The English king, Edward the Confessor, brought over many Norman advisors and favourites and distributed among them English lands and wealth. He not only spoke French himself but insisted on it being spoken by the nobles at his court. William, Duke of Normandy, visited his court and it was rumoured that Edward appointed him his successor.
In 1066, upon Edward’s death, the Elders of England proclaimed Harold Godwin king of England. As soon as the news reached William of Normandy, he mustered a big army by promise of land and plunder and, with the support of the Pope, landed in Britain.
In the battle of Hastings, fought in October 1066, Harold was killed and the English were defeated. This date is commonly known as the date of the Norman Conquest. After the victory at Hastings, William and his barons burnt down villages and estates, devastated and almost depopulated Northumbria and Mercia, which tried to rise against the conquerors. The Normans occupied all the important posts in the church, in the government, and in the army. Following the conquest hundreds of people from France crossed the Channel to make their home in Britain.
The Norman Conquest was not only a great event in British political history but also the greatest single event in the history of the English language. The Norman conquerors of England had originally come from Scandinavia. About one hundred and fifty years before they settled in Normandy. They were assimilated by the French and in the 11th c. came to Britain as French speakers and bearers of French culture. They spoke the Northern dialect of French.
The most immediate consequence of the Norman domination in Britain is to be seen in the wide use of the French language in many spheres of life. For almost three hundred years French was the official language of administration: it was the language of the king’s court, the law courts, the church, the army and the castle. It was also the everyday language of the nobles. French, alongside Latin, was the language of writing. Teaching was largely conducted in French and boys at school were taught to translate their Latin into French instead of English. For all that, England never stopped being an English-speaking country. The lower classes in the towns, and especially in the countryside, continued to speak English. At first the two languages existed side by side without mingling. Then, slowly and quietly, they began to permeate each other. The Norman barons and the French town-dwellers had to pick up English words to make themselves understood, while the English began to use French words in current speech. The struggle between French and English was bound to end in the complete victory of English, for English was the living language of the entire people, while French was restricted to certain social spheres and to writing.
The three hundred years of the domination of French affected English more than any other foreign influence before or after. The early French borrowings reflect accurately the spheres of Norman influence upon English life; later borrowings can be attributed to the continued cultural, economic and political contacts between the countries. The number of Middle English borrowings is about 10000. They began to penetrate England from the South and came both through oral and written speech. The borrowings were quite difficult to assimilate as English and French belong to different groups and differ in some features (accent, vocalic system). They are often recognizable as non-native words thanks to phonetic, spelling or word-building peculiarities (for example: point, joy, courage, village, Finnish, very, valley). There appeared in English not only French words but also word –building elements: -ment, -age, -ish, en-, de-, dis-. Also, there was the rise of so-called hybrids – words, which consisted of native and borrowed elements: beautiful, because (beau-, -cause – from French).