In everything we say, there is an echo of 1066
It’s Sunday, and let us hope that you are about to have lunch. As you prepare to enjoy the roast beef, it may, possibly, occur to you that but for an event on this date, October 14, centuries ago, you might be about to eat the same joint but you wouldn’t be calling it beef. That event was the Battle of Hastings (aka Senlac Hill) in 1066, as a result of which William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, became William the Conqueror, King of England.
The English language is unusual in that we have different names for farm animals in the field or byre, and the flesh of these animals when they appear on the table. In Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, a Saxon peasant explains that the oxen, calves, swine and sheep are good Saxons tended by Saxons when alive, but turn into Norman-French when they are ready to be eaten as beef (or beeves), veal, pork and mutton.
So, if you were to begin by asking, in Monty Python style, “what have the Normans ever done for us?” you might first reply that the most enduring consequence of the Conquest is the richness of the English language, with its Anglo-Saxon base and Franco-Latin superstructure. This mixture gives us a huge vocabulary, and many words with essentially the same meaning, yet a different shade of emphasis: fatherly and paternal, for example....
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