The French Influence on Middle English

Seminar Paper, 2003
17 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background
2.1 The Norman Conquest
2.2 Consequences of the Norman Conquest

3. Influence on the Vocabulary
3.1 Borrowing and Loanwords
3.2 Assimilation of French Words
3.3 Synonyms and Loss of English Words
3.4 Decline of Derivational Processes

4. The French Influence on Middle English Spelling
4.1 Vowels and Diphthongs
4.2 Consonants

5. The French Influence on Middle English Phonology
5.1 Vowels
5.2 Consonants
5.3 Diphthongs

6. Conclusion

7. Appendix

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The English language has undergone tremendous changes over the years of its development from Old English to the Modern English as it is known today. During that time, especially during the Middle English period, several other languages exerted a significant influence and were therefore partly responsible for the changes brought to English over the years. These languages were Latin, French and Old Norse. This paper will focus on the influence of the French language on Middle English, brought on by the Norman Conquest through William the Conqueror. First there will be an explanation of the historical events, which preceded the developments in the England. Afterwards the focus of this paper will rest on the effect of the French language on the Middle English vocabulary, spelling and phonology. This will be explained on the example of an extract of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Nun's Priest Tale. During the course of this paper it will be proved that the French language was one of the main influences, which affected the English language during the Middle Ages.

2. Historical Background

2.1 The Norman Conquest

The historical event, which led to the English language becoming interspersed with French elements occurred at the end of the Old English period and is widely known as the Norman Conquest in the year 1066. In that year, after the death of Edward, King of England, the need to find a suitable successor arose. The choice fell on Harold, son of Godwin, the Earl of West Saxon, who had been Edward’s principal advisor. However, his election did not find agreement from all sides. William, Duke of Normandy, had been assured by Edward that he would succeed him as King of England. Therefore, in September 1066, he decided to claim the throne by force and invaded England from its south coast.[1]

Although unprepared, the English forces went to defend their country, which resulted in the Battle of Hastings, where the current regent, Harold, was killed. After the battle was won, William continued to plunder and burn the southeast of England, until the inhabitants of London gave in and capitulated. William was crowned King of England at Christmas in 1066.

2.2 Consequences of the Norman Conquest

The probably most significant consequence of the Norman Conquest, and also the one with the most noticeable effect on the English language, was the appointment of a new nobility by William. Important positions in the church, military, and other institutions were also newly assigned. As a result of the majority of the upper class in England being replaced by Normans, French became the dominant language at court and among the ruling class. However, the language of the majority of the population remained English.

This new order, which had been established after the Norman Conquest, was gradually accepted by the English people in the following years. What followed was a blending between the English people and the Normans:

Now that the English and Normans have been dwelling together, marrying and giving in marriage, the two nations have become so mixed that it is scarcely possible […] to tell who is English, who of Norman race.[2]

Later, around the end of the twelfth century, the two languages were just as interwoven as the people who spoke them. Members of the upper class had often gained knowledge of the English language, while French was frequently found in the lower social classes as well. What consequences this merging of people as well as languages had for the Middle English language will be discussed in the following chapters.

3. Influence on the Vocabulary

As a result of the Norman Conquest, the French language, brought to England by the Norman aristocracy, started to exert a strong influence on English. Affected were the English vocabulary, as well as spelling and sound, or phonology. Since the effect of French is most noticeable in the vocabulary, the focus of the explanation will be on this sphere. However, the way French influenced the other two areas will be examined as well.[3]

As a source for examples serves an extract from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Nun's Priest Tale.[4]

3.1 Borrowing and Loanwords

The influence of French is especially obvious in the Middle English vocabulary, because "[w]here two languages exist side by side for a long time […], a considerable transference of words from one language to the other is inevitable."[5] As a result, a large amount of French words found their way into the Middle English vocabulary, in a process that lasted several centuries, with varying degrees of intensity.

The borrowing of French words into English took place in two stages, before and after 1250. In the first stage, only few words were borrowed, and most showed signs of Anglo-Norman phonology. They came, for example, from the military, like "assault, captain, fortress."[6]

In the second stage, however, a great number of common, mostly Central French, words used by the upper class were introduced into English. They were from every area of life: government, administration, church, military and legal terms, as well as words that describe fashion, food, art, medicine, among others, for example: "medicine, physician, surgery"[7], or "court, […] fashion, dress."[8]

To demonstrate the extensity in which French words permeated the English languages, a part of The Nun's Priest Tale has been analysed, with the aim of determining the percentage of words with French origin. This extract consists of 50 lines with a total 432 words. If solely lexical words are counted, the extract contains 192 lexical words, of which no less than 53 words are of French origin as the Tables 1 - 2.2[9] show. According to these findings, the percentage of French borrowings among the lexical words in this part of The Nun's Pries Tale is 27,6 %. The tables further show if the borrowing is one that has remained unchanged from the Old French or French variant, or if there have been changes during or after assimilation into the Middle English vocabulary.

Determining the time, or even in which of the two stages the loanword was added to the English language is a difficult matter, because the borders are oftentimes relatively unclear. One case where it is possible to make the distinction is described as followed:

Häufig spiegelt sich die Zeit der Entlehnung im Lautstand wieder. [...] Das bekannteste Beispiel ist die Beibehaltung des Verschlusslauts /k/ vor /a/, also vor dunklem Folgevokal (geschrieben <ca>); im Zfrz. Wurde dieser Verschlusslaut zu tò (<ch>) assimiliert.[10]


[1] The explanations are largely based on Albert C. Baugh, A History of the English L anguage (London: Routledge, 1991)

[2] Albert C. Baugh, A History of the English L anguage (London: Routledge, 1991) 119.

[3] The explanations and examples are based on Albert C. Baugh, A History of the

English L anguage (London: Routledge, 1991)

[4] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Harmondsworth, Middl.: Penguin Books, 1996) 184/85. Lines 1-50. All page numbers in this text refer to this edition.

[5] Baugh 167.

[6] Manfred Markus, Mittelenglisches Studienbuch (Tübingen: Franckem 1990) 107.

[7] Markus 108.

[8] Markus 108.

[9] See Appendix; Tables 1 – 2.2.

[10] Markus 108.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The French Influence on Middle English
College  (Anglistics/ American Studies)
PS Introduction to Chaucer's Middle English
2 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
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This paper gives an introduction to the french influence on Chaucer's Middle English.
French, Influence, Middle, English, Introduction, Chaucer’s
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Nadja Litschko (Author), 2003, The French Influence on Middle English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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