Khadija Paruk. English Reasserts Its Status


 The Social Background

The hostility to the French in the wars of the Middle English period resulted in a low population of the Norman French in England even though they held a high status under William the Conqueror (Crystal 2004). Many French women remained in France thus causing intermarriages with the English (Crystal 2004). The French therefore were forced to learn English and their children grew up bilingual (Crystal 2004:125). English prevailed because the majority of the population spoke English. 

Similarly baronial staff were forced to learn English in order to be able to communicate between the peasants and the nobility (Crystal 2004: 125). The English people were unwilling to learn French therefore the baronial staff being few in number had to learn English (Crystal 2004: 125 ). Likewise members of the clergy had to learn English in order to communicate with the peasants too (Crystal 2004: 125). The use of English therefore began to rise to allow communication between the nobility and peasants (Bragg 2003). 

An example of this is that the Barons during their revolt (1258-1265) sent letters to King Henry III in Latin (Bragg 2003: 56). But they also sent copies to the peasants in English even though the option to use Latin was present as the Clergy could translate (Bragg 2003:56). But English united the population as it allowed the peasants and the barons to unite through the use of a common language, English (Bragg 2003). However most of the time there was a lack of contact between the nobility and the lower classes which resulted in the preservation of English (Crystal 2004). 

During the Hundred Years’ war  the bubonic plague took place. This killed 30% of the population and much of the clergy and nobility (Fennel 2001: 120-121). With the deaths of the clergy and nobility those who could speak Latin and French were greatly reduced (Fennel 2001: 121). Their replacements in the Towns and Cities were often those with little or no knowledge of French and Latin and so were regarded as “laymen” in these languages (Bragg 2003: 63). English  became more prominent as it was understood by almost everybody in the middle of the fourteenth century (Baugh Cable 1993). English therefore became the choice for communication and so rose as a national language. 

Monks, disfigured by the plague, being blessed by a priest. England, 1360–75

The bubonic plague also caused labour shortages as it had the most adverse effect on the lower classes or peasants (Fennel 2001).  As a result peasants demanded higher wages and better working conditions which led to the peasants’ revolt in 1381 (Fennel 2001:121). English therefore became the language of the working class as it expressed their identity and social position (Baugh Cable 1993). By using English they refused to converge towards the nobility who used French. English therefore began to rise as the language of the people. Richard II after quashing the revolt addressed the people in English thus showing the rise of English at this time for communication (Bragg 2003: 64). Richard II set a precedent for authorities to address the lower classes in English (Bragg 2003). 

Also the rise of the middle classes particularly that of merchants and craftsmen allowed English to rise too (Baugh Cable 1993). Many of those who belonged to the middle class had risen from lower positions. The middle classes therefore knew English. The bubonic plague also contributed to the rise of the middle class because of the higher wages and better conditions available (Fennel 2001). The middle class were bilingual and their social status were between the peasants and the nobility (Baugh Cable 1993:143). Many towns appeared as the population grew (Baugh Cable). By 1250 200 Towns had grown (Baugh Cable 1993: 143). The people who were in authority of these Towns were those from the middle class (Baugh Cable 1993). Only English was therefore needed as it was a common tongue. The aristocracy and the King allowed these towns to be governed by the middle class as long as they would receive the taxes (Baugh Cable 1993: 143). French was only needed when contact with the aristocracy occurred. The rise of the middle classes therefore contributed to the rise of English since contact with French speakers were lessened. 

Due to the above factors everyone knew and understood English better than French and Latin. English was becoming the mother tongue of the children of the nobility as they had to learn French in school (Crystal 2004: 129). English gained further prestige when it was used by royalty (Bragg 2003). When Richard II was deposed by Henry IV, he used English to announce his abdication of the throne. Likewise Henry IV used English to claim the throne especially as it was his mother tongue (Bragg 2003: 67).

Copyrighted material




  Political Background

  Social Background

  Decline in the Use of French

  Rise of English



  The Language of the Internet

  English Reasserts Its Status




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