Lounsbury well says: “There result, indeed, from the union of the foreign and native elements, a wealth of phraseology and a many-sidedness in English, which give it in these respects a superiority over any other modern cultivated tongue. German is strictly a pure Teutonic speech, but no native speaker of it claims for it any superiority over the English as an instrument of expression, while many are willing to concede its inferiority.”
The Changes Slowly Accomplished.—For over a hundred years after the Conquest, but few French words found their way into current English use. This is shown by the fact that the Brut, a poem of 32,250 lines, translated from a French original into English about 1205, has not more than a hundred words of Norman-French origin.
At first the Normans despised the tongue of the conquered Saxons, but, as time progressed, the two races intermarried, and the children could hardly escape learning some Saxon words from their mothers or nurses. On the other hand, many well-to-do Saxons, like parents in later times, probably had their children taught French because it was considered aristocratic.
Until 1204 a knowledge of French was an absolute necessity to the nobles, as they frequently went back and forth between their estates in Normandy and in England. In 1204 King John lost Normandy, and in the next reign both English and French kings decreed that no subject of the one should hold land in the territory of the other. This narrowing of the attention of English subjects down to England was a foundation stone in building up the supremacy of the English tongue.
In 1338 began the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. In Edward the Third’s reign (1327-1377), it was demonstrated that one Englishman could whip six Frenchmen; and the language of a hostile and partly conquered race naturally began to occupy a less high position. In 1362 Parliament enacted that English should thereafter be used in law courts, “because the laws, customs, and statutes of this realm, be not commonly known in the same realm, for that they be pleaded, shewed, and judged in the French tongue, which is much unknown in the said realm.”
Metrical Romances.—For nearly three hundred years after the Norman Conquest the chief literary productions were metrical romances, which were in the first instance usually written by Frenchmen, but sometimes by Englishmen (e.g. Layamon) under French influence. There were four main cycles of French romance especially popular in England before the fifteenth century. These were tales of the remarkable adventures of King Arthur and his Knights, Charlemagne and his Peers, Alexander the Great, and the heroes at the siege of Troy. At the battle of Hastings a French minstrel is said to have sung the Song of Roland from the Charlemagne cycle.