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A Short History of Anglo-French Diglossia

 

Coping with "Hard Words"

 

Both linguistic tendencies had important implications for the development of the English language and enabled the Elizabethans to demonstrate its potentialities for great literature. By the early seventeenth century the “inkhorn controversy” had been largely resolved and the use of borrowed words generally vindicated on rhetorical grounds.

The problem, however, was that people needed to know more about these foreign loan words, which made English “eloquent” but remained largely unassimilated into the mainstream of usage. In 1604 Robert Cawdrey, a school-teacher, published a small volume called A Table Alphabeticall, designed to teach “the true writing, and vnderstanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c.”

 

 

 

 

 

The dictionary contained about 2,500 hard words with brief definitions, or as Cawdrey expressed it: 

 

With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of Ladies, Gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, which they shall heare or read in Scriptures, Sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues. 

The opening page shows clearly that many of the “hard wordes” were of French origin (marked by Cawdrey with the sign §): 

A

 

§  Abandon, cast away, or yeelde vp, to leaue, or forsake.

   Abash, blush.

   abba, father.

§  abbesse, abbatesse, Mistris of a Nunnerie, comforters of others.

§  abbettors, counsellors.

   aberration, a going a stray, or wandering.

§  abbridge, to shorten, or make short.

§  abbut, to lie vnto, or border vpon, as one lands end meets with another.

   abecédarie, the order of the Letters, or hee that vseth them.

§  abet, to maintaine.

In effect, this was the first English dictionary, which, together with other glossaries of “hard words” that followed it, attempted to codify the new layer of vocabulary that now ran parallel to the layer of “plaine English words.” The native words were used as glosses in such dictionaries. Also interesting is Cawdrey’s mention of specific registers in which “hard wordes” were likely to be found (Scriptures and sermons).  

In addition to bringing new words into the language, the emulation of the classical languages by the Elizabethans had important implications for the old French element that seemed to have been well assimilated by then. Sometimes French words, borrowed in earlier eras, were re-Latinised: Middle English descrive, parfit, verdit, aventure, avis, Avril, langage, egal became describe, perfect, verdict, adventure, advice, April, language, equal. Re-Latinisation was a deliberate attempt to draw these earlier loan words into an appropriate etymological and functional layer of vocabulary and, in a sense, to “de-assimilate” them from the native stock, into which by then they had been long received.

Nevertheless, some of the words resisted and, though refashioned outwardly, continued to be pronounced as in Old French or Middle English: e.g. debt, deceipt, doubt, receipt, subtle, victuals. The attempt may be ridiculed as pedantic but it was part of the general process of what Thomas Finkenstaedt has called “etymological dissociation” in language. The Elizabethans were quick to discover and exploit the stylistic possibilities that such lexical parallelism offered.

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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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