A Short History of Anglo-French Diglossia

The Difference in Register

The linguistic category of register has been introduced to refer to language variation according to social role or social situation. In its broader meaning, register may be demonstrated by numerous alternatives in word choice: old or new, concrete or abstract, blunt and sharp as against polite and refined, direct or vague, literary and recherché as against slang or demotic.

Otto Jespersen

In a narrower sense, register refers to the degree of formality in the language employed.  Depending on a social situation we choose a style, or register, which we associate with this situation and which can be more formal, or less so. For example, formal business letters tend to favour the French request rather than the Anglo-Saxon ask, and military medals are awarded for gallantry or courage, rather than for guts.

What is remarkable about English is the way, in which the basic contrast in register between formal and informal usage can be transposed directly into its historical evolution. Most of the informal usage derives from the native element, while most of the formal one is associated with the words of the Romance (that is French and, more generally, Latin) etymology.

Otto Jespersen once commented that the French represent the rich, the ruling, the refined, and the aristocratic element in the English nation. They certainly did so in the centuries following the 1066 Norman Conquest. Their political and cultural dominance was reflected in the great influx of French loan words associated with the domains of power, prestige, and refinement. The Norman French borrowings soon became the core of the English vocabulary concerned with government, administration, the organisation of the upper grades of society, the law, ecclesiastical affairs, terms of warfare, as well as education, music, art, architecture, dress and ornament, literary terms. They displayed a clear sociolinguistic connection between the social status of a speech community and the tone of the verbal legacy left by it.

The cultural hegemony of the French continued for centuries long after the Conquest and even into our times, with many of the Norman French terms retaining their elevated associations.  During the Modern English period French borrowings have filled up more formal registers connected with the spheres of authority and refinement.  For example, in the first half of the seventeenth century French supplied naval, military and diplomatic terms. The Restoration brought a revival of French influence under the Stuarts with many fashionable social terms and words relating to arts, literature and fashion.

In the eighteenth century abstract terms connected with financial operations were added to the commercial vocabulary, while the French Revolution introduced into English some new words of political and administrative nature. Cultural terms connected with the arts, fashion and personal adornment continued to enrich English throughout the eighteenth century, while the nineteenth century saw the biggest influx of French loan words since the Middle English period. It was also the time when a large number of sophisticated food terms from French were introduced.

The main trends of borrowing from French have continued into the twentieth century, with many recent examples ranging from terms of diplomacy or disarmament to names of products and processes connected with women’s clothes, cosmetics, certain types of luxury goods, and the more refined delicacies of the table.      

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  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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