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England and France. Now there’s a rivalry for the ages, encompassing the greatest historical moments (the triumphant Battle of Agincourt, the epic skirmishes against Napoleon) and the pettiest pub debates (are snails ACTUALLY delicious or are the French just pretending they are?).
With such fraught history between our two nations, it makes sense that France should be the first stop in Al Murray's quest to find out, Why Does Everyone Hates the English. In episode 1, Al travels to France to meet French comedian Antoine DeCaunes to explore some of the biggest gripes the French have about their neighbours across the channel.
One of the most long-standing English hobbies is caricaturing the French as cowards, or as hoity-toity cultural snobs, or as frantically randy bed-hoppers. Think of the classic line in Blackadder: “I’m as happy as a Frenchman who’s invented a pair of self-removing trousers.” Even William Shakespeare didn’t like to miss an opportunity for a crack against the “confident and over-lusty French”.
'I’m as happy as a Frenchman who’s invented a pair of self-removing trousers.'
Meanwhile, across the Channel, the French have long been disgruntled about the mass invasion of English words into their language. Eminent organisations such as the Academie Française have even waged official war on English words like “email” and “hashtag”, encouraging citizens to use French equivalents (although even the loftiest defenders of the French language have grudgingly admitted it’s probably too late to do away with such sinister interlopers like 'sandwich' and 'weekend').
Bearing all this in mind, it’s quite ironic that – despite all this rivalry – the very essence of the English language as we speak it today owes a huge debt to the influence of France. It’s not just language, either. How about the castles that dot the English landscape, and are such cherished symbols of English history? Again, thank the French for that. Specifically, the Norman army of 1066 – many of whom were Viking descendants who’d become assimilated into the culture of what is now northern France.
The basic facts of the Norman Conquest are part of English lore: William the Conqueror charging over from the continent to claim the throne, thoroughly beating Harold at the Battle of Hastings (with the latter apparently catching an arrow in the eye). But the sheer scale of the fallout from this victory is still underrated in many people’s minds. William and his army didn’t just extinguish the Anglo-Saxon monarchy – they changed the fabric of English culture. Wine became the popular tipple rather than mead, for one thing. But the impact on language was the most important change of all.
The Norman Conquest basically relegated Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, to a lesser, unfashionable language, fit only for the common masses. Old English is now a remote and unfathomable language to anyone who hasn’t studied it, though one of its texts – Beowulf – remains a landmark of English culture. The new ruling classes, having taken over the nation, installed their own tongue – a dialect of Old French – as the language of the aristocracy.
That’s why certain words pertaining to power and rule, such as 'parliament', “duke” and 'prison' derive from Old French rather than Old English (although, oddly, “king” and 'queen' derive from Old English). The Normans also brought over new words for food, resulting in a dichotomy that exists to this day. We call the meat of pigs 'pork' because of Old French. Ditto cow meat becoming known as 'beef'. Which is pretty ironic, given that the classic, withering French nickname for the English has long been 'rosbif'.
This mingling of language gave rise to a new tongue, which we now know as Anglo-Norman. Fortunately, though, the 'Anglo' part didn’t eventually go extinct, and English was set for a comeback. While Anglo-Norman has been forgotten by anyone who isn’t an academic, it eventually evolved into Middle English – the language of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales is one of the first great masterpieces of English literature. This would, in turn, transform into Early Modern English, whose greatest practitioner was a certain William Shakespeare (or some mysterious aristocrat calling himself William Shakespeare, if you subscribe to that particular conspiracy theory).
So, while Lord Nelson may have instructed those close to him to 'hate a Frenchman as much as you hate the Devil', the English language – and the English culture it spawned – would be unrecognisable today if the French hadn’t won the Battle of Hastings, altering the course of the nation forever.