English in Its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Sociolinguistics

By Tim William MacHan; Charles T. Scott | Go to book overview

2
The Use of English: Language Contact, Dialect Variation, and Written Standardisation During the Middle English Period

JEREMY J. SMITH


THE ECLIPSE OF ENGLISH

At nine in the morning of Thursday, 28 September, the fleet entered Pevensey bay, and the army disembarked at leisure on an undefended shore.

[ Stenton, 1971:591]

Thus Sir Frank Stenton described the arrival in England of William, Duke of Normandy, and his followers in 1066. Of illegitimate birth, William was an adventurer who had carved out a state for himself in northern France. Nominally a vassal of the French king, by the eve of his conquest of England he had achieved an independent position and had few constraints on his actions. His people, the Normans, were--as their name suggests--originally Scandinavians who had landed in France in the ninth century and had settled there in the early 900s. However, they had quickly been assimilated to French culture and had come to speak a variety of the French language. The Normans excelled in the military arts, notably castle building, but were not otherwise especially sophisticated in their culture.

In contrast, late Anglo-Saxon England was a complex and relatively highly developed society, with an established tradition in the arts, notably in church architecture, metal work, embroidery, and manuscript illumination. It had comparatively sophisticated systems of government, based on established law codes and a secure coinage. Latin learning in England on the eve of the Conquest may not have matched that achieved in parts of the continent of Europe, but there was a strong tradition of vernacular literacy, albeit largely confined to monastic houses. One variety of Old English, West Saxon, had achieved the status of a literary standard copied outside its area of origin. Fatally, this sophistication did not extend to national defence (for details, see Whitelock, 1952, and Wilson, 1981).

-47-

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