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External means of enriching vocabulary (Old English borrowings)

Internal means of enriching vocabulary

Means of enriching vocabulary

General characteristics

Old English

The vocabulary of Old English was rather extensive. It is said to have contained about 50 000 words. These words were mainly native words. They could be divided into a number of strata. The oldest stratum was composed of words coming from the Common Indo-European parent tongue.

Many of these words were inherited by English together with some other Indo-European languages from the same common source, and we shall find related words in various Indo-European languages. Compare:

Old English New English Latin Russian

modor mother mater мать

niht night nox ночь

neowe new novus новый

beran bear ferre брать

Another layer, relatively more recent, was words inherited by English and other Germanic languages from the same common Germanic source. You will find them in many languages, but only those belonging to the Germanic group. Compare:

Old English New English German

eorQe earth Erde

land land Land

The third stratum, and that not very extensive, was made up of words that existed only in English, for instance, the word clypian (to call), the root preserved in the now somewhat obsolete word yclept (named).

The vocabulary was changing all the time, old words becoming extinct and new words entering the Language, enriching it.

As is known, there are two principal ways of enriching the vocabulary of a language: internal means — those that are inherent in the language itself, and external means, which result from contacts between peoples. The English-speaking people of the period mainly used internal means of enriching the vocabulary to adapt their language to the expression of more varied or new notions.

While creating new words the English language, as we have mentioned above, principally resorted to its own, internal means: word derivation, primarily affixation and vowel interchange, and word composition.

— Word derivation

In Old English affixation was widely used as a word-building means.

There were very many suffixes, with the help of which new nouns, adjectives, adverbs and sometimes verbs were formed, for instance:

— noun suffixes of concrete nouns:

-ere fisc+ere (fisher) denoting the doer

-estre spinn+estre (spinster) of the action

— noun suffixes of abstract nouns:

-dom freo+dom (freedom)

— adjective suffixes

-ful car+ful (careful)

Prefixes were used on a limited scale and they generally had a negative meaning:

mis- mis+daid (misdeed)

Vowel interchange:


son3 (song)

dom (doom)


singan (to sing)

deman (to deem)

Word composition

Word composition was a well-developed means of enriching vocabulary in Old English.

As we understand, borrowings into a language are a result of contacts with other nations. The Germanic tribes had but few contacts with other nations at the beginning of A.D., consequently the number of borrowed words in Old English was not great. The main borrowings that we can single out in Old English were Latin and Celtic borrowings.

— Latin borrowings

The first Latin borrowings entered the language before the Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians invaded the British Isles, i.e. at the time when they still lived on the continent. Due to trade relations with their southern powerful neighbour — the Roman empire — Germanic tribes learned a number of products that had been unknown to then, and, consequently, their names. So the first stratum of borrowings are mainly words connected with trade. Many of them are preserved in Modern English, such as:

pound, inch, pepper, cheese, wine, apple, pear, plum, etc.

The second stratum of words was composed of loan Latin words that the Germanic tribes borrowed already on British soil from the romanized Celts, whom they had conquered in the 5th century. Those were words connected with building and architecture, as the preserved nowadays:

tile, street, wall, mill, etc.

They denoted objects which the Germanic invaders encountered on the British Isles.

The third stratum of Latin loan words was composed of words borrowed after the introduction of the Christian religion. They are generally of a religious nature, such as the present-day words:

bishop, devil, apostle, monk.

As Latin was the language of learning at the time, there also entered the language some words that were not directly connected with religion, such as:

master, school, palm, lion, tiger, plant, astronomy, etc.

— Celtic borrowings

The Celtic language left very few traces in the English language, because the Germanic conquerors partly exterminated the local population, partly drove them away to the less fertile mountaineous parts of the country, where they were not within reach of the invaders. The Celtic-speaking people who remained on the territory occupied by the Germanic tribes were slaves, and even those were not very numerous. It is small wonder therefore that the number of Celtic loan words was limited. Among the few borrowed words we can mention:

down (the downs of Dover), binn (bin - basket, crib, manger).

Some Celtic roots are preserved in geographical names, such as:

kil (church — Kilbrook), ball (house — Ballantrae), esk (water — river Esk)and some others.

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