Sojourner Tours Guest: I’ve noticed that a lot of French words are the same as in English, like the word “table”, for example, it’s exactly the same in both languages. It’s funny to me because I think of English as more of a Germanic type of language, whereas French is a romance language. You teach French, what do you make of that?
Francis Mathieu: It’s actually a great story that few native speakers of either language know about, surprisingly. So actually half of the English vocabulary comes from medieval French, courtesy of good old William the Conqueror.
Sojourner Tours Guest: The name rings a bell. Who was that guy again?
Francis Mathieu: William the Conqueror or in French Guillaume Le Conquérant was the duke of Normandy in North Western France in the 11th century. Duke is one of the highest titles of nobility. It means that he was the ruler of the entire province of Normandy, which was one of the richest regions in the kingdom of France at the time. Wealth mainly came from agriculture in the medieval period and Normandy’s temperate and rainy climate is perfect for agriculture. To this day some of the best French milk and cheeses come from Normandy. Think of camembert cheese for example, one of French people’s favorite cheeses.
Sojourner Tours Guest: Okay, so what’s the connection with the English language here?
Francis Mathieu: Sorry, I digressed!
Sojourner Tours Guest: No worries, that’s interesting stuff! Please go on…
Francis Mathieu: Sure, so good old William was a rich and powerful aristocrat, but also a very ambitious one. Being a duke was not enough for him. After all he was still a vassal to the king of France. He wanted to be king himself. Just across the sea from Normandy, king Harold of England was in trouble. He was reeling from conflicts against Vikings. He had prevailed, but his army and power were now weaker. What’s funny is that William was the descent of a viking chief who had obtained Normandy from the king of France in a peace deal. Normandy means the land of the Norsemen.
Sojourner Tours Guest: These vikings were quite something… so what did William do?
Francis Mathieu: Our friend William saw an opportunity. He gathered an army, crossed the channel and challenged king Harold to a decisive battle. Maybe you’ve heard about the great battle of Hastings in 1066?
Sojourner Tours Guest: Yes, I have. So he won, right.
Francis Mathieu: Yes, he did. King Harold was even killed in battle! William took the crown of England and became king. Because his native language was French, he imposed French as the new administrative and political language of England. As a result, the elite spoke French and the people, most of whom were wretched peasants continued to speak the old German language they had inherited from the Saxon and Angles Germanic tribes after the fall of the roman empire.
Sojourner Tours Guest: Wow, that’s fascinating! And what about English? Who spoke English then?
Francis Mathieu: Well, check this out: English didn’t exist yet, in fact English is a new European language that was born of the mingling of old French and old German, with a touch of Old Norse, the Viking’s language.
Sojourner Tours Guest: Really? I had no idea!
Francis Mathieu: So the elites spoke French and the people spoke German. The two languages cohabitated for a long time before they gradually mingled over several generations to create the new language we know today as English.
Sojourner Tours Guest: That’s amazing! And then the Brits spread it to North America and elsewhere.
Francis Mathieu: Yes! Which means William single-handedly influenced the language you speak as a native from Austin, Texas.
Sojourner Tours Guest: I love that story. Thanks for sharing it with me!
Francis Mathieu: My pleasure! I love sharing this type of story with our guests. I can say it’s one of the signatures of Sojourner Tours!