Vocabulary in Old English
An average of 85 % of the words found in Old English text are no longer in use, they have disappeared for several reasons, although the most important was the Norman conquest, which brought a remarkable number of words.
A small percentage of Germanic words is still present in Modern English but, after all, they are basic elements present in everyday English such as prepositions, conjunctions, etc. These words changed their sound, their spelling and in some cases, the meaning. This small percentage is much more used than 60 % of words that came from Latin.
Great number of compounds had been replaced by borrowings: bochord (( bōc + hord =book + hoard = “library “ from Latin.
One of the characteristics of the period is that the language didn’t accept borrowings. Today the language is lazier. English in its 1st stages accepted some borrowings from foreigner languages: Latin, French, Celtic, Scandinavian, Greek (consequence of Christianization through Latin terms). But English preferred its own terms.
They had 2 basic ways of building new words:
- Compounding: joining 2 o more elements to get a new word
Old English made an extensive use of compounds(=new words with two or more already existing words), whereas Modern English prefers borrowing words form foreign languages instead of creating new ones. In Old English the phenomenon of borrowing didn’t exist so they built new words by joining two or three already existing. Old English was a self-sufficient language just because of this fact, but some borrowings were needed. In the 11th c there were loans from Latin, Greek (through Latin), Scandinavian, French (before the Norman Conquest) and Celtic. In any case, Old English preferred its own words. It had two main ways of building words:
New words by joining previous ones
We find compounds of nouns and of adjectives. There were different formulae for building compounds:
COMPOUNDS OF NOUNS: joining
N+N = N
(“early day”) dawn
COMPOUNDS OF ADJECTIVES: joining
(“alms eager”) generous
high rank (social sacle)
(“forth eager”) impetuous
In the compounds, the case ending goes at the end of the second element. Sometimes there can be found a compound of three elements. In this case, the case ending is present in the last element of the compound.
We often find in Moderns English a compound in which the elements of the compound are borrowings from Latin or Greek, such a microphone or television. This kind of words is usually linked to Medicine, Biology or Chemistry. This is a different kind of English called English for Science and Technology – EST-. Here, most of the words are formed by non-English terms, but by Latin or Greek ones. German is more conservative than English p.e. fernsehen (far vision): they do not use as much borrowings as in English.
In those days, literature and language are connected. The scop invented synonymous words for his literature works in order not to repeat the same texts. These new forms were compounds. In poetry existed the kennings: compound which compress a metaphor or an image with a literature purposes. Old English is very rich in metaphors and images.
‘hleahtor,smiþ = laugther smith= makes laugh= clown
Some of the kennings were repeated. The poem travelled orally trough generations. Some established in invariable form and were widespread said phrases .g. bæþ – weg (“bath wy”, instead of “sea”) also called ‘flōd,weg (flood-way), or ‘swan,rād (swan road)
The adding of elements before the original word is a very useful resource, particularly in the information of new verbs. Some common prefixes:
- Wiþ-: its meaning depends on the context. It has two main meanings: “against” or “away”. It is very productive. Helped to create more than 50 words.
§ Wiþceōsan: “to choose against” (ceōsan: “to choose”) : reject
§ Wiþsprecan: “to speak against” (sprecan: to speak”: contradict
§ Wiþcweþan: denie
Only one still survive: Wiþstandan (=withstand). The rest disappeared.
- æg- : Attached to a pronoun or an adverb; it generalizes the meaning of the word. Its meaning is “every”
§ æghwā: “anybody, anyone” (hwā: “who)
§ æghwār: “anywhere” (hæwr: “where”)
- ge- : With 3 functions:
o meaning “together”: ge’fēra (=companion) (fera: someone who travel)
o It is found also in past participles of verbs geendod (=finished, ended): “ge”: 1st mark of vb; “od”: 2nd mark , dental mark shows the verb is a weak form
o It expresses the perfective aspect of the action: indicates that the action is finished: ascian (ask): geascian : to find out.
- on- /an- : negative sense:
§ onbindan: “to unbind” (bindan: “to bind)
§ on’lūcan: unlock
Adding elements at the end of the word.
- -end: Found in nouns to express the agent of the action. Equivalent of “-er” in the present English. Hælend (heel+end, the person who carries): the healer, the doctor. In religious context a healer is “
”: has specific meaning. el Salvador
- -hād: used in the formation of masculine nouns. (-hood): cildhād= childhood: is a more abstract term: state in the age of the person.
- -en: used in past participles of strong verb which is used as and adjective
- -ig: It is more reduce in English. It creates adjectives, like –y in Modern English. Hālig – holy.
- -lic: Firstly it was used as a noun, meaning “body”, but later on it started to be used as a adjective, so it lost its original meaning. Like – ly in Mod English. Heofon (heaven); heofonlic (heavenly)
In adverbs we also find very few number:
- -lice: Like – ly in Mod English. Hræd (quick); Hrædlice (quickly)
- -sum: Sometimes like “some”
- -an: means“from”Nocþan: from the North