Great moments in the English language

On this date in A.D. 1066, the invading forces of Duke William of Normandy did battle with the army of King Harold II of England at Hastings. Harold died in the battle, leaving his claim to the throne moot, and William, subsequently styled William the Conqueror, and his Norman nobles assumed power.

One unintended and unforeseen consequence of this battle was that Anglo-Saxon, the vernacular language, was abandoned to an illiterate peasantry. By the 14th century, this rabble had radically changed the heavily inflected Germanic language, and wholesale borrowings from Norman French and Latin had enriched the vocabulary, producing Middle English, the language of Chaucer and the recognizable predecessor of our own supple tongue.

No doubt there were a few Saxon monks and nobles who deplored all the Continental neologisms creeping into the language and who were shocked at the ignorant populace’s abandonment of gender for all nouns. They would have mourned the decay of the language and decried the creeping barbarism overtaking it. They would have harked back to a day when, by God, you were taught proper grammar and given a good thrashing for any lapses. Not the degenerate times we live in now, grumble, grumble, grumble.

All the same, it looks today as if William did us a good turn.



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