Old English vocabulary (2007)

Main outline


Characteristics of OE vocabulary I


[Common Teut.: OE. s{aeacu} str. masc. and fem. corresponds to OFris. 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{aeacu}-r, sjá-r, sjó-r masc. (Sw. sjö, Da. ), Goth. saiw-s masc., sea, also marsh:{em}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.)


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


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




Compounding showing loan-translations/calques


Affixation showing loan-translation/calques



·        pro-videntia = fore-sceaw... (1)


·        Salvat-or = Hael-end

o       human-itas = menn-isc-ness

o       trinitas = þry-ness

o       ad-ventus = to-cyme

·        do any of these words survive?

·        what have we replaced them with?


Suffixation or zero-derivation?

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

o       bisceop-ian “to confirm”

·        comment on the base forms?



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

·        traditionally the first vernacular poem on religious themes

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

o       specifically, creation: about beginnings!

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

o       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

o       convenient

·        Caedmon quite explicitly dissociated from the secular oral tradition

o       and therefore unsullied by it

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

o       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

o       what would you look for?

o       religious terms

o       words beginning with /p/ (not all of which are loanwords)







Compound words

weoruldhade, gebeorscip, nea-lec-an, frumsceaft

How is OE vocabulary different from PDE vocabulary?


How do you illustrate this?


Profile of Caedmon’s hymn

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

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


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