A Short History of Anglo-French Diglossia

The Antiquarian Movement

The long versus short words controversy takes a new twist in the first half of the seventeenth century with the rise of a strong nationalistic movement of the antiquarians, for whom the Saxons represented the beginning of all things English. Their views stimulated a remarkable resurgence of interest in the Anglo-Saxon element: a lectureship in Anglo-Saxon was established at Cambridge, poems were written in it, a lexicon of it was compiled, and attempts were even made to elevate it to the status of such learned languages as Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

The antiquarians’ ultimate aim was “to vindicate our own [people], as being a stream of the same [Germans], and to evince the nobility thereof” (John Hare). Accordingly, they were never tired of trying to impress upon their fellow countrymen the great importance of the fact that the vernacular had sprung from the German.

Pride in the Germanic element that the antiquarians sought to instil could not but modify the Elizabethans’ sceptical view of the worth of monosyllables. The admirers of Saxon words even went as far as to contend, in the face of contrary opinion, that words of one syllable were especially fitted for English verse. However, the argument was rarely taken further than to stress the aptitude of Saxon words for rhyme (from: John Beaumont, “To his Late Maiesty, Concerning the True Forme of English Poetry”, Bosworth-field, 1629): 

The relish of the Muse consists in rime,

One verse must meete another like a chime.

Our Saxon shortnesse hath peculiar grace

In choise of words, fit for the ending place,

Which leaue impression in the mind as well

As closing sounds, or some delightfull bell.

The antiquarians blamed the Normans for “un-Teutonizing” English and they were resolved to “re-Teutonize” the English people and their native tongue by rehabilitating and reinvigorating the native Germanic element. The onslaught on the Norman Conquest had a clear political agenda behind it: the attacks against Norman-French “impurities” in English were part of the Puritans’ efforts to discredit the royalists and undermine the king’s prerogative.

In a sense, the antiquarians-Puritans may be regarded as first devout and consistent campaigners for “plain English”. They took a definite stand on the teaching and employment of English in schools, inveighed loudly against the learned language in respect to religion, and stoutly insisted on the use of vernacular in matters pertaining to law and medicine. Their persistent campaigning for English laws to be written in English dealt a mortal blow to Law French.

The Puritans’ drive to entrench “plain English” was different from that of today, however, in that they were promoting the use of the vernacular as a whole, rather than any particular element of it, against such languages as Latin and French, which still dominated the spheres of law and religion, education and science. Their efforts did much to bring the process of functional elaboration to a new crucial stage. In the seventeenth century English, having already demonstrated its literary potentialities, is beginning to be used for all non-artistic purposes too, displacing Latin as a medium for serious expository prose.

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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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