In many countries around the world, especially in Africa, the people natively speak both an indigenous language and French due to French colonization.

The Norman conquest of England left us with many, many French words and grammatical structures, but England maintained only one language.

What factors caused this difference? The French colonization of the world left many countries speaking French, but only left England with a vastly different language from what it started with.

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    French was the language of the nobles and those who wished to please them. English was the language of peasants. French was spoken and learned by anyone in the upper classes; however, it became less useful as English lost its control of various places in France (where the peasants spoke French, too). After that -- roughly, 1450 -- English was simply more useful for talking to anybody. It is still true that British royals and many nobles are fluent in French; but they only use it to talk to French people, just like everybody else.
    – jlawler
    Aug 13, 2013 at 4:38
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    I don't think this is a question best addressed within linguistics. Try this: history.stackexchange.com/questions/2880/…
    – prash
    Aug 13, 2013 at 8:51
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    Whether a community shifts to one language or to another is a linguistic topic, I think. Language shift is one of the more extreme outcomes of intensive language contact.
    – robert
    Aug 13, 2013 at 9:38
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    As recently as the 1960s there was a stereotype that in English-speaking countries, people with vast inherited wealth speak French to each other and English to others. Jul 29, 2014 at 19:57
  • still to this day there are differences between the way farmers and city people speak " aar ge be off mine land bothereth mine cowen !"
    – user9725
    May 7, 2015 at 20:06

6 Answers 6


After the Norman Conquest in 1066 French quickly replaced English in all domains associated with power. French was used at the royal court, by the clergy, the aristocracy, in law courts. But the vast majority of the population continued to speak English. Had the aristocracy and clergy miraculously vanished in 1100 English would have taken over right away. In reality it took until the 14th c. for English to slowly supplant French in many of these domains. There are several reasons for this:

  • John Lackland (King of England) lost Normandy to the King of France. This meant that his and the Norman aristocracy's focus shifted to England. He still had possessions in the South of France, but these were too far off to shift the focus away from England.
  • Society used to be split into a French-speaking aristocracy and clergy who wielded all the power, and English-speaking peasants without power. Now an urban and English-speaking middle class (traders, artisans, etc.) came up, and acquired wealth and power.
  • The French-speaking population was ultimately rather small in number. Looking at it from this perspective one might ask why French stayed that important for such a long time. French did remain the language of power for two centuries or so, but ultimately the aristocracy slowly shifted towards English because their attachment with France had waned.

By the 14th c. people started making fun of the French spoken by the Norman Aristocracy. Chaucer, in the Prioress's Tale in the Canterbury Tales says about the Prioress (a nun):

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,

After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,

For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.

The Prioress only knew the kind of French taught in England (Stratford here) and not the kind of French spoken in Paris (seen as more desirable). This was at a time when text books for teaching French to the aristocracy came up. They now needed instruction in French because they didn't learn it at home any more.


The Norman conquest was hardly a case of 'French' colonization. France barely existed at the time. The Normans were fervently not French in their self-identity and can't even really be said to have spoken 'French'- rather they spoke a dialect of the Latin-based languages spoken across the old Roman world, the Parisian dialect of which would later develop into the standard French language of more recent centuries. The Normans of 1066 would simply have called their language 'Romanz' i.e. Roman.

The Normans appear to have adopted English as their first language far more quickly than generally thought, some scholars believe this transition was complete as early as the 1150s. There is a court record of a knight unable to speak Norman/French at all soon after that date. From that point on a more modern French (rather than the older Norman dialect) was spoken as an acquired prestige language, rather like the clergy spoke Latin. So the idea of a Francophone aristocracy throughout the medieval period is misleading - the powers that be did speak Norman and then French during the early middle ages, but mostly as a second language and only in certain contexts. Eventually this fascinating cultural fashion simply died out.

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    Part of this is simply false. The majority of the Norman Elite, especially the high nobility, maintained French as a first language until the 14th century, although they spoke English too beginning in the mid-late 12th century. The royal family spoke Anglo-Norman natively until Henry V, at the start of the 15th C. King John or his son Henry II is generally believed to have been the first to have spoken English fluently, although most definitely as a second language.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 3, 2019 at 3:17

I suspect the difference may be due to the fact that language used to be less “politicized”, i.e., the conquerors did speak French, but there was no conscious effort to impose the French language on the colonized people: Everybody essentially just used whatever language seemed most useful to communicate in a given situation. This still favored the conquerors’ language, because they tended to be the people with money and power, but over time, there was a creolization of the languages.

In the 19th century, as the concept of a nation state developed, language started being considered part of the national identity, so there was more of an effort to impose the national language on every subject of a nation. As an example, the English Education Act of 1835 switched money previously spent on educating Indian elites in Sanskrit and Arabic to educating them in English.

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    It's amusing that, in some cases, we have the germanic word for the animal, and the French word for the meat. Makes it clear who was out in the fields and who was sitting at the banquetting table! For example, "cow" (Kuh in German) vs. "beef" (boeuf in French), "pig" (from OE) vs. "pork" (porc in French).
    – P Elliott
    Aug 13, 2013 at 12:30
  • @PElliott It's also really interesting how our more "formal" words are of French origin, but the simpler words are Germanic, like "ask" vs "question" vs "interrogate." Oct 9, 2013 at 23:50

I would question the assumption that "in many countries around the world, especially in Africa, the people natively speak both an indigenous language and French due to French colonization". It is correct that French is an official language in a number of former colonies, but I believe the assumption that the populace of D.R. Congo, for example, natively speak French is untrue. First, there is a difference between natively speaking a language, and learning a language to a reasonable degree of fluency in school. Second, especially in Africa, there is a difference between the linguistic habits of the urban intelligentsia and the habits of the general population. French is widely used with the middle and upper class in francophone cities, but not so much with rural farmers. Also note that among educated city-dwellers in Africa (esp. Cameroon or Cote d'Ivoire), francophones often do not natively speak some indigenous language, instead, they just speak French (and maybe know enough Bamileke to talk to grandma). Whether or not French ultimately expands or contracts in the former colonies depends largely on the extent to which formal education expands to transplant the urban experience into rural areas.

An obvious difference between England and the former French colonies is the amount of time between the departure of the French (finessing a few assumptions about "French" and "departing"), which alone could account for any actual difference in the status of French in these cases. A less obvious difference is the vastly different statuses of formal education (not important in Medieval England, quite important in modern Africa).


A couple of notes:

  • The suggestion above that the Anglo-Norman/French language was just a fad of some sort in the English court is rather untrue. Although it was very mixed, there was a long period during which most of the aristocracy spoke little, if any, English. They were true Francophones, although as mentioned their language was not exactly Parisian.
  • During the colonial period the colonial powers were often far more advanced than the nations they conquered so it was somewhat natural, albeit unfortunate, for their national languages to be overshadowed by their conquerors. You can see something similar during the Roman Empire. In the east where Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, etc. were at least if not more advanced than the Romans, the local languages survived. In the West where the Celtic, Germanic, etc. cultures were substantially less advanced than the Romans, they largely picked up Latin. Indeed, even later when the various Gothic/Vandal tribes conquered the western Roman provinces, they themselves adopted Latin (albeit a very bastardized version) rather than preserving their own languages (i.e. the conquerors adopted the language of the conquered). In the case of Norman conquest, the Normans were arguably somewhat more advanced than the Anglo-Saxons but not that much more. So there was a culture war which ultimately resulted in a creole language that more heavily favored English.
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    This looks more like a longish comment to @robert's answer that an answer of its own. Consider turning this one into comments. Feb 16, 2018 at 17:31
  • ? How is relationship to the Roman Empire a comment on Robert's response? Feb 16, 2018 at 21:03

The Norman spoke French as well as every elite in the world, France has many versions of its language, as many as it has region and you can still take it as test to finish high school. I am a Norman, since Rollo became Duc of Normandy and gave his allegiance to the French king. my familly was at the battle of Hastings and became Duc of Normandy later around 1830 under the bourbon restauration. Normans came from Rollo Viking descent that gave his allegiance to the French king (the simple, I think), technically they became part of what France was at that point by allegiance. it is a classic king move to re-enforce and stabilize his kingdom. Willian the conqueror did not speak a word of English and spoke French only, the French Norman version of it, but everyone in France has a different French dialect depending on its historic affiliation, so it is not a valid point to say that it was not French, especially it is as close as it gets to modern French. Even people from Paris have their own dialect called L'Argot. Now at the time of Rollo and William and probably because of them, France went from Carolingian to Capetian, which is known to be the first established kingdom. The French language was spoken in every countries elite for one main reason: Print did not existed and the only one deciphering, translating Latin and writing books were??????? French priests and they did it at a very high pace and very well, so at that time and for a long time if you wanted to learn, be educated and read books you had no choices beside French or Latin, and French was easier and more practical because of business. Actually France legal system from Bonaparte are still in place all over the world, even in the USA in which 2 states use the Dalloz code for civil law.

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    This post badly needs editing; please consider spell-checking and adding paragraphs. Also, while answering, one should avoid emotions (multiple question marks) and rhetorical questions. In addition, this post contains lots of assumptions and zero proof links. This is also a bad sign. Aug 22, 2018 at 23:34

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