March: Henry V and the French Language

In 1599, William Shakespeare wrote The Life of Henry the Fifth, a play that rejoices in its hero king, Henry, warrior and wooer. Henry V not only defeated the French; he went on to win the hand of Katherine, the daughter of the King of France. Henry is powerful and kingly in battle. He is playful and winning in courtship. He invades Katharine as he invades France:

King Henry V: O fair Katharine, if you will love me soundly with your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it brokenly with your English tongue. Do you like me, Kate?

Katharine: Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell vat is ‘like me.’
King Henry V: An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.
Katharine: Que dit-il? que je suis semblable a les anges?
Alice: Oui, vraiment, sauf votre grace, ainsi dit-il.
King Henry V: I said so, dear Katharine; and I must not blush to affirm it.
Katharine: O bon Dieu! les langues des hommes sont pleines de tromperies.
King Henry V: What says she, fair one? that the tongues of men are full of deceits?
Alice: Oui, dat de tongues of de mans is be full of deceits: dat is de princess.
King Henry V: The princess is the better Englishwoman. I’ faith, Kate, my wooing is fit for thy understanding: I am glad thou canst speak no better English; for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain King that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown.

(Henry V Act 5, Scene 2)

Word play is continuous, rapid, macaronic. The dialogue crosses English and French, the courtly and the obscene, the male and the female. Henry shows that he has not forgotten the vulgarities of tavern talk, and he shows that he has learned the dignities of royal speech. Shakespeare shows that he knows the French language while he boasts the superiority of the English language.  Speakers need to judge their linguistic environment and pitch their language accordingly. The Henry-Kate, English-French, vulgar-courtly play demands constant register shift. Shakespeare exploits that royally.

The history of the language, the English language, tells us that it was just at the time that Henry was courting Kate – 1415 - that the English language was triumphing in England; it was finally overcoming French as the language of authority and power. Henry’s father had deposed Richard II by an order read in English and the Henrys made English the language of their court. In preparing for the invasion of France that ended with a French lesson, Henry V gave his orders for mustering and provisioning in English.  His military dispatches were written in English.

How much history of his language Shakespeare knew is difficult to say, but he certainly chose the right monarch to champion the victory of English over French. Henry’s courtiers conversed in English. Henry was a very English king, and Shakespeare knew it.

Throughout the dialogue and throughout the play there is a deliberate fusing and confusing of the words England and English. ‘England’ can mean the king himself, the land he rules, or the English people; ‘English’ can mean the people or the language. Shakespeare was a royalist and an irredentist. It would go too far to say that Shakespeare uses the word ‘English’ as American pool players use it. To put English on a ball is to make it swerve. Shakespeare makes his English spin and his French, too:

King Henry V: Do you like me, Kate?
Katharine: Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell vat is ‘like me.’
King Henry V: An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.
Katharine: Que dit-il? que je suis semblable a les anges?
Alice: Oui, vraiment, sauf votre grace, ainsi dit-il.

The Life of Henry the Fifth rejoices in five hundred years of rivalry between the English and the French. It celebrates the masculinity of the Englishman and the effeminacy of the Frenchman. It lauds the English language over the French language. It praises rough-tongued English against the facile-tongued French. In the pla, the word ‘language’ is used once; the word ‘tongue’ is used ten times. Henry and Katharine engage their tongues in royal foreplay.

There is more French spoken in Henry the Fifth than in any other Shakespeare play, in fact, than in any other English play. Henry claims not to know much French: ‘It is as easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French’, he says. If that were true, he would be the first king of England since 1066 who did not. In the early fifteen century, French was beginning to lose its grip in England, but that is something that was probably not apparent at the time.

Shakespeare’s Henry is proud of being an Englishman, but it is only the spelling of his name that makes it seem English. The most popular English names for boys were those of the French kings of England: William, Henry, Richard, and John, in French Guillaume, Henri, Richard and Jean. At some points in the Middle Ages, one in four boys was given one of those names so that they all developed variants: Will, Bill, Willie, Billie, Harry, Hen, Hal, Rich, Richie, Rick, Dick, Dicky, Jack, Johnnie and so on and on. Multiple Johns needed add-ons. The French for nickname is ‘surnom’; in English, that came to mean family name.

There is so much explicit French in Henry the Fifth that it is easy to overlook the fact that there is even more implicit French. By 1415 when Henry V was invading France, the English language had been invaded by so much French grammar that it is arguable that English had become a fusion language. Within three hundred years from 1066, Norman French had become blended with Old English, and the effects were startling. Grammatical gender was replaced by logical gender; noun endings were lost; word order was altered. English had become the least Germanic of the Germanic languages.

Grammatical borrowings are rare. Lexical borrowings are not. English took an astonishing number of words from French. The Anglo-Saxon Dictionary includes all the different words found in Old English manuscripts. The total is some 10,000. Between 1066 and 1500, English imported 10,000 words from French, and English continued to import French words until the mid-twentieth century. Then the flow petered out. By then, 20,000 words had been borrowed from French. Since the Second World War, it has been pay-back time, and English is giving words to French at an increasing rate.

From 1066 onwards, England had been ruled in French and educated in Latin. English had been a despised tongue though it never ceased to be a written language. Any monk or clerk who could write Latin and French could also write English if he had a mind to. And in fact from about 1350 onwards English began to resurface. The law courts and parliament began to make it the main language of their business. The Court poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower used it. John Wycliffe and his followers translated the whole Bible into it. But this English was a very different English from that spoken and written in 1066.

The Court English of Henry V was very different from the Court English of Alfred. The new English had emerged from the Mercian of the new capital of London rather than the West Saxon of the old capital at Winchester. Henry’s English is called Middle English, and the Middle English that Henry spoke, that of London, already contained an astonishing amount of French. There was hardly a human activity in London beyond the simple biological that could be discussed without the use of French words.

One of the less obvious effects of the mass of French words in English has been on the spelling of English. Not only has English tended to keep the French spelling patterns but in some instances English words have been converted to French forms. Norman scribes had quite a problem with the English ‘cw’ sound. Their solution was to render this by the letters ‘q’ and ‘u’ so that today we have the spelling ‘q-u-e-e-n’ for ‘Queen’ where we used to have the neater ‘c-w-e-n’.

Another effect of there being so many French words in English is that we very often have two or more words for the same thing or action. By the fourteenth century, the English had taken the same word from both Norman and Parisian French to produce doublets like: gaol and jail; reward and regard; wile and guile. Very often, the Norman and French borrowings joined rather than replaced native words so that by the sixteenth century, doublets were in profusion: climb and ascend; desire and wish; fast and firm; house and mansion; entrails and guts; distress and sorrow; royal and kingly; maternal and motherly.

Shakespeare loved the richness of the verbal patterns that these doublets could provide. He gave us: ‘upreared and abutting fronts’, ‘scambling and unquiet time’, ‘envelop and contain’, ‘sweet and honey’d sentences;’, ‘the art and practic part of life’, ‘Any retirement, any sequestration’, ‘wholesome berries thrive and ripen’, ‘the crown and seat of France’, ‘corrupt and naught’, ‘hold in right and title’, ‘ample and brim fullness’, ‘shook and trembled’, ‘the ooze and bottom of the sea’, ‘tear and havoc’, ‘large and ample’, ‘kind and natural’.

Henry V is not only a play about the defeat of the French army; it is also a play about the defeat of the French language. The English king is triumphant. So is Shakespeare. But two historical ironies attend the celebrations. Henry V, written at the very end of the sixteenth century, appeared at that moment when France was entering upon its most ascendant century. Seventeenth-century France was to achieve a domination over Europe that has never otherwise been matched.

The French language, French arts, French architecture, French culture, French cuisine, French manners, French fashion became the model of the Western World. That force is still not spent. And it was in the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s century, that England was finally driven out of France. Calais had been lost to the French in 1558. It was a shame from which Queen Mary never recovered.

Until 1802, the Kings of England would continue to take the title ‘King of Great Britain, France and Ireland’, but in 1599, Shakespeare had to reach back almost two hundred years to find a time when the English could truly pride themselves on a superiority to the French. That is one historical irony.

A second historical irony is that Shakespeare’s celebration of the survival of the English language after three hundred years’ subjection to the French language came at a time when the English language was itself being set on a path towards linguistic imperialism. Today, Global English is destroying languages at a fearsome rate. In the 1960s, linguists spoke of the World’s 9000+ language; now, they speak of 6000+ languages. The killer languages are Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, but above all English.

The very first languages that English attacked were those with which it shared the British Isles: Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Irish, Gaelic - the Celtic languages that contributed so little to Old English and not a great deal more to Modern English.  And in Henry V, Shakespeare makes a point of mocking Welsh, Gaelic, and Irish in the figures of Captains Fluellen, Jamy and Macmorris:

FLUELLEN:  Captain Macmorris, I beseech you now, will you voutsafe me, look you, a few disputations with you, as partly touching or concerning the disciplines of the war, the Roman wars, in the way of argument, look you, and friendly communication; partly to satisfy my opinion, and partly for the satisfaction, look you, of my mind, as touching the direction of the military discipline; that is the point.

JAMY:  It sall be vary gud, gud feith, gud captains bath: and I sall quit you with gud leve, as I may pick occasion; that sall I, marry.

MACMORRIS:  It is no time to discourse, so Chrish save me: the day is hot, and the weather, and the wars, and the king, and the dukes: it is no time to discourse. The town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the breach; and we talk, and, be Chrish, do nothing: 'tis shame for us all: so God sa' me, 'tis shame to stand still; it is shame, by my hand: and there is throats to be cut, and works to be done; and there ish nothing done, so Chrish sa' me, la!

(Henry V Act 3, Scene 3)

English was beginning to stamp its feet, strut about and feel superior. Shakespeare’s mock Welsh, Scots and Irish were insulting to the Welsh, Scots and Irish, but no more so than Shakespeare’s Mummerset was  to people from the West Country. The joking was an indication of something new in English speech. The dialectal democracy of Middle English was giving way to the linguistic elitism of Modern English. London speech was being privileged, and it was the Court speech of the West End not the Cockney speech of the East End that came to the top. It would take another two hundred and fifty years for the Court’s English to emerge as the Public School Accent, today called Received Standard English.

Henry the Fifth is a very French play about the French. During those three hundred years when English was overawed by French, changes took place that we can see clearly enough when we compare English manuscripts of 1050 and 1350, but we do not have a full record of the process of change. It was in those three hundred years that English not only absorbed French grammar and vocabulary, it also refined the impact of Danish grammar and vocabulary.

It can be difficult to untangle the exact share of the influence of Danish and French upon English. The same can be said of the influence of a third language that was reshaping English after 1350. Norman French, Old French and Middle French all derive from Latin; all are Italic languages as Latin is an Italic language. Latin began to influence English even before English had reached England, but the full impact of Latin on English was a Renaissance phenomenon. Shakespeare revelled in it. We cannot always say whether that influence was directly from Latin or indirectly from Latin by way of French, but the influence was great, very great.


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