Most Europeans who start learning English as a foreign language often wonder why several words look or sound like those in their own languages. The language still bears the marks of its composite origin. Speakers of Romance languages such as Spanish, French and Italian will recognise a number of expressions which, however, may seem utterly unfamiliar to German, Dutch or Swedish people. The latter, in turn, can easily guess the meaning of certain terms that bear no resemblance to their French or Italian equivalents. That is because modern English is derived from Middle English, which was the result of a gradual combination of the three main languages that were used in medieval England.
After William of Normandy conquered the country in 1066, his court and his barons carried on speaking their native language, French. At the same time the conquered Saxons, William’s feudal subjects, spoke Old English. This was the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons, which had been strongly affected by Viking dialects in the 9th and 10th centuries. Like Latin and other languages Old English was characterised by complex morphology and word order but then it was slowly subjected to a process of constant simplification. In time, Norman French and Old English mingled with the Latin of the clergy and scholars to form Middle English, the earliest corpus of present-day English.
Of course, that also holds true for other languages, but English offers the most interesting example: in a number of cases, the names for animals and meat are quite different from each other. Walter Scott suggests a brilliant explanation in a famous episode of his historical novel, Ivanhoe. According to his story, this feature of the language can be traced back to the social conditions in Norman England. When the Norman lords ordered meat for their banquets they did so in French. On the other hand, the Saxon serfs looked after the animals and hardly ever ate meat, so they used their Germanic words to speak about the living thing. For instance, veal and pork are two kinds of meat from a calf and a pig respectively.
Saxons and Normans
“What do you call those grunting animals running about on their four legs?” asked Wamba.
“Swine, fool, swine’, said Gurth, “every fool knows that”.
“And swine is good Saxon; but what do you call the animal when it is killed, quartered and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”
“Pork”, answered Gurth.
“I am very glad every fool knows that, too”, said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French. And so, when the animal lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, it is called by its Saxon name, but becomes a Norman and is called pork, when it is carried to the tables of the Norman Lords. And I can tell you more: the ox has a Saxon name, while it is under the charge of serfs such as you, but becomes beef, a good French word, when it arrives before the teeth that are destined to eat it. The calf, too, becomes veal in the like manner: it is Saxon when it requires tendance, and it takes a Norman name when it becomes a matter of enjoyment”.
“By St. Dunstan”, answered Gurth, “you tell sad truths; little is left to us but the air we breathe. The best food is for their tables, our best soldiers die in distant lands fighting for their foreign masters, and few are left here who have either the will or power to protect the unfortunate Saxon ‘.
Walter Scott (Adapted from “Ivanhoe”)