The year 1066 marks the most important year in the history of the English language. The most important single day in that year was October 13th. It’s a date that might have signaled the beginning of the extinction of English; instead, it marks the beginning of a remarkable evolution and enrichment of the language.
At Hastings in Sussex, England on this date, the Saxon army of King Harold confronted an invading army of French-speaking soldiers from Normandy, a province of France just across the English Channel. The Battle of Hastings was fought from approximately 9 am to dusk. Thousands of soldiers died that day, and the Norman army, led by William, Duke of Normandy, prevailed. Harold was killed, shot through the eye with an arrow, and William marched his victorious army to London, where he was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
Scenes from the bloody battle are depicted in the colorful Bayeux Tapestry, a 229 feet long embroidered cloth, which was commissioned by William’s brother not long after the battle (1).
William the Conqueror was now King of England. The French speaking Normans thus ruled England, and Norman-French as well as Latin became the language of government. The Saxons were defeated, but their language did not die. The conquering Normans were outnumbered by the Saxons, who continued to use English in their common, everyday activities. So instead of being stamped out by French, English adsorbed French words, enriching its lexicon over the next two hundred years.
The Norman Invasion of 1066 marks the end of the Old English period of the history of English and the beginning of the Middle English period. One of the rich legacies of this period is the great variety of words and rich well of synonyms that are characteristic of English. Richard Lederer, in his book The Miracle of Language, states it eloquently:
Bequeathing us the common words of everyday life, many of them fashioned from a single syllable, Anglo-Saxon is the foundation of our language. Its directness, brevity and plainness make us feel more deeply and see things about us more truly. The grandeur, sonority and courtliness of the French elements lift us to another, and more literary, level of expression (1).
We can see this difference illustrated by the Anglo-Saxon words ask, end, fear, and dead and their synonyms of French derivation, question, finish, terror, and deceased. Some writers argue that we should favor the short, precise words of Anglo-Saxon origin to the longer words derived from French, Latin, or Greek. Winston Churchill, for example, expressed his bias when he said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”
Today’s Challenge: Saxon Short Short Story
Is it possible to tell an effective story or give an effective speech using words of only a single syllable? One way to test Churchill’s claim is to try your hand at writing using words of only one syllable. It’s also an excellent way to learn to pay careful attention to your word choice. In general, the foundational Anglo-Saxon words in English are one syllable words, unlike words from French, Latin, or Greek, which tend to be more than a single syllable. Write a narrative of at least 200 words and make sure to use only one syllable words. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: To do all that one is able to do is to be a man; to do all that one would like to do is to be a god. -Napoleon Bonaparte
2- Lederer, Richard. The Miracle of Language. New York: Pocket Books, 1991: 19-21.