A Gift of Words from Pillagers & Ransackers

Pillage1English is a mishmash of all the languages that have influenced it over thousands of years. Although Britain has done more than her fair share of conquering and ruling invading about 90% of the world in one way or another, so too have the British Isles been subject to invasion after invasion. From the Romans to the Normans, each of these peoples left their mark on the English language and made it what it is today.

The very words pillage and ransack come from French (the Normans) and Old Norse (the Vikings), respectively. Here are some more words bestowed upon us after our invaders finished causing mayhem (French again).

Romans – first invasion in 43 AD, with several more to follow over the next few centuries

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” Well, they left us one of the most important English words you can ever learn and know: wine. English inherited many Latin words, but most of them came from the Church later on, rather than from the Romans, who only gave us a measly 200 or so.

Most of these words come from merchants and soldiers, including everyday ones like candle, belt and wall.

Saxons – came over in the middle of the 5th Century from Germany

The Saxons came over to Britain with several other Germanic tribes. About one-third of the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary still exists in English today. Some words on a theme, that I’m sure were essential in the Middle Ages, include stench, reek, foul, filthy and stink – but also soap.

Originally these people came to protect Britons, but their words sword, harm, slay, murder, foe and dead might give you some indication of what happened next. Let’s hope they said sorry.

Vikings – first settlers arrived 865 AD, from Denmark, Norway and Sweden (first Danish invasion 789)

“Them’s fighting words” seems to sum up many of those that originated with the Vikings, which doesn’t do much for their violent, rampaging image. Among the words they so kindly bequeathed to our language, once they had finished claiming half the country for themselves, are kidnap, ransack, scream, slaughter, scare and berserk. Not to mention hit, knife and die. Though perhaps they were secretly a touchy-feely lot, as they also gave us shy, anger and my personal favourite word from Old Norse, awkward.

Normans – conquered England in 1066, from Normandy in Northern France

Pillage2Looks like the Normans were obsessed with food. Before the Norman invasion we used the same words for meat on our plate that we used for meat still attached to a live animal. The Normans gave us names for pork, veal, venison, beef, mutton and bacon (where would we be without a word for bacon? Make me a pig sandwich!) Even the very word taste comes from our hungry French invaders.

French was the language of the higher-ups (hence all the fine food) and words of power and status also found their way into the English vocabulary. These include crown, castle, court, parliament, mansion, and even art and romance. They clearly enjoyed the finer things in life, as is clear by the fact that they gifted us with joy, pleasure and beauty.

It wasn’t all bacon and romance though. The Normans also left us some fighting words (a pattern has emerged). Enemy, assault, mayhem and warrior are all from French.

Which language do you think had the most influence on how we speak English today? Has English changed other languages more than it has been changed by them?