Rats and slaves to the rescue.


Tangiora - And now for the Spelling Queen. What have you prepared for us Paquita while I have been in France?

Paquita - Welcome home Tangiora! We began these talks after I rang in during an ABC discussion on the invasion of Australia. Since then we have discussed three invasions of Britain but the biggest of all was from France.

Tangiora - Why do you say the biggest?

Paquita - It nearly destroyed the English language. After 1066 French became the official language of England. French was the official language. First of all Norman French and then Central French from Paris. The English were thoroughly conquered. Parliament was held in French and all the laws of the land were in French. Everyone learnt French except for the serfs. They lived and worked on estates which they could not leave and so they were actually slaves.

Tangiora - How long did this go on?

Paquita - Parliament was not in English again for three hundred years – from 1066 to 1362. Even then, parliamentary proceedings were still recorded in French. So English law was still in French. Eighty years later various laws were translated into English but only if required! It was not until 1489 that English law was in English language!

Tangiora - So the English used French for all that time, over four hundred years. What happened – why did they start speaking English again?

Paquita - Well for starters it wasn’t the English of old. The English they spoke before the invasion was gone. It’s called Old English now. It must have been lovely, with words like Haymonth for July, and Holymonth for December. January was Wolfmonth. French was spoken everywhere, from parish level to palace level for all occasions - casual, social and formal - and in the home, except for the very lowly serfs and peasants, so even if people wanted to speak English they did not know which words were English and which were French. Some people wanted to go back to English because England was at war with France. This was the 'hundred year war' which began in 1327. Others wanted to go back to English because when they visited France the French laughed at their funny accents and old fashioned vocabulary. However it was rats that brought English back into use in England.

Tangiora - Paquita, I hope you are not pulling my leg. Are you saying that rats saved the English language?

Paquita - Yes, but it was a different English language. Thousands of words were lost forever and 10,000 French words were used as English words.

Tangiora - The rats, Paquita.

Paquita - In 1348 the Black Death arrived in England. By 1349 half the English were dead, which caused a labour shortage. The serfs were freed to fill the need, and they did not understand French. So the ruling classes had to speak English again to instruct them. As I have said, many were keen to revive English anyway. But it was a mix of French and English. English is still full of French words but because we say them the English way we do not realize they are French.

Tangiora - I think you are talking about the way the French say ar-ton-see-on and we say u-ten-shun (attention.)

Paquita - Yes, Tangiora. You would have heard that in Paris. It’s the way English speakers still stress the start of words, the Old English way, because English began as a Germanic language. It’s the rhythm of English, an uneven tum-te-tum. Syllables alternate in strength, strong-weak-strong-weak. Every language has its own beat and although the French beat the English in 1066 and nearly wiped out their language, English rose again with its old familiar beat and all the new French words were transformed by this beat. That’s why French o-ree-bl is 'horrible' in English. Not only said with a strong Germanic start to the word but also with [h] – whereas H is always silent in French.

It's estimated that around 70% of the words used in the English language are the same or very similar to French words.

Some have kept their French spelling: like horrible and client and attention, and some have been re-spelt. Some have changed their meaning – like chance which means ‘luck’ in French but in English is ‘risk’.

There are lots of good websites with long lists of words common to French and English. Some follow French spelling codes, like abattoir, which is spelt and said the French way and some, like attention, follow French spelling and English pronunciation.

Tangiora - So we know more French than we think! I have to say although the French conquered England and nearly wiped out the English language, I have to love them. Paris was superb.

Paquita - The English adore Paris too and have been having a love-hate relationship with the French ever since 1066.

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