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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

§ 11. Words adopted from French

Under these circumstances, it is not wonderful that the English language received a large and rapidly increasing accession of French words. A few, indeed, seem to have come in even before the Norman conquest: catchpoll (k[char]cepol) occurs in a glossary of the early eleventh century, and proud (Old English pr[char]t, Old Norse pr[char][char]r), if it be really French, must have been adopted much earlier. In the Peterborough Chronicle written about 1154, the French words amount to nearly a score. Their character is significant. They include emperice empress, cuntesse countess (of Anjou), curt court (king Henry II “held mycel curt” at London in 1154), dubbian to dub a knight, prison, privilege, rente, tenserie (the name of an impost). We are told that king Henry II “dide god iustice and makede pais (peace).” It is noteworthy, as indicative of foreign influence in the monasteries that we find such words as miracle and procession, and that carited (charity) appears as the technical name at the abbey of Peterborough for a banquet given to the poor.

About a hundred words of French origin may be collected from the southern and south midland homilies of the twelfth century, although these works are, to a great extent only slightly modernised transcripts of older originals. Most of these new words, as might be expected, relate to matters of religion or of ecclesiastical observance; but a few, such as poor, poverty, riches, honour, robbery, must have been already in popular use. The north midland Ormulum, written about 1200, is almost entirely free from French words. The author intended his work to be recited to illiterate people, and, therefore, strove to use plain language. But his employment of such a word as gyn, ingenuity (a shortened form of the French engin) shows that, even in his neighbourhood, the vernacular of the humbler classes had not escaped the contagion of French influence.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Layamon uses nearly a hundred French words many of which, it is interesting to note, are not identical with those occurring in the corresponding passages of his original. In the later text of the Brut, written about 1275, the reviser has not unfrequently substituted words of French etymology for the native words used by Layamon himself.

The southern version of the Ancren Riwle, which is nearly contemporary with Layamon’s Brut, is much more exotic in vocabulary, more than four hundred French words having been enumerated as occurring in it. It appears, however, from certain passages in this work, that the women for whose instruction it was primarily written were conversant not only with French, but also with Latin. We may, therefore, presume that the author has allowed himself greater freedom in introducing literary French words than he would have done if he had been addressing readers of merely ordinary culture. Still, it is probable that a very considerable number of the words that appear in this book for the first time had already come to be commonly used among educated English people. The occurrence of compounds of French verbs and adjectives with native prefixes, as bi-spused (espoused), mis-ipaied (dissatisfied), unstable, is some evidence that the writer was in these instances making use of words that were already recognised as English.

In the writings of the end of the thirteenth century and the first half of the fourteenth, the proportion of Romanic words is so great that we may correctly say that the literary English of the period was a mixed language. The interesting group of poems, perhaps all by one author, consisting of Alisaunder, Arthur and Merlin and Cœur de Lion, contain many long passages in which nearly every important verb, noun, and adjective is French. Nor is this mixed vocabulary at all peculiar to works written in the south of England. In Cursor Mundi, and even in the prose of Richard Rolle, which are in the northern dialect, there is, on the average, at least one French word in every two lines. The alliterative poetry of the west midland and northern dialects from about 1350 onwards has an extraordinary abundance of words of French origin, many of which are common to several of the poets of this school, and do not occur elsewhere. The notion prevalent among writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that Chaucer corrupted the English language by the copious introduction of French words, was curiously wide of the mark. In reality, his language is certainly less marked by Gallicisms than that of most of the other poets of his time, and even than that of some poets of the early years of the fourteenth century. It cannot be absolutely proved that he ever, even in his translations, made use of any foreign word that had not already gained a recognised place in the English vocabulary.