In Commemoration of the 940th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

How a skirmish between the Normans and the Saxons affects what you call what you eat today.

Perhaps we don’t always realize the way our lives are influenced by our language and how we refer to things. The relationship in our minds between our words and the objects they represent is so strong that we often forget how malleable thing language is. Even if we don’t realize it in day to day life, our tongue is in a constant state of change. Whether it’s the addition of a word (such as sandwich to describe a simple object that had henceforth been called bread and meat or bread and cheese) or, as is often the case when an invading force takes political control of a region, a shift in the root of the language itself.

The Old English language went into decline 940 years ago today: the day after William the Conqueror of Normandy (France) defeated King Harold of Saxony (England). Previously the English were speaking a guttural, Germanic tongue written with a 28-letter alphabet, as exemplified by the following passage from “Christ III,” a poem attributed to the venerable Bede and written sometime between the years 1000-1050:

Daga egeslicast
weorþeð in worulde, þonne wuldorcyning
þurh þrym þreað þeoda gehwylce,
hateð arisan reordberende
of foldgrafum, folc anra gehwylc,
cuman to gemote moncynnes gehwone.1

Then, the French swept in with their Latin-influenced tongue and changed the entire character of the language. The ruling class spoke French, and they expected that everyone else should speak French, too. But, as one of my French professors once said, “French is but bad Latin in the mouths of Gauls.” Likewise, English is bad French in the mouths of disparate Germanic tribes.

The upper tiers of society adopted French more completely than did the lower tiers, and “the linguistic influence of the Normans tended to focus on matters of court, government, fashion, and high living Meanwhile, the English peasant continued to eat, drink, work, sleep, and play in English.”2 Therefore, many of the more humble aspects of the English language changed little while the more refined aspects adopted new vocabulary.

As a result, when an animal is in the field and attached to its hoof, we still call it by a word derived from its Old English name; but once slaughtered, prepared, and brought to the table, it is known by a French-influenced vocabulary: “English calf, ox, sheep, and swine, but French veal, beef, mutton, and pork.”3 Were it not for the Norman invasion so many years ago, we would be speaking a vastly different language today. I take such evidence to be proof that our actions have a direct and resounding effect on the future of the planet, though I fear our influence in this age of disposability will be less kind to our descendants than a shift in vocabulary.

Our tendency to buy everything in layers of plastic packaging that have been shipped ’round the world with the help of billions of barrels of petroleum is having devastating effects on the health of our planet, as very effectively described in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Therefore, I encourage everyone to do their part to help preserve the planet by recognizing and embracing regional variations on cuisine: cook with what is native to your part of the world, with minimally-processed and packaged ingredients that have traveled as short a distance as possible before arriving on your plate. Though not a total solution to all the world’s ills, it is a meaningful step: each of us eats two or three times a day. That gives us all a chance to act locally over 1000 times a year, which, combined, can add up to a global change. Doing our part will help ensure that 940 years from now, the human race has descendants, whatever language they may speak.

  1. “The most dreadful days will come to pass in the world when the king of Glory through his power, will punish all nations, command human beings to arise from their earthen graves, [shall call] all people to come to the assembly, every one of humankind.” As translated by Gatch, Milton McC. in “Perceptions of eternity.” From The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge UP, 1991: p. 194.
  2. Bryson, Bill. Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. p. 54
  3. Barber, Charles. The English language: a historical introduction. Cambridge UP, 1993. p. 147

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