Veronika Kniezsa (Budapest)

The post-conquest lexical elements in the Peterborough Chronicle

(the text is published on Orbis Latinus with the permission of the author)


If one is intererested in the chronology of lexical borrowing into English during the period following the Norman Conquest and related questions, one will find the Peterborough Chronicle a valuable source. Three parts of it were written after 1066, and although they were composed in different parts of the country and at different dates, all three of them are more or less contemporary with the events their annals relate to. Part I deals with the period from 1070 to 1121; Part II, the First Peterborough Continuation, covers the period from 1122 to 1131; and Part III, the Second Peterborough Continuation, that from 1132 to 1154. In Part I the time span between the events and the dates of their description is not greater than fifty years, and in Parts II and III roughly twenty years. Apart from that, however, Parts II. and III are also important in that both seem to be original compositions, and in that they can be exactly located to Peterborough. Thus, the post-conquest lexical data these three portions contain will serve as a valuable source both for the chronology of the introduction of foreign vocabulary into the English language and its phonological shape as represented in its mid-twelfth century written form.

This contribution, then, intends to raise a few of the questions that the Peterborough Chronical might help to answer. Apart from the two place-names mentioned in list (1) below, the borrowings to be dealt with include only common words (noun, adjectives, verbs), since the the type of French influence evident through them is also the one which is treated most extensively, especially in textbooks.

I. The material

Normally, French words borrowed into English are classified according to their subject matter, e.g. architecture, legislation, etc. This approach allows one to relate the French influence on the lexicon to the direction of the political, cultural and religious impact of the Norman Conquest. Treatments of this type are Mary Serjeantson (1935) and Cecily Clark (1952), and the editor's notes in the edition of the Peterborough Chronicle (1958). Interestingly, however, a thorough philological analysis of the individual elements of the text has never been carried out, although its importance has continuously been stressed. In particular, no complete list of new words was ever compiled. The one below draws on the efforts of several twentieth-century scholars, all of whom seem to have overlooked one or the other example. It differs from earlier lists such as the one by Wright in that it does not only include loanwords in the narrow sense of the term but also cases of semantic borrowing, which are notoriously difficult to establish of course.

(1) Word-List

abbot,- rice cuntesse offrede
acorded, -e, -on, curt pais
Aduent dæcne Pasches
anno dubbade prior
Bataille duc prisun
calicen emperice priuilegies
cancelere fals procession
canonie iustise rentes
cantelcapas iudeus rice
capelein laces sotlice, -scipe
capitele legat standard
cardinal luna tenserie
carited Malueisin Theophanie
castel, -men, worc market tresor
cellas martir tur
clerc messe uuerre, wyrre
concilie miracles uuerrien
corona muntes (treson)
crucethur Natiuited

This list, then, could be taken as a starting point for the investigation of such matters as the chronology of reception and/or changes in meaning, stylistic value, etymology, phonology and spelling.

II. Chronology

The investigation of the chronology of loans from French was facilitated by the publication of the New English Dictionary (NED). Also Otto Jespersen's first attempt (1905) to establish the process of borrowing was based on the NED volumes which were available then, i.e. A - J. When the dictionary was finished Jespersen's investigation was completed by A. Koszal. It considered only the first hundred entries of each of the letters and only words which were quoted at least five times (Jespersen 1946:87). A different method was applied by A.C. Baugh in 1935. He selected pages with special numbers, e.g. the ones ending in 5. F. Mossé (1943) counted the French words found in the volume for the letter A only, and in 1956 G. Herdan counted the French elements among the first hundred words. X. Dekeyser (1986) counted loans using the Middle English Dictionary (MED). In the following table the results from the various countings are presented and held against the distribution to be found in the Peterborough Chronicle.

(2) Chronology of the French borrowings
before 1050

Although there is some variation, the figures in the traditional studies seem to be similar in proportion at least. All in all, they support Jespersen's remark that "the linguistic influence [of French on English] did not begin immediately after the Conquest" (Jespersen 1946:87). It is indeed evident that during the first hundred years the French influence on the English lexicon was small, while the influx of French borrowings is characteristic of later periods, especially that after the thirteenth century. This contrasts in an interesting way with the figures derived from the Peterborough Chronicle. Particularly, there are more French loan words in the first hundred years than would have been expected, even if - following Jespersen's principles - only such words were considered which are part of present-day vocabulary.

(3) New words in the parts of the Peterborough Chronicle
in I., II., III. 
abbot, acorden, castles, canceler, clercs
in I. and II. 
Aduent, capitele, dæcne, tur 
in I. and III. 
uuerre (wyrre) 
in II. and III. 
sotlice, sotscipe 
only in I. 
capelein, corona, dubbade, luna, Natiuited, procession 
only in II. 
calicen, canonie, cardinal, cellas, concilie, duc, fals, legat, laces, market, Pasches, prior, Theophanie 
only in III. 
carited, cuntesse, curt, emperice, iustise, miracles, pais, prisun, rentes, standard, tenserie, tresor, uuerrien

A comparison of the three parts with regard the new words sheds an interesting light on the process of borrowing. Though the Chronicle is uniform regarding both author type (all parts were written by monks) and purpose (all parts are historic narratives) they differ greatly in their usage of the new words. In particular, if a new word was introduced in an earlier part, it will not necessarily be repeated in a later one. The majority of pieces of new vocabulary seem to be unique to the part of the Chronicle that contains them.

There are five words in the list which occur in all three parts. Of those abbot is new only graphically/phonetically, the OE form being abbod. Of clerc and castle, on the other hand, only the meanings are new: clerc now meaning "secular priest" as opposed to "munuc" (the OE meaning had been "priest" generally); castle now means "fortress", while in OE it had meant "mountain village". Thus, only acorden and canceler represent entirely new elements.

Another interesting point highlighted by the use of new words is that Part II, which is a Peterborough text, shows a greater affinity to Part I (which was probably composed in Kent), than to Part III, the other Peterborough Continuation. There are four words shared by Parts I and II. Of those Aduent and capitele count as new, the other two represent slightly altered forms of words which were otherwise known in OE: dæcne (= OE diacon), tur (= OE torr). Parts II and III share only the pre-conquest loan sot, which apparently counted already as a native word and could combine with English formative elements: sotscipe in Part II and sotlice in Part III The only word that might be considered as shared by Parts I and III, finally, is uuerre (in Part III), which appears as wyrre in Part I

It is furthermore noteworthy that the words which occur in their usual French form in Part I, i.e. Natiuited and (mid) procession, appear in their Latin form in Part II, namely as Natiuitas (three times) and (mid) processionem (three times). The classification of corona in Part I is questionable: in one instance, when it represents the direct object of the sentence it takes the form coronan, usual for Latin words in Old English (cf. papa - papan). Should corona be taken to represent a French element at all? Or is it still a Latin word? The MED seems to be slightly inconsistent in this respect. Thus, it excludes luna for being a Latin item but includes corona as French, although formally there does not seem to be any difference between them.

III. Motiviation of loans

When words are borrowed from one language into another the usual reason is that new concepts are introduced by one group of speakers and together with the new notions their labels are also adopted. Duc or tenserie would represent such cases. Another reason for borrowing is related to social considerations. Even if a language has adequate names for a concept, new ones may be taken over from a foreign language, because they count as socially more prestigious. The borrowings then survive either as synonyms or even replace the original native words. Cecily Clark noticed such examples in the Peterborough Chronicle, where especially in Part III French words had already got the upper hand and ousted the Old English synonyms from the text of the chronicle. As is normal in such cases, the native words managed to survive for some time in the Middle English period as part of regional vocabularies, which becomes evident from the MED. Thus, the notion of "treasure" is expressed exclusively by tresor in Part III, whereas in Parts I and II is was expressed by gærsum (a Scandinavian borrowing), maðum and sceatt. In a similar way, corona replaced cynehelm in Part I. In Part III, we find pais instead of earlier frið and grið (the latter again a Scandinavian word). Curt replaced hired, which, however, was preserved in the compound hiredclerc (where clerc still preserved its older, more general meaning). Though prisun occurs six times in Part III, in the Annal for 1137 it appears side by side with OE cweartern. Interesting is the case of the pair of the French/Latin miracles and native wundor, which represent antonyms in the text: miracles having a 'positive' meaning, while wundor appears in the meaning of 'horrible deed' (cf. also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).

The influence of French words on the vocabulary of religion was great as well. However, while some old words gave place to French ones (e.g. OE fulluht to baptism [not noted in the Peterborough Chronicle]), or were re-borrowed in French forms (OE engel - ME angel [again not attested in the Peterborough Chronicle]), the native names of the great church holidays remained in use. Thus, Christmas, Easter, Twelfthnight were the usual words, while Advent, Pasches, Theophany remained only marginal.

IV. Glossing of new items

It is commonly assumed to have been a usual practice of Middle English scribes to gloss new French words in English. There is, however, only one example of this in the Peterborough Chronicle:

(4) 1095: Malueisin ðet is on Englisc yfel nehhebur...

The other two examples with explications contain such French words which represent notions unknown in earlier times, and thus could have no native names. In these cases it is the notion itself that had to be explained in English.

(5) 1137: hi læiden gældes on the tunes æure um wile 7 clepeden it tenserie.
1137: crucethur ðat is an ceste...

In the same annal another torture implement is also explained in a similar way though the word for it was native:

(6) 1137: lof 7 gri ðat wæron rachenteges....

V. Synonym pairs

Another stylistic device of the Middle Ages was the use of pairs of synonyms to express emphasis. In Middle English texts it became more and more frequent to pair an English with a French word, as e.g. longages and speche, longages and tunges in Trevisa's account of the English language from 1385. In the Peterborough data meres and laces is the only potential example. But although Behrens added laces to his list of Early French loans, the word was current all through the Old English period. Thus, the modern form lake seems to be a direct and regular development of OE lacu, and the word does not really belong here.

VI. Further points of interest

The list below entails a number of interesting questions which I intend to investigate by means of a detailed analysis of the corpus:


1. Pre-Conquest borrowing from Latin

a) with a sound change in Middle English: abbot, dæcne, messe, muntes, tur

b) with a change of meaning in Middle English: castel, clerc, fals, offrede, rice

2. Pre-Conquest French borrowings
market, sot -lice, -scipe
3. post-conquest Latin words
a) anno, aduent, cardinal, legat, martir, pasches, prior, Theophanie

b) with a French ending: iudesu, miracles, priuilegies

4. post-conquest French borrowings
a) in Anglo-Norman form: calicen, cancelere, capelein, capitele, cantelcapas, carited

b) acorde, Bataille, cellas, corona, concilie, crucethur, cuntesse, curt, dubbade, duc, emperice, iustise, Malueisin, Natiuiteð, pais, prisun, procession, rentes, standard, tenserie, tresor, uuerre, uuerrien.

A phonetic description of these early examples would be important for the study of the development of French words in English. The same is true of the analysis of their spelling forms. Also, some changes of meaning need to be dated, as M. Serjeantson, who dated the appearance of the meaning "wealthy" to the thirteenth century, stresses in his discussion of rice.

Though it is often assumed that the etymologies of the French words will have been adequately treated by lexicologists, some cases are far from being well established, as becomes obvious if one compares English dictionaries to French ones. Thus sot is derived from a VulgLat. *sottus by Angliscists (Holthausen 1963, Serjeantson 1937), while French authorities agree that it is of unknown origin (see Meyer-Lübke 1935). Similarly, rice counts as a Celtic borrowing in the Germanic languages, but in French it is regarded as a loan from Germanic. .

Finally, the last item of list (1) above, i.e. treason, which I put in brackets for good reasons, needs to be commented on. The word was included among the French words by Hall (1920), who accepted a fairly adventurous reading of an ambiguously written line in the annal for 1135 which had been favoured by nineteenth century and early twentieth century scholars. Thus, Plummer read

(8) 1135: ða westre sona ðas landes

Nowadays this is normally read

(8') ða ðestre[en] sona...

Before the modern reading came to be accepted, however, some scholars suggested the line to be divided into

(8'') ða wes treon a ðas landes

because of the faulty form of the third graph which is too short for a "thorn" and too close to the previous word, so that it was read as a "wynn" (Bradley 1917). It is on the basis of this idiosyncratic reading only that treson can be assumed to be attested in the Peterborough Chronicle.

VII. Summary and outlook

The Peterborough word-list offers ample material for a varied analysis of early examples of French lexical influence. The relationship between French and Anglo-Saxon, and especially their mutual influence on one another during the Middle English period requires a careful interdisciplinary treatment, combining English and French historical linguistics. This seems to be the only way to arrive at reliable results. Hopefully, by these means more satisfactory answers will be obtained to problems still under discussion concerning the French influence on the English language.


Romance Influences on English Main Page
Romance Influences... Main Page

Orbis Latinus Main Page

This page is part of Orbis Latinus
© Zdravko Batzarov