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A Short History of Anglo-French Diglossia

 
The Short Word vs. the Long

The etymological cleavage was further facilitated by the fact that, in addition to distinctive stylistic properties ascribed to the two lexical streams, they were also dissimilar in their “physical” form and followed distinct syllabic patterns. In the ME period, when English words had shed off most of their grammatical inflexions, the overwhelming majority of native Anglo-Saxon words had turned into monosyllables. By contrast, French and Latin borrowings were typically longer than one syllable and their prevalent polysyllabic structure came to be regarded as one of the chief characteristics of the Romance element within English.

The Elizabethans were well aware of this formal aspect of the distinction. In his advice to poets (Certayne Notes of Instruction, 1575) George Gascoigne advocates the use of monosyllables on patriotic grounds:

Here by the way I thinke it not amisse to forewarne you that you thrust as few wordes of many sillables into your verse as may be... the most auncient English wordes are of one syllable, so that the more monosyllables that you vse the truer Englishman you shall seeme and the lesse you shall smell of the Inkehorne.

The “inkhorn controversy” inaugurated a long-lasting debate on the desirability of the use of monosyllabic words versus polysyllabic ones that was destined to turn into an ages-long argument about the best functional balance between the two elements within English. The argument is not yet over even to this day. 

In as much as the Elizabethan writers and poets were primarily concerned with promoting the vernacular as a literary medium, the comparative stylistic potentialities of the two lexical elements of English received much of their critical attention. By no means were all of them swayed by Gascoigne’s patriotic argument, which advocated the poetic use of monosyllables. On the contrary, the prevailing view was that monosyllables were rather intractable in poetry. For example, Nashe in his Christ’s Tears over Jerusalem (2nd ed., Epistle to the Reader, 1594) vindicates his use of polysyllabic compounds formed after the pattern of the Romance loans by insisting, “they are growne in generall request with every good poet.” He downgrades monosyllables by comparing them to small change, which needs to be remelted into weightier coinages: 

Our English tongue, of all languages, most swarmeth with the single money of monasillables, which are the only scandal of it. Bookes written in them, and no other, seeme like shopkeepers boxes, that contain nothing else save halfe-pence, three-farthings, and two-pences. Therefore, what did me I, but having a huge heape of those worthlesse shreds of small English in my pia mater’s purse, to make the royaller shew with them to men’s eyes, had them to the compounders immediately, and exchanged them foure into one, and others into more, according to the Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian. 

Nashe saw the main stylistic advantage of the longer words in the fact that “they carrie far more state with them then any other,” that is, are more elevated in terms of 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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