Stylistic Stratification of the Old English Vocabulary

§ 275. 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 the texts, there existed a certain stylistic stratification of the OE vocabulary. Mo­dern philologists subdivide OE words into three stylistically distinct groups: neut­ral words, learned words and poetic words.

§ 276. 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 exam­ples of these words were given above - to illustrate phonetic changes, grammar rules and word formation (OE mann, stān, blind, drincan, bēon, etc.) Most words of this group are of native origin (see, however, early borrowings from Latin in § 238).

§ 277. 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.: wreʒendlic (L Accusativus), feorʒbold 'body' (L animæ domus "dwelling of the soul") - see later Latin borrowings in OE in § 238-244. In later periods of history many OE learned words went out of use being replaced by new borrowings and native formations.

§ 278. 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", seventeen for "sea". Among the poetic names for "hero" are beorn, rinc, seeʒ, peʒn and many metaphoric circumlocutions ("kennings") - compounds used instead of simple words: ʒār-berend lit. "spear-carrier", ʒar-wiʒa 'spear-warrior', sueord-freca 'sword-hero', hyrn-wiʒa 'corslet-warrior', ʒap-ʒewinn 'war contest', lind-hæbbende 'having a shield', ʒūb-rinc "man of war, warrior', pēod-ʒuma 'man of the troop', ʒup-wine 'war-friend'. Similarly, breost-hord 'treas­ure of the breast' denoted 'heart' or 'thought'; ʒūp-wudu 'battle-wood' stood for spear; bān-cofa 'chamber for bones', flæsc-hord 'hoard of flesh' and flæsc-hama 'cov­ering for flesh' - all meant 'body'; hord-coja 'treasure-chamber' was a metaphoric 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 yet 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.


1. Why does the OE vocabulary contain so few borrowings from the Celtic languages of Britain? Why do place-names constitute a sub­stantial part of Celtic element?

2. From lists of Latin loan-words in OE speculate on the kind of contacts the English had with Rome at different historical periods.

3. What facts can be given to prove that OE was generally resistant to borrowing and preferred to rely upon its own resources?

4. Pick out the OE suffixes and prefixes which are still used in Eng­lish and can be regarded as productive today.

5. What is meant by "simplification of the morphological structure"? Use words from the following list to illustrate your answer: OE ealdian (<*eald-ō-jan)'grow old'; mētan (<*mōt-i-an)'meet'; wulf Nom. (<*wulf-a-z)NE wolf; wulfe, Dat. sg (<*wulf-a-i); woruld (<*werealdi 'age', 'old') NE world; hlāford (<*hlāf-weard 'bread, loaf', 'keep­er') NE lord; hlǣfdiʒe (<*hlaf-diʒe 'bread-kneading') NE lady; ēaland (<*ēa-land 'water', 'land') NE island; ʒōdlic (<*gōd-lic 'good', 'body') NE goodly, fair,

6. Determine the part of speech and the meaning of the words in the right column derived from the stem given in the left column:

leorn-ian v 'learn' leorn-ere, leorn-inʒ, leorn-unʒ
ʒe-samn-ian v 'assemble' ʒe-samn-unʒ
scēot-an v 'shoot' scēot-end
lēoht n 'light' lēoht-lic
stranʒ adj 'strong' stranʒ-ian, stranʒ-lic, stranʒ-lice
eald adj'old' eald-ian, eald-unʒ, eald-dōm
scearp adj 'sharp' scearp-lic, scearp-lice, scearp-nis
sorʒ n'sorrow' sorʒ-ian, sorʒ-lic, sorʒ-full
fæst adj 'firm, fast' fæst-e, fæst-an, fæst-lic, fæst-lice, fæst-nis
ʒeorn adj 'eager' ʒeorn-full, ʒeorn-e, ʒeorn-an, ʒeorn-lice, ʒeorn-ful-nes, ʒeorn-ful-lic
frēond n 'friend' frēond-lēas, frēond-lic, frēond-lice, frēond-scipe, frēond-rǣden

7. Add negative prefixes to the following words and explain the meaning of the derivatives:

rot 'glad', - un- ...; hal 'healthy' - wan- spēdiʒ 'rich' - un- .... wan- ...; cūp 'known' - un- ...; 'known' - in- ...; lician 'please' - mis- ...; limpan 'happen' - mis- ...

Part Two

Chapter XI