Few loanwords mostly word-formation

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Old English vocabulary (2007)

Main outline

  • characteristics of OE prose vocabulary

    • core vocabulary from IE & Germanic

    • few loanwords

    • mostly word-formation

  • how it’s different from PDE vocabulary

    • few loanwords (3% vs ca. 70%)

  • characteristics of OE poetic vocabulary

Characteristics of OE vocabulary I

  • core from IE/Gmc

    • sea an example of a distinctively Gmc word

    • I’ve pasted in from the OED the etymology field for a distinctively Germanic word, sea.

      • why did I choose this word?

[Common Teut.: OE. s str. masc. and fem. corresponds to OFris. sê masc., OS. sêo, sêu, dat. sêwa masc. (MLG. , MDu. see masc. and fem., Du. zee fem.), OHG. sêo, , dat. sêwe masc., sea, lake, pond (MHG. masc. and fem., sea, lake, mod.G. see masc., lake, see fem., sea), ON. s-r, sjá-r, sjó-r masc. (Sw. sjö, Da. ), Goth. saiw-s masc., sea, also marsh:OTeut. *saiwi-z.

  The word has no certain affinities, and it is doubtful whether the w
represents a pre-Teut. w or (by Verner's Law) a pre-Teut qu (or kw).

Characteristics of OE vocabulary II (cont.)

  • some loanwords

    • mostly from Latin

      • continental borrowings found in both OE and OHG

      • longstanding contacts; some Gmc tribes in Roman army

        • examples: pound, dish

          • why pound?

          • notice /š/

        • other examples:

          • more units of measurement: inch, mile,

          • edibles: kitchen, wine,

          • religious terms: priest, bishop

            • not all Christian borrowings from OE period

          • why are these good exx?

      • some from the Christian period

        • mass, abbot

    • a very few from Celtic

      • mostly place names, e.g. London, Kent, Thames, Avon

      • or topographical terms (avon “river”)

      • some Latin words w/ Irish forms: staer, cros

        • influence of Celtic Christianity

How do people know whether Latin loans were early or late?

You can sometimes tell how long a word from Latin has been around: a long time, if it shows sound changes that happened in early OE

  • e.g., /sk/ to /š/: dish, fish, bishop

  • e.g., palatalization of /k/ to /č/: church, kitchen (form of Latin coquina)

  • e.g., mutation of /u/ to /y/: uncia to ynce, monasterium to mynster, coquina -> kukina -> cycene

Characteristics of OE vocabulary III

OE tended to use its own resources for expressing new concepts

Extended meanings of existing words

  • god (etymology disputed – read OED): “in the original pre-Christian sense ... a superhuman person (regarded as masculine) who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind)

  • heofon “sky, abode of warriors who died in battle”

  • hell from Gmc; verb helan “to cover, conceal”: noun must have meant “the abode of the dead” extended to mean “the abode of the dead who didn’t embrace Jesus and repent of their sins”

  • synn “fault, misdeed, crime” against human law; extended to mean “crime against the laws of the Christian church”

  • dryhten “ruler, lord, prince” -> the supreme ruler


  • leorning-cniht for discipulus “disciple”

  • frum-sceaft “first making” for creatio

Compounding showing loan-translations/calques

  • heah-faeder for Latin patri-arch

  • god-spell for Latin ev-angelium

  • well-willend-ness for Latin bene-volent-ia

    • do any of these words survive?

    • what have we replaced them with?

Affixation showing loan-translation/calques


  • pro-videntia = fore-sceaw... (1)


  • Salvat-or = Hael-end

    • human-itas = menn-isc-ness
    • trinitas = þry-ness

    • ad-ventus = to-cyme

      • do any of these words survive?

      • what have we replaced them with?

Suffixation or zero-derivation?

    • munuc-ian “to make a person into a monk”

    • bisceop-ian “to confirm”

      • comment on the base forms?


    • look for these trends in story of the origin of Caedmon’s hymn

      • traditionally the first vernacular poem on religious themes

        • “adaptation of a form and poetic language traditionally for heroic subjects to the subjects of Christianity”

          • specifically, creation: about beginnings!

    • found in the (Latin) History of the English Church and People by Bede (AD 673-735)

    • presents “the origin of religious poetry in OE in a miraculous light, as the product of an angelic visitation” to a cowherd

      • old Caedmon had always avoided singing to a harp at feasts

      • but when he avoids it this time an angel commands him to sing of beginnings

    • convenient

      • Caedmon quite explicitly dissociated from the secular oral tradition

        • and therefore unsullied by it

      • poetry a convenient form for the mass dissemination of a faith that had so far been mostly aristocratic

    • it’s got a really complicated textual history

      • there’s a Latin shorter version in the Latin MSS of Bede

      • different dialects: Northumbrian, West Saxon

      • look at MS: relative status of prose and verse?

Caedmon story

Loanwords – hard to find

  • what would you look for?

    • religious terms

    • words beginning with /p/



  • ge­- a common and meaningless prefix

    • geseted, gelyfd-re, geleornode, geseah, gedemed

    • gebeor-scip

  • prefix for-: for-let

  • prefix be-: be-boden

  • prefix on-: on-slepte, on-feng, on-gon

    • comment on the un/familiarity of these?


  • abstract noun suffix -ness: here-nesse

  • adjective suffix -lice: ge-limp-lice

  • noun suffix –hād (though it was a free morpheme in OE): weoruld-hāde

    • comment on the un/familiarity of these?

  • agent noun suffix -end: Scypp-end

Compound words

weoruldhade, gebeorscip, nea-lec-an, frumsceaft

How is OE vocabulary different from PDE vocabulary?

  • some words have been replaced by loanwords: PDE has more

  • some words have survived but with semantic change

How do you illustrate this?

  • look at words that are unfamiliar

    • would you translate them with a native word? a French/Latin word?

  • look at words whose forms you recognize

    • have their meanings changed?

Profile of Caedmon’s hymn

  • little change from OE to PDE

    • man, harp, sing, rest, house, learned, night etc.

    • he, was, and, never, and other grammar words

  • some change of distribution (e.g. register)

    • tide now archaic for time

      • replaced with native word time

    • gedemed: now archaic for “decided”

    • aras “arose”

      • replaced with Latinate decided?

      • replaced with native got up?

    • sum “a certain” (or is this meaning?)

      • replaced with Latinate a certain

        • can we draw any conclusions about replacements?

          • some native

          • some Latinate

        • remember that you can often choose native or Latinate words

  • some words have gone completely

    • e.g. leoð

      • replaced with poem (Greek through French)

    • frumsceaft

      • replaced with French or Latin creation

    • intinga

      • replaced with French occasion

    • symble

      • replaced with French feast

    • onfeng

      • replaced with French received

    • swefn

      • replaced with dream: OE? ON?

  • some words have been replaced, though the elements remain

    • weoruld-hád

      • replaced with Latinate secular

    • gebéorscip
      • replaced with Latinate banquet, here, but you might think of how else you’d translate it: company, crowd

Advanced enquiries

  • e.g. forms of words

    • some borrowed into English more than once

      • e.g. fers “verse” has a complicated history

      • how do we know verse is a loanword?

  • semantic change

    • some resulting from competition within a semantic field

      • e.g. bliss, tide have a different distribution now

        • joy loanword, but bliss is still around

    • e.g. sona “immediately” -> “in a while”

  • productivity or analyzability of morphemes,

    • e.g. –hood, for-

Observations about PDE

  • core vocabulary of OE

  • layers of loanwords

    • to what can we attribute many of them?

    • but we can often choose to use native or borrowed word for different effect

      • when he received / heard / got the answer

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