University of Cambridge > > French Linguistics Research Seminars > The transmission of French in pre-modern England: bilingualism, contact and death

The transmission of French in pre-modern England: bilingualism, contact and death

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The important role played by Anglo-Norman in the linguistic history of England has always been recognized, though researchers’ interpretations of how extensively it was spoken have varied sharply (Suggett 1943, Berndt 1972, Rothwell 1976, Legge 1980). A broad consensus sees its demise in the late mediaeval period as linked to a loss of native speakers and attempts to support this analysis by referring to qualitative changes showing the influence of English (see Kibbee 1991 and references therein). In this study we consider whether the very extensive textual record of insular French after 1250 supports conventional expectations of the effects of language contact (Winford 2003, Clyne 2003), attrition and death (Dorian 1981, Maher 1991, Rottet 2001). Focusing mainly on grammatical category distinctions, it is shown that tense, conjugation class, pronoun type and noun gender syncretism remain marginal until the late 14th century, once phonological interference is accounted for. Up to that point, this appears more compatible with a contact situation via bilingualism than with language death. Wholesale loss of grammatical distinctions is not found until Law French subsequent to 1450. The onset of formal instruction in French around the beginning of the 15th century had little effect on the outcome. The issue is discussed of how far documentary records of past languages can be used as evidence of language maintenance or loss.

This talk is part of the French Linguistics Research Seminars series.

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