Saturday, February 19, 2005

William the Conqueror spins in his grave!

William the Conqueror, leader in 1066 of what came to be known as the Norman Conquest, is himself variously known - as "William the Bastard" in some historical accounts, and as "Norman the Conqueror" by my 2004 A2 class who were, by their own admission, rather historically challenged! But having been responsible for introducing not only the delights of French cuisine but also its lexicon, beef instead of a slab of cow, I have no doubt The Bastard is spinning helplessly in his grave this week.

Et pourquoi? I hear you ask. Well, in order to show her 100% commitment to the London Olympics bid, what did the Queen's household do to impress the IOC judges but have the menu cards printed in English, instead of the French of every other state banquet in the history of the English monarchy. Okay, okay, I can hear you muttering "big deal" from here, but actually this is very interesting from a language point of view.

Et pourquoi? tu demands encore. Well, first up is the whole business about the relationship between the English monarchy and the French language. After the Norman Conquest, when William and his dukes took over the whole kit and caboodle, French was the language of power in this country for generations to come. Monarchs spent half their time in France and didn't bother too much with the language of the peasants. Well, okay, so maybe if you were a duke out in the middle of nowhere, you picked up a few words to get by, and then maybe you got a bit tired of being all on your lonesome so you shacked up with a nice local girl who taught you a few more, and then your kids went out playing and brought back all these trendy English words because French was just toff's-talk, and oh well, as long as they minded their manners that was okay... And then there was that pesky business of the Hundred Years War with France, and well, you'd forgotten what the old country was like anyway, and it didn't matter too much, and it definitely did make more sense to have the laws in English...

So, by the early Middle Ages we're at a situation where the monarch is once more an English speaker and the institutions of power are operating in English. But in the kind of mild-mannered compromise the English are noted for, the English lexicon has imported 20,000+ words from French, and French continues quite happily for centuries and centuries as the language of international diplomacy, of sophisticated romantic luuuurrrrve, and of fine dining. Traditionally at least, French is about class, prestige and elegance, whilst English is the robust country bumpkin of a cousin.

But hold on a second, where are we at now? It was also reported in the news this week that the number of candidates taking French exams in English schools is in decline, and you only need take one tiny peek at the world to see the apparently inexorable rise of English as a/the global language. So what is really interesting about the Queen's banqueting arrangements is that, until this week, she has ALWAYS had her banquet menus printed in French. Whilst English rules the waves out there in the real world, Her Brittanic Majesty sits at home insisting on her frites and her pain chocolat. Maybe this makes the Queen one of my linguistic freedom fighters, battling nobly against linguistic imperialism! Just how bizarre a concept is that?!....

However, I really can't help feeling that this decision may backfire. The IOC committee is a group of well-travelled, sophisticated, multi-lingual delegates. Want to present London as the kind of sophisticated multicultural place most likely to give athletes from all over the world a warm welcome? I know, let's force them all to speak English AND make a political point of doing so!! Hmmm....

What do you think?.......

Queen drops French for menus at IOC banquet

The influence of French on English in the Early Modern Period


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