A Bad Day For Harold, An Important Day For the World
by Walter Russell Mead
History is so long and so many events have occurred that Via Meadia rarely takes note of particular anniversaries. But October 14 is different. The Battle of Hastings was fought on this day back in 1066. King Harold of England, fresh from defeating a Viking invasion in the north, marched through the heart of England to encounter the invasion of the Normans—a southern branch of the Vikings who had settled in a part of northern France.
King Harold died in the battle, killed by an arrow through his eye. The English were divided and the nobles were bickering; there was no other leader capable of resisting the invasion, and the Duke of Normandy went on to be crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas of that year.
It was one of the most consequential battles ever fought. It would set England on a course that eventually led to the establishment of the British Empire—and the foundation of the United States. The Norman Conquest left its stamp on English culture and politics in ways that are still with us; its impact on the development of the English language was especially strong. The Norman conquerors brought the French language with them, and while the English of the majority would ultimately triumph, the language that emerged from the Norman dominion would be profoundly changed. For two hundred years, English disappeared as a language of learned and powerful people. In the royal court and the palaces of the nobility, French was spoken. The Church continued to use Latin. English was the language in which rich people spoke to their servants. By the time the French conquerors began to assimilate to the language and culture of the people they had conquered, English had changed.
Modern English speakers can’t make any sense out of the Anglo-Saxon dialects spoken in England before the Conquest. The vocabulary and grammar in many ways are more like modern German than anything we recognize as English. But by the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, something like modern English began to emerge and it had three traits that still mark it today: a stripped down grammar, an unusually rich and subtle vocabulary, and utterly irrational spelling.
Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, had a very Germanic grammar. Verb conjugations were complicated, nouns and pronouns had different endings depending on how they were used in a sentence, and adjectives “agreed” with their nouns in number, case and gender. (If we hadn’t cleared all this useless rubbish out of the language we would still be spouting nonsense like this: I sit on thi biggi rocki, I throw thum biggum rockum, tho rocko is bigo. Tha girla, however, is biga and I go with thai biggai girlai to thi picturi showi. And so on.) That all changed after the Conquest, and by the time Chaucer was writing, English was well on the way to becoming the sleek and simple grammatical engine that it is today, freeing up untold billions of braincells for more useful tasks.
This grammatical simplicity is one of the reasons that English has become such a global language. Spelling aside, it is much easier to learn than languages with more complicated grammatical structures. Irregularities and verbal complexities are continually being eroded as the English language continues down the path of grammatical simplification on which William the Conqueror quite unintentionally set it.
At the same time, the presence of two languages side by side not only gave English a bigger stock of words than most languages have, it made English a language of subtle connotations. Animals in the field where the peasants dealt with them were known by their Saxon names: cow, pig, sheep. Killed, dressed and served up at feasts to the nobility, they became beef, pork and mutton — all based on the French words for those animals. English had parallel sets of words for body parts and functions, the “couth” ones usually coming from French, the uncouth ones from plain Saxon. Today’s English still follows this pattern: there are more words in our vocabulary than in most languages, and word choice can mean everything in English prose. In the famous examples from Time magazine, “Truman slunk from the room to huddle with his cronies,” while “Ike strode from the chamber to confer with his advisers.” We have our blunt Anglo-Saxon epithets and our precise Norman-French euphemisms, and the habit of hospitality, the openness to loan words from many languages, continues to enrich English to this day.
Unfortunately, the Conquest struck a mighty blow against sensible spelling in English as well. With Germanic and French sounds mingling in the vocabulary and pronunciation changing from generation to generation as the two language streams reacted on one another, vowels changed their quality and consonants did strange things. The two letter combination “gh” once meant something; now we pronounce it like an “f” (tough), like a regular “g” (ghost) or like nothing at all (Hillsborough). French vowel sounds mutated into English ones, gutteral Germanic sounds got frenchified, consonant clusters rose and fell, accentuation wreaked havoc with vowel quantities and bit by bit we created the insane orthographic mess that we thrash about in today.
An ear for the difference between Saxon and Norman-French based words remains important even in popular literature. In the Harry Potter books, the good characters often have trustworthy Saxon or Celtic surnames (Weasley, Dumbledore) while you can tell the bad guys by their evil French names like Malfoy (bad faith) and Voldemort (flight of death). “Muggles” is about as Anglo-Saxon as an invented word can get, and to English ears it sounds like a word that ought to exist even if you have never heard it before.
The historical roots of modern English play an even larger role in Tolkien’s work. Tolkien is one of those rare writers who can give you good Anglo-Saxons like the Riders of Rohan (whose vocabulary and poetic meters are pure Anglo-Saxon) and good people who use a more Norman and Latinate vocabulary—like the people of Gondor and the elves. Tolkien’s own sense of the evolution of the English language influences the Lord of the Rings at almost every level.
That’s what a major historical event does; almost 1000 years later two of the biggest phenomena in our popular culture still bear its imprint. Understanding the marks that big events make on our lives is in my mind the essence of a true education in the liberal arts. That kind of education changes the way you see the world around you, it changes your relationship to the language you speak, it helps you understand the cultural structures and expectations that you and the people around you.
I certainly find that my knowledge of the history of the English language and of the relationship between linguistic history and social and political history helps me wield that language more effectively in my work—and it vastly increases my pleasure and insight when I read English poetry and prose. Knowing where your words come from and how they came to mean what they do is part of the knowledge young writers need to develop it. In English, precisely because we have such a wide choice of words, knowing how to choose your words wisely can make all the difference in the world.