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The Westminster Forum for Language and Linguistics is delighted to present a lecture by our Visiting Professor, Richard Ingham, University of Westminster

Propagating contact-induced language change: how English was Frenchified

Conventional accounts of French borrowing into Middle English highlights high-status occupations and activities as areas where linguistic contact would have occurred (eg Kastovsky 2006, Barber, Beal and Shaw 2009, Minkova and Stockwell 2009). Rothwell’s (1998) revisionist approach emphasises rather the role of educated, literate communities. Inevitably, little or no evidence survives from that time of the everyday sociolinguistic interactions that would have enacted contact influence. In this paper the textual record itself is used to address this deficiency indirectly, studying two types of lexical innovation that left their mark on English.

We first focus on the clergy, a subgroup that has left some record of the language in which they communicated with an ordinary English-speaking public. English clerics received a Francophone-medium school education (Orme 1973), which would have familiarised them with the French vocabulary used for religious instruction in preaching, in chantry schools and beyond.  Two late 13th c. religious texts intended for the laity were analysed for their use of lexis. An analysis of variant forms in the Cursor Mundi, native and French-origin, found that the latter would go on to replace native items the majority of the time.  The clergy’s use of French-origin items may well have initially introduced and then maintained them in at least the receptive competence of English speakers. A 30,000-word sample from the Early South English Legendary was also analysed. One new French-derived lexical type, from quite diverse semantic fields, occurred nearly every 10 lines, implying familiarity among the audience with a wide range of French-origin items, including many not belonging to high-status activities. Evidently, a substantial amount of French-origin vocabulary was considered suitable for didactic use with layfolk, instead of native-origin lexis. The clergy are taken to have acted as an important agency of lexical change.

We also envisage a significant contact influence process that created a register of Middle English used by French-dominant speakers. Use is made of van Coetsem’s (2000) concept of lexical change arising from ‘imposition’ of source-language lexis on a recipient language by non-native speakers of it. This is investigated in the domain of verb vocabulary. Middle English saw large-scale adoption of French-origin mental activity verbs taking clausal complements (Los 2005). The disappearance of nearly all such Old English verbs is compared with physical activity verbs in the Bilingual Thesaurus of Everyday Life in Medieval England (Sylvester, Marcus & Ingham 2016), revealing a much higher survival rate of OE verbs with agent-affect-patient semantics. The high vulnerability to replacement of OE mental activity verbs is discussed in terms of Ingham’s (2017) interpersonal cognition hypothesis, according to which lexical items denoting events requiring metalinguistic judgment of the speech or mental activity being performed are harder to acquire/borrow than those with a physical denotation (Papafragou, Cassidy, and Gleitman, 2007). French speakers acquiring English after the Norman conquest would thus have been led to largely relexicalise the clausal complement-taking verb inventory on French lines, whilst acquiring English verb lexis more successfully for semantic categories with physical denotations.

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