Some of you probably already know that English includes both Germanic and Romance roots - it's why so many words are familiar to us when we study German and the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.). The Germanic elements of English come from the Anglo-Saxons, a group of people who migrated to Great Britain in the 5th century, whose language spread across England and parts of Scotland and Wales. Their language was what we now call Old English, and it's what most people in England spoke until the Normans invaded in 1066 and brought with them their own language, a dialect of Old French.
After the Normans invaded, there were two languages being spoken in England by two different groups of people: Old English was being spoken by the general populace, and Anglo-Norman was being spoken by the new ruling class. The Germanic roots of modern English were spoken by everyday people, and the French roots of modern English were being spoken by kings, judges, politicians, generals, academics, and other aristocrats.
The effect that this had on English is that its Germanic words tend to be the short, simple ones, and the longer, more academic words tend to be the ones that came from French. The amount of Germanic and Norman words that you use in a sentence can completely change the way that you come across, even if the words mean the exact same thing.
For example, take a look at these two sentences:
- The best way for people to get what you're saying is to talk like this.
- The most optimal method for people to understand the idea that you're trying to convey is to articulate in this fashion.
The first sentence uses more Germanic words, and the second sentence uses more Norman words. Both types of words have their own places in our language, and most of us unconsciously choose which type of word best fits a given situation. You'd be more inclined to use the Germanic words in everyday conversation, and Norman words in academic or formal settings. Using too many Norman words can make you sound like you're trying too hard to sound erudite, and using too few can make you sound like you're uneducated.
Now, what I find really cool about this is that the same sort of dichotomy exists in Japanese.
The Japanese language wasn't influenced by invaders like English was - Japan has never been successfully invaded. Nevertheless, just like in England, the aristocracy of Japan was influenced by another language - in their case, Chinese. In its early years, the Japanese language didn't have a written form. When royal courts first began to realize the value of writing down information, they employed bilingual officials from China (or Korea) to write down information in their native language.
Literacy in Chinese writing became a valuable skill for the Japanese aristocracy, and could lead to social advancement. At first, texts were written and read only in Chinese, but the Japanese eventually created a system which involved adding small marks to the Chinese texts to allow them to be read in Japanese. The Japanese also adapted a phonetic version of the Chinese characters, so that they could have a way of spelling out Japanese words by sound.
This eventually resulted in the current Japanese writing system, which has three separate alphabets. The first is kanji, which are the original Chinese ideograms, representing ideas instead of sounds. The other two, hiragana and katakana, are phonetic and used to represent sounds. Hiragana is used for Japanese words, and katakana is used for foreign words.
Chinese didn't just affect the Japanese writing system - it also affected vocabulary. As a result of the early use of Chinese in Japanese imperial courts, there are many words in modern Japanese that come from Chinese. And, since the words were originally used by court officials, emperors, and other aristocrats, they are the words that sound more educated and refined, but can also make you sound grandiloquent when overused, just like words with Norman roots in English.
So, to recap: in both English and Japanese, a foreign language was used almost exclusively by the upper class, resulting in two sets of words: everyday, simple words from the original, native language, and scholarly, sometimes pretentious words from the imported language.