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A Short History of Anglo-French Diglossia

 
Teutonic Language with a Gallic Flair

Halliday once characterised English as “originally and fundamentally a Teutonic language, to which has been added within the last 1,000 years a vocabulary of longer French words. This also is a summary of its history, which is even more briefly summarized in the words tongue and language.”

The words tongue and language summarize the history of English in the sense that they stand for the two chief sources of its vocabulary. They may also be taken as an epitome of the special relationship that exists between specific pairs of words derived from each of the two sources. One of the effects of the etymological “duality” of English has been an abundance of finely graded words that form pairs or longer strings of approximate synonyms enabling expression of subtle shades of meaning and stylistic overtones.

Linguists, writers and others have often commented on the relationship between such synonyms. Otto Jespersen, for instance, has noted that the native synonym is always nearer the nation’s heart than the French: “it has the strongest associations with everything primitive, fundamental, popular, while the French word is often more formal, more polite, more refined and has a less strong hold on the emotional side of life.”

Simeon Potter has made a similar point: “English and French expressions may have similar denotations but slightly different connotations and associations. Generally the English words are stronger, more physical, and more human. We feel more at ease after getting a hearty welcome than after being granted a cordial reception. Compare freedom with liberty, friendship with amity, kingship with royalty, holiness with sanctity, happiness with felicity, depth with profundity, and love withy charity.”  

John Orr notes the “aristocratic” quality of many of the French words adopted by English: “When two synonyms exist to-day, one Anglo-Saxon, the other French: to keep back and to retain, to hold up and to sustain, smell and odour or perfume, forgive and pardon, right and just, feed and nourish, same and equal, build and construct, and countless others, the ancient hierarchy is still manifest - the English word humble, concrete, matter-of-fact, the French more abstract, academical, intellectual, and refined, corresponding not so much to a difference of class in the users of these words as to a difference in the fields of intellectual or social activity to which the words were and are applied.”

The language experts, quoted above, emphasise the stylistic distinction between the two layers of the English vocabulary. In many cases saying that the native word is more colloquial, while the French synonym is more literary, may sum up the difference. The former will normally belong to the informal style of speech, while the latter will be typical of a more formal style or register.

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A HISTORY OF ANGLO-FRENCH DIGLOSSIA

  Teutonic Language with a French Flair

  The Difference in Register

  What Is "Anglo-French Diglossia"?

  The "Inkhorn Controversy"

  To Borrow or Not to Borrow?

  Coping with "Hard Words"

  The Short Word vs. the Long

  The Antiquarian Movement

  From "Open" to "Hidden" Diglossia

  The Quest for "English English"

  The Drive for "Plain English"

  "Democratic" Trend in the Language

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