Thursday, September 27, 2012

Norman Conquest

In the year 2066, a mere 54 years from now, while most of us are enjoying our next incarnation as butterfly, butter lettuce or third-base coach, it will be the 1000th anniversary of the Norman invasion. I intend to celebrate the occasion regardless of what shape I’m in. As invasions go, this one was momentous and not altogether destructive. I’m particularly pleased about that since they did it in my name.

150 years before that, the French were ruled by Charles the Simple, who may or may not have been a drop-out. He accepted a horde of Vikings to occupy and protect a section of northern France which came to be known as Normandy (Norse Men). Thus was Norman born.

It was on an October Thursday. William, not yet, the-Conqueror set sail from northern France with a gaggle of wine-soaked men to defeat the more pixilated forces of Harold at the battle of Hastings. This is where Michael Kitchen now presides as Inspector Foyle. He might have sniffed out the plot and defended the sacred shores but, as most European wars, this was simply a family squabble, not to be denied.

Normandy Bill, with some familial ties, was promised the throne by Ed the Confessor of England, who inconveniently died and Harold, his brother-in-law would have nothing of it. His throne was also being challenged from the north by the ruler of Norway. These were the days when Europe’s monarchs were at each other’s throats, unlike today when everyone loves everyone else, except for those Greeks.    

It might also have been a food-fight in which French toast got the better of English muffins and the result was eggs Benedict. The Normans had made better dishes to set before the king and so they did. Thousands came over to occupy British soil. They not only brought their latest technology in the form of weaponry; they also brought new notions of society, government and their mellifluous tongues. Mingling took place with the Romance language of the Normans marrying the more guttural Anglo-Saxon speech of the Brits. The result was a most profound effect in the evolution of language, with the eventual meshing of Latinate and Germanic we now call English and speak, for better or worse.

At first only the court, administration and elite spoke French while peasants stayed with their old Saxon words. Over time the one trickled down and the other met it and merged. The word, government, itself, traveled the channel in the period known as Middle English.

It took a few centuries for the new vocabulary to become the common tongue. The old Brit words tend to be truncated and hard-edged while the French were often polysyllabic and lyrical. Those four-legged creatures in the pasture, sheep and cow, became French on the plate, mouton and chateaubriand or filet mignon. It is estimated that 10,000 French words have been folded into the English language. In that sense we Anglo-Americans are multi-lingual and all because of some Normans who came and never left.

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