Today’s Writer’s Almanac notes that it’s the day William the Conqueror arrived in England on the way to the Battle of Hastings on 1066. Why pause for such old news? Because it helped English become such a rich language—
The British back then were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans spoke French. Over time, the languages blended, and as a result English became a language incredibly rich in synonyms. Because the French speakers were aristocrats, the French words often became the fancy words for things. The Normans gave us “mansion”; the Saxons gave us “house.” The Normans gave us “beef”; the Saxons gave us, “cow.”
The English language has gone on accepting additions to its vocabulary ever since, and it now contains more than a million words, making it one of the most diverse languages on Earth. Writers have been arguing for hundreds of years about whether this is a good thing.
The critic Cyril Connolly wrote, “The English language is like a broad river … being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck.” But Walt Whitman said, “The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all.” And the poet Derek Walcott said, “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.”