Why an Anglo-Norman Dictionary?

Anglo-Norman is the name usually given to the kind of French brought over to England by the conquerors in 1066, then later exported to Wales, Scotland and Ireland. To begin with it shared with the medieval French of the mainland the majority of its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Later, as tends to happen when geographical or political barriers divide a language community, it began to develop characteristics of its own, though it is a mistake to think that what we call ‘Anglo-Norman’ was either in its origins or in its later developments a uniform or homogeneous variety of French. It is hard to say exactly how the language the conquerors originally spoke and brought across the Channel stood in relation to the other varieties of medieval French in neighouring areas, because at that period virtually no-one wrote anything in any sort of medieval French, and without the evidence of written documents, we have to rely on a mixture of inference and guesswork when we try to reconstruct the language people spoke.

When written records in French did begin to appear after the Conquest, their language does appear to have fairly plain distinctive features, though that may partly reflect the influence of the writing process itself, which always and everywhere leads to some degree of standardisation compared to speech. In later generations, as Middle English came to increasing prominence and began to displace French as the other ‘language of record’ alongside Latin, Anglo-Norman became an acquired second language, rather than a true vernacular, for those who used it in their official duties. And since some of them had apparently not acquired it very well, they produced some texts which have led to the idea, too often repeated in summary histories of English and French, that in the later period, Anglo-Norman is just a degenerate jargon unworthy of serious attention. How inadequate that view is can easily be seen from the wide range of documents well into the fifteenth century in which Anglo-Norman is used for complex administrative matters and indeed affairs of state, at home and abroad. At an international level, many Anglo-Norman diplomatic documents are linguistically virtually indistinguishable from the products of the Paris Chancery – a fact which (together with the substantial evidence of the use of Anglo-Norman in Gascony) rather undermines the notion, still current, that the insular variety of French was cut off from its continental roots after the loss of Normandy in 1204. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is far from the truth, and in all probability, it is better to regard Anglo-Norman as part of a ‘dialect continuum’ which extended throughout the medieval French-speaking world.

The first Norman Kings of England of course still held the title and powers of Duke of Normandy, and that was in their eyes their primary role. But at this period, the concept of a Britain that could regard the European Continent, in the words of a famous nineteenth-century English newspaper headline, as ‘cut off by fog’, had not developed. Britain was geographically, but not culturally, an island. For those monarchs, and for at least the first generations of the Anglo-Norman nobility in their service, there was a continuity between France and England, sustained by trade, diplomacy, education, and science. This continuity lasted all through the Middle Ages; and it was actually reinforced when Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1154, placing under the same rule as England considerably more than half of all the territory we now call ‘France’, stretching as far as the border between Gascony and Spain in the south, and including, eastwards, the whole of the Auvergne.

So it is likely that the language by which England was ruled was for a time also employed in substantial areas of South-Western France, and there is considerable documentary evidence from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries suggesting this was indeed the case.

Won’t existing dictionaries do?

Since at first sight there is apparently no strong case for claiming that the Conquest established a clear-cut and distinct Anglo-Norman political and cultural domain, we might wonder whether the existing very substantial dictionaries of medieval French cannot tell us all we need to know about French as spoken on both sides of the Channel, especially since they draw to some extent on texts regarded as ‘Anglo-Norman’ in origin or character. However, a closer look at those dictionaries shows some serious problems.

The earliest of them, by Godefroy, is now nearly 130 years old, and was the work of a single scholar working at a time before many important texts had been properly edited (or even identified).

Since it was the only work of its kind then available, the compilers of the First and Second Editions of the Oxford English Dictionary relied extensively on Godefroy for their understanding of medieval French and its impact upon English and drew a number of conclusions about the history of many English words which are now known to be inadequate or quite simply wrong. This is one reason why that element in the OED is now receiving a badly-needed revision.

A later dictionary, produced in Germany by Alfred Tobler, Erhard Lommatzsch and their successors, was begun in 1915 and completed only as recently as 2002.

Tobler-Lommatzsch draws almost exclusively on literary works, leaving out of consideration all the many other areas of language use, and its coverage effectively stops around the year 1350, long before the appearance of some the most interesting material written in the ‘French of England’ (as Anglo-Norman is also frequently called by modern scholars, although that term, at least as the British understand the meaning of ‘England’, implies neglect of the important part the language played in Wales, Scotland and Ireland).

The view these dictionaries reflect of the language, and the words and expressions they cover, are not sufficient because it was not just the nobility in the first generations after the Conquest who used Anglo-Norman, and it was not used only for works of ‘high’ literature. As the Middle Ages advanced, it became increasingly common to keep written records of all kinds of transactions, and in the process, the use of Anglo-Norman spread to every sector where such records were made. As a result, we have a remarkable range of texts of all sorts written in Anglo-Norman: literary, scientific, medical, administrative, historical, religious, national, international, and local. These texts document an essential, complex and lengthy period of British history, and we need to understand fully the language in which they are written if we want to understand the workings of the society that produced and used them and explore its significance for our past and present. The Anglo-Norman dictionary aims to provide the basic tools to make that understanding possible.

The English Connection

English virtually disappeared as a written language after the Conquest, and hardly any writing in English has survived from between 1066 and the middle of the thirteenth century. Throughout this period, the business of medieval England was transacted in either Latin or in Anglo-Norman. For historians, then, the French of England is a key language which they have to understand. For anyone needing to understand the development of the legal system, too, knowledge of Anglo-Norman is critical: even today, as anyone who has dealt with modern legal documents will know, Anglo-Norman vocabulary is abundant in English, providing many of its key terms. Court records, formal treatises, and instructional material for the legal profession were written in Anglo-Norman right through the Middle Ages and indeed beyond.

But there is a greater legacy still of Anglo-Norman, and that is in the history of the English Language itself. The English language is a hybrid: Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) in syntax and pronunciation and verb forms, and a mixture of Romance and Anglo-Saxon in vocabulary. Romance vocabulary (which largely means Anglo-Norman) makes up probably 50% of the word-stock of modern English. This includes but is by no means restricted to the so-called faux amis, those words which look the same in English and French, but have different meanings: actually/actuellement, jolly/joli, dongeon/dungeon, nice/niais.

No account of the history of the English vocabulary is complete without an exploration of the massive influx of words from Anglo-Norman during the Middle Ages. As the only work that aims to provide comprehensive coverage of the French of England, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary is indispensible to a proper understanding of the history of English. Consulted and drawn upon by the OED, as well as by the compilers of dictionaries of the French language like the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, the Trésor de la Langue Française, and the Dictionnaire Étymologique de l’Ancien Français (DEAF), the Anglo-Norman Dictionary stands at the crossroads between English and French, between the British Isles and continental Europe. It is a key to understanding both the medieval history of the British Isles and the past and present of the English language.