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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why English is Such a Mess: Part Seven-A, The French, the Freaking French

"Oh, that old thing?
That's just a Bayeux Tapestry."
Why is dough pronounced doe and tough pronounced tuff?  Why is it one mouse, two mice, but not one house, two hice?  Why isn't one grain of rice, a rouse?  Why do people say, "Pardon my French," when they swear?  Why is Leicester pronounced Lester?  Why is it wrong to carelessly split an infinitive and why can't we use no double negatives?  In short, why is the English language such a mess?  Over the next few blogs I will explore this question.

At this point English is about to get really messed up.

I don't know much about Edward the Confessor, but he must've been a real piece of work; before he died he managed to convince three people - two of them named Harry - that they should each be the king of England.  Evidently, if you had dinner at Edward's place, sooner or later, he'd take you aside and say, "I got no kids, no heirs.  You know who I want to be king of this joint when I kick it?  You, bubby.  I love you like a son, I mean it."

Before you go thinking these three guys were just a bunch of callous opportunists looking to glom onto a vacant throne, keep in mind, in a situation like this, when there's three people in the running, your chances, not of winning, but survival are only 33%.  These guys each seriously thought he should be king of England.
"I just love being a horse."

The story starts when Edward died and his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson assumed the crown.  Meanwhile, though, another Harry, Harald Hardrada - (his last name means something like "hard head") - decided he should be king of England.  Harald H. had finally given up after years of trying to conquer Denmark, when Tostig Godwinson, Harold G's brother (the other Harry, are you keeping track of this?) said, "Hey, why don't you be king of England.  I'll throw my support behind you.  The other Harold, I know he's my brother and all, but he's kind of a loser when you get down to it.  I mean, just look at him."  So Harald H. and Tostig set sail for England, arriving in the north, and Harold G. marches up to meet them.

Is that guy eating pizza?
It only takes two battles to decide the matter, Harald and Tostig win the first round at Fulford, but Harold Godwinson prevails at a place called Stamford Bridge, and Harald and Tostig are killed.

This occasioned great rejoicing among the Anglo-Saxons.  For starters, there was one less Harry to keep track of, which made matters a whole lot simpler.  Secondly, historically, Harald symbolized the last of the Vikings, so you can imagine the veterans slapping each other on the shoulder and saying, "We've symbolically killed the last symbolic Viking and symbolically the symbolic age of Vikings is symbolically over.  Huzzah!"  But then, just when they thought there was nothing but smooth sailing ahead, they learn William the Bastard has invaded England from the south.

Now you're going to have to cast your mind back to Part Two of this series, The Romans.  The Romans never conquered all that far north, preferring to focus on shipping lanes, especially in the Mediterranean, remember?  And the British Isles lie almost exactly at the midpoint where the Roman sphere of influence leaves off, and the Germanic people pick up, remember?  Up to now, most of the folks invading England - Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, and whoever else, were all Germanic.  But William the Bastard came from just below the imaginary line of Roman influence, and spoke a Romance language: French.

Well, it wasn't French-French, it was Norman French.  Normandy was so named because it was settled by Normans, ie North-men, ie Norse-men, ie Vikings.  So after Harold defeated Harald, the symbolic last Viking, he had to face the descendant of another Viking, William the Bastard, only William wasn't speaking Old Norse, but some agglutination of Old Norse and Old French, got it?  Jesus, I swear, history would be so much simpler if people quit invading each other and just stayed put.

Anyway, someone had put it in William's head that if he conquered England, people might start calling him William the Conqueror instead of William the Bastard.  So now the remaining Harold marched down, leaving many of his troops behind.  He met William at Hastings where the future conqueror had thrown up a wooden fort.  This was only a few weeks after the defeat of Harald the Hard-Headed.

Activities started around 9, on October 14, 1066.  It was over in one day.

William sails back to Normandy, "Honey, I'm ho-ome," and his wife, Matilda, is like, "How was work today, honey?"  And William's like (big grin) "Guess who has two thumbs and rules England?  This guy!"  And he points at himself with both thumbs, and she's like, "Darling, I knew you could do it!"  And she hugs him, and starts talking about what she'll wear for his coronation.

Harold gets it.
I got a feeling Matilda was pretty obnoxious after her husband conquered England.  She was probably one of those people who brags in a way that makes it sound like she's complaining.  "Oh, there's so much to do, I can't even tell you how busy I am.  We've got to change all the monogrammed towels from William the Bastard to William the Conqueror, and I've got to design a crown, and then there's all these people we'll be ruling - and not just the people, there's chattels, too.  Oh, dear, and some of the people are chattels. it's all so complicated."  Or else she'd be like, "Oh, that old thing?  That's just a Bayeux Tapestry.  It's a little thing I knitted Billy when he conquered England."

See, Matilda and her ladies in waiting decided to make a little tapestry to commemorate the victory, only once they got started, they just couldn't seem to stop.  It's two-hundred-thirty feet long.  There's lots of action and ships and people bonking each other with clubs, a comet goes by, and some people cook a meal, but the high-point as far as Matilda was concerned was the spot where Harold Godwinson gets it in the eye with an arrow.  Matilda was a bloodthirsty so-and-so.

October 14, 1066 is one of those days when history pivots on its axis.  Harold was at a disadvantage, having marched all those miles and having fought two battles already, but things could easily have gone the other way.  There's no reason William couldn't have gotten an arrow in his eye, and then we'd still be speaking who knows what, but not what we speak today, whatever that is.  The effects of the Norman Conquest are so profound, I can't squeeze them into today's blog, so we'll have to do more tomorrow.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if either one of those two Harry's looked like Ralph Malph from "Happy Days"...like the current Prince Harry?