English Farmers and French Aristocrats

The English language almost died in its infancy. When William the Conqueror of France defeated King Harold and his English army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD, French became the official language of the English court and higher classes. For nearly two hundred years English–still a jumble of underdeveloped Germanic dialects called Anglosaxon–was relegated to second-class status, surviving among servants and farmers. Even though by several unlikely turns English eventually became dominant again in England and predominant in the whole world, this social division was, and still is, reflected in several ways, including food.

English farmers raised and slaughtered hogs, or swine, but the aristocrats who ate the meat called the animal by its French name: porc (pork). Sheep was served as mutton (French, mouton). cow meat became beef (modern French boeuf), and calf meat was veal (modern French veau). This duality was to become a permanent feature of English at several levels. (An ironic sidelight: in later times when English beefsteak became a worldwide delicacy, the French–and Spanish–borrowed the term, pronouncing it as best they could, biftec and bistec, respectively).

Not only were animals given different names but also culinary processes by which English cow, calf, hog, and sheep were prepared for table became a part of English: boil (French: bouillir), fry (French: frire), roast: (old French: rostir, modern rĂ´tir); The English term “seethe” ceased to be a culinary verb and became a figurative term for “rage.”

We can say, therefore, that English is a hybrid language consisting mainly of a Germanic or Anglosaxon structure overlaid with Latinate vocabulary by way of French, which is descended from Latin. In everyday English we say more Germanic words, but in more formal, legal, military, and academic settings, the Latin /French content rises (along with Greek words in the sciences). Our understanding of Latinate words, especially compound words, is less than our comprehension of alternate terms with Anglosaxon roots. Here are two examples (1) understand vs. comprehend. We understand both roots of the Germanic under + stand, but probably not so readily com + prehend. And (2) overseer vs supervisor. We have no trouble with over + seer, that is, one who oversees, but do we as readily understand super + visor. Super is over or higher in Latin, and visor means seer. The terms are really equal, but supervisor sounds a bit more prestigious–precisely because we do not readily understand its humble roots.

As a rule in English, its Anglosaxon, or Germanic, words have a greater emotional impact and affect us at a deeper level than their Latinate equivalents. This is why our best speakers and writers (for example, Abraham Lincoln or J.R.R. Tolkien) use a high percentage of Anglosaxon vocabulary. And think how puny our profanity would be without our tiny but mighty Anglosaxon four-letter words.

Harold Raley