How the English vocabulary reveals past social inequalities.

The Anglo-Saxons were the Germanic inhabitants of England before the Conquest, i.e. the invasion and assumption of control by William of Normandy in 1066. Known as William the Conqueror, William I (circa 1027-87) defeated Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. He introduced Norman institutions and customs, including feudalism, and instigated the Domesday Book.


Anglo-Norman French was the variety of Norman French used in England after the Conquest. It remained the language of the English nobility for several centuries.

Because of its double filiation, Germanic on one side and, via Northern (and Central) French, Latin on the other, English very often has pairs of words. For example:

to begin – to commence

to clothe – to dress
to die – to perish
to end – to finish
to feed – to nourish
to fight – to combat
bell – clock

bill – beak
bough – branch
folk – people
might – power
work – labour
clever – intelligent
deep – profound
hazy – vague
holy – saint
loving – amorous
raw – crude

One famous example is the distinction between the names of live animals (swine/sow/pig, ox/cow, calf, sheep, deer, of Germanic origin) and the corresponding terms for the flesh of these animals as it appears at the butcher’s or on the table (pork, beef, veal, mutton, venison, borrowed from French – modern French: porc, bœuf, veau, mouton, venaison). The usual explanation of this distinction is that, after the Conquest, the Normans left the care of the animals to their Saxon menials, who carried on using the old names for the live creatures. The meat went to the tables of their Norman masters, who named it with their own words. The Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832) evoked this in Ivanhoe; A Romance (1819), which depicts the enmity between Saxons and Normans during the reign of Richard I (1189-99); Wamba is Cedric the Saxon’s jester and Gurth is Cedric’s swineherd:

“Gurth, I advise thee to […] leave the herd to their destiny, which, whether they meet with bands of travelling soldiers, or of outlaws, or of wandering pilgrims, can be little else than to be converted into Normans before morning, to thy no small ease and comfort.”
“The swine turned Normans to my comfort!” quoth Gurth; “expound that to me, Wamba, for my brain is too dull, and my mind too vexed, to read riddles.”

“Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.
Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.”
“And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”
Pork,” answered the swine-herd.
“I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?”
“It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”
“Nay, I can tell you more,” said Wamba, in the same tone; “there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes matter of enjoyment.”
“By St Dunstan,” answered Gurth, “thou speakest but sad truths; little is left to us but the air we breathe, and that appears to have been reserved with much hesitation, solely for the purpose of enabling us to endure the tasks they lay upon our shoulders.”

Interestingly, the less favoured portions, the offal, have Anglo-Saxon names, for example oxtail and sheep’s head.

In French, as there are no such pairs of words, the determiner indicates whether the noun denotes a live animal or its flesh. For instance, un mouton and deux moutons mean one sheep and two sheep, but du mouton means (some) mutton.

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