Friend, Do you speak French?
Dear Friend, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) is often described as the Father of English Literature. The main reason for this is that he decided to write his long poem, Canterbury Tales, in English. His contemporaries thought he was quite mad to do this, you can just imagine what his friends said: Youíre crazy, Geoff, you must realise that English will never last, You should have written in French or at least Latin. But then in the 17th century they said the same about the poet, John Milton (1608 Ė 1674) who wrote Paradise Lost in English whereas most of his fellow writers thought it would be more prudent (wise) to write in Latin. †Funny really how wrong they all were because as far as I know, English is doing quite well these days. I canít see any signs of poor health from where Iím sitting. But our Geoffrey had an eye for profit and could see he would be able to reach a far wider audience if he published in English. And then of course along came William Caxton (1422-1492). I do hope youíre keeping up with all these dates! He was born in an area in the southeast of England and travelled widely in Europe finding out about the science of printing. He came hot foot (quickly) back to England and set up a printing press. Among the first books he published was the Canterbury Tales, which in fact sold like hot cakes (very fast). As you can imagine, during these hundreds of years English and the people who spoke and wrote in it, didnít know whether it was coming or going (what exactly it was doing) since bits of French and Latin seeped (dripped) into English and thatís the explanation why English, (and this is why my heart bleeds (I feel so sorry) for all those people learning English as a foreign language) is, letís face it, one almighty hotchpotch (mixture).
Now, just one more date, which is known to every child in the UK and that is 1066. This is really when it all happened. It was then that William the Conqueror or as he was known before he started his conquering, the Duke of Normandy thought it would be a good idea to invade England, become the King and defeat Harold who was doing the job quite well before William interfered. The point was that Haroldís predecessor, Edward, had been looked after at Williamís court and there was an understanding (not written down of course) that William would become King of England when Edward died. The trouble was that no one had thought to tell poor Harold. In this year I mentioned (1066) William gets his supporters together and crosses the channel with a small army. Thereís a tricky (difficult ) moment when William lands, wearing his heavy armour and walking on a stony beach Ė you have to remember that the northern part of France where he lived it was all nice and sandy Ė and falls flat on his face. His army starts to get nervous but William is a sharp cookie (a clever man). He grabs hold of a handful of stones and says in a loud voice: Look, I already hold England in my hands. †Well of course he didnít say that in English but in Norman French. You can imagine that they all thought this was a very good omen (sign). To cut a long story short (to be brief) William kills Harold and eventually becomes King. Haroldís mother who lived in a castle at the other end of England in the south west, like the true mum she was, started her own little rebellion against William but to no avail (purpose) and she and her small army were soon put down. William established himself and quickly scotched (put an end to) any opposition. And thatís when it all starts going hay wire (going crazy), linguistically speaking.
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The Anglo Saxons had had a hard time as they had been invaded by warriors (soldiers) from Scandinavia and heard Nordic languages all round them They had endured Roman colonisation and had Latin foisted (imposed)upon them and then the last straw (the final thing that makes everything too much) was when in 1066 French started to infiltrate the language. All this has made the language much richer of course but it does make leaning it that bit more difficult. In the 11th century some 10,000 French words were adopted into English and about three quarters of them are still in use today. There are many thousands of words that are identical in both French and English. Naturally I wonít list them all but Iíve taken a selection of true cognates (words that have the same origins in both languages). †Take these three: baron, base, bonus. The first is a historical title describing someone having an army. †The next means the bottom of something like the place on which a statue is put. And of course a bonus is an extra payment Ė this is a word thatís used a lot these days when people complain about the very big bonuses that banks give some of their staff. The next three: parent, parade, partial. The first can be a mother or father, the second a military march of soldiers. The last one is an adjective describing a part and not the whole of something. Finally another three. †Variation, verbal and verdict. †The first means a change, the second. is an adjective referring to a verb and the last one is the result of an examination, often in a court of law.
I hope what I have written hasnít deterred (stopped) you from wanting to learn English. Look on the bright side. When you learn English, in a way you are at the same time learning another language, French. †As we say in English: Itís like killing two birds with one stone. Now, that expression you can look up the meaning of yourself, on the Internet.
It would be great if you could add your comments on the English language on any of our forums. I am always interested to hear how you learned the language and which particular problems you faced when you were learning. Do you find it easy, for example, to choose the right word when you look up something in a dictionary and there are two or three words that seem to mean the same thing? Donít hesitate to ask a question. Start writing now by using this link: Do you speak French?
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