Anglo-Norman language

Last updated
RegionGreat Britain and Ireland
Ethnicity Anglo-Normans
Eraunknown, but significantly contributed to Middle English; used in English law until c. 17th century
Early form
Language codes
ISO 639-3 xno
Glottolog angl1258
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Anglo-Norman, also known as Anglo-Norman French (Norman : Anglo-Normaund) (French: Anglo-Normand), was a dialect of Old Norman French [1] that was used in England and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Great Britain and Ireland during the Anglo-Norman period. [2]


When William the Conqueror led the Norman conquest of England in 1066, he, his nobles, and many of his followers from Normandy, but also those from northern and western France, spoke a range of langues d'oïl (northern varieties of Gallo-Romance). One of these was Old Norman, also known as "Old Northern French". Other followers spoke varieties of the Picard language or western registers of general Old French. This amalgam developed into the unique insular dialect now known as Anglo-Norman French, which was commonly used for literary and eventually administrative purposes from the 12th until the 15th century. It is difficult to know much about what was actually spoken, as what is known about the dialect is restricted to what was written, but it is clear that Anglo-Norman was, to a large extent, the spoken language of the higher social strata in medieval England.

It was spoken in the law courts, schools, and universities and, in due course, in at least some sections of the gentry and the growing bourgeoisie. Private and commercial correspondence was carried out in Anglo-Norman or Anglo-French from the 13th to the 15th century though its spelling forms were often displaced by continental spellings. Social classes other than the nobility became keen to learn French: manuscripts containing materials for instructing non-native speakers still exist, dating mostly from the late 14th century onwards.

Although Anglo-Norman and Anglo-French were eventually eclipsed by modern English, they had been used widely enough to influence English vocabulary permanently. Thus, many original Germanic words, cognates of which can still be found in Nordic, German, and Dutch, have been lost or, as more often occurs, exist alongside synonyms of Anglo-Norman French origin. Anglo-Norman had little lasting impact on English grammar, as opposed to vocabulary, although it is still evident in official and legal terms where the ordinary sequence of noun and adjective is reversed, as seen in phrases such as attorney general, heir apparent, court martial, envoy extraordinary and body politic. [3]

The royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom still features in French the mottos of both the British Monarch, Dieu et mon droit ("God and my right"), and the Order of the Garter, Honi soit qui mal y pense ("Shamed be he who thinks evil of it").

Dieu et mon droit was first used by Richard I (who spoke French but not English) in 1198 and adopted as the royal motto of England in the time of Henry VI. The motto appears below the shield of the Royal Coat of Arms.

Use and development

Anglo-Norman was never the main administrative language of England: Latin was the major language of record in legal and other official documents for most of the medieval period. However, from the late 12th century to the early 15th century, Anglo-Norman French and Anglo-French were much used in law reports, charters, ordinances, official correspondence, and trade at all levels; they were the language of the King, his court and the upper class. There is evidence, too, that foreign words (Latin, Greek, Italian, Arabic, Spanish) often entered English via Anglo-Norman.

The language of later documents adopted some of the changes ongoing in continental French and lost many of its original dialectal characteristics, so Anglo-French remained (in at least some respects and at least at some social levels) part of the dialect continuum of modern French, often with distinctive spellings. Over time, the use of Anglo-French expanded into the fields of law, administration, commerce, and science, in all of which a rich documentary legacy survives, indicative of the vitality and importance of the language.

By the late 15th century, however, what remained of insular French had become heavily anglicised: see Law French. It continued to be known as "Norman French" until the end of the 19th century even though, philologically, there was nothing Norman about it. [4]

One notable survival of influence on the political system is the use of certain Anglo-French set phrases in the Parliament of the United Kingdom for some endorsements to bills and the granting of Royal Assent to legislation. [5] [6] These set phrases include:

The exact spelling of these phrases has varied over the years; for example, s'avisera has been spelled as s'uvisera and s'advisera, and Reyne as Raine.

Among important writers of the Anglo-Norman cultural commonwealth is Marie de France.

The languages and literature of the Channel Islands are sometimes referred to as Anglo-Norman, but that usage is derived from the French name for the islands: îles anglo-normandes. The variety of French spoken in the islands is Norman and not the Anglo-Norman of medieval England.

Trilingualism in Medieval England

Much of the earliest recorded French is in fact Anglo-Norman French. In Northern France at that time,[ when? ] almost nothing was being recorded in the vernacular because Latin was the language of the Church and consequently of education and historiography, and was thus used for the purpose of records. Latin also remained in use in medieval England by the Church, the royal government and much local administration, as it had been before 1066, in parallel with Middle English. The early [ when? ] adoption of Anglo-Norman as a written and literary language probably owes something to this history of bilingualism in writing.[ citation needed ]

Around the same time, as a shift took place in France towards using French as a language of record in the mid-13th century, Anglo-Norman French also became a language of record in England though Latin retained its pre-eminence for matters of permanent record (as in written chronicles). From around this point onwards, considerable variation begins to be apparent in Anglo-French, which ranges from the very local (and most anglicized) to a level of language which approximates to and is sometimes indistinguishable from varieties of continental French. Thus, typically, local records are rather different from continental French, with diplomatic and international trade documents closest to the emerging continental norm. [7] English remained the vernacular of the common people throughout this period. The resulting virtual trilinguism in spoken and written language was one of medieval Latin, French and Middle English.

Language of the king and his court

From the time of the Norman Conquest (1066) until the end of the 14th century, French was the language of the king and his court. During this period, marriages with French princesses reinforced the royal family's ties to French culture. Nevertheless, during the 13th century, intermarriages with English nobility became more frequent. French became progressively a second language among the upper classes. Moreover, with the Hundred Years' War and the growing spirit of English and French nationalism, the status of French diminished.

French was the mother tongue of every English king from William the Conqueror (1066–1087) until Henry IV (1399–1413). Henry IV was the first to take the oath in English, and his son, Henry V (1413–1422), was the first to write in English. By the end of the 15th century, French became the second language of a cultivated elite. [8]

Language of the royal charters and legislation

Until the end of the 13th century, Latin was the language of all official written documents. Nevertheless, some important documents had their official Norman translation, such as the Magna Carta signed in 1215. The first official document written in Anglo-Norman was a statute promulgated by the king in 1275. Thus, from the 13th century, Anglo-Norman became used in official documents, such as those that were marked by the private seal of the king whereas the documents sealed by the Lord Chancellor were written in Latin until the end of the Middle Ages. English became the language of Parliament and of legislation in the 15th century, half a century after it had become the language of the king and of most of the English nobility. [8]

Language of administration and justice

During the 12th century, development of the administrative and judicial institutions took place. Because the king and the lawyers at the time normally used French, it also became the language of these institutions. [8] From the 12th century until the 15th century, the courts used three languages: Latin for writing, French as the main oral language during trials, and English in less formal exchanges between the judge, the lawyer, the complainant or the witnesses. The judge gave his sentence orally in Norman, which was then written in Latin. Only in the lowest level of the manorial courts were trials entirely in English.

During the 15th century, English became the main spoken language, but Latin and French continued to be exclusively used in official legal documents until the beginning of the 18th century. Nevertheless, the French language used in England changed from the end of the 15th century into Law French. This variety of French was a technical language, with a specific vocabulary, where English words were used to describe everyday experience, and French grammatical rules and morphology gradually declined, with confusion of genders and the adding of -s to form all plurals. Law French was banished from the courts of the common law in 1731, almost three centuries after the king ceased speaking primarily French.

Language of the people

Though the great mass of ordinary people spoke Middle English, French, because of its prestigious status, spread as a second language, encouraged by its long-standing use in the school system as a medium of instruction through which Latin was taught. In the courts, the members of the jury, who represented the population, had to know French in order to understand the plea of the lawyer. French was used by the merchant middle class as a language of business communication, especially when it traded with the continent, and several churches used French to communicate with lay people. [8] A small but important number of documents survive associated with the Jews of medieval England, some featuring Anglo-French written in Hebrew script, typically in the form of glosses to the Hebrew scriptures. [9]


As a langue d'oïl , Anglo-Norman developed collaterally to the central Gallo-Romance dialects which would eventually become Parisian French in terms of grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. Before the signature of the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts in 1539 and long afterward in practice, French was not standardised as an official administrative language of the kingdom of France.

Middle English was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman and, later, Anglo-French. W. Rothwell has called Anglo-French 'the missing link' because many etymological dictionaries seem to ignore the contribution of that language in English and because Anglo-Norman and Anglo-French can explain the transmission of words from French into English and fill the void left by the absence of documentary records of English (in the main) between 1066 and c. 1380. [10]

Modern French has changed dramatically compared to the Anglo-Norman period. For example, Anglo-Norman legal documents use the phrase "del Rey" (of the king). This is identical to modern Spanish but different from the modern French "du Roi". [11]

Anglo-Norman morphology and phonology can be deduced from its heritage in English. Mostly, it is done in comparison with continental Central French. English has many doublets as a result of this contrast:

Compare also:

The palatalization of velar consonants before the front vowel produced different results in Norman to the central langue d'oïl dialects that developed into French. English therefore, for example, has fashion from Norman féchoun as opposed to Modern French façon (both developing from Latin factio, factiōnem). In contrast, the palatalization of velar consonants before /a/ that affected the development of French did not occur in Norman dialects north of the Joret line. English has therefore inherited words that retain a velar plosive where French has a fricative:

English< Norman= French
cabbage< caboche= chou, caboche
candle< caundèle= chandelle
castle< caste(-l)= château
cauldron< caudron= chaudron
causeway< cauchie= chaussée
catch< cachi= chasser
cattle< *cate(-l)= cheptel (Old French chetel)
fork< fouorque= fourche
garden< gardin= jardin
kennel< kenil= chenil (Vulgar Latin *canile)
wicket< viquet= guichet
plank< planque= planche, planque
pocket< pouquette= poche

Some loans were palatalized later in English, as in the case of challenge (< Old Norman calonge, Middle English kalange, kalenge, later chalange; Old French challenge, chalonge).

There were also vowel differences: Compare Anglo-Norman profound with Parisian French profond, soun sound with son, round with rond. The former words were originally pronounced something like 'profoond', 'soon', 'roond' respectively (compare the similarly denasalised vowels of modern Norman), but later developed their modern pronunciation in English. The word veil retains the /ei/ (as does modern Norman in vaile and laîsi) that in French has been replaced by /wa/voile, loisir.

Since many words established in Anglo-Norman from French via the intermediary of Norman were not subject to the processes of sound change that continued in parts of the continent, English sometimes preserves earlier pronunciations. For example, ch used to be /tʃ/ in Medieval French, where Modern French has /ʃ/, but English has preserved the older sound (in words like chamber, chain, chase and exchequer). Similarly, j had an older /dʒ/ sound, which it still has in English and some dialects of modern Norman, but it has developed into /ʒ/ in Modern French.

The word mushroom preserves a hush sibilant not recorded in French mousseron, as does cushion for coussin. Conversely, the pronunciation of the word sugar resembles Norman chucre even if the spelling is closer to French sucre. It is possible that the original sound was an apical sibilant, like the Basque s, which is halfway between a hissing sibilant and a hushing sibilant.

The doublets catch and chase are both derived from Low Latin *captiare. Catch demonstrates a Norman development while chase is the French equivalent imported with a different meaning.

Distinctions in meaning between Anglo-Norman and French have led to many faux amis (words having similar form but different meanings) in Modern English and Modern French.

Although it is a Romance language, Norman contains a significant amount of lexical material from Old Norse. Because of this, some of the words introduced to England as part of Anglo-Norman were of Germanic origin. Indeed, sometimes one can identify cognates such as flock (Germanic in English existing prior to the Conquest) and floquet (Germanic in Norman). The case of the word mug demonstrates that in instances, Anglo-Norman may have reinforced certain Scandinavian elements already present in English. Mug had been introduced into northern English dialects by Viking settlement. The same word had been established in Normandy by the Normans (Norsemen) and was then brought over after the Conquest and established firstly in southern English dialects. It is, therefore, argued that the word mug in English shows some of the complicated Germanic heritage of Anglo-Norman.

Many expressions used in English today have their origin in Anglo-Norman (such as the expression before-hand, which derives from Anglo-Norman avaunt-main), as do many modern words with interesting etymologies. Mortgage , for example, literally meant death-wage in Anglo-Norman. Curfew (fr. couvre-feu ) meant cover-fire, referring to the time in the evening when all fires had to be covered to prevent the spread of fire within communities with timber buildings. [12] The word glamour is derived from Anglo-Norman grammeire, the same word which gives us modern grammar; glamour meant first "book learning" and then the most glamorous form of book learning, "magic" or "magic spell" in Medieval times.

The influence of Anglo-Norman was very asymmetric: very little influence from English was carried over into the continental possessions of the Anglo-Norman kings. Some administrative terms survived in some parts of mainland Normandy: forlenc (from furrow, compare furlong ) in the Cotentin Peninsula and Bessin, and a general use of the word acre for land measurement in Normandy until metrication in the 19th century, but these words are probably linguistic traces of Saxon or Anglo-Scandinavian settlements between the 4th and the 10th centuries in Normandy. Otherwise the direct influence of English in mainland Norman (such as smogler "to smuggle") is from direct contact with English in later centuries, rather than Anglo-Norman.


When the Normans invaded England, Anglo-Saxon literature had reached a very high level of development. The important Benedictine monasteries both wrote chronicles and guarded other works in Old English. However, with the arrival of the Norman, Anglo-Saxon literature came to an end and literature written in Britain was in Latin or Anglo-Norman. The Plantagenet kings encouraged this Anglo-Norman literature. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the 14th century, some authors chose to write in English, such as Geoffrey Chaucer. The authors of that period were influenced by the works of contemporary French writers whose language was prestigious. Chaucer is considered to be the father of the English language and the creator of English as a literary language. [8]

Influence on English

According to one study, about 28% of English vocabulary comes from French, including Anglo-French (green). Note that such percentages vary greatly depending on what amount of rare and technical words are included in the calculation. Origins of English PieChart 2D.svg
According to one study, about 28% of English vocabulary comes from French, including Anglo-French (green). Note that such percentages vary greatly depending on what amount of rare and technical words are included in the calculation.

The major Norman-French influence on English can still be seen in today's vocabulary. An enormous number of Norman-French and other medieval French loanwords came into the language, and about three-quarters of them are still used today. Very often, the Norman or French word supplanted the Anglo-Saxon term, or both words would co-exist but with slightly different nuances: for example, cow (describing the animal) and beef (describing the meat). In other cases, the Norman or French word was adopted to signify a new reality, such as judge, castle, warranty. [8]

In general, the Norman and French borrowings concerned the fields of culture, aristocratic life, politics and religion, and war whereas the English words were used to describe everyday experience. When the Normans arrived in England, their copyists wrote English as they heard it, without realising the peculiarities of the relationship between Anglo-Saxon pronunciation and spelling and so the spelling changed. There appeared different regional Modern-English written dialects, the one that the king chose in the 15th century becoming the standard variety.

In some remote areas, agricultural terms used by the rural workers may have been derived from Norman French. An example is the Cumbrian term sturdy for diseased sheep that walk in circles, derived from étourdi meaning dizzy. [13]

Influence in Ireland

The Norman invasion of Ireland took place in the late 12th century and led to Anglo-Norman control of much of the island. Norman-speaking administrators arrived to rule over the Angevin Empire's new territory. Several Norman words became Gaelic words, including household terms: garsún (from Norman garçun, "boy"); cóta (cote, "cloak"); hata (hatte, "hat"); gairdín (gardin, "garden"); and terms relating to justice (Irish giúistís, bardas (corporation), cúirt (court)). Place-names in Norman are few, but there is Buttevant (from the motto of the Barry family: Boutez en Avant, "Push to the Fore"), the village of Brittas (from the Norman bretesche, "boarding, planking") and the element Pallas (Irish pailís, from Norman paleis, "boundary fence": compare palisade, The Pale). [14] Others exist with English or Irish roots, such as Castletownroche, which combines the English Castletown and the Norman Roche, meaning rock.

Only a handful of Hiberno-Norman-French texts survive, most notably the chanson de geste The Song of Dermot and the Earl (early 13th century) and the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366). [15]

See also


  1. Ian Short, A Companion to the Anglo-Norman World, "Language and Literature", Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2007. (p. 193)
  2. For a wide-ranging introduction to the language and its uses, see Anglo-French and the AND by William Rothwell
  3. Amended version of: Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  4. Pollock and Maitland, p. 87 note 3.
  5. Bennion, Francis (Autumn 1981). "Modern Royal Assent Procedure at Westminister". Statute Law Review. 2 (3): 133–147. doi:10.1093/slr/2.3.133. Archived from the original (Word document) on 2007-03-16.
  6. "Companion to the Standing Orders and guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords". United Kingdom Parliament. Archived from the original on 21 November 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-18.
  7. See Lusignan, 2005; Trotter, 2009.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Lusignan, Serge. La langue des rois au Moyen Âge: Le français en France et en Angleterre. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2004.
  9. Fuderman[ full citation needed ]
  10. Rothwell, W. (1991), "The missing link in English etymology: Anglo-French", Medium Aevum, 60, 173–96.
  11. jBhatia, K. L. (2010). Textbook on Legal Language and Legal Writing. Universal Law Publishers. p. 260. ISBN   978-8175348943.
  12. Bailey's Dictionary, fifth edition, 1731.
  13. Rollinson, William Life and Tradition in the Lake District Dalesman 1987 p.82 ISBN   0852068859
  14. 'Pallas' |
  15. "Medieval and early modern French Texts at CELT".

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