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English, Old, vs. Norman French

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Scarlet Pimpernel
167938.  Thu Apr 19, 2007 3:15 pm Reply with quote

Sheep, cow, calf, pig. Mutton, beef, veal, pork.

As a child I learned that the Saxon peasants who worked with the live animals in the fields gave them one set of names, while the Norman aristocrats who ate them (the animals, not the peasants) gave them another set.

Yet Bill Bryson quotes Robert Burchfield as saying that this is an "enduring myth". Not being a linguist, I am unfamiliar with Mr. Burchfield or his works, but if Bill Bryson thinks he's worth quoting, I am willing to accept his authority.

What I'd like to know is, why does Mr. Burchfield think so? Who else agrees with him? And is there now a theory to replace the one I learned? Or is Burchfield off his nut after all?

This is my first post; I apologize if my question is too fluff for the E Series Forum and humbly request that it in that case be moved.

167976.  Thu Apr 19, 2007 7:06 pm Reply with quote

Robert Burchfield was the senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary for many years, so I'd be inclined to accept his word for it, but I don't know why it's a myth. In fact, I didn't know it was one until I read your post!

Suze, do you have any insight on this one, being one of our resident linguistic specialists?

167981.  Thu Apr 19, 2007 7:36 pm Reply with quote

Ah, now then. Certainly, the belief which Scarlet Pimpernel outlines was accepted as received wisdom for some considerable time.

Burchfield's work on the matter only half answers the question though. He notes (in his book The English Language) that the French words were in fact used for the live animals - for instance, Dr Johnson used the word "beef" where most of us would use "cow".

What he doesn't do is give an explanation as to why this usage has died out. It seems to have done so in the 18th century or thereabouts.

I'm on vacation, so I'm working without books or notes - I may be able to explain the matter better next week when I'm back home. Meanwhile, Straight Dope has this to say:

167999.  Fri Apr 20, 2007 2:19 am Reply with quote

This different usages are noted by Sir Walter Scott in the early pages of 'Ivanhoe' and he mentions the fact that the Saxon words relate to the work and the French to the consumption. I think we can lay the blame for this myth at his door, since his historical novels were required reading for earlier generations.

Scarlet Pimpernel
168079.  Fri Apr 20, 2007 4:56 am Reply with quote

Ah. Thank you, Jenny, for the heads up as to Burchfield's qualifications. I agree, in that case he ought to know what he's talking about.

What mckeonj says certainly sounds plausible, but doesn't it kind of beg the question of where Sir Walter Scott got the idea in the first place?

suze, I am sorry to be interrupting your vacation - I would appreciate it if you could explain things more thoroughly on your return. Your link to the Straight Dope merely cited the exact same Bryson book (Mother Tongue) that I was looking at when I wrote my OP. Bryson mentions, as well, Burchfield's citation of Samuel Johnson. But if that's the only usage he can come up with, I think his premise is a little weak - after all, Dr. Johnson may have been wanting to sound posh or poetic there.

I do not have access to Burchfield's book myself, but I'm really curious to know what he says about it other than quoting Johnson. And whether he's the only one who says so.

168588.  Sat Apr 21, 2007 2:17 pm Reply with quote

It is pretty darn convincing when you see that the same dichotomy applies to all the major meats. (Beef, pork, mutton, veal - and I think arguably you could add venison too as the name derives from the Old French for hunting.)

Perhaps the pat part is that it was the Norman consumers who used one word and the Anglo-Saxon producers another. I wouldn't be surprised if it were more complicated than that.

174822.  Wed May 16, 2007 4:33 am Reply with quote

Lo and behold, I have a copy of Burchfield in front of me. He writes:

"One enduring myth about French loanwords of the medieval period needs to be discounted. It is sometimes said that the Normans brought many culinary and gastronomic terms with them and, in particular, that they brought the terms for the flesh of animals eaten as food. This is no more than a half-truth. The culinary revolution, and the importation of French vocabulary into English society, scarcely preceded the eighteenth century, and consolidated itself into the nineteenth. The words veal, beef, venison, pork and mutton, all of French origin, entered the English language in the early Middle Ages, and would all have been known to Chaucer. But they meant not only the flesh of a calf, of an ox, of a deer, etc., but also the animals themselves. Thus Samuel Johnson refers to 'a beef' being killed for the house in his Journey to the Western Isles (1775); and William Cowper used the word mutton to mean 'a sheep' in 1795:

A mutton, statelier than the rest,
A ram, the ewes and wethers, sad, address'd.

The restriction of these French words to the sense 'flesh of an animal eaten as food' did not become general before the eighteenth century. Expressed another way, a farmer could graze mutton (which he generally called sheep), and eat mutton, until about the eighteenth century. Thereafter he grazed sheep and ate mutton."
(Robert Burchfield, The English Language, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 18)

I hope that helps![/quote]

174836.  Wed May 16, 2007 4:57 am Reply with quote

I thought the whole point was that poor, peasant farmers tended to use anglo-saxon words for animals (cow, pig, sheep, etc), while upper class, well educated people would more often use the norman words (beef, pork, mutton, etc). Chaucer, Johnson, and Cowper were quite a long way from toiling in the fields to earn a living (Chaucer was born to a family of vintners and married a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. Although from a poor background, Johnson went to Oxford University and worked as a writer. Cowper went to Westminster School and trained as a lawyer)

When Norfolkian says a farmer could eat mutton until about the eighteenth century, is he (or she) not missing the point about the relative affluence of different parts of society in history. Until relatively recently, meat was far too expensive for the working classes to afford on anything other than special occasions.

So, as far as I understand it, a farmer was likely to graze a sheep and, on those special occasions when he could actually afford to eat one, would probably have eaten sheep as well. Meanwhile, a wealthy land-owner would occasionally see animals in a field that he called "mutton", and also eaten mutton when it was presented at the table. It seems, from what's already been said on this thread, that the language for these things was standardised sometime around the 18th century, and people started using the same words as each other though, interestingly, different words for the same animal. I wonder how that got decided.

174868.  Wed May 16, 2007 6:36 am Reply with quote

Thanks Norfolkian - on returning to this thread, I see that I said I would make a post along the lines of yours, and then didn't do it. Sorry guys ...

I think that Sergei and dr.bob between them are pretty close to the explanation. The poor farmers didn't get to eat the meat all that much, while the gentry didn't have much involvement with the live animals which were destined to become meat. Therefore, it seems entirely reasonable for the farmers' Anglo-Saxon words to have become usual when referring to the beasts, and for the gentry's French words to have become so when referring to the lumps of meat as eaten.

As for the erroneous belief that the dichotomous usage is considerably older, John McKeon seems to be correct in laying the blame for that with Sir Walter Scott - it doesn't seem to be expressed in any earlier literature. As noted, Scott must have got the notion from somewhere - but precisely where seems to be a bit of a mystery.


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