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What languages have influenced English and why? Part 1 – Norman Conquest

Languages are constantly changing and evolving. International travel, trade, and even war have led to new words being brought into regular use within the English language. Many of the words that we use every day and regard as fully English words can if fact be traced back to any number of European countries.

In this blog series we will be looking at how different languages have affected modern day English and the foreign words that we still use today in our everyday lives.

First up we, take a look at the French.

The French language had a huge influence on the English language after the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the extent that noted writer Bill Bryson calls the Norman conquest of 1066 the “final cataclysm [which] awaited the English language.” The Normans invaded England and settlements formed here after the Battle of Hastings. For around 300 years after that, the language of the authority in England was Norman, a variation of the French language.

The ruling classes of that time began to speak Anglo-Norman, a combination of English and Norman, whilst the rest of the populations continued to speak English. French became the language of law and government, until around the end of the 14th century when English began to re-establish itself as the language of authority. But by this point, French had made a lasting impression on our English language. During the time when English was essentially ignored by grammarians, it took advantage of its lowly status to become a grammatically simpler language.

Many of the words we use today came about due to the Norman invasion, for example:

  • Attorney – from the Old French atourné
  • Jail – from the Old French jaiole (meaning cage)
  • Parliament – from the Old French parlement, from parler (to speak)
  • Juice – from Old French jus
  • Restaurant – from French, from restaurer (meaning to restore)

And of course, there are the French phrases that we use regularly such as déjà-vu, je ne sais quoi, à la carte, au pair, au contraire, baguette, croissant, bouquet, carte-blanche, and many others that you may not even realise originate from French at all!

So really, for native UK English speakers, French isn’t necessarily a foreign language!