman Invasion
3. 1. 2 French Aristocracy Background
3. 1. 3 Norman French versus English
3. 2 Loss of Normandy
3. 3 Second Contact Situation
3. 3.1 Re- establishment of English
3. 3.1.1 Foreign Invasion & Opposition
3. 3.1.2 Decline of French
3. 3. 2 Norman French versus Central French

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

I started learning English as my first foreign language at the age of eight, followed by French as the second at the age of eleven. Soon, I recognised similarities of the vocabulary of the two languages, not knowing why, since the grammatical structure and the declension of nouns etc. was obviously different. Of course, I was too young to think it over. However, during my studies of English linguistics I was taught the basic knowledge about the relation between French and English. Since I had learned that most of the words I knew from French were also borrowed into English, I was particularly interested in the process of this phenomenon. Which events and developments were responsible for the adoption of so many words?

The Middle English period was characterised by many changes- both in its social and linguistic situation. In 1066 the Norman Conquest occurred marking the starting point of the most influencing era throughout the history of the English language. After the Conquest there were two main waves of immigration. Firstly, French upper class people migrated to the occupied British Island bringing their language with them, and English lost its status as the official language. Secondly, about two hundred years later, those French people lost their connection to the continent, when king John lost Normandy, and English was about to reinforce again. However, soon new French invasions occurred and a new French variety was brought to the Island which led to an increasing number of new vocabulary and the English language had to be enforced a second time. (Baugh, 1991)

This raises the question why French prevailed in the English language that persistently, although English had been reinforced and had already gained prestige again.

This is the matter of interest in this research paper which is concerned with the history of the English language between 1066 and 1400. Generally, it deals with the French influence on the English language, but focusses especially on the impact of Central French, which took place in the second phase (1250- 1500) where most of the vocabulary was adopted.

First of all one has to point out why languages get in contact with each other and for what reasons French and English were connected at the time after the Norman Conquest. Therefore, the contact with Norman French will be analysed and related to the changes of the Central French contact with English. The aim is to explore to what extent the English language changed regarding its lexicon in the Middle English period.

Since the French aristocracy used to speak French and the working-class English, the loss of Normandy marks a turning point of the social and linguistic situation and therefore shall be another subject of primary importance. At the end of the paper, the results will be summarised.

2. Languages in Contact

2.1 What is language contact?

Where two languages are coexisting, they surely will get into contact once, because when the speakers of those languages get into contact- although speaking two entirely different languages- they will try to communicate and therefore each of these speakers will use his mother tongue and several non- verbal gestures. In fact, not languages themselves get in contact, but rather the speakers of the interacting languages. At the beginning they will use a fairly simplified form of speech in order to avoid misunderstandings and to communicate more easily.

Because of the intense migration all over the world, language contact became part in the daily routine. Soon after the first contact situation, immigrants- in case of speaking a minority language- have to recognise that they have to adopt the national language of the country they decided to live in. Many individuals become bilingual and qualify themselves for an employment or for general communicative competences.

The borrowing of words is one of the most important results in such contact situations, since people try to fill gaps in their foreign language speech with native words. Hence, „in the simplest definition, language contact is the use of more than one language in the same place at the same time.“ (Thomason, 2007: 1).

There is a certain need for a distinction between different languages and varieties of one language in contact. People from the same country could get into trouble talking to each other speaking two different varieties of their mother tongue. For instance, this would would be the case if a speaker of High- German talks to a speaker of Low- German. Since both speakers use „significantly different sound patterns“ (Thomason, 2007: 2) it would be quiet hard to understand each other.

2. 2 How do languages come into contact?

There are several ways in which languages can come into contact. First of all, it should be kept in mind that always the speakers of two or more languages come into contact and not the language itself.

Contact situations can occur if „two groups [...] move into previously unoccupied territory and meet there.“ (Thomason, 2007: 17) In contrast to the past, where those situations usually took place since people wanted to increase their lordships or looked for fruitful places to settle, these days there are quiet few possibilities for this case to happen.

In terms of a society in motion, immigration is another very common reason for language contact. In case, immigrants are persecuted in their home-countries or aren‘t offered any possibility of employment there, they move into a foreign country in order to work and live there and even become a part of its nationality. However, usually they get into trouble with the national language, they are not familiar with yet and so they are forced to learn it. In this case, language contact is rather unidirectional, but it can be seen as a part of national consciousness in the process of integration.

The opposite of this rather peaceful type of language contact situation definitely originates in the phenomenon of military invasion and conquest. In most cases, this leads to an influence of the invaders‘ language on the conquered people‘s language (so called superstratum).There is always one powerful group trying to get rid of the less powerful language for the purpose of showing their mastery and to set itself apart from the ordinary crowd. The most popular instance for this would be the linguistic change in the British Isles after the Norman Conquest and is dealt with particularly in the following paragraph.

Language contact can also happen via a special type of immigration- namely the importation of work force all over the world. According to Thomason (2007: 19) there are for example a lot South Asian inhabitants who were imported in order to work for the sugar- cane industry- so their languages got a minority status in South Africa. In times of the Atlantic Slave Trade millions of African citizens were shipped to America and sold there as work force. Slavery was not only practiced by ancient Europeans but also by the even more ancient Egyptians, who enslaved people to build their pyramids, by Arab explorers and Native American tribes, too. However, there is no evidence of linguistic changes through these contact situations (Thomason, 2007: 19).

A third example for languages coming into contact is that people assemble on an unoccupied area for certain reasons as it was the case on Christmas Eve in World War I when German, French and British soldiers fighting at the Western Front met in No Man‘s Land and communicated by means of gestures, objects and a few vocabulary they knew in the foreign language. Of course in this example the languages did not influence each other and the contact did not last for a long time, but still it was an extraordinary contact situation.

Since borders in many countries do not pose any restriction of liberty today, they provide a pretty good chance for languages to come into contact. The French city of Strasbourg for instance is situated at the German- French border. Consequently, the inhabitants are offered an easy possibility to come into contact with their German-speaking neighbours. Therefore a cultural and linguistic connection could emerge through friendship or even relationships like intermarriage.

Language contact does not always require a direct contact situation between two or more speakers. This phenomenon leads back to the global network of media (music, films, literature, radio, internet..) and enables people to come into contact with a foreign language without meeting other speakers personally. It‘s possible to gain some knowledge of the language in this way, but „the knowledge is likely to remain passive unless the listeners have opportunities to practice their speaking or writing skills.“ (Thomason, 2007: 3). Therefore education systems around the globe enforced „learned contacts“ (Thomason, 2007: 20) by means of language teaching in school as a basic subject in order to train the communicative competences of the students in the fields of listening, writing and speaking. In most cases, English is taught as the first foreign language. As English raised to a world language, it is understood in almost every country outside the native­speaking countries and plays an important role in the every day life of people doing international business, students, traders and many more.

2. 3 What happens to languages in contact?

There is a widespread field of possible events, such as a partly or complete change of a language due to the contact situation or the merging of the clashing languages (which results in pidgins and creoles). A fatal effect would be the total decline to the point of language death.

Usually, the encountering languages will influence each other through borrowing vocabulary, morphology or even structure whereat the type and the degree of influence depend on the intensity of the contact and on the social and linguistic circumstances. English for example has increased its word stock predominantly due to the borrowing of vocabulary from French and Latin. The huge quantity of French loan words shows evidence of a fairly close contact between the two languages. The origin of pidgin languages derives from the use of two or more different languages, whereat the dominant language is spoken in a very simplified form which is influenced by the other language(s) (Barber, 2011: 244). So pidgins are rather auxiliary languages or a second language in the broadest sense.

However, pidgins can become the native language of a particular community- then they are called creoles. Those languages are characterised through a broad mixture of features shared by the languages in contact and features that are universally preferred [...]“ (Thomason, 2007: 12) and consist predominantly of the vocabulary of the largest communities‘ language.

Although languages are able to be merged and recombined, they are also able to become extinct. It depends on whether all speakers of a language die to whatever reasons or whether the younger generation is employed bilingual and refuses to use the minority language anylonger- in this case the language would die out with its last speaker.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Language Contact in the second phase of the French Influence on Middle English
University of Potsdam
Seminar Middle English
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Norman Conquest, Middle English, French Influence on English, Language Contact
Quote paper
Lydia Albrecht (Author), 2012, Language Contact in the second phase of the French Influence on Middle English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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