Anglo Norman

The Anglo-Norman language was made up of two essential parts. Can you guess what they are? That's right! It's Anglo (Saxon) and Norman. It seems simple, right? But as with anything involving a language, it can be more complex. How much of the speech was Norman and how much of it was Anglo-Saxon? Who spoke this unique dialect? How did this all happen in the first place? 

Anglo Norman Anglo Norman

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Table of contents

    Don't worry; today, we're here to look in more detail at the Norman language and answer all your queries. We'll look more closely at the Anglo-Norman period and its defining literature. At the end of the article, we'll even take a look at some Anglo-Norman words. You may be surprised at how closely they resemble some of ours. Let's go!

    Norman language

    How do we define 'Anglo-Norman'? Let's get started with a basic definition and then look at the history of the period in more detail.

    Anglo-Norman was a French dialect spoken by the Normans and was the dominant language in England between approximately 1100 and 1350.

    More specifically, Anglo-Norman combines Old Norman French with a selection of loanwords taken from Old English, hence 'Anglo-Norman'.

    Old Norman French was the primary dialect spoken by the Normans, brought to England during the Norman invasion in 1066.

    Old English was the earliest recorded version of the English language, brought to England during the Anglo-Saxon invasion in the 5th century AD.

    Old English was related to the West Germanic language family. This means that the language would sound entirely foreign to a modern-day English speaker!

    But who were the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons? What occurred for this unique 'Anglo-Norman' language to spawn? Let's learn a little bit more about the history of the period to find out.

    Anglo-Norman period

    Let's answer some common questions to learn a little more about how the Anglo-Norman language came to be.

    The Normans in England

    The process that would create the Anglo-Norman language was set in motion after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

    The Normans were a group of Vikings (Norsemen) descended from modern-day Denmark, Norway and Iceland who settled in northern France during the late 9th century.

    Before the invasion of the Normans, England had been controlled by the Anglo-Saxons, who had invaded England after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD.

    The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic cultural group comprised of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The group initially inhabited Scandinavia and northern Germany.

    In 1066 the Normans sailed across the channel and conquered England during the infamous battle of Hastings. After this conquest, the English way of life was forever altered.

    One of the most significant changes made by the Normans was making their native dialect (Old Norman French) the language of the law, nobility and administration. During the 8th and 9th centuries, scholars had begun creating works of literature in Old English; now, Old English fell out of use within written work almost entirely. Even though most of the lower-class population still spoke the language, Old English had become the least important written language in the country.

    During this period, Latin remained the primary language used in writing because of its prevalence in religious texts. This also made England a trilingual country, with speakers of Norman French, Latin and Old English.

    The birth of the Anglo-Norman language

    After conquering England, the Normans slowly began adopting words from the Old English language. This is a common phenomenon known as taking 'loanwords', in which speakers of one language take words from another, adding them to their own vocabulary over a period of many years.

    By 1100, the Norman dialect was primarily Old Norman French but with a noticeable Anglo-Saxon influence. We refer to this mix of two languages as 'Anglo-Norman'.

    Although the Normans invaded in 1066, 1100 is often used as a rough estimate for the beginnings of the Anglo-Norman language. This is because language often takes centuries to fully evolve. It would have taken many years for Anglo-Saxon words to find their way into the Old Norman French dialect.

    The decline of the Old French dialect

    While French was the dominant language in England for hundreds of years after the Norman conquest, by 1350, it had once again been almost completely replaced by English.

    This resulted from the gradual isolation of the Normans from mainland France. Numerous conflicts like the Hundred Years War, which was fought between England and France from 1337 until 1453, soured the relationship between the two countries.

    Anglo Norman Battle of Auray Hundred Years War StudySmarterFig 1. This painting, contained within the Jean Froissart Chronicles (1369) depicts the Battle of Auray, one of the deciding battles in the Hundred Years War fought between England and France.

    For this reason, the Normans began associating themselves with English culture to distance themselves from their own. Consequently, they slowly started enthusiastically adopting English values, customs and vocabulary, helping English to once again replace French as the language of law and nobility.

    Did you know? The first king to start speaking English in his courts after the Norman invasion was King Henry IV (1367-1413).

    But wait! This wasn't the same 'Old English' that it used to be. English speakers now had thousands of French words in their vocabulary. English grammar had also been simplified massively, likely so that the native English and the Normans could understand each other more comfortably. It is this simplified dialect of English mixed with French that we now refer to as 'Middle English'.

    The French language had a huge impact on the version of English we speak today. By the end of the Norman reign, it is estimated that 30% of English words were of French origin.

    Anglo-Norman language example

    Let's look at some Anglo-Norman phrases that are still spoken in the parliament of the United Kingdom today. We'll use these phrases to examine the differences between Anglo-Norman, Modern French and Modern English.

    Modern EnglishAnglo-NormanModern French
    The King/Queen wills it.Le Roy/La Reyne le veult. Le roi/La reine le veut.
    Let it be sent to the Commons.Soit baillé aux Communes. Qu'il soit envoyé aux Communes.
    The King/Queen will consider it.Le Roy/La Reyne s'aviser. Le Roi/La Reine l'examinera.

    The first thing you'll notice here is how much more Anglo-Norman relates to Modern French than it does to Modern English. This makes sense, as the Normans spoke Old French before conquering England in 1066. Anglo-Norman is primarily a French dialect with several loanwords from Old English.

    Some of the words in the Anglo-Norman language look very similar to Modern English vocabulary. 'In these examples, 'commons' derives from the Old French 'communes'. You may also notice that the word 's'aviser' sounds a lot like the English 'adviser'. This is because the 'adviser' derives from the Old French 'avis' meaning opinion, so 'Le Roy/La Reyne s'aviser' could be translated to 'The King/Queen will advise on the matter'.

    Anglo-Norman literature

    Anglo-Norman literature reached its peak between the beginning of the twelfth century and the first quarter of the thirteenth century (approximately 1100-1225). While the style of Anglo-Norman works did mirror traditional French literature in some ways, the cultural differences between England and France prevented Anglo-Norman literature from being a complete imitation of French literature.

    For example, much of the religious, political and historical writing from the period was concerned with chronicling England rather than the histories of France. The English nobility were also particularly enthralled with a genre known as 'romance':

    In the medieval period, the romance genre referred to tales of heroic knights going on incredible quests and adventures. The heroes were often mythical figures of English origin.

    Anglo-Norman literature has many examples of the traditional romance narrative, most of which were exclusive to England's social and cultural climate. This tells us there was a significant breakaway from French literature into distinctly English narrative tropes. Let's look in more detail at some famous examples of Anglo-Norman literature.

    Roman de Brut

    The most important work to arise from the Anglo-Norman period is Wace's (c.1110-1174) Roman de Brut (1155), an expanded version of Geoffrey of Monmouth's (c.1095-c.1155) Latin Historia regum Britanniae (c.1136), which translates to 'History of the Kings of Britain'. This pseudohistorical work provides a largely fictional account of all of the legendary kings of Britain, dating back over 2000 years from the time it was written. Until the 16th century, Monmouth's work was thought to be completely accurate. Today it is seen as unreliable and at least partly falsified.

    While the Historia regum Brittaniae has little use as a historical reference, the importance of the text lies in the narratives it created. Many popular cultural figures were first depicted within Monmouth's work, including Brutus of Troy, King Arthur, and Merlin the mage.

    In Roman de Brut, Wace translates the original Latin text into Anglo-Norman whilst adding additional material. Wace expanded on Monmouth's description of King Arthur by telling the tale of King Arthur's Round Table for the first time. This story has been adapted countless times and is still a part of popular culture today.

    Anglo Norman King Arthur StudySmarterFig 2. This extract from Roman de Brut depicts King Arthur finding a giant roasting a pig.

    Le Roman de Waldef

    This romance narrative was created by an unknown author in Medieval England during the early thirteenth century, making it a prominent example of Anglo-Norman literature. It follows the exploits of an East Anglian King named Waldef. The narrative focuses on political strategy, battle and adventure, all typical features of the romance genre.

    Tristan

    Thomas of Britain (c.12th century) is famed for creating an early Anglo-Norman adaptation of the famous Celtic legend 'Tristan and Iseult.' His version, Tristan (c.1155-1160), only exists in eight fragments but contains over 3000 lines of verse.

    The writer also evidently used Wace's Roman de Brut as a reference guide to plan their narrative, as Thomas's Tristan frequently references the largely fictional dynasties present in the list of Kings.

    Anglo-Norman words

    To end with a little bit of fun, let's look at some Anglo-Norman words and see how they compare to both Modern English and French English.

    Modern EnglishAnglo-Norman/Old FrenchModern French
    AllowanceAlouance Allocation
    DelegateDelegat Déléguer
    EliteElit Elite
    GalleryGalerie Galerie
    HeritageEritage Héritage
    LiteratureLittérature Littérature
    PurifyPurifier Purifier
    NovelNovelRoman
    TournamentTornoiement Tournoi

    If this table tells us anything, it's that the language of our ancestors had a lot in common with the words we speak today. Sometimes the past doesn't feel so distant!

    Anglo-Norman (1100-1350) - Key takeaways

    • Anglo-Norman was a dialect of French, spoken by the Normans, that was the dominant language in England between approximately 1100 and 1350.
    • The process that would create the Anglo-Norman language was set in motion after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
    • By 1100, the Norman dialect was primarily Old Norman French but with a noticeable Anglo-Saxon influence. We refer to this mix of two languages as 'Anglo-Norman'.
    • Anglo-Norman more closely resembles modern-day French than it does modern-day English.
    • Important works of literature arose during this period, including Roman de Brut (1155), La Roman de Waldef (c. 13th century) and Tristan (c.12th century).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Anglo Norman

    What is Anglo-Norman?

    Anglo-Norman was a dialect of French, spoken by the Normans, that was the dominant language in England between approximately 1100 and 1350.

    What is the Anglo-Norman period? 

    The Anglo-Norman period occurrred between approximately 1100 and 1350.

    Who are the Anglo-Norman people? 

    The Anglo-Normans were the ruling class in medieval England following the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The group originally inhabited Scandinavia and northern Germany. 

    What is the difference between Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman? 

    Anglo-Saxon refers to the language of the Anglo-Saxons, Germanic invaders who conquered England following the withdrawal of Rome in the fifth century. Anglo-Norman refers to the language that developed when the Old French language mixed with Old English following the Norman invasion.

    Do Normans still exist? 

    Yes. Although a distinct Norman Kingdom no longer exists, Normans still live in Northern France even today. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What country did the Normans invade from?

    What is the origin of the Anglo-Saxon language?

    Who was the first king to start speaking English in his courts after the Norman invasion?

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    Team Anglo Norman Teachers

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