“IF FORCED to pick my favourite part of the history of English, I’d be torn. There are so many to choose from. Would I pick the Great Vowel Shift, the mid-millennium change in pronunciation that largely explains English’s inconsistent spelling? Perhaps I’d turn to colonial times, when English vocabulary ballooned. I do like Noah Webster’s attempts to change American English spelling in the name of efficiency, too,” writes dictionary-maker’s Samuel Johnson’s blog at The Economist.
“But my favourite must be the Norman invasion of 1066. When the Normans, who spoke a dialect of Old French, ruled over England, they changed the face of English. Over the ensuing two centuries, thousands of Old French words entered English. Because the ruling class spoke Old French, that set of vocabulary became synonymous with the elite. Everyone else used Old English. During this period, England’s society was diglossic: one community, two language sets with distinct social spheres. Today, English-speakers pick and choose from the different word sets—Latinate (largely Old French borrowings) and Germanic (mostly Old English-derived words)—depending on the occasion. Although English is no longer in a diglossic relationship with another language, the Norman-era diglossia remains reflected in the way we choose and mix vocabulary. In informal chat, for example, we might go on to ask something, but in formal speech we’d proceed to inquire.”