Disease and the English Language

There are many different factors that have influenced and shaped the English language. In this post, we will look specifically at the role of disease in shaping the English language. We will do this by looking at one example from the 14th century, the Bubonic plague.

Background

During this time period, English was an oppressed second tier language. The French were in control even though they were no longer French due to Philip II of France seizing the Norman lands in Northern France. Normandy was where the French-English came from and their original home was taken from them in 1295. Nevertheless,  with the French in control English was little more than a low-level language in a diglossia context.

Latin was another major language of the country but primarily in the religious sphere. Virtually all priest were fluent in Latin. Mass was and other religious ceremonies were also in Latin.

The Plague

The “Black Death” as it was called, sweep through what is now known as England in the mid 14th century. The disease killed 1/3 of the population of the country. This is the equivalent of almost 2.5 billion people dying today.

The clergy of England were especially hard hit by the dreaded disease. This has to do with the role of the priest in society. The duties of a priest includes visiting the sick (gasp!), anointing the dieing (gasp!), and performing funerals (gasp!). As such, the priests were called on to come into direct contact with those who were suffering under the plague and they began to die in large numbers themselves. Those who did not die often would run away.

The loss of the professionally trained clergy led to replacements that were not of the same caliber. In other words, new priest came along who only knew English and did not have a knowledge of Latin. This meant religious ceremonies and services were now being performed in English and not Latin, not for Protestant reasons but just out of necessity.

So many people died that it also lead to economic chaos. Land prices collapsed as homes of the wealthy were empty from entire families being wiped out. Fewer workers meant wages skyrocketed and this caused people to abandon their feudal lords and work in the towns and cities.

The rich who survived did not care for paying higher wages and tried to force the peasants back to their feudal slavery. This led to the Peasant Revolt of 1381. The rebellion was only crushed when the shrew Richard II spoke to the peasants in English to calm them and then quickly betrayed them.

Richard II was not the first to use English to rally the people. This began in 1295 when Normandy was taken. However, in the context of disease and death, there was a recommitment to the use of English.

Conclusion 

Disease led to economic and political catastrophes in 14th century England. Yet there was also an influence on the language itself. Latin decreased in use due to the loss of clergy. In addition, the French-English were being forced more and more to use English to deal with the unruly locals who wanted more freedom.

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