The thirteenth century – reestablishment of the English language

English and French in the thirteenth Century.-

The thirteenth century must be viewed as a period of shifting emphasis upon the two languages spoken in England. The upper classes continued to speak French, as they had done in the previous century, but the reasons for doing so were not the same. Instead of being a mother tongue inherited from Norman ancestors French became, as the century wore on, a cultivated tongue supported by social custom and by business and administrative convention. Meanwhile, English made steady advances. A number of considerations make it clear that by the middle of the century, when the separation of the English nobles from their interests in France had been completed (the loss of Normandy), English was becoming a matter of general use among the upper classes. It is at this time that the adoption of French words into the English language assumes large proportions. It occurs when those who know French have been accustomed to use it try top express themselves in English. By the close of the century there is evidence that some children of the nobility spoke English as their mother tongue and had to be taught French through the medium of manuals equipped with English glosses. English was used in parliament, in the law courts, in public negotiations, …

The clearest indication of the extent to which the English language had risen in the social scale by the end of the thirteenth century is furnished by a little treatise written by  Walter of Bibbesworth to teach children French, how to speak and how to reply, “which every gentleman ought to know”. French is treated a s a foreign language and the children learn the names of the parts of the body, the articles of clothing, food, household utensils, meals,….together with terms of falconry and the chase and other polite accomplishments. The treatise was written for Dionysia, the daughter of William de Munchensy. She thus belonged to the upper circle of nobility and it is highly significant that the language she knew, and through which she acquired French, was English.

The rise of the middle class.-

A feature of some importance in helping English to recover its former prestige is the improvement in the condition of the mass of the people and the rise od a substantial middle class. The process by which the change was being brought about was accelerated by an even that occurred in the year 1349.

In the summer of 1348 there appeared in the south of England the first cases of a disease that in its contagiousness and fatality exceeded anything previously known. It spread rapidly over the rest of the country, reaching its height in 1349. The illness, once contracted, ran a very rapid course. In two or three days the victim either died or showed signs of recovery. Immunity was slight and in the absence of any system of quarantine the disease spread through a community. The death rate approximated 30%. It is quite sufficient to justify the name “The Black Death”. The mortality was greatest among the lower classes, and the result was a serious shortage of labor. This is evident in the immediate rise in wages. By and large, the effect of the Black Death was to increase the economic importance of the labouring class and with it the importance of the English language which they spoke. We may also note at this time the rise of another important group –the craftsmen and the merchant class, which gathered in town which became free, self-governing communities, electing their own officers, taxes, rules,…Such changes in the social and economic life benefited particularly the English-speaking part of the population. In the fourteenth century the adoption of English was generally accomplished.


Source: A History of the English Language, Albert C. Baugh


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