English in the 15th century

Posted: May 29, 2014 in Uncategorised

One of the things I keep coming across is a claim that Richard III made English the ‘official language’ of England. Or that he was the first king to have official records – Acts of Parliament and the like – written in English. He wasn’t. The Rolls of Parliament, the Close Rolls and the Proceedings of Privy Council were written in English throughout the Wars of the Roses. There’s still the odd bit of French and, of course, Latin in the Parliamentary Rolls, but English is, by far, the predominant language.

I’m not sure where this story comes from. I believe (and I could be wrong – please correct me if I am) that Richard III was the first king to give his coronation oath in English, but this is a far cry from officially affording English status as a ‘national’ or ‘official’ language.

English (or Middle English as we now call it) was, for a time, drowned out by Norman French and might well have succumbed to it altogether. But English is unusual in this regard – mostly, a newly introduced dominant language will wipe out existing languages, especially if it spreads to all areas of life, and extra especially when the newly dominant group keeps itself separate and has a firm hand on power. This has certainly happened in the Americas, Australia and parts of Africa in the fairly recent past. The Roman Empire was particularly good at this. What was different in England is the swiftly organised marriages between Normans and Saxon nobility. Within a couple of generations, English was the language of choice for the children of mixed heritage, even as they maintained French for all the ‘important’ things in life.

This is, briefly, how it happens. Essentially, children (particularly adolescents) are at the forefront of societal language choices. Parents and grandparents will change their own language use to suit their children and grandchildren. If the kids are speaking Language A (and their linguistic background is Language B), then the grown ups will use Language A when speaking with them. This is a seriously widespread phenomenon. In the case of most threatened, or dominated, languages, this can cause language death very quickly – within a single generation. In the case of English, it was its salvation. It was hugely altered, lexically and grammatically, but English nonetheless. I’ve seen it suggested, quite seriously, that Saxon mothers and nurses were ‘secretly’ teaching their children English, and that’s why it survived. That doesn’t explain the massive changes in the language nor, in fact, its survival. An intellectual knowledge of a language, learning it in school or secretly from a caregiver, doesn’t turn it into a fully used and fully useful language. Under these circumstances, the learners only have one place to use the language – in class or with the caregiver. You could have a thousand people doing this and it won’t make a scrap of difference to the fate of the language – what matters is interaction with other speakers. Lots of interaction. It’s like the difference between learning Spanish in school and going to live in Santiago for a year.

Children want to speak with other children. They also want to speak with adults, but the important thing is being able to talk to other kids. It’s why the children of migrants often, very quickly, pick up the language of their new home, and why knowledge of their first language is lost. They have a whole bunch of new kids to talk to, and Mum and Dad (whatever their feelings about their kids maintaining their first language) will make the switch with them, in order to be able to talk to them. So, these Anglo-Norman children needed, more than anything, to find a way to interact with Saxon children. And that way was English. The greater the distance, historically and culturally, between England and Normandy, the more people in positions of power, wealth and authority identified as ‘English’ and not ‘Norman’ – the more English became entrenched.

French held on, in official circles, for some considerable time but, by the time Henry VI was on the throne, it was very much a second language for those who spoke it at all. Add to that the wars between France and England, and French was pretty much doomed. Richard III might have learned French as a child, but his language of choice was English. As it was for his brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents.

So, no, Richard III did not make English the official language of England.

  1. Kris says:

    Really great. I think that a good example of what you described…mothers / caregivers secretly teaching Native American children the traditional language at home, while at school on reservations, they were literally beaten if they used it. Many of those languages have died out or are very close to it.. I thought one of the Edward’s…I, II or III was the first to use English in a coronation, but I don’t remember and might be wrong on that as well.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Similar things happened here in Australia as well, Kris, with children (particularly boys going through the Law (which, in itself, had to be done in secret) secretly taught the language they needed to know) but it doesn’t result in full speakers. And, for English to survive the onslaught of Norman French, full speakers were very much required. That can only be achieved with intergenerational continuity and tipping point in terms of numbers of speakers. English faded away as a written language for years, and the grammatical changes are typical of incomplete acquisition (that is, acquisition via things other than full, adults speakers).

  2. 1karla says:

    When I was a schoolkid, we were forbidden to speak the local dialect. Had to be proper Dutch, or else…..

    • anevillfeast says:

      It was the same when I first went to school in Scotland, Karla, but the local dialect lived on, when we were playing, or picking potatoes or… or just about everywhere but school, really!

  3. Kris says:

    Just a follow-up…I was thinking of the wrong thing. Edward III was the first king to state that pleas to parliament must me made in English, in 1362. They were to be recorded in Latin, though. So, nothing to do with coronation oath.

  4. Susan HIgginbotham says:

    I looked up what Sutton and Hammond in “The Coronation of Richard III” had to say about the coronation oath. They state that the oath had been in French from 1308 to 1399, and was in English in 1483, but that there’s no evidence for the language used between 1399 and 1483. They state that this was “probably” the first English-language coronation oath.

  5. Sue says:

    I spend a lot of time reading medieval records. I actually don’t see the ORIGINAL close rolls, feet of fines etc. to see what language they were written in, as they have thankfully been published in English. However, I do have a lot of the old wills, writs and IPMs from the 15th and 16th century, and they are consistently written in Latin. It isn’t until the 17th century that one begins to see these written in English. At least that is my experience. The paleography of these is interesting and sometimes the cadence of the written word is confusing. The spoken word was probably subject to the custom of the family. The family that I follow descends from the original earls of Warwick – the Neuburghs. Richard III had an fascination with them. John Rous wrote a propaganda piece for Richard titled “The Rous Rolls”. Apparently, Richard requested them to be written in English and there is apparently one also written in Latin, not French. Interesting post however, and one that may be an ongoing study for someone.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Sue. Documents in translation, from either French or Latin, I’d expect to find in modern English. The official 15th century documents I listed are written (mainly) in Middle English, though there is some Latin and some French. Certainly most legal documents were written in Latin, but I have come across some also in English. There’s been a lot of study in early English over the last couple of centuries, much of it philological rather than linguistic. More recent linguistic studies of English have shown remarkable parallels with other threatened languages. Some have even postulated English as some kind of creole, though I’m not sure the right conditions were there, and English grammar doesn’t much resemble the grammar of creoles (which is remarkably similar the world over). My own work on threatened languages, language shift and language maintenance/revival (reversing language shift) was in the Australian context. What’s strikingly similar is the part children play in language change/shift. In the case of Australian languages (and Kriol) children are often leading the shift to English. In the case of English after the Norman Conquest, children would seem to have ensured the ongoing survival of the language, and were probably instrumental in the grammatical changes.

      • Sue says:

        Interesting! I noted that you have several people discussing the disappearing native languages of the U.S. My Newberry family were Cherokee, and while the language isn’t disppearing as rapidly as others, I wonder why people even back in the 15th century began to use English as opposed to French or in the case of the Australians their native languages. I have an author web site if people are interested in my writing and research. It is http://paintedskies.homestead.com. After following this blog for some time, I am considering adding a blog as well; hopefully, to inspire more knowledge. I enjoy discussing such topics with people who have other experience and expertise.

      • anevillfeast says:

        Sue, English people never stopped speaking English, that was my point – it was never threatened by Norman French in the way Indigenous Australian (and American) languages have been threatened by English. The Conquest caused English to undergo some cataclysmic changes, but the early adoption by the children of Norman/Saxon marriages meant that Norman French was never imposed throughout society in the way English was in Australia and North America (and Spanish in South America).

      • Sue says:

        I must have missed part of the discussion. That is an interesting point indeed.

    • Sue says:

      I just returned from Dorset Co. and the Dorset History Centre. One of the records that I saw was written in 1492, which was quite surprising. It involved Sir Thomas Grey and was written in English.

  6. Esther says:

    Great post. I think it rather unusual that the conquering Normans adopted the native language, instead of forcing the conquered to learn French … that isn’t something that happens often. However, the history and development of a language is quite interesting.

    • Sue says:

      I wonder if all of this has to do with the fact that the Normans and the Saxons had a respectful relationship. In my study of the early history before the Conqueror, the area around Warwick was supposedly the land of the legendary King Aurthur. So by the time Richard III was in power, he was completely entralled with the early Saxon history surrounding Warwickshire. Have you seen the “Boar badge?” Though some of it is considered myth, in 1903, Lady Frances Evelyn Greville, wrote a compelling history of early denizens of Warwickshire; families such as Guy of Warwick and Lady Godiva and their ties back to the Arthurian era. During his reign Richard III commissioned John Rous to write history of the earls of Warwick in what is known as the Rous Rolls. It is all very fascinating, but doesn’t answer the question of why the English did not adopt the Norman language. I wonder if it could have something to do with the fact that these families were not originally French, but rather from Viking stock?

      • anevillfeast says:

        Sue, it was very much to do with the fact that Anglo-Norman children were interacting with Saxon children on a daily basis and acquired English from them. As they grew up (and even more, as their children and grandchildren grew up) they identified strongly as English and with English as their first language.

      • Sue says:

        It’s an amazing change from what we experienced in the New World. The conqueror’s language was pushed on the indigenous population here. I wonder how Saxon society differed, so that they retained their language? It couldn’t have been just the children, the adults would have had a hand in it as well – don’t you think? Interestingly, in the New World/ New England, the Dutch were also here a little before the English, but English is our language. Also when you consider that most of Western America was part of Mexico/Latin America until the early 19th century, English still became the main language. However, now days, that is changing dramatically with the politics in our country being what it is. Interesting discussion.

      • anevillfeast says:

        Maybe it’d help if I shared a bit about my background. In my previous career, I spent more than ten years working with speakers of endangered languages, not only studying and researching, but teaching and getting involved at a grassroots level.
        Adults can make what decisions they like about language – at a national, local, community or family level. They can decide to promote one language over another; they can decide to prohibit the use of a language; they can decide to encourage children to be bi- or multilingual. If these decisions don’t meed the linguistic needs of the children, the adults aren’t going to succeed. And the linguistic needs of children are, first and foremost, an ability to interact with the children around them. (I’ve lost count of the number of adults who’ve said to me “I wish I’d learned my grandfather’s language when I was a child, but he’s gone now. I was a kid, I guess, and I just wasn’t interested”.)
        In the case of many Indigenous languages, those needs are met by a colonial or conquest language, such as English or Spanish. In other cases, those needs are met by a creole. In the case of post-Norman Conquest England, those needs were met by English. There was no attempt to prohibit the use of English, nor to systematically indoctrinate children, at all levels of society, into French. Essentially, the children were free to make their own decisions – and they chose English. As adults, there was certainly a need for them to speak – and sometimes read and write – French, but English became essential pretty quickly.
        And, as those children became adults, there was less and less use for French outside of official or (decreasingly) literary domains.
        All it takes for a language to die is for one generation of children to stop using it. All it takes for a society to shift from one language to another is for one generation of children to make that change. Even in places where children were punished for speaking their own language, or dialect, in schools, if that language or dialect was necessary for their general interaction with other children, it would not have been lost. The absolutely classic example of children driving language change is the devopment of creoles – absolutely created by children, usually from different language groups, negotiating a fully grammatical code (you can translate the Bible into most creoles) from the bits and pieces they hear in a highly simplified pidgin, spoken by adults members of the dominant language group to adults members of the substrate/s. And the children don’t develop creoles in order to speak with their parents (after all, they already share a language with their parent) but to speak with other children who they don’t share a language with. This is precisely what drove Anglo-Norman children towards English – castles, towns and countryside full of English speaking children.

    • anevillfeast says:

      I agree, Esther! I did some early English units in my degree and I found it fascinating.

  7. fitzg says:

    It is an interesting discussion! In Canada, French was never outlawed, by the decisions of the British North America Act. The division of Upper and Lower Canada resulted in the large province of Quebec. Obviously, many changes have occurred since the 18th C. I learnt French from the age of eight through first year university – taught by Anglophones, with the result that I had a very nice, Parisian French accent, but poor understanding of French as it is spoken. Our children’s generation has benefited from French immersion education to a greater extent and (to that extent) there are many more who are fluently bilingual, than were many of us. Mind you, a great deal of English has infiltrated Quebec French. Franglais is almost a lingua franca.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, fitzg! Properly conducted immersion programs can’t be beaten! They are the closest thing to natural acquisition anyone’s come up with, so far. I’ve never understood the monolingual suspicion of other languages and any chance a family gets to bring up bilingual children should be firmly taken with both hands. My husband spent some years living in Wales and, to his eternal regret, he actively resisted learning Welsh – that’s the legacy of the attitude of a monolingual empire! There’s a story that always makes me feel sad – a Danish born Australian comedian tells us he, his mother and sister were in a shop soon after they arrived, all talking quietly in Danish, when the shopkeeper said to another customer, very loudly, “You’d think they’d bother learning English, wouldn’t you?”. The comedian says that was the last time he or his sister spoke Danish. One unthinking, ignorant (and incredibly rude) comment cut a whole language out of two people’s lives. Another story that highlights the limitations of formal school lessons is the Irish brother and sister, both learning Irish in school, who overheard their teacher on the bus, talking to a friend. “Is Irish for speaking, too?” the little girl said.
      The research record is full of similar anecdotes (as well as more formally gathered findings) that highlight the crucial role children play in societal (as well as individual) language decisions; and the limitations of putting the entire responsibility on schools.

      • fitzg says:

        In 1362, the post-Conquest British Parliament was opened for the first time since the Conquest in English, and the Statute of Pleadings before the King’s Bench was officially legislated. This was under Edward lll, a century before King Richard lll. While versions of Norman French were the court languages for a long time, it is probably best to assume that the nobles were speaking English by the 14th C, and French at Court. By the 15th C, English was spoken by nobles as well as they spoke French at Court? By both education and usage (and a sojourn with his brother across the Channel) Richard lll was presumably completely bilingual.

  8. chris y says:

    Isn’t Middle English technically a “creole”, that is a language that derives from the interaction of to or more others, in this case Old English/Anglo-Saxon and Norman? I’ve seen it described as “a language invented to enable Norman squaddies to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids”, but that would have been the “pidgin” used by the first generation. The creole, Middle English, would have developed as you suggest, by the children and grandchildren of the first generation building on their parents’ pidgin to create a grammatically and semantically complete language. It’s a process that linguists have documented all over the world.

    And by the way, there may be no documentation, but I’d bet my house that Edward IV took the oath in English.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Chris. ME has many creole-like features but developed too slowly (ie, it took more than two generations from speakers of mutually incomprehensible languages to a fully grammatical language created by children), and doesn’t share features common to other creoles. (Fascinatingly, almost all creoles, whatever the sub and superstrate language, essentially have the same grammar.)
      If there was an intermediary pidgin – and there’s no evidence of one – it wouldn’t be the Norman squaddies who invented it, it would be those Saxon adults who needed to interact with Normans on a deeply uneven level. Whoever came up with the squaddie/barmaid line hasn’t fully grasped the complexity of the situation – ‘what time do you get off?’ and ‘ooh, you are naughty!’ don’t require the development of a functional pidgin, let alone a creole! The development of ME is much more like the ‘simplification’ of languages like Tiwi in northern Australia, where the grammar becomes less complex over succeeding generations, sometimes with an influx of borrowed invader words.
      I’d bet my house Edward IV took his oath in English, as well! But let’s not both do it at the same time.

  9. octavii says:

    The story about Richard III is almost accurate. He didn’t make english the official language of the country but he was the first king to give his coronation oath in english and he had all the laws published in to english in to the public domain so the citizens (who could read) knew what the laws and their rights were. I believe that came to bite cardinal wolsey in the backside some years later when a citizen quoted the law thanks to King Richard.

    It was actually a few generations back with king Edward III who made the switch to english. Most royal business took place in french but he changed all that as part of his strategy to build english culture up, particularly around the legend of King Arthur and his knights.

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