Reasons for English: The 100 years war

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about how the English language changed during the 100 Years War.

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Hello and welcome back to English with Stephen. My name’s Stephen Greene and today we are going to look at some of the Reasons for English. Regular listeners will know that in these Reasons for English episodes I look at some of the explanations for why English is the way it is. We have looked at the effect of the Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons on English, as well as discovering why English is the most common second language and why it has so many silent letters.

Today, we are going to look at the effect that the 100 Years War had on English. It was a war that had huge implications for both England and France for many reasons: politically, economically, militarily. For England, in particular, it also saw the rise of English as a national language.

Stay tuned for more, after this short break.

Before we get into the 100 Years War, I would like to recommend another podcast for English learners. It is called Learning English Faster and I am sure is something that many of my listeners will appreciate. The basic idea is that you will listen to stories that put English into context. By listening to these stories you will learn English in a similar way to that which you learned your first language. Understanding words in their context is a vital part of using words later on, and that is exactly what you get with Learning English Faster. You can find the Learn English Faster podcast by searching your podcast app, going to the site learningenglishfaster.com or going to my site EnglishwithStephen.com where I will post a link.

And now, back to a very long war.

In the last episode of Reasons for English, we looked at how the Normans, under William the Conqueror, had invaded England. We talked about how King William then decided to replace the English-speaking aristocracy with his French-speaking friends and allies. The effect was to create a country with two languages: Old English for the working person, and French for the elites.

That was all in 1066, but the 100 Years War started in 1337 and lasted until 1453 (yes, I know it is more than 100 years, but I didn’t decide on the name, I just podcast about it).

So what was the situation in 1337 with regards to English?

In short, it was still a divided country.

The legal system, politics, and education were all in French. The King of England spoke French as his first language, as did most of the rest of the aristocracy. Indeed, the English King often spent more time on his lands in France than he did in England.

And the poor people, the farmers, the labourers, they still spoke English. It was an English that was very different from a few hundred years earlier as it had many new French words, but it still had a Germanic grammar, and the foundations were still English.

There were a growing number of bilingual people. Some of them had, for example, a father who spoke French and a mother who spoke English and so grew up in a bilingual family. Similarly, many children of French-speaking parents grew up with English-speaking nannies or other English-speaking kids.

Alternatively, some French-speakers were forced to learn English later in their lives in order to work with their subjects. And many English speakers realised that speaking French would give them an advantage in getting better work or trading.

However, there was still a language divide between the elite French speakers and the more common English speakers.

But then England went to war with France and everything changed.

You see, if you are the king of a country, you want to encourage your people to fight for you. One of the best ways to do this is to create a national identity. And what better way to create a national identity than to have a national language? A king can point to the people on the other side of the battlefield and say something like “Look, we are not like them. We are good, strong people who believe in God. We eat good food, they eat smelly food. We are English and we all speak the same language. They are stupid French who speak a strange language. Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St. George!’ ”

This is powerful stuff. Us against them.

But you this is difficult if the King and all the Lords and Knights speak the same language as the hated opposition.

Soldiers would probably ask themselves “Who are we really fighting for? Do we trust this person who is leading us in battle? He doesn’t even speak the same language as us. How can we know he won’t betray us at the first opportunity?”

Now, if the war lasts a year or two, then this is no big deal. But this war lasted a hundred years. This war lasted more than a hundred years. Plenty of time for people to have children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Plenty of time to make sure that your children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren learn the local language, to create a national identity, to make sure everyone was on the same side.

And so, by the end of this multi-generational war, the King of England and all the Lords, and Knights, spoke English as their first language.

And it was a new kind of English. It still had its Germanic roots, but there were a lot of words borrowed from French. If you look at an Old-English text from the years before the Norman invasion, you struggle to understand anything. It doesn’t look like modern English. It looks like a foreign language.

If you look at a text from the end of the 100 Years War, with a little bit of imagination, you can start to understand what is written. There are still lots of words and phrases and spellings, that are strange, but it is there. It isn’t modern English. It is middle English. It is a transitional phase between the old Anglo-Saxon-dominated old English and the new modern English that is common all over the world today.

It is middle English.

I know the question you are asking. What happened in the 100 Years War? Did the idea of everyone learning to speak the same language help the English to overcome the French?

Basically, no. Despite at one point controlling over half of modern-day France, the English could not hold on and, due in no small part to a woman called Joan of Arc, the French were able to retake nearly all of the land that they had lost.

That’s all from me for today. In future episodes, we will look at the next steps that English took on its path to becoming a global language.

In the meantime, don’t forget to check out the podcast ‘Learning English Faster’ for more stories that will help you learn English. You can find links to Learning English Faster, as well as links to all my social media on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. You can also find a transcript of this episode. A transcript is very useful because if there is anything you didn’t quite understand you can read what was said. It will help with your listening and reading skills, as well as improve your vocabulary and grammar. Remember, you can find that on my site EnglishwithStephen.com

Thanks for listening. I hope to catch up with you again next week.

So long!

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