history and culture home old english middle english separate or connect? heart and soul words goodnight bronchitis
the middle english period
The Middle English Period
Only a few hundred years after a stable Old English had arisen from the mixing of Celts, Romans, and Vikings, the French sailed across the English Channel and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The English language would never be the same. The conquerors, as conquerors tend to do, imposed their language on their new subjects, making French the language of the law and government.
The English language absorbed thousands of words during this period from French along with another infusion from the other language of scholarship, Latin. Many of these words have been with us so long, they no longer seem the least bit foreign, though they have replaced perfectly good Anglo-Saxon words already in use at the time.
We should note one thing here and now. From its very beginnings, English was a kind of equal-opportunity thief. In linguistic terminology, the language was always as ready to take the additive solution as the subtractive one. In the subtractive solution, new forms from French or Latin replaced Old English forms, such as, for example, ‘arrogance’ for ‘ofermod’ (“over-mood”).
In the additive, the old words were retained as the new were added, but each one acquired a slightly different, specialized meaning, as with ‘cow’ and ‘pig’ from Old English and ‘beef; and ‘pork’ from French. The Old English words for the animals also served to describe their meat, but over time, the newer French forms came to be associated less and less with live animals and more and more with products of animals. In other cases, the new simply took their places beside the old, with no noteworthy distinctions between the two, as with ‘help’ from Old English and ‘aid’ from French.
The effects of this wholesale adoption of new or just different words were 1) to enrich the stock of words in English and 2) to prepare English to borrow, adopt, and steal from any other language in the future. This latter talent is an important part of English’s success as a world language. But still, it’s hard not to miss some of the words from Old English that got left behind. There’s glædnesse, for example, only part of which survives in ‘glad.’ And what we now call a journey (from the French for ‘how far one can go in a day of travel’) in Old English, was simply called a ‘going.’