Late Middle English. Reestablishment of English as the Language of the State and Literature

§ 296. The domination of the French language in England came to an end in the course of the 14th c. The victory of English was pre­determined and prepared for by previous events and historical condi­tions (see § 286).

Little by little the Normans and the English drew together and in­termingled. In the 14th c. Anglo-Norman was a dead language; it ap­peared as corrupt French to those who had access to the French of Paris through books, education or direct contacts. The number of people who knew French had fallen; Anglo-Norman and French literary composi­tions had lost their audience and had to be translated into English.

Towards the end of the 14th c. the English language had taken the place of French as the language of literature and administration. English was once more the dominant speech of all social classes in all re­gions. It had ousted French since it had always remained the mother tongue and the only spoken language of the bulk of the population.

§ 297. It may be interesting to mention some facts showing how the transition came about. In 1362 Edward III gave his consent to an act of Parliament ordaining that English should be used in the law courts, since "French has become much unknown in the realm". This reform, however, was not carried out for years to come: French, as well as Lat­in, continued to be used by lawyers alongside English until the 16th c. Yet many legal documents which have survived from the late 14th and 15th c. are written in English: wills, municipal acts, petitions. In 1363, for the first time in history, Parliament was opened by the king's chancellor with an address in English. In 1399 King Henry IV used English in his official speech when accepting the throne. In 1404 English diplomats refused to conduct negotiations with France in French, claim­ing that the language was unknown to them. All these events testify to the recognition of English as the state language.

Slowly and inevitably English regained supremacy in the field of education. As early as 1349 it was ruled that English should be used at schools in teaching Latin, but it was not until I3S5 that the practice became general, and even the universities began to conduct their curric­ula in English. By the 15th c. the ability to speak French had come to be regarded as a special accomplishment, and French, like Latin, was learnt as a foreign language. At the end of the 15th c. William Caxton, the first English printer, observed: "the most quantity of the people understand not Latin nor French here in this noble realm of England",

§ 298. One might have expected that the triumph of English would lead to a weakening of the French influence upon English. In reality, however, the impact of French became more apparent. As seen from the surviving written texts, French loan-words multiplied at the very time when English became a medium of general communication. The large-scale influx of French loans can be attributed to several causes. It is probable that many French words had been in current use for quite a long time before they were first recorded. We should recall that records in Early ME were scarce and came mostly from the Northern and West­ern regions, which were least affected by French influence. Later ME texts were produced in London and in the neighbouring areas, with a mixed and largely bilingual population. In numerous translations from French — which became necessary when the French language was going out of use — many loan-words were employed for the sake of greater precision, for want of a suitable native equivalent or due to the trans­lator's inefficiency. It is also important that in the course of the 14th c. the local dialects were brought into closer contact; they intermixed and influenced one another: therefore the infiltration of French borrow­ings into all the local and social varieties of English progressed more rapidly.

§ 299. As with other foreign influences, the impact of French is to be found, first and foremost, in the vocabulary. The layers and the se­mantic spheres of the French borrowings reflect the relations between the Norman rulers and the English population, the dominance of the French language in literature and the contacts with French culture (see § 577). The prevalence of French as the language of writing led to numerous changes in English spelling (see § 357).






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