Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 10. Changes in Vocabulary

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer

§ 10. Changes in Vocabulary

If the Norman conquest had little influence on the development of English grammer, its effects on the vocabulary of the language were profound. It introduced, as we have already observed, an age in which all educated Englishmen spoken French in addition to their native tongue, and, for the most part, wrote nothing but French and Latin. French became the language of law and government, of war and of all that pertained to the life of the wealthier classes. Of the vernacular literature from the Conquest to the middle of the fourteenth century, by far the greater part consisted of translations from French and Latin. It is true that, down to the end of the thirteenth century, nearly all that was written in English was intended for readers who were comparatively unlearned; but even these readers could be reasonably supposed to have some degree of acquaintance with the fashionable language, for, as a rule, the man who absolutely knew nothing but English probably could not read at all. And when, once more, it became customary to write in English for highly educated people, authors could venture, without any fear of not being understood, to borrow freely from the literary, as well as from the popular, vocabulary of the French language.