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A Short History of Anglo-French Diglossia

 
The Drive for "Plain English"

Over the last hundred years or so Saxonism as a nationalistic movement for the return to the pristine purity of the native tongue has been transformed into the drive for “Plain English”. The cry for “Saxon English” now usually means nothing more than a demand for plain and unaffected diction, and a condemnation of the idle taste for words of learned length and thundering sound”. From the end of the nineteenth century such demands have come to represent significant linguistic reflexes of democratisation of the British society and have become part of a general movement away from old class constraints and social rigidities.

The lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler was one of the first writers to realise the importance of a full treatment of common and everyday words. Helped by his younger brother Francis George, he produced two very popular books, The King’s English (1906) and A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926). The latter remains to this day a respected popular authority on grammar, vocabulary, usage, and style.

In The King’s English the Fowler brothers laid down five practical rules in the domains of vocabulary that anyone who wishes to become a good write should follow: 

  • Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
 
  • Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
 
  • Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
 
  • Prefer the short word to the long.
 
  • Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

In particular, the Fowler brothers underscore the last rule as a sort of compendium of all the others, observing that “the writer whose percentage of Saxon words is high will generally be found to have fewer words that are out of the way, long, or abstract, and fewer periphrases, than another; and conversely”. They emphasise that this principle must be applied intelligently: what is suitable for one sort of composition may be unsuitable for another. One of the main dividing lines is that between formal and informal registers, or to use the Fowler brothers’ terms, between “the dignified and the familiar.” However, their emphasis on simplicity as the true ideal could not but modify the views about the choice of words for “dignified” styles.

Since the Fowler brothers, the tradition that upholds “Plain English” has been strongly developed by A. P. Herbert, Ivor Brown, Eric Partridge, Ernest Gowers and others. It has resulted in marked changes in the style of white papers, nonstatutory documents, Times leaders, and other traditional repositories of extreme formality. In the words of Randolph Quirk:

There has been a rather widespread reaction against the remoter aspects of formality and the sense of rigid appropriacy. We have come to insist that the different styles of language (or dress) required for different occasions and purposes are neither immutable nor even absolutely obligatory.

 

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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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