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Anglo-Norman language

The Anglo-Norman language is the name given to the language spoken by the Anglo-Normans, the descendents of the Normans who ruled England following the conquest by William of Normandy in 1066. The Norman nobility spoke a langue d'oïl called Norman. This became the official language of England and later developed into the unique insular dialect now known as the Anglo-Norman language

Anglo-Norman was the spoken language of the Norman nobility and was also used in the courts, to compile official documents, to write literature, and for commercial purposes. The lower classes were keen on learning Anglo-Norman; some early textbooks for non-native speakers still exist.

The name is something of a misnomer: the specifically Norman traits of the language found in England are neither overwhelmingly dominant, nor are they the only dialectal elements which are discernible in documents written in French in England. Moreover, the use of so specific a label tends to lead to unsustainable assumptions about the variety's unity and homogeneity. It is far safer to think in terms of a range of speakers from various dialectal backgrounds, by no means all Norman; since their speech is of course not recorded, the diversity of it (both regional and social) is equally unattested.

Use and development

The written records from the conquest onwards display certain striking features. In the first place, they are early: the first medieval French literature appears in England, and some of the first non-literary documents in Old French (charters, etc.) are in Anglo-Norman. The most likely explanation for this is that there was a long-standing insular tradition of vernacular writing of religious, literary and historical texts, which the newly-arrived Normans adopted.

Among important writers of the Anglo-Norman cultural commonwealth are the Jersey-born poet, Wace, and Marie de France. The literature of the Anglo-Norman period forms the reference point for subsequent literature in the Norman language, especially in the 19th century Norman literary revival and even into the 20th century in the case of André Dupont's Épopée cotentine. The languages and literatures of the Channel Islands are sometimes still referred to as Anglo-Norman.

Over time, the use of Anglo-Norman expanded further into the fields of law, administration, commerce, and science, in all of which a rich documentary legacy survives.

One notable survival of influence on the political system is the use of Anglo-Norman phrases in the granting of Royal Assent to legislation in the United Kingdom. It is also used in Parliament for some endorsements to bills:

  • "soit baillé aux communes" (a bill sent by the House of Lords to the House of Commons)
  • "A ceste Bille les Seigneurs sont assentus" (a Commons bill agreed by the Lords)
  • "A ceste Bille avecque des amendements les Seigneurs sont assentus" (a Commons Bill amended by the Lords)
  • "Ceste Bille est remise aux Seigneurs avecque des raisons" (a Commons bill amended by the Lords, sent back by the Commons when they disagree with the Lords' amendments)
  • "La Reyne le veult" (Royal Assent for a public bill)
  • "La Reyne remercie ses bon sujets, accepte leur bénévolence, et ainsi le veult (Royal Assent for a supply bill)
  • "Soit fait comme il est desiré" (Royal Assent for a private bill)

But in parallel with the development of Anglo-Norman as a "language of record" (Michael Clanchy's term), the language became less and less of a true vernacular, and increasingly an acquired, second language. In many cases, of course, it was only imperfectly acquired, and it is these texts which have fuelled the idea that all later Anglo-Norman is little more than a degenerate jargon.

How far this is from the truth may easily be seen from the wide range of documents well into the 15th century in which Anglo-Norman is used for complex administrative matters and indeed affairs of state, at home and abroad. At an international level, many Anglo-Norman diplomatic documents are virtually indistinguishable from the products of the Paris Chancery - a fact which (together with the substantial evidence of the use of Anglo-Norman in Gascony) rather undermines the notion, still current, that the insular variety of French was cut off from its continental roots after the loss of continental Normandy in 1204.

Yet as well as continuing as a written language of record for all sorts of purposes right through the Middle Ages (and in the case of Law French, beyond), in a determinedly multilingual context, it is clear that Anglo-Norman must also have penetrated sufficiently into all social classes to ensure numerous borrowings into various English dialects. On the one hand the bulk of the Anglo-Norman influence on the lexis of English can probably be attributed to the trilingual scribes in charge of records of all sorts from the late thirteenth century onwards; on the other, there is a layer of vocabulary (of lower status) not so readily explained by this process.


As a langue d'oïl, Anglo-Norman had developed collaterally to the central Gallo-Romance dialects that would eventually become Parisian French, in terms of grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary - it being also important to remember that before the 15th century French had not been standardised as an official administrative language of the kingdom of France. Middle English was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman; most words of Romance origin in English are derived from Anglo-Norman rather than continental Parisian French. Some etymologists have called Anglo-Norman 'the missing link' because many etymological dictionaries seem to ignore the contribution of that language in English.

Although English survived and eventually eclipsed Anglo-Norman, the latter had been sufficiently widespread as to permanently change English. This is why English has lost many original Germanic characteristics that are still strong in German and Dutch.

Anglo-Norman morphology and pronunciation can be deduced from its heritage in English. Mostly this is done in comparison with continental French. English has many doublets as a result of this contrast:

  • warranty - guarantee
  • ward - guard
  • warden - guardian

Compare also:

  • wage (Anglo-Norman) - gage (French)
  • wait - guetter (French)
  • war (from AN werre) - guerre (French)
  • wicket (Anglo-Norman) - guichet (French)

The palatalization of velar consonants before front vowel produced different results in Norman to the central langue d'oïl dialects that developed into French. English therefore, for example, has fashion from Norman féchoun as opposed to Modern French façon

The palatalization of velar consonants before /a/ that affected the development of French did not occur in Norman dialects north of the ligne Joret . English has therefore inherited words that retain a velar plosive where French has a fricative:

English < Norman = French

cabbage < caboche = chou

candle < caundèle = chandelle

castle < caste(l) = château

cat < cat = chat

cauldron < caudron = chaudron

causeway < cauchie = chaussée

catch < cachi = chasser

cater < acater = acheter

wicket < viquet = guichet

plank < pllanque = planche

pocket < pouquette = poche

fork < fouorque = fourche

garden < gardin = jardin

Other words such as captain, kennel, cattle and canvas exemplify how Norman retained a /k/ from Latin that was not retained in French.

However, Anglo-Norman also acted as a conduit for French words to enter England: for example, challenge clearly displays a form of French origin rather than the Norman calenge.

There were also vowel differences: cf. AN profound with PF profond, soun 'sound' - son, round - rond. The former words were pronounced something like 'profoond', 'soond', 'roond' respectively (compare the similarly denasalised vowels of modern Norman), but they later developed their modern pronunciation in English.

Since many words established in Anglo-Norman from French via the intermediary of Norman were not subject to the processes of sound change that continued in parts of the continent, English sometimes preserves earlier pronunciations. For example, 'ch' used to be /tS/ in Medieval French; Modern French has /S/ but English has preserved the older sound (in words like chamber, chain, chase and exchequer).

Similarly, 'j' had an older /dZ/ sound (which it still has in English and some dialects of modern Norman) but has developed into /Z/ in Modern French.

The words veil and leisure retain the /ei/ (as does modern Norman in vaile and laîsi) that in French has been replaced by /wa/: voile, loisir.

The word mushroom preserves a hush sibilant in mousseron not recorded in French orthography, as does cushion for coussin. Conversely, the pronunciation of the word sugar resembles Norman chucre even if the spelling is closer to French sucre.

Distinctions in meaning between AN and PF have led to many faux amis (words having similar form but different meanings) in Modern English and Modern French. See List of false friends.

Note the doublets catch and chase, both deriving from Latin captiare. Catch demonstrates the Norman development of the velars, while chase is the French equivalent imported with a different meaning.

An interesting question arises when one considers English vocabulary of Germanic, and specifically Scandinavian, origin. Since, although a romance language, Norman contains a significant amount of lexical material from Norse, some of the words introduced into England as part of Anglo-Norman were of Germanic origin. Indeed, sometimes one can identify cognates such as flock (Germanic in English exisiting prior to the Conquest) and flloquet (Germanic in Norman). The case of the word mug demonstrates that in instances, Anglo-Norman may have reinforced certain Scandinavian elements in English. Mug had been introduced into northern English dialects by Viking settlement. The same word had been established in Normandy by the Normans (Norsemen) and was then taken over after the Conquest and established firstly in southern English dialects. It is therefore argued that the word mug in English shows some of the complicated Germanic heritage of Anglo-Norman.

Many expressions used in English today have their origin in Anglo-Norman (e.g. the expression before-hand derives from AN avaunt-main), as do many modern words with interesting etymologies. Mortgage, for example, literally meant death-wage in AN. Curfew meant cover-fire, referring to the time in the evening when all fires had to be covered. The word glamour is derived, unglamorously, from AN grammeire, the same words which gives us modern grammar. Apparently glamour was used with the meaning magic or magic spell in Medieval times.

The influence of Anglo-Norman was very much asymmetrical in that very little influence from English was carried over into the continental possessions of the Anglo-Norman realm. Some administrative terms survived in some parts of mainland Normandy: forlenc (from furrow, compare furlong) in the Cotentin peninsula and a general use of the word acre for land measurement in Normandy until imposed metrication in the 19th century. Otherwise the direct influence of English in mainland Norman (such as smogler - to smuggle) is due to direct contact in later centuries with English rather than Anglo-Norman.

Although Anglo-Norman was falling into everyday disuse by the 13th century (Middle English was becoming stronger, as evidenced by Chaucer), it has left an indelible mark on English. Thousands of words, phrases and expressions derived from it. English would have been a very different language without the influence of Anglo-Norman.

External links

  • The Anglo-Norman hub - a project to produce an AN dictionary. Contains articles and corpus texts.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 11:18:35
Last updated: 03-13-2005 10:56:30