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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer

§ 12. Scandinavian Words in English

The English literature of the eleventh century is almost wholly written in the southern dialect, which was comparatively little exposed to Scandinavian influence. We find in it, therefore, only a very small number of Norse or Danish words, such as f[char]laga a business partner, “fellow”; lagu law; h[char]scarl “house-carl,” member of the king’s household; h[char]sbonda master of a house, “husband”; h[char]sting assembly of the “housecarls”; [char]tlaga outlaw. But when, in the thirteenth century, the language spoken in the north and the north midlands again began to appear in a written form, the strongly Scandinavian character of its vocabulary becomes apparent. The diction of the Ormulum, whose author bore a Scandinavian name, is full of Danish words, many of which are not otherwise found in English literature, though some of these are preserved in modern rustic dialects. In Cursor Mundi, in Genesis and Exodus, in Havelok, in the writings of Robert Mannyng of Brunne in Lincolnshire, and in the west midland alliterative poetry, the large Scandinavian element must, even if other peculiarities of dialect had been absent, have been quite sufficient to render these works very difficult reading for natives of the south of England. In several instances, native words that were in extremely common use were superseded by Danish synonyms: call took place of c[char]gan (another Old English word of the same meaning, cleopian, remained as clepe), niman was displaced by take and weorpan by cast.

The freedom with which words could be adopted from French to express complex and abstract notions had a marked effect in checking the augmentation of the English vocabulary by means of composition. The new compounds that arose in Middle English down to the end of the fourteenth century are extremely few. Individual writers occasionally ventured on experiments in this direction, especially in translations of Latin formations like Dan Michel’s ayenbite (“again-biting”) for remorse; or Wyclif’s hamersmyter for the malleator of the Vulgate, and soul-havers for animantia; but their coinages seldom found general acceptance. The prefixes be-, for– and with– (in the sense of “against”), were, however, used to form many new verbs. The old derivative suffixes, for the most part, continued in use. New abstract nouns were formed from adjectives and substantives by the addition of the endings -ness, -hode and -hede (the modern -hood, -head) and -ship; new adjectives in -sum, -ful, -lich (-ly); and new agent-nouns in -ere. The ending -ing was more and more frequently added to verbs to form nouns of action, and, before the end of the fourteenth century, the derivatives so formed had come to be used as mere gerunds. The suffix -liche (-ly) became a regular means of forming adverbs. As the Old English endings -en and -icge, used to form nouns denoting persons of the female sex, had become obsolete, the French -esse was adopted, and added to native words, as in goddesse, fiendesse and sleeresse (a female slayer). In the southern dialect of the thirteenth century, there appears a curious abundance of feminine agent-nouns formed from verbs by adding the suffix -ild, of which there are one or two examples in Old English, though, singularly enough, they have been found only in Northumbrian. Instances of this formation from the Ancren Riwle are beggild a woman given to begging, cheapild a female bargainer, grucchild a female grumbler, mathelild a female chatterer, totild a woman fond of peeping; other words of this formation which do not imply any disparagement are fostrild a nurse, and motild a female advocate. Besides the feminines in -esse, the fourteenth century shows a few examples of the practice, which afterwards became so common, of appending Romanic suffixes to native words. Hampole has trowable for credible, Wyclif everlastingtee (after eternitee), and Chaucer slogardrie and slogardie (“sluggardry”), and eggement instigation (from the verb “to egg”).

Several of the new words that came into very general use in or before the fourteenth century are of unknown or doubtful origin. Such are the verb kill, which appears first in Layamon under the form cullen; and the substantive smell (whence the verb), which superseded the Old English stenc (stench), originally applicable no less to a delightful odour than to an unpleasant one. Some of the new words, as left (hand), which took the place of the Old English wynstre, and qued bad, have cognates in Low German, but are not likely to have been adopted from the continent; they more probably descend from non-literary Old English dialects. Boy and girl (the latter originally applied to a young person of either sex), lad and lass, are still of uncertain origin, though conjectures more or less plausible have been offered.