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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

§ 14. The Poetical Vocabulary

It might, perhaps, have been expected that the special vocabulary of Old English poetry would have survived to a greater extent than we find it actually to have done. We should not, indeed, expect to find much of it in that large portion of Middle English poetry which was written in foreign metres and in imitation of foreign models. But, about the year 1350, there arose a school of poets who, though they were men of learning and drew their material from French and Latin sources, had learned their art from the unliterary minstrels who had inherited the tradition of the ancient Germanic alliterative line. These poets have an extraordinarily abundant store of characteristic words, which are not found in prose literature or in the contemporary poetry of a different school. It might naturally be supposed that this distinctive vocabulary would consist largely of the words that had been peculiar to poetic diction in Old English times. But, in fact, nearly all the words marked in Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary with the sign ([char]) as poetical are wanting in Middle English. The fourteenth century alliterative poets use some of the ancient epic synonyms for “man” or “warrior”: bern, renk, wye and freke, representing the Old English beorn, rinc, wiga and freca. A few words that in Old English were part of the ordinary language, such as m[char]lan (Middle English mele), to speak, are among the characteristic archaisms of the later alliterative poets. The adjective æpele, noble, became, in the form athil, one of the many synonyms for “man,” and often appears as hathel, probably through confusion with the Old English hælep, a man. The word burde, a lady, which is familiar to modern readers from its survival in late ballad poetry, seems to be the feminine of the Old English adjective byrde, high-born, of which only one instance is known, and that in prose. Several of the poetic words of the west midland school are of Scandinavian origin, as trine and cair (Old Norse keyra, to drive), which are both used for “to go.” The very common word tulk, a man, represents, with curious transformation of meaning, the Old Norse tulker, an interpreter. It is possible that some of these words, which are not found in modern dialects, were never colloquial English at all, but were adopted by the poets of the Scandinavian parts of England from the language of the ruling class.

The disappearance of the greater part of the old poetical vocabulary is probably due to its having been, in later Old English times, preserved only in the literary poetry which obtained its diction from the imitation of written models. To this poetry the alliterative poets of the fourteenth century owed nothing; the many archaisms which they retained were those that had been handed down in the unwritten popular poetry on which their metrical art was based.