Posted by: suekenney | August 5, 2013

Susan’s Editorial Dictionary: B is for Battle of Hastings

Say what?  Battle of Hastings?  How on earth does that relate to a dictionary of editorial and literary terms?

Battle of Hastings, as portrayed by Philip Jam...

Battle of Hastings, as portrayed by Philip James de Loutherbourg: this work of art has been engraved by W. Bromley and published in Bowyer’s edition of Hume’s History of England (1804). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, let me tell you.  First, a very quick background on the Battle of Hastings.  In the year 1066, Duke William II of Normandy brought his armies to England to claim the throne he said was rightfully his.  Harold II, the Anglo-Saxon king of England, wasn’t about to give up the throne without a fight.  But in that fight, in October of 1066, fought near Hastings, Harold lost, and William won.

This set up a major shift in England.  Instead of the Anglo-Saxon culture being at the top of the heap in England, William imported French language, culture, government, etc.  While Anglo-Saxon, or what we now call Old English, was a language mostly concerned with simple, agrarian concepts, Duke William’s Norman French dealt with somewhat more complex concepts and became, for some centuries, the language of the the ruling classes, the courts, and business.

Words like “apple,” “axe,” “chicken,” “house,” “husband,” and “land” are all from Old English.  Norman French gave us words such as “liberty,” “majesty,” “mutton,” “chivalry,” and “accuse.”  Some estimate that the Norman invasion brought into the English language as many as 10,000 new words, many of which we still use today.

But a vastly expanded vocabulary is not the only reason that the Battle of Hastings is included in an editorial dictionary, although I would certainly consider vocabulary very important.  The grammar changed as well.  Most Anglo-Saxon plurals were formed in the Germanic way of adding the suffix -en.  After the Normans took over, plurals eventually became more commonly formed in the French way, by adding -s.

But even beyond plurals, Old English or Anglo-Saxon was full of inflection (inflexion for you Brits in the audience):  there were five grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), two grammatical numbers (singular and plural), and three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) for nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and determiners.  Some pronouns also had dual forms for groups of two people.  Verbs came in nine main conjugations, seven strong (what we would now call irregular) and two weak (what we would now call regular).  To some extent, the order of the words in a sentence was variable, since the case endings clearly indicated how a word was meant to be used regardless of its place in the sentence.

The advent of Norman French helped to simplify Old English grammar.  Cases now number only three (nominative, objective, and possessive, which mostly occur in pronouns); there is no longer specific gender for most nouns; the dual form disappeared; a far greater number of strong-conjugated verbs gave place to primarily weak-conjugated verbs; word order in sentences became much more rigid.

So if not for the Battle of Hastings and the major influence of Norman French on Old English, editors these days might very well be correcting someone’s misuse of the dative for the accusative case of foot, or making sure the dual form of you was properly placed, or decrying the usage of too many weak verbs.  But now we worry about people using it’s when they should have used its, or having a misplaced antecedent, or the like.  It’s all in your perspective.



  1. Nicely and concisely explained, Sue. Almost makes me wish I were still teaching so I could use this – but not quite 😀 I’m enjoying the freedom of retirement! The AS/Norman situation also accounts for doublets like freedom/liberty, might/power etc. and why the wife of an Earl is a Countess.

    • Yeah, I kinda miss teaching too. (Hmm, if I were correcting this sentence…) But I have been able to do a little bit of teaching in some of my editorial work, when someone asks why I changed something the way I did. Good to know about the Earl/Countess thing – I’ve been wondering about that, and hadn’t gotten around to looking it up. Thanks!

  2. […] Susan’s Editorial Dictionary: B is for Battle of Hastings […]

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