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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

§ 13. Loss of Native Words

Not less remarkable than the abundance of new words added to the English vocabulary in the early Middle English period is the multitude of Old English words that went out of use. Anyone who will take the trouble to go through a few pages of an Old English dictionary, noting all the words that cannot be found in any writer later than about the year 1250, will probably be surprised at their enormous number. Perhaps the most convenient way of illustrating the magnitude of the loss which the language sustained before the middle of the thirteenth century will be to take a piece of Old English prose, and to indicate those words occuring in it that became obsolete before the date mentioned. The following passage is the beginning of Aelfric’s homily on St. Cuthbert, written about A.D. 1000. Of the words printed in italics, one or two occur in the Ormulum and other works of the beginning of the thirteenth century, but the majority disappeared much earlier.

  • Cuthbertus, se halga biscop, scnende on manegum geearnungum and hligum gepincpum, on heofenan rce mid pam ælmihtigum Scyppende on cere blisse rxiende, wuldrap.Cuthbert, the holy bishop, shining in many merits and holy honours, is in glory, reigning in the kingdom of heaven with the Almighty Creator.
  • Bda, se snotera Engla poda lreow, pises hlgan lif endebyrdlce mid wunderfullum herungum, ægper ge æfter ge æter njealdre gereccednysse ge æfter loplicere gyddunge, wrt. Ūs sæde splice Bda pæt se adige Cthberhtus, p p he wæs eahtawintre cild, arn, sw sw him his nytenlice yld tihte, plegende mid his efenealdum; ac se ælmihtiga God wolde stran pære nytennysse his gecorenan Cthberhtus purh mynegunge gelimplices lreowes, and sende him t n prywintre cild, pæt his dyslican plegan mid stæppigum wordum wslce prade.Beda, the wise teacher of the English peoples, wrote this holy man’s life in order with wonderful praises, both according to simple narration and according to poetic song. Beda has truly told us that the blessed Cuthbert, when he was a child of eight, ran, as his ignorant age impelled him, playing with children of his own age; but Almighty God willed to guide the ignorance of his chosen Cuthbert by the admonition of a fitting teacher, and sent to him a child three years old, who rebuked his foolish play wisely with serious words.
  • In the first thirty lines of Aelfric’s homily on St. Gregory, there occur the following words, none of which survived beyond the middle of the thirteenth century: andweard present, gedeorf labour, gecnyrdnyss study, ges[char]ligl[char]gl[char]ce blessedly, B[char]geng worship, geb[char]gan to subdue, drohtnung manner of life, swutell[char]ce plainly, wer man, gereccan to relate, [char]awf[char]st pious, [char]cenned born, [char]pelboren nobly born, m[char]gp kindred, wita senator, geglengan to adorn, sw[char]gan to sound, be called, wacol watchful, bebod command, herigendl[char]ce laudably, geswutelian to manifest.

    It is common to regard the obsolescence of Old English words after the Conquest as a mere consequence of the introduction of new words from French. The alien words, it is supposed, drove their native synonyms out of use. It is not to be denied that this was, to a considerable extent, the case. On the whole, however, it would probably be more true to say that the adoption of foreign words was rendered necessary because the native words expressing the same meanings had ceased to be current. When the literary use of English had for one or two generations been almost entirely discontinued, it was inevitable that the words that belonged purely to the literary language should be forgotten. And a cultivated literary dialect always retains in use a multitude of words that were once colloquial, but which even educated persons would consider too bookish to be employed in familiar speech. There were also, no doubt, in the language of English writers from Alfred onwards, very many compounds and derivatives which, though intelligible enough to all readers, were mere artificial formations that never had any oral currency at all. When the scholars of England ceased to write or read English, the literary tradition was broken; the only English generally understood was the colloquial speech, which itself may very likely have lost not a few words in the hundred years after Aelfric’s time.