Types and sources of changes

Module 12




1. Types and sources of changes

2. Scandinavian influence on the vocabulary

3. French influence on the vocabulary in ME

4. Borrowings from classical languages with special reference to the Age of Renaissance.

5. Conclusions

Types and sources of changes

According to the estimates made by modern philologists, in the course of the thousand years from OE to modern times the English vocabulary has multiplied tenfold.

Among the changes in the vocabulary we can distinguish 1) losses of words or their meanings, 2) replacements and 3) additions.

1) Losses. A number of OE words were lost due to changing conditions of life and obsolescence of many medieval concepts and customs. In particular, some regulations and institutions of OE kingdoms were cancelled or forgotten in the ME period. For instance, OE witana¥emōt assembly of the elders ceased to exist under the Norman rule; OE Dane¥eld, the tax paid to the Scandinavians, was not collected after the collapse of the Danish Empire both words have survived only as historical terms. Some rituals of the heathen religion were abandoned after the introduction of Christianity and their names dropped out of use, e.g. OE tiber, blōt which meant sacrifice.

A whole stylistic stratum of words, the specific OE poetic vocabulary, went out of use together with the genre of OE poetry; those were numerous poetic words.

Many words current in ME fell out of use and became obsolete in NE, e.g. ME chapman pedlar, ME romare pilgrim to Rome, ME outridere rider visiting the manors of a monastery, ME gypoun short jacket.

Sometimes the word survived but its meaning changed. Thus OE ¥ift had the meaning price of a wife connected with one of the early meanings of the verb ¥yfan (NE give) give in marriage; OE sellan lost the meaning give which it could express in OE alongside sell; OE talu meant number, series and story, narrative, while its ME and NE descendant tale retained only the latter meanings.

Numerous as they were, losses played a less important role in the development of the vocabulary than replacements and additions.

2) Replacements. It has been calculated that from 80 to 85 % of the OE words went out of use in the succeeding periods. Most of these words were not simply lost; they were replaced by other words of the same or similar meanings. The replacement came as a result of the coexistence and rivalry of synonyms and the ultimate selection of one of the rivals. Thus OE clipian came to be replaced by ME callen, NE call; OE niman was ousted by ME taken, NE take; the pronouns hīe and hēo were substituted for by they and she; OE weorDan was replaced by become; NE river took the place of OE ēa; NE table the place of OE bord and so on and so forth.

Replacements could also occur in the sphere of content: the word was retained but its meaning was changed or was replaced by a new meaning. Thus OE drēam meant joy but acquired an entirely different meaning, formerly rendered by OE swefn; OE cniht boy, servant changed its meaning to ME and NE knight; OE clerec clergyman developed into ME clerk student, scholar and NE secretary in an office. Sometimes the meanings of the words changed when its referent (the thing it denoted) underwent some kind of changes, e.g. ME carre wheeled vehicle now indicates a motor car or part of a train (sleeping car), NE car, Early ME carriage; coche denoted an old form of carriage pulled by four horses, while its descendant, NE coach, has acquired the meaning of car, carriage in a train.

3) Additions to the vocabulary embrace a large number of changes. Among additions we can find pure innovations, i.e. entirely new words which did not take the place of any other items but were created to name new things, new ideas and new qualities, e.g. ME cite town with a cathedral, duke, duchess, prynce new ranks and titles; NE bourgeois, potato, nylon.

Many additions to the vocabulary were due to the differentiation of synonyms. The coexistence of synonyms did not necessarily result in the ousting of one by the other. Both words or even several words of close meaning could survive with certain differences in stylistic connotations, combinability and other features. For instance OE nēah, nēar, nēara survived as ME neer, its ME synonyms were cloos and adjacent, their NE descendants and synonyms: near, close, adjacent, neighbouring. Another example: OE heard, ME hard, ferme, solide, NE hard, firm, solid, severe.

The development of new meanings in the existing words extended the vocabulary and led to the growth of polysemy and homonymy. For instance, OE cræft meant science, skill, strength; in ME and NE craft lost the meaning science but acquired new meanings group of skilled workers, guild and vessel; ME journee meant days work, sometimes days march, later travel, journey.

One of the most drastic changes in the English vocabulary is the change in its etymological composition. While the OE vocabulary was almost entirely Germanic and on the whole was highly resistant to borrowing, the language of later periods absorbed foreign words by the hundred and even made use of foreign word components in word formation. As a result the proportion of Germanic words in the English language has fallen: according to modern estimates the native Germanic element constitutes from 30 to 50% of the vocabulary; the other two thirds (or half) come from foreign sources, mainly Romance.

However, the surviving native words belong to the most frequent layer of words, and native components are widely used in word-building, in word phrases and phraseological units.

The linguistic situation in ME was most favourable for strong foreign influence first Scandinavian, then French. Foreign words were adopted in large numbers in the succeeding periods as well and their sources became more diverse: English freely borrowed both from classical and modern sources though at no other time the immediate effect of the foreign impact was as manifest as in ME.


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