Preliminary Remarks

§ 227. The full extent of the OE vocabulary is not known to present-day scholars. There is no doubt that many words have not been recorded in the extant texts at all. The evidence of the records has been supple­mented from other sources: from the study of the words of closely related OG languages and from later, more extensive ME texts.

Modern estimates of the total vocabulary of OE range from about thirty thousand words to almost one hundred thousand (A. I. Smirnitsky, M. Pei), - the latter figure being probably too high and unreal­istic. (Among other causes the differences in the estimates depend on the treatment of polysemy and homonymy. But even the lowest esti­mates show that OE had already developed about as many words as used by a present-day cultured English speaker.) Despite the gaps in the accessible data, philological studies in the last centuries have given us a fairly complete outline of the OE vocabulary as regards its etymology, word structure, word-building and stylistic differentiation.


§ 228. Examination of the origin of words is of great interest in establishing the interrelations between languages and linguistic groups. Word etymology throws light on the history of the speaking community and on its contacts with other peoples.

The OE vocabulary was almost purely Germanic; except for a small number of borrowings, it consisted of native words inherited from PG or formed from native roots and affixes.

Native Words

§ 229. Native OE words can be subdivided into a number of etymol­ogical layers coming from different historical periods. The three main layers in the native OE words are: a) common IE words, 2) common Germanic words, 3) specifically OE words.

§ 230. Words belonging to the common IE layer constitute the oldest part of the OE vocabulary. They go back to the days of the IE parent-language before its extension over the wide territories of Europe and Asia and before the appearance of the Germanic group. They were inherited by PG and passed into the Germanic languages of various subgroups, including English.

Among these words we find names of some natural phenomena, plants and animals, agricultural terms, names of parts of the human body, terms of kinship, etc.; verbs belonging to this layer denote the basic activities of man; adjectives indicate the most essential qualities; this layer includes personal and demonstrative pronouns and most nu­merals. In addition to roots, this portion of the OE (and Germanic) her­itage includes word-building and form-building elements. OE examples of this layer are: eolk, mere, mōna, trēow, sōwan, næʒl, beard, brōðor, mōdor, sunu, dōn, bēon, niwe, long, ic, min, pæt, twā, etc. (NE elk, 'sea', moon, tree, sow, nail, beard, brother, mother, son, do, be, new, long, I, my, that, two). Some words of this oldest layer are not shared by all the groups of the IE family but are found only in certain areas. In the early days of their separate history the Germanic tribes were more closely connected with their eastern neighbours, the Baltic and Slavonic tribes, while later they came into closer contact with the Italic and Celtic groups. These facts are borne out by the following lexical paral­lels: OE beard (NE beard)is found in the Germanic group (OHG bart)and has parallels in Latvian barda and in R борода. OE tūn (NE town)belongs to the Germanic vocabulary (cf. O Icel tún)and is also found in Celtic: Old Irish dan; OE lippa (NE lip), and its OHG parallel leffur, appears in the Italic group as L labium; other examples of the same type are OE spere, NE spear, OHG sper, L sparus, OE ʒemǣne 'common', OHG gimeini, L communus.

§ 231. The common Germanic layer includes words which are shared by most Germanic languages, but do not occur outside the group. Being specifically Germanic, these words constitute an important distinctive mark of the Germanic languages at the lexical level. This layer is cer­tainly smaller than the layer of common IE words. (The ratio between specifically Germanic and common IE words in the Germanic languages was estimated by 19th c. scholars as 1:2;since then it has been discov­ered that many more Germanic words have parallels outside the group and should be regarded as common IE.)

Common Germanic words originated in the common period of Ger­manic history, i.e. in PG when the Teutonic tribes lived close together. Semantically these words are connected with nature, with the sea and everyday life. OE examples of this layer are given together with paral­lels from other OG languages (Table 1, see also Table 8 in §71).

Table 1

Common Germanic Words In Old English

hand hant handus hond hand
sand sant - sandr sand
eorpe erda airpa jorð earth
sinʒan singan siggwan singva sing
findan findan finpan finna find
ʒrēne gruoni - grǣn green
steorfan sterban - - starve
scrēap scaf - - sheep
fox fuhs - - fox
macian mahhon - - make

Some of the words did not occur in all the OG languages. Their areal distribution reflects the contacts between the Germanic tribes at the beginning of their migrations: West and North Germanic languages (represented here by OE, OHG and O Icel) had many words in common, due to their rapproachement after the East Teutons (the Goths) left the coast of the Baltic Sea. The languages of the West Germanic sub­group had a number of words which must have appeared after the loss of contacts with the East and North Teutons but before the West Ger­manic tribes started on their migrations.

§ 232. The third etymological layer of native words can be defined as specifically OE, that is words which do not occur in other Germanic or non-Germanic languages. These words are few, if we include here only the words whose roots have not been found outside English: OE clipian 'call', OE brid (NE bird)and several others. However, they are far more numerous if we include in this layer OE compounds and derived words formed from Germanic roots in England. For instance, OE wiftnan or wimman (NE woman)consists of two roots which occurred as separate words in other OG languages, but formed a compound only in OE (cf. OHG wib, O Icel vif, NE wife; OE man, Gt mann(a), NE man). Other well-known examples are - OE hlāford, originally made of hlāf (NE loaf, cf. R хлеб)and weard 'keeper' (cf. Gt wards). This compound word was simplified and was ultimately shortened to NE lord. OE hlǣfdiʒe was a compound consisting of the same first component hlāf of the root *diʒe which is related to parallels inother OG languages: Gt digan, O Icel deigja 'knead' - lit. 'bread-kneading', later simplified to NE lady. Some compounds denoted posts and institutions in OE king­doms: OE scirʒerefa 'chief of the shire' (NE sheriff), OE witenaʒemōt meeting of the elders, assembly'.