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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

§ 6. Influence of the Norman Conquest

It is impossible in this chapter to pursue the history of early English inflections in all its details, but, before leaving the subject of the development of the grammar, we must say a few words on the question how far the rapid simplification of the declension and conjugation in the twelfth and succeeding centuries was an effect of the Norman conquest. The view once universally held, and still entertained by many persons, that the establishment of Norman rule was the main cause by which this change was brought about, is now abandoned by all scholars. We have seen that, in the north of England, the movement towards a simpler grammatical system had made no small progress a hundred years before duke William landed; and the causes to which this movement was due were such as could not fail to be increasingly effective. The intimate mixture of Danish and native populations in the north and over a great part of the midlands must, no doubt, have had a powerful influence in reinforcing the tendencies to change that already existed. So far as these districts are concerned, it is not too much to say that the history of English grammar would have been very nearly what it actually was if the Conquest had never taken place. It is peculiarly worthy of note that the southern dialect, which we would expect to be most affected by the French influence, and which, with regard to vocabulary, certainly was so, was, of all dialects of Middle English, the most conservative in its grammar. And there is good reason to believe that, even in the south, the spoken language had travelled a considerable distance towards the Middle English stage before the fateful date A.D. 1066. Only twenty years after the Conquest, the Norman scribes of Domesday Book, writing phonetically and without influence from English tradition, spell local and personal names in a way which shows that the oral language had undergone certain changes that do not regularly manifest themselves in native writings until much later. And some of the charters of the time of Edward the Confessor, which exhibit modernisms that are commonly attributed to the scribes of the late MSS. in which they are preserved, are, probably, less altered from their original form than is generally imagined. This remark applies especially to informal documents not proceeding from professional scriveners, such, for instance, as the interesting letter of the monk Edwin about 1057, printed in Kemble’s Codex Diplomaticus, No. 922.

What the Norman conquest really did was to tear away the veil that literary conservatism had thrown over the changes of the spoken tongue. The ambition of Englishmen to acquire the language of the ruling class, and the influx of foreign monks into the religious houses that were the sources of literary instruction, soon brought about the cessation of all systematic training in the use of English. The upper and middle classes became bilingual; and, though English might still be the language which they preferred to speak, they learned at school to read and write nothing but French, or French and Latin. When those who had been educated under the new conditions tried to write English, the literary conventions of the past generation had no hold upon them; they could write no otherwise than as they spoke. This is the true explanation of the apparently rapid change in the grammar of English about the middle of the twelfth century.

It would, however, be a mistake to say that the new conditions produced by the Conquest were wholly without influence on the inflectional structure of the spoken language. Under the Norman kings and their successors, England was politically and administratively united as it had never been before; intercourse between the different parts of the country became less difficult; and the greater freedom of intercommunication assissted the southward diffusion of those grammatical simplifications that had been developed in the northern dialect. The use of the French language among large classes of the population, which has left such profound traces in the English vocabulary, must have tended to accelerate the movement towards disuse of inflectional endings; though this influence must remain rather a matter of abstract probability than of demonstrable fact, because we have no means of distinguishing its effects from those of other causes that were operating in the same direction. Perhaps the use of the preposition of instead of the genitive inflection, and the polite substitution of the plural for the singular in pronouns of the second person, were due to imitation of French modes of expression; but, in other respects, hardly any specific influence of French upon English grammar can be shown to have existed.

In the main, therefore, the differences between the grammar of Old English and that of the English of Chaucer’s day must be ascribed to internal agencies, helped to a certain extent by the influence of the language of the Scandinavian settlers. The French influence introduced by the Norman conquest had only a comparitively small effect.