It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings, and on Christmas Day he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abby. What nobody knew at the time was how much this would affect the English language. The British back then were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans spoke French. Over time, the languages blended, and as a result English became a language incredibly rich in synonyms. Because the French speakers were aristocrats, the French words often became the fancy words for things. The Normans gave us “mansion”; the Saxons gave us “house.” The Normans gave us “beef”; the Saxons gave us, “cow.”
The English language has gone on accepting additions to its vocabulary ever since, and it now contains more than a million words, making it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. Writers have been arguing for hundreds of years about whether this is a good thing.
The critic Cyril Connolly wrote, “The English language is like a broad river … being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck.” But Walt Whitman said, “The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.” And the poet Derek Walcott said, “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.”