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Why didn’t the Normans enforce the use of their native tongue throughout the whole of England after William the Conqueror (of Normandy) became king of England? During William’s reign as king he discouraged the use of Old English in his court, and promoted the use of the French (Norman) language amongst his vassals as the feudal system was implemented. Also, it seems that Old English writing was essentially non-existent for nearly 300 years after 1066 CE and was replaced by “French” writing (Latin was still being used). However, was the spoken language of Old English still permitted throughout this time period? Was there no political ambition to remove the language from general use? If not, why not?

Note: It seems that Alfred the Great (King of the West Saxons 849 – 899 CE) understood the power of language and thus promoted the writing and speaking of Old English throughout his reign.

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Maybe they thought: Who cares about the language of peasants. –  knut Aug 16 '12 at 18:58
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@knut: That sounds plausible. Perhaps having the nobility speak one language and the commoners speak another is as good a way to establish dominance as imposing one language on everyone. (This is entirely uninformed speculation on my part.) –  Keith Thompson Aug 16 '12 at 19:05
    
Aside from Knut's excellent answer, how would they go about implementing such a plan? There was no mass education or media such as we have today. And even with that, it would be very difficult to change the way people speak amongst themselves. What could have been done? Station a guard in each bedroom and if someone speaks Saxon cut out their tongue? –  Vector Aug 20 '13 at 5:14
    
Evan Harper's answer explains the reasons well; I'd like to add a more recent parallel though. You probably noticed Ukrainian-Russian tension in the news; a part of its background is assault on Ukrainian language and culture by Russian Empire that lasted several centuries and brought Russia nothing but resentment. People don't take well attempts to uproot their culture, and bear the grudge for generations. –  Michael Feb 27 at 7:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 25 down vote accepted

There was a separation between the noble french and the vulgar Old English.

Or as I wrote in my comment: Who cares about the language of peasants

I found a nice source for this assumption

Middle English (1100-circa 1500 AD): After William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England in 1066 AD with his armies and became king, he brought his nobles, who spoke French, to be the new government. The Old French took over as the language of the court, administration, and culture. Latin was mostly used for written language, especially that of the Church. Meanwhile, The English language, as the of the now lower class, was considered a vulgar tongue.

By about 1200, England and France had split. English changed a lot, because it was mostly being spoken instead of written for about 300 years. The use of Old English came back, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English. Most of the words embedded in the English vocabulary are words of power, such as crown, castle, court, parliament, army, mansion, gown, beauty, banquet, art, poet, romance, duke, servant, peasant, traitor and governor. ("Language Timeline", The British Library Board)

Very intersting :

Because the English underclass cooked for the Norman upper class, the words for most domestic animals are English (ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, deer) while the words for the meats derived from them are French (beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, venison). ("The Origin and History of the English Language", Kryss Katsiavriades)

Another source notes, that exaclty the period you asked, is the period, where Old English changed to Middle English:

with the Norman Conquest, the English language underwent some dramatic changes. Anglo-Norman, or early Middle English, had direct effects that can still be seen today. Some of our words with an Anglo-Norman origin include chamber, judge, archer, flour, guarantee, parliament, jury, college, and adventure. In addition to new vocabulary words, English grammar underwent changes, too. After the end of the fourteenth century, early Middle English transformed into late Middle English.

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@E1Suave How would they "get rid of it"? Not having mass media, the only method that worked back then was genocide. Well, there's assimilation, but that tends to go the other way (and in fact did, which is why Norman French is now extinct). –  T.E.D. Aug 16 '12 at 22:12
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@T.E.D. You make a valid point. However, positive reinforcement, or rewarding those who chose to speak Norman French and only "French" might have been a good start. Pull back a bit from the feudal system in a sense. Promoting the next generation to learn the "new language" After all it was the language of trade. Opportunities could be plentiful for those who chose to take that route. To suggest propaganda didn't exist would be silly. –  E1Suave Aug 16 '12 at 22:47
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@E1Suave They couldn't have enticed anyone to adopt Norman for the "opportunities" because there really weren't any. Class mobility is a mostly modern concept; the very, very few opportunities for upward mobility would have had little to no effect on the uptake of Norman if they'd been linked. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 16 '12 at 23:51
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@E1Suave And nearly 1000 years later the manipulation of the populace through communication is so taken for granted that some of us can't imagine why our forebears didn't do it more. As you say, 300 years and an entirely different government, with entirely different policies, motives, national identity, and philosophy lay in between. The Normans just didn't think of it or have the motive or need. You beg the question of why they should have tried to eliminate the English nation? –  SevenSidedDie Aug 17 '12 at 15:02
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@E1Suave Of course it's easier to manipulate those who speak your language. But the idea of the masses of the lowest class being politically relevant is new. Destroying a language without resorting to genocide requires control of modern communication systems. You're trying to apply modern political ideas to the middle ages; that just doesn't work. Might as well ask why the Normans didn't use rockets during the conquest. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 17 '12 at 18:21

The reasons are so numerous and overlapping.

  • There would have been very little to gain from establishing dominance of French culture. People did not form sympathies or loyalties based on language or culture – that development had to wait for another 700 years or so.

  • It would have been completely impossible to enforce such a ban. There were no such institutions as gendarmes, secret police, or indeed police of any kind. Knights lived in their castles and peasants lived in their cottages. Except for the former extracting wealth from the latter, they had very little to do with each other.

  • There was no practical way that any more than a tiny percentage of the population could have been educated to speak French. Who would even have taught them?

  • One always has to be careful about projecting modern conditions back on the past. The Norman conquest was not like a modern conquest of one nation by another; better to think of it like a modern "palace coup," where the very top levels of the leadership are replaced, but the basic structure of society remains as before.

  • In comments, the asker mentions the Anglo-Saxon invasion, which did lead to the displacement of the Celtic languages – but that was a very different situation. Anglo-Saxons migrated en masse under pressure of overpopulation, carved out new kingdoms from the existing ones, and subjugated the Celts under their rule into a new under-class. The Norman invasion was smaller and much more limited in its effects.

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I don't believe this is an example of projecting modern conditions on history. The written language of Old English in fact was all but gone throughout this time period and as for the spoken language it transformed dramatically as the "French" language provided heavy influence. Perhaps this previous comment helps explain my question. –  E1Suave Aug 18 '12 at 13:06
    
The Celtic language existed in the land prior to the Old English language which would eventually replace it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_English_language This was not due to genocide either but rather assimilation. englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm Germanic tribes of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes all spoke Englisc and the assimilation in turn created what we refer to as Old English. The irony to me is that (Norman) French did not do the same, taking English as its own. Instead it seems the opposite occurred. –  E1Suave Aug 18 '12 at 13:07
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But that was a mass migration, it's an apples to oranges comparison. There wasn't a genocide as such but the Celts were pushed out to the fringes and reduced to slavery in the core. The Normans, though, merely took over the very upper stratum of society. It's like comparing the Quebecois to the Native Americans -- sure they were both conquered by the English, but their situations were very different. As for the written language being subsumed, that's a totally different situation -- writing was a high-status activity confined to specialized uses by a tiny élite. –  Evan Harper Aug 18 '12 at 14:56
    
You make a very good point. Thanks for the additional information. Could you add some of this to your answer? –  E1Suave Aug 18 '12 at 14:58
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You know what, that's fair, I was a bit harsh. I toned it down. –  Evan Harper Aug 18 '12 at 18:04

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