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The coming of the Anglo-Normans
The situation in late medieval Ireland
The status of Anglo-Norman
Anglo-Norman loanwords
Anglo-Norman names
Word stress and lenition
Statutes of Kilkenny
Older English loans

The coming of the Anglo-Normans

The coming of the Anglo-Normans at the end of the twelfth century from the coast of West Wales to the coast of South-East Ireland initiated a long period of involvement of England with Ireland. The English language became established on the east coast in a band from Dublin down to Waterford. English was above all present in the towns. Anglo-Norman – and of course Irish – were to be found in the countryside. Increasing Gaelicisation in the centuries after the initial invasion led to the demise of English outside the major towns. The low point for English lies in the sixteenth century with Irish in a correspondingly strong position.

The Pale is the area around medieval Dublin where English influence was greatest. This influence lasted from the late twelfth to the late fifteenth century, but even in Dublin the influence of Irish was increasingly felt the regaecilisation which reached its zenith during the sixteenth century. The English phrase ‘beyond the Pale’ derives from this time when the English population regarded the native culture outside of the Pale as barbaric.

The situation in late medieval Ireland

The history of English in Ireland is not that of a simple substitution of Irish by English. When the Anglo-Normans and English arrived in Ireland the linguistic situation in Ireland was quite homogeneous. In the 9th century Ireland had been ravaged by Scandinavians just like most of northern Britain. The latter, however, settled down in the following three centuries. The decisive battle against the Scandinavians (Clontarf, 1014) is taken to represent on the one hand the final break with Denmark and Norway and on the other to have resulted in the complete assimilation of the remaining Scandinavians with the native Irish population much as happened in other countries, such as large parts of northern Britain and northern France. For the period of the initial invasion one can assume, in contradistinction to various older authors such as Curtis (1919: 234), that the heterogeneity which existed was more demographic than linguistic. Old Norse had indeed an effect on Irish, particularly in the field of lexis (see module on Old Norse), but there is no evidence that a bilingual situation obtained any longer in late twelfth century Ireland.

As one would expect from the status of the Anglo-Normans in England and from the attested names of the warlords who came to Ireland in the late twelfth century, notably Strongbow, these Anglo-Normans were the leaders among the new settlers. The English were mainly their servants, a fact which points to the relatively low status of the language at this time. As in England, the ruling classes and the higher positions in the clergy were occupied by Normans soon after the invasion. Their language was introduced with them and established itself in the towns. Evidence for this is offered by such works as The Song of Dermot and the Earl and The Entrenchment of New Ross in Anglo-Norman as well as contemporary references to spoken Anglo-Norman in court proceedings from Kilkenny (Cahill 1938: 160f.). Anglo-Norman seems to have been maintained in the cities well into the fourteenth century as the famous Statutes of Kilkenny (1366) attest (Lydon 1967, 1973: 94ff.; Crowley 2000: 14-16). These were composed in Anglo-Norman and admonished both the French-speaking lords and the native Irish population to speak English. The statutes were not repealed until the end of the fifteenth century but they were never effective. The large number of Anglo-Norman loanwords in Irish (Risk 1971: 586ff.), which entered the language in the period after the invasion, testifies to the existence of Anglo-Norman and the robustness of its position from the mid twelfth to the fourteenth century (Hickey 1997). In fact as a language of law it was used up to the fifteenth century as evidenced by the Acts of Parliament of 1472 which were in Anglo-Norman.

The strength of the Irish language can be recognised from various comments and descriptions of the early period. For instance, Irish was allowed in court proceedings according to the municipal archives of Waterford (1492-3) in those cases where one of the litigants was Irish. This would be unthinkable from the seventeenth century onwards when Irish was banned from public life.

Still more indicative of the vitality of Irish is the account from the sixteenth century of the proclamation of a bill in the Dublin parliament (1541) which officially declared the assumption of the title of King of Ireland by Henry VIII (Dolan 1991: 143). The parliament was attended by the representatives of the major Norman families of Ireland, but of these only the Earl of Ormond was able to understand the English text and apparently translated it into Irish for the rest of the attending Norman nobility (Hayes-McCoy 1967). Needless to say, the English viewed this situation with deep suspicion and the Lord Chancellor William Gerrard commented unfavourably in 1578 on the use of Irish by the English ‘even in Dublin’ and regarded the habit and the customs of the Irish as detrimental to the character of the English. Furthermore, since the Reformation, Irishness was directly linked to Popery. Accordingly, the Irish and the (Catholic) Old English were viewed with growing concern.

Anglo-Norman documents There are a few literary pieces in Anglo-Norman (Risk 1971: 589), notably The Song of Dermot and the Earl (Orpen 1892, Long 1975) and The Entrenchment of New Ross (Shields 1975-6). The former piece is about the relationship between Dermot MacMurrough and Strongbow and the second deals with the building of a fortification for the medieval town of New Ross in the south east of the country, see the annotated excerpts of these works by Terence Dolan in Deane (ed., 1991: 141-51).

The status of Anglo-Norman

Anglo-Norman remained the language of the ruling landlords for at least two centuries after the initial invasion in 1169. The English rulers of the time were themselves French-speaking: Henry II, who came to Ireland in 1171 and issued the Charter of Dublin in the same year, could not speak English according to Giraldus Cambriensis (Cahill 1938: 164). There would appear to have been a certain tension between French and English in Ireland and not just between Irish and English. This is later attested quite clearly by the Statutes of Kilkenny (1366, Lydon 1967: 155), a set of regulatory laws which prohibited, among other things, Irish in public dealings and recommended English.

The Normans also exerted a considerable ecclesiastical influence in Ireland. Before their arrival, the religious focus of the country was Clonmacnoise on the River Shannon in the centre of the country. This waned in status after the introduction to Ireland of new continental religious orders (Watt 1972: 41ff.) such as the Cistercians (founded in 1098 in Cîteaux near Dijon) and the Franciscans.

Gowran Abbey in Co. Wexford, and Jerpoint Abbey in Co. Kilkenny,
typical of Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical architecture

The extent of the Norman impact on Ireland can be recognised in surnames which became established. Such names as Butler, Power, Wallace, Durand, Nugent and all those beginning in Fitz-, e.g. Fitzpatrick, Fitzgibbon, testify to the strength of the Normans in Ireland long after such events as the loss of Normandy to England in 1204. Anglo-Norman influence on Irish is considerable in the field of loanwords but the reverse influence is not attested, although official documents exist to almost the end of the fifteenth century which were written in Anglo-Norman or Latin (Cahill 1938: 160). The high number of everyday loans (see below) would suggest close contact between Anglo-Norman speakers and the local Irish.

The Anglo-Norman landlords established bases in the countryside as clearly attested by the castles they built. These Normans were granted land by the English king and in principle had to render service or pay scutage. These in their turn had others on their land who would also have been of Norman or English stock while the native Irish were on the level of serfs. Because of this organisation there were clear lines of contact between the natives and the new settlers which account for the linguistic influence of Anglo-Norman on Irish.

Trim Castle in Co. Meath (north of Dublin),
a centre of Anglo-Norman power in the fourteenth century

Norman keeps (fortified towers) in the Irish countryside

Anglo-Norman loanwords

The high number of everyday loanwords from Anglo-Norman in Irish (Risk 1971, 1974; Hickey 1997) suggests that the new settlers used Anglo-Norman words in their Irish and that these then diffused into Irish by this variety being ‘imposed’ on the native Irish (see Guy 1990 for a discussion of this type of language contact).

A similar model has been suggested for the appearance of a large number of Old Norse words in Scottish Gaelic with initial /s/ + stop clusters. Here the Old Norse settlers are assumed to have imposed their variety of Gaelic – which would have included many Old Norse words, identifiable by characteristic initial clusters – on the general Scottish Gaelic-speaking population around them (Stewart 2004).

The quantity of loans from Anglo-Norman into Irish and their phonological adaptation to the sound system of Irish (see Hickey 1997b for details) speaks for both a socially important donor group (the Anglo-Normans) and at the same time for a large and stable group of substrate speakers. This latter fact would explain why the loans from Anglo-Norman are completely adapted to the sound system of Irish, e.g. the word páiste /pɑ:sjtjə/ ‘child’ shows obligatory metathesis and devoicing of the /dž/ in page to make it conform to Irish phonotactics. This adaption is evidence of the robust position of Irish at the time and contrasts strongly with that today where English loans are entering the language in large numbers (Hickey 1982, Stenson 1993) and are not necessarily adapted phonologically, e.g. seaicéad /sjakje:d/ ‘jacket’, an older loan which has a modern equivalent /džakjət/ where the voiced affricate is not devoiced and simplified as in the earlier case.

The strong position of Irish in the post-invasion period led to extensive bilingualism among the Anglo-Normans. It is known that they assimilated rapidly to the Irish, intermarrying and, from the point of view of the mainland English, eventually becoming linguistically indistinguishable from them. Indeed two members of the Anglo-Norman nobility became noted Irish poets, the First Earl of Kildare (died 1316) and Gerald the Third Earl of Desmond (died 1398), ‘Gerald the Rhymer’. This situation lasted throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and led commentators on the state of Ireland like Richard Stanihurst (1586) to bemoan the weak position of English with respect to Irish even in the towns of the east coast.

It was a practical step for the Anglo-Normans to change over to Irish and one which facilitated their domination of Ireland. The retention of Irish for such a long period after the initial invasion (Cosgrove 1967) helped to cement their independence from English-speaking mainland Britain, something that was not seriously threatened until the advent of the Tudors. With the advent of Protestantism as the state religion of England, the people in Ireland whose ancestors came from Britain after the initial invasion came to be known as ‘Old English’. Many of these were prominent representatives of Irish culture vis a vis the later English, above all Geoffrey Keating / Seathrún Céitinn, c 1580-1644, the author of the famous work Foras Feasa ar Éirinn ‘Foundation of Knowledge about Ireland’.

Anglo-Norman names

Despite the fact that the Anglo-Normans were fully Gaelicised they retained their names and these are still quite distinctive, e.g. those beginning in Fitz- ‘son of’, e.g. Fitzpatrick, Fitzgerald, Fitzmaurice which testify to the numbers of Normans in Ireland.

The number of Norman place names is remarkably small, especially considering the large amount of Norman surnames which became established in Ireland and the many loanwords in Irish from the Norman invaders. One reason might be that the Normans did not found towns. Instead they built keeps in the countryside and ruled from fortified castles. But even there few if any Norman names are to be found. Perhaps it has to do with the acceptance by the Normans of the names which went with the territories occupied by the Irish. Occasionally there are recognisable instances of Norman names, e.g. English Brittas, Irish Briotás (south of Dublin) < Old French Bretesche ‘boarding, planking’ or English Pallas, Irish Pailís ‘stockade’. A further case is that of regions dominated by a particular Norman family. Because the Normans were concentrated in the south of Ireland there are names which derive from the province of Munster and a point of the compass: Ormond < Iarmumhan ‘east Munster’, Thomond < Thiarmumhan ‘north Munster’ and Desmond < Deasmumhan ‘south Munster’, the latter later forming a common firstname in Ireland.

Word stress and lenition

Word stress A prominent feature of southern Irish is that long vowels in non-initial syllables attract stress, e.g. cailín /kaˡlji:nj/ ‘girl’. This may be the result of Anglo-Norman influence (in the south-east) after the twelfth century as older authors like O’Rahilly seem to think (1932: 86-98) and certainly applied to many French loanwords, e.g. buidéal /bəˡdje:l/ ‘bottle’ (see Hickey (1997) for further discussion). This late stress in a word may be responsible for the procope which led to the first name William appearing in Irish as Liam.

Lenition Historically, there are instances of Anglo-Norman (and English) loanwords where the initial segment of the word was regarded as lenited and then ‘de-lenited’ on borrowing. This applies in particular to /v-/ and /w-/ which appear as /b-/ on borrowing, e.g. baránta ‘waranty’, balla ‘wall’, bigil ‘vigil’, bís ‘vice’. Older examples have this as well, e.g. seabhac < hawk where the initial /h-/ was interpreted as a lenited form of /sj/ and then reversed in Irish. More recent loans may also show this kind of reversal, e.g. giúmar from humour where the initial /j-/ was ‘de-lenited’ to /gj-/.

Lenition may also appear as a word-internal phenomenon, i.e. an internal voiceless segment may result in a voiced segment in the loanword. Irish loans from Anglo-Norman from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries can be cited as instances of this lenition, e.g. bagún from bacun ‘bacon’ or buidéal from botel ‘bottle’.

Statutes of Kilkenny

In the year 1366 the famous Statutes of Kilkenny were issued. The idea was to proscribe all manners and customs which were too Irish. The English government wanted to regulate all aspects of social and private life, even specifying that people had to ride horses in the English manner. The English language was to be spoken. However, the statutes were written in Anglo-Norman (French) to ensure that they were understood.

From a linguistic point of view the statutes were not successful. Ireland in the fourteenth, fifteenth and most of the sixteenth century became increasingly Gaelicised. The Normans lived in the countryside and easily switched to Irish. The sphere of influence of the English shrank and it was not until the early seventeenth century that the position of English improved again due to aggressive plantation policies of the English.

Older English loans

Although Anglo-Norman was a spoken language well into the fourteenth century, English was nonetheless used, particularly by the town dwellers on the east coast, e.g. in Waterford, New Ross, Kilkenny and of course in Dublin. Certain words were borrowed from English into Irish well before the renewed anglicisation of Ireland which took place in the seventeenth century. These borrowings can be recognised because the Irish forms have vowel values which correspond to those of English before the so-called Great Vowel Shift took place.

The latter shift led to the long vowels and the diphthongs of English moving to new values, starting some time in the later Middle English period (1100-1500), see above table. The following table offers a few examples of pre-Great Vowel Shift borrowings from English into Irish.

ME /i:/ ModE /ai/ faoitín ‘whiting’
ME /a:/ ModE /e:/ bácús ‘bakehouse’
ME /u:/ ModE /au/ ditto
ME /au/ ModE /ɔ:/ seabhac ‘hawk’


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