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Society for Pure English, Tract 05 The Englishing of French Words; the Dialectal Words in Blunden's Poems   By:

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By Brander Matthews


etc. by Robert Bridges

At the Clarendon Press MDCCCCXXI



The English language is an Inn of Strange Meetings where all sorts and conditions of words are assembled. Some are of the bluest blood and of authentic royal descent; and some are children of the gutter not wise enough to know their own fathers. Some are natives whose ancestors were rooted in the soil since a day whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary; and some are strangers of outlandish origin, coming to us from all the shores of all the Seven Seas either to tarry awhile and then to depart for ever, unwelcome sojourners only, or to settle down at last and found a family soon asserting equality with the oldest inhabitants of the vocabulary. Seafaring terms came to us from Scandinavia and from the Low Countries. Words of warfare on land crossed the channel, in exchange for words of warfare at sea which migrated from England to France. Dead tongues, Greek and Latin, have been revived to replenish our verbal population with the terms needed for the sciences; and Italy has sent us a host of words by the fine arts.

The stream of immigrants from the French language has been for almost a thousand years larger than that from any other tongue; and even to day it shows little sign of lessening. Of all the strangers within our gates none are more warmly received than those which come to us from across the Straits of Dover. None are more swiftly able to make themselves at home in our dictionaries and to pass themselves off as English. At least, this was the case until comparatively recently, when the process of adoption and assimilation became a little slower and more than a little less satisfactory. Of late French words, even those long domiciled in our lexicons, have been treated almost as if they were still aliens, as if they were here on sufferance, so to speak, as if they had not become members of the commonwealth. They were allowed to work, no doubt, and sometimes even to be overworked; but they laboured as foreigners, perhaps even more eagerly employed by the snobbish because they were foreigners and yet held in disrepute by the more fastidious because they were not truly English. That is to say, French words are still as hospitably greeted as ever before, but they are now often ranked as guests only and not as members of the household.

Perhaps this may seem to some a too fanciful presentation of the case. Perhaps it would be simpler to say that until comparatively recently a foreign word taken over into English was made over into an English word, whereas in the past two or three centuries there has been an evident tendency to keep it French and to use it freely while retaining its French pronunciation, its French accents, its French spelling, and its French plural. This tendency is contrary to the former habits of our language. It is dangerous to the purity of English. It forces itself on our attention and it demands serious consideration.


In his brief critical biography of Rutebeuf, M. Cl├ędat pointed out that for long years the only important literature in Europe was the French, and that the French language had on three several occasions almost established itself as the language of European civilization once in the thirteenth century, again in the seventeenth, and finally when Napoleon had made himself temporarily master of the Continent. The earlier universities of Europe were modelled on that of Paris, where Dante had gone to study. Frederick the Great despised his native tongue, spoke it imperfectly, and wrote his unnecessary verses in French. Even now French is only at last losing its status as the accredited tongue of diplomacy.

The French made their language in their own image; and it is therefore logical, orderly, and clear... Continue reading book >>

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