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. There are hundreds of such pairs: match/correspond, mean/intend, see/perceive, speak/converse. Most of us choose one or the other without even thinking about the history behind the split. Germanic words are often described as earthier, simpler, and friendlier. Latinate vocabulary, on the other hand, is lofty and elite. It’s amazing that nine hundred years later, the social and political structure of 12th-century England still affects how we think about and use English.
“Unlikely Parallels”, The Economist