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One arrow altered our language

This week Englishspeakers around the world should mark an important anniversary. On Oct. 14, 1066, a French viking killed an English king and altered the course of our language forever.

This week Englishspeakers around the world should mark an important anniversary. On Oct. 14, 1066, a French viking killed an English king and altered the course of our language forever.

Most of the history nerds know that I'm referring to the Battle of Hastings, in which William the Conqueror got a big upgrade from being Duke of Normandy, in northern France, to being king of England. His heirs and descendents would hold the throne for hundreds of years (although there were numerous indirect lines of descent and wars over exactly which descendents were going to be in charge).

William won the battle conclusively, thanks to a lucky arrow shot that killed Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.

William and his Norman lords and knights spent the next decade putting down revolts and divvying up England amongst themselves. They brought in continental feudalism wholesale, along with French. Or not quite French. Like English, French has gone through many changes, and before the modern era, it was split into many mutually incomprehensible dialects.

So what William brought over was Norman French, an old version of French that was influenced by the raiders from what is now Denmark and Norway. That's what Norman means, it's short for "Norseman" or "Northman," a viking by another name.

Then there was the "English" being spoken in England, which was a lot closer to ancient German dialects. England had been repeatedly invaded since the Romans left 600 years before, by Angles and Saxons, Frisians and Jutes, and then more vikings (sensing a theme here?) and each wave altered the language. Each wave also started as the bad guys of history.

Mythic King Arthur fights the Saxon hordes, and then 400 years later, Alfred the Great fights the Norse hordes. Alfred was King of Wessex, or King of the West Saxons.

After the Norman invasion, French was the language of the court of the king, of the nobles, and of the law. Of course, this eroded almost immediately. Norman knights married Anglo-Saxon women, sometimes the daughters or widows of men they'd fought at Hastings. Their children grew up speaking both Old English and Norman French. Words from the latter leaked into the former, even as French died out. Richard the Lionheart died in 1199 and never even spoke English, but he was one of the last generation of Norman nobility to scorn their native language.

French has given English some of its je ne sais quoi, adding many new ingredients to a language already thrown together like a casserole of leftovers.

But consider the alternative to the Saxon-French mashup. Not whether Harold II had won at Hastings - but whether he had lost at Stamford Bridge.

Days before the Battle of Hastings, Harold II had defeated another viking invasion (those pesky vikings!) led by a Norwegian king. It was because of this victory that his forces were depleted and tired when they fought the Normans. If Harold had lost at Stamford Bridge, the Norwegians might have taken over. Or William might have had to fight the Norwegians, winner take all. Or the local Saxons might have played both sides against one another and re-taken their country.

A stray arrow made the final bit of difference when it struck down Harold. If not for that, English might have taken a different turn, and I might have written this in a language a lot closer to Norwegian than modern English.

Matthew Claxton is a reporter for the Langley Advance.

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