Sunday, April 2, 2017

The History of English Part II: From Conquest to Printing Press

by Annie Whitehead

The first part of my story of English concluded with the coming of the Normans, and a story from the 12th century sums up what happened after the Normans settled. A local priest witnessed a miracle, where after the laying on of hands, a mute man was cured and able to speak English and French. The priest was resentful. Brother William, he said, had laid hands on this man and instantly he could speak two languages, whereas he, the local priest, had to remain dumb in the presence of the bishop. This priest, it transpired, knew little Latin, and no French.

A page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

In 1154, the English monks who had written the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (established by Alfred the great) put down their pens. French was the language to speak, and Latin was used for writing and remained the principal language of religion and learning. A visitor from another planet would assume that English disappeared, to be replaced permanently by French.

However, we know this is not so.

A document from c.1100 in which Henry I addresses “All his faithful people, both French and English.” Yet Orderic Vitalis (1074-c.1142), an historian born of a Norman knight and an English mother, complained when he was sent to a monastery in Normandy that he heard “A language [French] that I did not know.”

Imagine a minor Norman knight being given a small manor in the English countryside. Surrounded by English-speaking ‘natives’, he would have to pick up a fair amount of English if he wished to be understood.

Perhaps we can also thank ‘Bad’ King John for the survival of the English Language. His loss of the French territories forced the nobility to choose one or the other. “My brother Amaury” said Simon de Montford, “released to me our brother’s whole inheritance in England, provided that I could secure it; in return I released to him what I had in France.” In 1244 the king of France declared that “As it is impossible that any man living in my kingdom, and having possessions in England, can competently serve two masters, he must either inseparably attach himself to me or to the king of England.”

King John

In the 1230s, Henry III had become the first king of England since 1066 to give distinctively English names to his sons – Edward and Edmund. The eldest son, Edward I, was very conscious of his Englishness, and French gradually became an acquired language. Documents began to be written in English again and during the 100 Years War there was a massive impetus to speak English. Church sermons, prayers and carols were all expressed in English. During the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, Richard II spoke to the peasants in English.

But English was now what we term Middle English (ME) – a written record of what had been happening for a while in spoken English. An example of how the language was changing is the case of the letter y. In OE (Old English) it represented a short vowel, written by French scribes as u. The OE word mycel became ME muchel, which becomes modern much. When y stood for a long vowel it was written by the French scribes as ui. So the OE fyr becomes the ME fuir and the modern fire. This sound, though, was pronounced differently in different parts of the country, sometimes representing the i in kin, elsewhere (Kent and parts of East Anglia) it was more like the e in merry. In the west it was the oo in mood, but spelt with a u. So the OE for kin, cyn, could be kyn, ken, or kun.

The OE byrgen had ME variants birien, burien, berien and became our modern bury, while using the Kentish pronunciation berry, yet busy has the western spelling but is pronounced as the London/E Midlands bizzy.

The five main speech areas – Northern, West and East Midland, Southern and Kentish are similar to contemporary English speech areas.

The triangle of Oxford, Cambridge and London shared the same kind of English, which may be said to have become the basis for Standard English of the modern age.

17th Century depiction of Chaucer

London English came to be exemplified by one man – Geoffrey Chaucer. Choosing to write in English, he brought about the rebirth of English as a National Language. One line from his Troilus and Criseyde shows the journey of the language up to that point:

Criseyde says to Troilus: "Welcome, my knight, my pees, my suffisance."

Welcome, my, and knight, are all English words, although the original OE cniht meant boy, before it became loaded with French military connotations. Peace (pees) is one of the earliest words to come with the conquest, replacing the OE grith. Suffisance, an overblown synonym for satisfaction, is from French, via Latin.

Chaucer’s time also saw another monumental change, with the emergence of surnames. People began to be associated with where they lived (Brooks, Rivers, Hill, and Dale) or their occupation (Butcher, Hunter, Glover, Sadler, Miller, Cooper)

Chaucer wrote in English, but the official language of government was still, for the time being, French. Henry V became the first English king since Harold to use English in official documents, and in the summer of 1415, when he crossed the Channel to fight the French, the first letter he dictated was, symbolically, written in English.

Chaucer Manuscript

English spelling is confusing, as we explored last time, but if you wonder why head doesn't sound like heat, or why steak doesn't rhyme with streak, and some doesn't rhyme with home, you can blame the Great Vowel Shift. Between roughly 1400 and 1700, the pronunciation of long vowels changed. Mice stopped being pronounced meese. House stopped being pronounced like hoose. (Although there is an area near Sheffield where it is pronounced arse*) Some words, particularly words with ea, kept their old pronunciation. Northern English dialects were less affected.

It might reasonably be argued that in some ways the regional dialects of the north remain closer to the original OE or even ON (Old Norse). Melvyn Bragg (A Cumbrian-born broadcaster and writer) overheard someone in a Scandinavian restaurant proclaim “As garn yam” (I’m going home.) To this day, inhabitants of Cumbria would understand this. Cumbrian vowel sounds probably did not shift to the same extent, so that we might still hear someone at Windermere telling us “I’m aboard a boat I bought about a week ago” with vowel sounds that make it seem more like, “As aboard abort about a boot a week sin.

In other areas of the country, use of words typifies dialect. In the East of England, particularly Norfolk, the word that replaces it at seemingly every opportunity. “Thank you for bringing that book back, I’ll put that back on the shelf.” “That’s now raining.” “That’s a cold wind in the east; that don’t go round you, that go right through you.”

But I digress. English spelling was about to be not standardised, but dictated, by the printers. And here we come back to those spelling anomalies which I mentioned in more detail in Part I.

Ever wondered about the silent middle of words like night and right? In OE, the letter h was used for words like ham (home) and niht (night). This puzzled the French scribes, who couldn’t use a g, which was already in use, nor h, for the same reason. So they compromised with a gh to denote the sound. Although the pronunciation of this sound was dying out (it’s still in use in Scotland nicht/night) the spelling had become established and, crucially, William Caxton used it. His first printed book has a preface dedicated to Philip, Duke of Burgundy, whom he describes as a “Ryght noble, gloryous and myghty prince.

Brut Chronicle printed by Caxton 1480

Gradually, spelling was falling prey to rules, although it had some way to go. And while French did not ‘take over’, its influence on spelling is clear. OE had a word sinder, meaning the residue left by metal in a furnace, the French had cendre, meaning ashes, and the two fused to become the modern word, cinder.

By the time printing arrived, in the 1470s, the above-mentioned Great Vowel Shift was well underway. Caxton himself lamented the variety of spelling and pronunciation: “And certainly our language varyeth far from that which was used and spoken when I was born.” But with the arrival of printing came a more systemised way of using punctuation marks, but spelling was still quite varied. What printing did do, however, was sound the death knell for the OE letters ‘thorn’ (þ) and ‘eth’ (ð) and ‘yogh’ (Ȝ). Spelling might not yet be standardised, but the alphabet was.

*The Arse that Jack Built - BBC Radio 4

Part I: The Early History of English

Further Reading:
A Little Book of Language – David Crystal
Spell It Out – David Crystal
The Story of English – McCrum, Cran & MacNeil
Whatt Fettle Mun: A Celebration of Cumbrian Dialect – T Barker
Broad Norfolk - J Mardle
A Dictionary of Cumberland Dialect – Richard LM Byers
Concise Oxford Dictionary
Wordcraft – S Pollington


Annie Whitehead is an historian and novelist who writes about the Anglo-Saxon era. The author of two award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, she was also a contributor to 1066 Turned Upside Down, a re-imagining of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor of the EHFA blog. Currently she is working on a contribution to a non-fiction book to be published by Pen & Sword Books in the summer of 2017.
Amazon Author Page


  1. FASCINATING POST! Always amuses me when people go on about the purity of the English and'foreigners'~ English is such a mongrel language! As are e all. This also brought back painful memories of translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Beowulf and Sir university. Never mastered those High German sound shifts.

    1. Thanks Carol. I agree completely - never translated Beowulf, but worked my way through a fair bit of the ASC. My mother, a languages teacher, knows all about High German sound shifts and still attempts to educate me!

  2. Only one thing wrong with this post. It wasn't long enough, I screamed for more. Grabbed and held me from the first word.
    Carol may well be right when she says English is a mongrel language; but I love it!

    1. Thank you so much - I'm really glad you enjoyed it. I will get round to writing Part III at some point, as it seems things get rather interesting with the arrival of the printing press. Meanwhile, have you clicked on the link to read Part I?


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