Stylistic Stratification of the Old English Vocabulary


Preliminary Remarks

The full extent of the OE vocabulary is not known to present-day scholars. There is no doubt that many words have not been recorded in the extant texts at all. The evidence of the records has been supplemented from other sources: from the study of the words of closely related OG languages and from later, more extensive ME texts.

Modern estimates of the local vocabulary of OE range from about thirty thousand words to almost one hundred thousand (A. I. Smirnitsky, M. Pei), - the latter figure being probably too high and unrealistic. (Among other causes the differences in the estimates depend on the treatment of polysemy and homonymy. But even the lowest estimates show that OE had already developed about as many words as used by a present-day cultured English speaker.) Despite the gaps in the accessible data, philological studies in the last centuries have given us a fairly complete outline of the OE vocabulary as regards its etymology, word structure, word-building and stylistic differentiation.

Examination of the origin of words is of great interest in establishing the interrelations between languages and linguistic groups. Word etymology throws light on the history of the speaking community and on its contacts with other peoples.

The OE vocabulary was almost purely Germanic; except for a small number of borrowings, it consisted of native words inherited from PG or formed from native roots and affixes.


                                              Native Words  


Native OE words can be subdivided into a number of etymological layers coming from different historical periods. The three main layers in the native OE words are: a) common IE words, 2) common Germanic words, 3) specifically OE words. 

Words belonging to the common IE layer constitute the oldest part of the OE vocabulary. They go back to the days of the IE parent-language before its extension over the wide territories of Europe and Asia and before the appearance of the Germanic group. They were inherited by PG and passed into the Germanic languages of various subgroups, including English.

Among these words we find names of some natural phenomena, plants and animals, agricultural terms, names of parts of the human body, terms of kinship, etc.; verbs belonging to this layer denote the basic activities of man; adjectives indicate the most essential qualities; this layer includes personal and demonstrative pronouns and most nu­merals. In addition to roots, this portion of the OE (and Germanic) her­itage includes word-building and form-building elements. OE examples of this layer are: eolh, mere, топа, treow, sawan, naeзel, beard, bro¶or, modor, sunu, don, blon, niwe, long, ic, min, past, twa, etc. (NE elk, 'sea', moon, tree, sow, nail, beard, brother, mother, son, do, be, new, long, I, my, that, two). Some words of this oldest layer are not shared by all the groups of the IE family but are found only in certain areas. In the early days of their separate history the Germanic tribes were more closely connected with their eastern neighbours, the Baltic and Slavonic tribes, while later they came into closer contact with the Italic and Celtic groups. These facts are borne out by the following lexical paral­lels: OE beard (NE beard) is found in the Germanic group (OHG bart) and has parallels in Latvian barda and in R борода. OE tun (NE town) belongs to the Germanic vocabulary (cf. О Icel tun) and is also found in Celtic: Old Irish dun; OE lippa (NE tip), and its OHG parallel leffur, appears in the Italic group as L labium; other examples of the same type are OE spere, NE spear, OHG sper, L sparus, OE зemaene ‘common’, OHG gimeini, L communus.

The common Germanic layer includes words which are shared by most Germanic languages, but do not occur outside the group. Being specifically Germanic, these words constitute an important distinctive mark of the Germanic languages at the lexical level. This layer is cer­tainly smaller than the layer of common IE words. (The ratio between specifically Germanic and common IE words in the Germanic languages was estimated by 19th c. scholars as 1:2; since then it has been discov­ered that many more Germanic words have parallels outside the group and should be regarded as common IE.)

Common Germanic words originated in the common period of Ger­manic history, i.e. in PG when the Teutonic tribes lived close together. Semantically these words are connected with nature, with the sea and everyday life. OE examples of this layer are given together with paral­lels from other OG languages.

Some of the words did not occur in all the OG languages. Their areal distribution reflects the contacts between the Germanic tribes at the beginning of their migrations: West and North Germanic languages (represented here by OE, OHG and О Icel) had many words in common, due to their rapproachement after the East Teutons (the Goths) left coast of the Baltic Sea. The languages of the West Germanic sub-group had a number of words, which must have appeared after the loss of contacts with the East and North Teutons but before the West Ger­manic tribes, started on their migrations.

The third etymological layer of native words can be defined as specifically OE, that is words which do not occur in other Germanic or non-Germanic languages. These words are few, if we include here only the words whose roots have not been found outside English; OE) clipian 'call', OE brid (NE bird) and several others. However, they are .far more numerous if we include in this layer OE compounds and derived words formed from Germanic roots in England. For instance, OE wifmafi 'Of wimman (NE woman) consists of two roots which occurred as separate words in other OG languages, but formed a compound only in OE (cf. OHG wib, О Icel vif, NE wife; OE man, Gt mann(a), NE man). Other well-known examples are —OE hlaford, originally made of hlaf (NE cf. R хлеб) and weard 'keeper' (cf. Gt wards). This compound word was simplified and was ultimately shortened to NE lord. OE hlaefdiзе was a compound consisting of the same first component hlaf of the root *diзе, which is related to parallels in other OG languages: Idigan, О Icel deigja 'knead' — lit. 'bread-kneading', later simplified.' NE lady. Some compounds denoted posts and institutions in OE kingdoms: OE scirierefa 'chief of the shire' (NE sheriff), OE witenaiemot fleeting of the elders, assembly'.

Stylistic Stratification of the Old English Vocabulary


Extant OE texts fall into a number of genres: poetic, religious, legal, and more or less neutral. From comparing their vocabularies it has been discovered that apart from a natural distribution of words determined by the contents of texts, there existed a certain stylistic stratification of the OE vocabulary. Mo­rphilologists subdivide OE words into three stylistically distinct groups: neutral words, learned words and poetic words.

Neutral words were characterised by the highest frequency of occurrence, wide use in word-formation and historical stability; the majority of these words often in altered shape — have been preserved to the present day. Numerous exames of these words were given above—to illustrate phonetic changes, grammar rules and word formation (OE mann, stan, blind, drincan, beon, etc.) Most words in this group are of native origin.

Learned words are found in texts of   religious, legal, philosophical or scientific character. Among learned words there were many borrowings" from Latin. Numerous compound nouns were built on Latin models as translation loans to render the exact meaning of foreign terms, e. g.: wrliendlic (L Accusativus), feorZbold Sdy' (L animse domus 'dwelling of the soul'). In later periods of history many OE learned words went out use being replaced by new borrowings and native formations.

Poetic words in OE are of special interest: OE poetry employs a very specific vocabulary. A cardinal characteristic of OE poetry is its wealth of syno­nyms. In BEOWULF, for instance, there are thirty-seven words for the concept "warrior", twelve for "battle", and seventeen for "sea". Among the poetic names for " are beorn, rinc, seel, pein and many metaphoric circumlocutions ("kennings") - componuds used instead of simple words: zarberend \it "spear-carrier» Заг-wiZa d-Zuma ‘man of the troop', Zup-wine 'war-friend'. Similarly, breost-hord 'treas of the breast’ denoted 'heart' or 'thought'; iup-wudu 'battle-wood' stood for wJkear; Зйп-cofa 'chamber for bones', flxsc-hord 'hoard of flesh' and flassc-hatna covering for flesh’ — all meant 'body'; hord-cofa 'treasure-chamber' was a metaphor-' circumlocution for "secret thoughts". These compounds were used as stylistic devices for ornament, for expressive effect, to bring out and emphasize a certain quality, and for the sake of alliteration.

Probably many poetic words were already archaic in late OE; some of the kennings were trite, conventional metaphors, while others were used only once in a certain text and therefore cannot be included in the basic OE vocabulary. And S6t they constitute’ a unique feature of OE poetry and the OE language. Together with the decline of the genre OE poetic words went out of use.


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