Remembering the Battle of Hastings
October 17th, 2012
As Walter Russell Mead recently pointed out at The American Interest, earlier this week marked the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, fought on October 14, 1066, in present-day East Sussex, England. In the battle, William, Duke of Normandy, led a force to invade England, which was defended by King Harold II. King Harold died in the battle, the English forces splintered and lost, and the Duke of Normandy became King of England, crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of that year.
But as Mead reminds, even thought the battle took place long ago on an entirely different continent, it was one of the most consequential battles ever fought, setting England on course to create the British Empire and, eventually, the United States of America. The impact of the battle cannot be overstated.
The Norman Conquest left its stamp on English culture and politics in ways that are still with us; its impact on the development of the English language was especially strong. The Norman conquerors brought the French language with them, and while the English of the majority would ultimately triumph, the language that emerged from the Norman dominion would be profoundly changed. For two hundred years, English disappeared as a language of learned and powerful people. In the royal court and the palaces of the nobility, French was spoken. The Church continued to use Latin. English was the language in which rich people spoke to their servants. By the time the French conquerors began to assimilate to the language and culture of the people they had conquered, English had changed.
Modern English speakers can’t make any sense out of the Anglo-Saxon dialects spoken in England before the Conquest. The vocabulary and grammar in many ways are more like modern German than anything we recognize as English. But by the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, something like modern English began to emerge and it had three traits that still mark it today: a stripped down grammar, an unusually rich and subtle vocabulary, and utterly irrational spelling. […] By the time Chaucer was writing, English was well on the way to becoming the sleek and simple grammatical engine that it is today, freeing up untold billions of braincells for more useful tasks. […]
At the same time, the presence of two languages side by side not only gave English a bigger stock of words than most languages have, it made English a language of subtle connotations. Animals in the field where the peasants dealt with them were known by their Saxon names: cow, pig, sheep. Killed, dressed and served up at feasts to the nobility, they became beef, pork and mutton — all based on the French words for those animals. English had parallel sets of words for body parts and functions, the “couth” ones usually coming from French, the uncouth ones from plain Saxon. Today’s English still follows this pattern: there are more words in our vocabulary than in most languages, and word choice can mean everything in English prose. In the famous examples from Time magazine, “Truman slunk from the room to huddle with his cronies,” while “Ike strode from the chamber to confer with his advisers.” We have our blunt Anglo-Saxon epithets and our precise Norman-French euphemisms, and the habit of hospitality, the openness to loan words from many languages, continues to enrich English to this day. […]
An ear for the difference between Saxon and Norman-French based words remains important even in popular literature. In the Harry Potter books, the good characters often have trustworthy Saxon or Celtic surnames (Weasley, Dumbledore) while you can tell the bad guys by their evil French names like Malfoy (bad faith) and Voldemort (flight of death). “Muggles” is about as Anglo-Saxon as an invented word can get, and to English ears it sounds like a word that ought to exist even if you have never heard it before. […]
That’s what a major historical event does; almost 1000 years later two of the biggest phenomena in our popular culture still bear its imprint. Understanding the marks that big events make on our lives is in my mind the essence of a true education in the liberal arts.
Read Mead’s entire essay here.
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