The Vocabulary of Old English

1. General characteristics

The surviving vocabulary of Old English (OE) is relatively small. The Thesaurus of Old English (TOE), with which you will be working, contains almost 34,000 different word forms, whereas a modern desk dictionary might contain 80,000. Some of these words have more than one meaning, i.e. they are polysemous: TOE contains just over 50,000 meanings altogether. An example of multiple meaning or polysemy is OE ecg, pronounced in the same way as its Modern English (Mod. E.) descendant ‘edge’. In addition to meaning ‘edge’, it also means ‘blade’, the part of an object that has a sharp edge, and ‘sword’, an object distinguished by having a sharp edge or blade. This is an example of metonymy, the identification of an object by one of its attributes, as when the Prime Minister is referred to as ‘No. 10’. ‘Edge’ in Mod. E. also has a metaphorical sense, where an abstract idea is conveyed by referring to something concrete, as in ‘her voice had an edge to it’.

Much of the vocabulary of Mod. E. derives from OE. This applies particularly to our core vocabulary: common words in everyday use for fundamental concepts. Examples include the natural world (earth, sea, wind, fire, water; sun, moon, star); people (man, woman, child, father, mother, brother, daughter); the body (hand, arm, elbow, finger, foot, nose, mouth); and other basic concepts such as food, drink; heaven, hell; friend, neighbour; love, good, evil; hot, cold; after, over, under. However, not all words which look alike necessarily refer to the same thing – such misleading words are often called false friends. An example pair is OE bēor / Mod. E. beer. Although both refer to alcoholic drinks, the nature of the drink is quite different.

The examples above are all typical of OE words in being one or two syllables in length. Where there are two syllables, the stress is on the first. Initial stress is a characteristic feature of the Germanic languages as a group and remains the most common type of word structure in Mod. E. We have also retained from OE many of the ways of making new words, but at the same time English has borrowed numerous words from other languages, notably French and Latin. Thousands of French words were brought into English after the Norman Conquest of 1066, which ended the rule of the Anglo-Saxon kings and introduced considerable social change. New words occur especially in fields where Norman influence was strongest, such as Law, Literature and Fashion. These loan words from other languages often exhibit different stress patterns from the basic Germanic vocabulary, as with anatomy and cagoule from French, armada and potato from Spanish, kamikaze from Japanese, anathema from Greek and flamingo from Portuguese.

2. Compounds

New words are often formed in Mod. E. by combining two existing words to form a compound, as in aircraft, hatchback, motorway and raincoat. Such words are more specific in their meanings than the words they combine. This practice is even more characteristic of OE, where a high proportion of the vocabulary, particularly the vocabulary of poetry, comprises compounds. For instance, OE sǣ ‘sea’ combines with OE mann ‘man’ to give a compound sǣmann ‘sailor’. The same first element combines with OE dēor ‘animal’ to give sǣdēor ‘sea creature’. It also combines with OE rima ‘rim’ to give sǣrima ‘coast’, and with OE faru ‘journey’ to give sǣfaru ‘voyage’. You can often work out what a word means by breaking it down into its constituent parts.

2.1 Kennings

Sometimes a little more thought is required to understand a compound, as with sǣmearh, a combination of with mearh ‘horse’ (the ancestor of Mod. E. mare). Here the second element refers not to a living animal but to the horse as a mode of transport, so the compound as a whole translates as ‘ship’. Compounds like sǣmearh which are to be understood metaphorically rather than literally are common in OE poetry, and are known as ‘kennings’. Other examples are nihthelm ‘darkness’, a combination of niht ‘night’ with helm ‘helmet’; bānhūs ‘body’, from bān ‘bone’ and hūs ‘house’; and swanrād ‘sea’, from swan ‘swan’ and rād ‘road’.

3. Prefixes and suffixes

As in Mod. E., new OE words could be formed from existing ones with the addition of prefixes or suffixes. Prefixes tend to affect meaning, for instance by reversing or intensifying the application of the original word (e.g. excusable, inexcusable; sound, unsound). Suffixes are used to change one type of word into another: for instance, to create a noun from a verb (e.g. sing, singer), or an adverb from an adjective (e.g. sad, sadly).

Common OE prefixes include:
mis- defective (dǣd ‘deed’, misdǣd ‘misdeed’; faran ‘to go’, misfaran ‘to go astray’)
ofer- excess (ǣt ‘eating’, oferǣt ‘gluttony’; fyllan ‘to fill’, oferfyllan ‘to fill to overflowing’)
un- negative (cūþ ‘known’, uncūþ ‘unknown’; riht ‘right’, unriht ‘wrong’)

However, prefixes sometimes have little if any effect. For instance, giefan and forgiefan both mean ‘to give’. Many verbs can occur with or without the prefix ge-; niman and geniman both mean ‘to take’. This is sometimes summarized in dictionaries and grammars of OE as (ge)niman, and the ge is ignored when the words are alphabetized.

Common suffixes, many of which are still used in Mod. E., help to identify types of word.

Common adjective suffixes include:
-ful (cearu ‘care, sorrow’, cearful ‘sorrowful’)
-ig (blōd ‘blood’, blōdig ‘bloody’)
-isc (cild ‘child’, cildisc ‘childish’)
-lēas (hlāford ‘lord’, hlāfordlēas ‘lordless’)
-lic (wundor ‘wonder, miracle’, wundorlic ‘wonderful, miraculous’)

Many adverbs end in:
-e (heard ‘hard, fierce’, hearde ‘fiercely’)
-līce (hrædlic ‘quick’, hrædlīce ‘quickly’)

Abstract nouns often end in:
-dōm (wīs ‘wise’, wīsdōm ‘wisdom’)
-hād (cild ‘child’, cildhād ‘childhood’)
-nes (beorht ‘bright’, beorhtnes ‘brightness’)
-scipe (frēond ‘friend’, frēondscipe ‘friendship’)

Other common Mod. E. suffixes, such as those in words like devotion, fortitude; generous, generosity; social, sociable, sociability, were adopted later from French or Latin.

4. Metathesis

The transposition of sounds within a word is known as ‘metathesis’, and it affects a small but distinctive group of Mod. E. words derived from OE. Examples include beorht ‘bright’, brid ‘young bird’, gærs ‘grass’, þerscold ‘threshold’, þrītig ‘thirty’, þurh ‘through’ and wæps ‘wasp’.

5. Survival

Many of the surviving OE words occur very rarely, or only in specialised contexts. These are marked in TOE by four superscript flags, g, o, p, q.
- g indicates words which occur only as translations of foreign words, usually Latin. Such translations are sometimes written in a manuscript and sometimes occur in bilingual wordlists or glossaries.
- o indicates words which occur very rarely, often only once.
- p indicates words which occur only in poetry.
- q indicates words about whose very existence we are doubtful, perhaps because they occur in a manuscript which is difficult to read or has been altered in some way.

Searches can be made in TOE on the g, o and p flags. If a large number of words in a field have g or o flags, then either it is a field with a lot of specialized vocabulary or one that was not much written about. A lot of p flags, as in sections such as Warfare or Emotions, indicate that the subject commonly occurs in poetry. Poetry was an important literary form in Anglo-Saxon culture. Its structure was based on half lines linked by alliterating sounds, which is one reason why it was advantageous for poets to have groups of synonyms beginning with different letters.

Some of the editorial discussions of difficult words in TOE are recorded in the View Comments section at the foot of the screen. Where we reconstruct an Old English word that has never actually been found, it is preceded by an asterisk *. There are no such words in the database, but they may occur in discussions.


Further reading
The general books on OE and the history of the English Language listed in Unit 3 have sections on vocabulary.

Baugh, A. C. rev. Cable. 2002. History of the English Language, 5th edn. London:
          Routledge (and previous editions).
Sheard, J. A. 1954. The Words We Use. London: Deutsch.