The Hidden History of English

English has a long, rich history, and if you know where to look you can find some of that amazing history sitting in words we use every day!

A long time ago, English wasn’t the international language we know today. It was only spoken by a group of people known as the Anglo-Saxons in the British isles (the modern day United Kingdom). In the year 1066, the home of the Anglo-Saxons was invaded by the Normans (they came from an area in northern France called Normandy).

The Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons, and English became a lower class language, while the French spoken by the Normans became the language used by Kings, nobles, teachers, and the church.

This situation lead to many French words being borrowed into English. It was during this time that the words in today’s article came into English.

In English, there are many pairs of words for foods and animals. Frequently, you’ll find that the word for an animal is of native English origin, while the word for the flesh of that animal has been borrowed from French.

Remember earlier when we talked about the Norman invasion of Britain?

The results of that invasion meant that Normans became upper class, while the Anglo-Saxons were lower class. So, the people who took care of the animals were English speakers while the people who were eating them spoke French. This situation gave us these word pairs in modern English, where the word for an animal has a native origin, but the food is a French borrowing.

Look at these words with their modern French equivalents:

animalanimal’s meatFrench word (English translation)
deervenison*venesoun (meat from a hunt)
chickenpoultrypoulet (chicken)
sheepmuttonmouton (sheep)
cowbeefboeuf (ox)
pigporkporc (pig)

*this is actually taken from Latin, which is the mother language of French.

As you can see, there are many pairs of words like this for animals and the animal’s meat. The Normans gave English many words that are still common in English to this day! Words such as baron, liberty, commence, and noble are all words borrowed from French at that time!

The amazing thing about language is that interesting stories like these are sitting in plain sight in words we use every day!

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