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Old English Vocabulary

Lecture 20

The history of words throws light on the history of the speaking community and its contacts with other people.

According to some rough counts OE vocabulary had between 23 000and 24 000lexical units. About only 15% of them survived in ModE.

In OE there were an extremely low percentage of borrowings from other languages (only 3% as compared to 70% in ModE). Thus OE from the point of view of its vocabulary was a thoroughlyGermanic language.

Native OE words can be subdivided into 3 following layers:

1. Common IE words– the oldest and the largest part of the OE vocabulary that was inherited by the Proto-Germanic, and later by all the Germanic languages, from the Common Indo-European Language.

Semantic fields:

· family relations(father, mother, daughter, brother, etc. (except aunt, uncle – words of the Germanic origin));

· parts of human body(eye, nose, heart, arm, etc.);

· natural phenomena, plants, animals(tree, cow, water, sun, wind, etc.).

Parts of speech:

· nouns(eye, brother, etc.);

· verbs(basic activities of man)(to be, can, may, to know, to eat, to stand, to sit, etc.);

· adjectives(essential qualities)(new, full, red, right, young, long, etc.);

· pronouns(personal and demonstrative) (I, my, this, that, those, these, etc.);

· numerals(most of them) (1-10, 100, 1000, etc.);

· prepositions(for, at, of, to, etc.).

2. Common Germanic words –the part of the vocabulary that was shared by most Germanic languages. These words never occurred outside the Germanic group of languages. This layer was smaller than the IE layer.

Semantic fields:

· nature, plants, animals(earth, fox, sheep, sand, etc.);

· sea(starve, sea, etc.);

· everyday life(hand, sing, find, make, etc.).

Parts of speech:

· nouns(horse, rain, ship, bridge, life, hunger, ground, death, winter, evil, etc. );

· verbs(to like, to drink, to bake, to buy, to find, to fall, to fly, to make, etc.);

· adjectives(broad, sick, true, dead, deaf, open, clean, bitter, etc.);

· pronouns(such, self, all, etc.);

· adverbs(often, again, forward, near, etc.).

3. Specifically Old English words –native words that occur only in English and do not occur in other Germanic and non-Germanic languages. They are very few and are mainly derivatives and compounds (e.g. fisher, understand, woman, etc.).

4. Borrowed words –this part of OE vocabulary, as it has already been mentioned above, was a small portion of words that remained on the periphery of OE vocabulary. The words were mainly borrowed from:

· Latin(around 500 words only) (abbat, anthem, alms, etc. );

· Celtic dialects:

- common nouns (bin, cross, cradle, etc.) – most of them died out, some survived only in dialects;

- place names and names of waterways:

o Kent, London, York, etc.;

o Ouse, Avon, Evan, Thames, Dover – all with the meaning “water”;

o -comb (“deep valley”) – Duncombe, Winchcombe, etc.;

o -torr (“high rock”) – Torr, Torcross, etc.;

o -llan (“church”) – Llandoff, Llanelly, etc.;

o -pill(“creek”) – Pylle, Huntspill, etc.

· hybrids:


Celtic element + Latin element Celtic element + Germanic element
Man-chester York-shire
Corn-wall Devon-shire
Lan-caster Salis-bury
Devon-port Lich-field


More detailed information about the borrowings in English will be given in Lectures 22 and 23.

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