Brief Notes on “Old English Vocabulary”

In expanding its vocabulary, Old English largely depended on its native resources. It had inherited from its parent language a number of devices for forming new words, particularly the device of affixation, and it made a full use of those devices.

(ii) The Native Resources:

(a) Synonymous Expressions One of the distinguishing features of the Old English vocabulary was its fabulous stock of synonyms and near-synonyms in certain” areas of experience. In Beowulf, for example, we find at least 36 words for “hero” or “prince”, 12 words for “battle”, 17 words for “sea” and 11 words for “boat”.

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If we take into account the synonyms used for these words by other Old English poets, the number of synonyms for these words would go up significantly higher. One of the devices by using which Beowulf obtained this astonishing stock of synonymous expressions is a bold use of metaphors for the formation of self-explaining noun phrase.

A boat, for example, is a curved stem, a foamy-necked ship, a sea-wood and a wave-courser and, similarly, a king is the hero’s treasure-keeper, a giver of rings, the protector of earls and a victory-lord. Grendel, the monster with whom Beowulf had to fight, is the prowler on the wasteland, the fiend in Hell, the mad ravisher, the dark death-shadow and the lonely wanderer.

The Old English period was in a sense the period of infancy for the English language but because of the formation of a large number of such colourful expressions, the English language acquired even during that period of infancy an appreciable strength and vitality in the realm of vocabulary.

(b) Affixation The use of affixation is not confined to any one century or any one period in the history of the English language: it is a process which has been continually operative.

It was during the Old English period, however, that this process was set in motion in a big way. Some of the Old English prefixes which were frequently used for the formation of new words during this period were a-, be-, for-, four-, mis-, of-, an-, un-, under- and with-.

So from a simple verb like settan (to set), Old English formed numerous derivatives like asettan “place”, besettan “appoint”, forsettan “obstruct”, foresettan “place before”, ofsettan “afflict”, onsettan “oppress”, unsettan “put down” and withsettan “resist”. Like prefixation, the device of suffixation was also frequently used.

The suffix -dom (-dom), for example, was used to form words like cyningdom (kingdom) and eorldom (earldom) and -had (-hood) was used to form words like cildhad (childhood).

(iii) The Scandinavian Influence:

As was pointed out earlier, the Old English vocabulary has on it a distinct mark of the Scandinavian influence exercised by the Vikings. This influence manifested itself in three ways.

(a) Many Old English words which had become obsolete acquired a fresh life and vitality because of the Scandinavian influence. The preposition till, for example, was used only sparingly during the pre-Scandinavian period but its frequency of use went very high after the Vikings revived their kinship with the Anglo-Saxons and became an integral part of the Anglo-Saxon society.

(b) The meanings of many of the Anglo-Saxon words were drastically changed because of the Scandinavian influence. The Old English word for “dream” meant “joy”, the Old English word “bread” meant “fragment” and the Old English word “bloom” meant “mass of metal”.

It was because of the Scandinavian influence that these words acquired their present meaning. Similarly, the Old English word for “dwell” meant “to go astray”, and the Old English word for “plough” meant “a measure of land”. It was because of the Scandinavian influence that the word “plough” acquired the present meaning of “an agricultural implement” and the word for “dwell” acquired the present meaning of “remain in a place”.

In the case of many words the Scandinavian influence changed not only the meaning but also the pronunciation. In Old English the word “gift”, for example, was pronounced as yift and referred to “the price paid by a suitor in consideration of receiving a woman as wife”.

(c) The Scandinavian influence resulted in the continuance, for a long time, of pairs of words having nearly the same meaning, one word borrowed from the Scandinavian source and the other word from the native English stock.

In many cases the native words pushed their Scandinavian counterparts out of use. The native word true, for example, continued to be used and the Scandinavian word trigg was dropped out. In some cases the Scandinavian word remained in use only in fixed phrases.

The word fro, for example, can now be found only in the phrase to and fro and, similarly, the Scandinavian word hale can be found only in the phrase hale and hearty. In certain cases the word from the Scandinavian source acquired a different shade of meaning. The word skirt, for example, no longer means the same thing as shirt.

By way of summing up, we can say that the Old English vocabulary, though it had some words borrowed from Latin, was basically Germanic in its origin. We can also say that although the vocabulary at that time was much smaller than what it is now, the process of affixation and the process of borrowing, the two main processes responsible for the enormous vocabulary of present-day English, became operative during the Old English period.

Even the writer of Beowulf probably did not realize that the limited vocabulary of Old English would, with the passage of time; acquire the richness and strength of the Shakespearean vocabulary or the extensiveness of the technological vocabulary of present-day English.