7. 1066 and All That

In which an arrow in an eye changed our language forever

On 14 October 1066, Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon king of England, led his footsore troops into Pevensey in Sussex. A week or so earlier, they had defeated the invading Danes at Stamford Bridge, in what is now Lincolnshire, in the north-east of Harold’s kingdom. The weary warriors had then been obliged to make a forced march of around 200 miles south to attempt to repel a second invading army under the command of William, Duke of Normandy, illegitimate son of Robert the Magnificent.

Despite their exhaustion, the Saxon housecarls fought the Normans from around 9 in the morning until the evening of that fateful day. The battle seemed to be going in the Saxons’ favour, until a stray arrow from a Norman archer struck Harold in the eye, mortally wounding him. With that chance shot, the tide of the battle turned, William the Bastard received a rather more flattering nickname – and the English language changed forever.

In the centuries that followed the Battle of Hastings, all the levers of power were taken over by William, his successors, and the descendants of the Norman knights that had fought in 1066. And this had linguistic repercussions.

A scene in the novel Ivanhoe by Walter Scott describes the situation around 100 years after the Norman Conquest, by which time the old English language, predominately Germanic, had started to change irrevocably. Scott’s character, Wamba the jester, jokes that the animals that are being herded in the fields by the downtrodden serfs all have Saxon names: cow, calf, swine, sheep. As soon as these same animals are put on the table to be eaten by the Norman overlords, the names become French: beef, veal, pork, mutton. Thus, a century after the Battle of Hastings, the basic words in English remained Saxon, but there had been a huge influx of Norman French. This phenomenon is with us to this day and is a gift to English-speakers who wish to learn foreign languages.

Take these word pairs and near-synonyms: freedom, liberty; friendship, amity; town, city; drink, beverage; white, pale; red, rubicund; green, verdant; naked, nude; childish, puerile. The first in each pair is Germanic, the second Latin-derived or Romance; the first is an essential word, the second merely useful or interesting; the first speaks to our heart, the second to our mind. Why?

As Old English already had words for all the basic concepts, the imported French and Latin equivalents came to have a more restricted use. Interestingly, the English word soul is Germanic, whereas spirit is derived from French. That encapsulates the fundamental character of English, one we can use to improve our language learning: it has a Germanic soul and a Latin mind. What we feel is Germanic, what we analyse is Latin.



  • The linguistic effects of the Norman conquest

  • The decline of Latin

  • The unique position of English among world languages

  • Cheating on Romance grammar

  • The shaping of modern English

  • A pathway into Greek

This is an extract from our must-read book about language learning, THE LANGUAGE SECRET. Browse the site for more extracts from the other chapters and information about what they contain. You can also purchase a copy of the book by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page.