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The Main Features of Old, Middle, and Modern English

Phonetic Changes in the Old English Period

Lecture 4

Germanic Vocabulary

Strong and Weak Verbs

The verb system of OG languages consists of different elements. The main mass of verbs are strong verbs and weak verbs. Besides these two large groups, there are also the preterite-present verbs, with a peculiar system of forms, and a few irregular verbs, which do not belong to any of the preceding groups.

The terms strong and weak were proposed by J.Grimm. The strong verbs built their principal forms with the help of root vowel interchanges plus certain grammatical endings; they made use of IE ablaut with certain modifications due to phonetic changes and environment.

The weak verbs are a specifically Germanic innovation, for the device used in building their principal forms is not found outside the Germanic group. They built the Past tense and Participle II by inserting a dental suffix -d- (-t-) between the root and the ending.


Germanic vocabulary has inherited and preserved many IE features in lexis as well as at other levels. The most ancient etymological layer in the Germanic vocabulary is made up of words (or more precisely roots) shared by most IE languages. They refer to a number of semantic spheres: natural phenomena, plants and animals, terms of kinship, verbs denoting basic activities of a person, some pronouns and numerals; in addition to roots, the common IE element includes other components of words: word-building affixes and grammatical inflections.

Words which occur in Germanic alone and have no parallels outside the group constitute the specific features of the Germanic languages. Semantically, they also belong to basic sphere of life: nature, sea, home, life. Like the IE layer the specifically Germanic layer includes not only roots but also affixes and word-building patterns.

In addition to native words the OG languages share some borrowings made from other languages. Some of the early borrowings are found in all or most languages of the group; probably they were made at the time when the Germanic tribes lived close together as a single speech community, that is in Late PG. A large number of words must have been borrowed from Latin prior to the migrations of West Germanic tribes to Britain. These words reflect the contacts of the Germanic tribes to Britain. These words reflect the contacts of the Germanic tribes with Rome and the influence of the Roman civilization on their life; they mostly refer to trade and warfare.



Old English is said (technically) to begin in 449 AD with the invasion of Kent by Hengest and Horsa, although we place its start at 500 AD, since it must have taken one or two generations – at least – for it to develop its distinctive character; we do not have the first manuscript attestations of English until about 700 AD. We know that the Anglo-Saxons spoke West Germanic, a sister dialect to Old High German, Old Frisian, Old Low German, Low Saxon, and Old Low Franconian.

Several very important features characterize OE:

1) Old English was synthetic, or fusional, rather than analytic or isolating.

2) The noun, verb, adjective, determiner and pronoun were highly inflected. Consequently, word order was not as rigid as in Present-Day English.

3) There were weak and strong declensions of nouns and adjectives.

4) There were also weak and strong conjugations of verbs.

5) The vocabulary of OE was overwhelmingly Germanic in character (approximately 85 per cent of the vocabulary used in OE is no longer in use in Modern English).

6) Word formation largely took the form of compounding, prefixing, and suffixing; there was relatively little borrowing from other languages.

7) Gender was grammatical (dependent on formal linguistic criteria), not logical or natural (contingent on sex).

During the Middle English period a number of very significant changes became more and more visible in the English language. The major changes from Old to Middle English are the loss of inflections, and with it the development of more fixed word order. As in the Old English period, language contact led to borrowing, but its scale was far greater during this period than it had been before.

By the Early Modern Period the structure of the standard language was very close to its structure in Present-Day English. There were still some significant changes to come, such as the Great Vowel Shift, but with regard to short vowels, consonants, morphology and syntax, changes were slight. What is noticeable to a present-day reader of Early Modern English is its comparative variability. In the period of 1500 to 1700, there was considerable free variation of forms in comparison with Present-Day English. This is hardly surprising in a language that was only just beginning to be accepted as a legitimate medium of communication in science, the arts, and administration. By 1700, however, English had stabilized and texts written after that period are remarkably easy for a modern reader to comprehend. Since that time, while some changes in the structure have indeed occurred, they are comparatively minor in nature. Unlike in the Early Modern English period, in Present-Day English, there are few changes in phonology and even fewer in morphology and syntax, with major changes taking place in the lexical stock of English.


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