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The Adventure Of English - 02 English Goes Underground

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The Adventure Of English

Episode Two

English Goes Underground

The Anglo-Norman language is a term traditionally used to refer to the variety of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period. When William the Conqueror led the Norman invasion of England, he, his nobles, and many of his followers from Normandy spoke an Oïl language called Norman. Others who came with him would have spoken varieties of the Picard language or western French. This amalgam developed into the unique insular dialect now known as Anglo-Norman, which was commonly used for administrative purposes from the 13th until the 15th century. It is difficult to know very much, of course, about what was actually spoken, and our knowledge is really only of the written language.

Nevertheless it is clear that Anglo-Norman was to a large extent the spoken language of the Norman nobility and was also spoken in the law courts, schools, and universities. Private and commercial correspondence was written in Anglo-Norman from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. Other social classes than just the nobility became keen to learn Anglo-Norman; manuscripts containing materials for instructing non-native speakers still exist, dating from the fourteenth century onwards.

Although English survived and eventually eclipsed Anglo-Norman, the latter had been sufficiently widespread as to permanently affect English lexically. This is why English has lost many of its original Germanic words which can still be found in German and Dutch. Grammatically, Anglo-Norman had little lasting impact on English, although it is still evident in official and legal terms where the noun and adjective are reversed: attorney general, heir apparent, court martial, body politic, and so on.
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