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C) The Sources of New Words

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The sources of new words are usually divided into internal and external. Internal ways of developing the vocabulary were productive in all historical periods. Word-formation and semantic changes were equally prolific in the creation of new words and new meanings; they were exceptionally productive in the periods of rapid vocabulary growth, such as the Renaissance period.

The role of external sources in the extension of the English vocabulary is very considerable, perhaps far more so than in most other languages. It is commonly acknowledged that one of the most drastic changes in the English vocabulary is the change in its etymological composition. While the OE vocabulary was almost entirely Germanic and on the whole was highly resistant to borrowing, the language of later periods absorbed foreign words by the hundred and even made use of foreign word components in word formation.As a result the proportion of Germanic words in the English language has fallen: according to modern estimates the native Germanic element constitutes from 30 to 50% of the vocabulary; the other two thirds (or half) come from foreign sources, mainly Romance.

This does not mean, however, that the native element in English is insignificant or that over half of all the words are direct borrowings. The importance of the surviving native words is borne out by the fact that they belong to the most frequent layer of words, and that native components are widely used in word-building, in word phrases and phraseological units. It should also be realised that the foreign origin of a morpheme does not mean that every word containing this morpheme is a borrowing. When the loan-words were assimilated by the language — which happened some time after their adoption — they could yield other words through word-formation or develop new meanings on British soil; these new items are specifically English words and meanings and are, therefore, as “native” as the Germanic heritage. For instance, the foreign root pass (from French passer) is used in numerous composite verbs (“verb-adverb combinations”) like pass away, pass by, pass for, pass through, etc.; in phraseological units like pass by the name of, pass a remark, pass the ball; in derived and compound words, e.g. passer-by, passing, pass-book. All these words and phrases originated in the English language and cannot be treated as borrowings, though they contain the foreign component pass.

The influx of borrowings was directly dependent on the linguistic situation in the country, on the extent of bilingualism in the community, and on the position and role of the foreign language. The linguistic situation in ME was most favourable for strong foreign influence — first Scandinavian then French. Foreign words were adopted in large numbers in the succeeding periods as well and their sources became more diverse: English freely borrowed both from classical and modern sources though at no other time the immediate effect of the foreign impact was as manifest as in ME.

2. Scandinavian Influence on the Vocabulary

The Scandinavian invasions had far-reaching linguistic consequences which became apparent mainly in ME; the greater part of lexical borrowings from O Scand was not recorded until the 13th c.

As mentioned before, the presence of the Scandinavians in the English population is indicated by a large number of place-names in the northern and eastern areas (former Danela3u): most frequent are place-names with the Scandinavian components thorp ‘village’, toft ‘piece of land’, by from O Scand byr ‘village’, beck ‘rivulet’, ness ‘cape’, e.g. Troutbeck, Inverness, Woodthorp, Grimsby, Brimtoft.

The fusion of the English and of the Scandinavian settlers progressed rapidly; in many districts people became bilingual, which was aneasy accomplishment since many of the commonest words in the two OG languages were very much alike.

Gradually the Scandinavian dialects were absorbed by English, leaving a profound impression on the vocabulary of the Northern English dialects.

In the beginning Scandinavian loan-words were dialectally restricted; they increased the range of language variation; later due to dialect mixture they penetrated into other parts of the language space, passed into London English and the national language. It is noteworthy that the number of Scandinavian loan-words in the Northern dialects has always been higher than in the Midlands and in the South. Probably in Early ME there were more Scandinavian words in current use than have survived today. Some words died out or were retained only in the local dialects, e.g. kirk ‘church’, dai ‘dew’. The total number of Scandinavian borrowings in English is estimated at about 900 words; about 700 of them belong to Standard English.

It is difficult to define the semantic spheres of Scandinavian borrowings: they mostly pertain to everyday life and do not differ from native words. Only the earliest loan-words deal with military and legal matters and reflect the relations of the people during the Danish raids and Danish rule. These early borrowings are Late OE barda, cnearr, sce3þ (different types of ships), cnif (NE knife), liþ ‘fleet’, orrest ‘battle’. Among legal terms are Late OE la3u, ūtla3u, feola3a, husbonda (NE law, outlaw, fellow, husband), and also the verb tacan (NE take).



The word law is derived from O Scand log which meant ‘that which is laid down’. It was adopted as early as the 10th c. and was preserved together with its derivatives: ME outlaw, NE in-law, lawyer; ME bylaw goes back to byr ‘town’ and lawe, and denotes ‘town’ or ‘local law’. The word husband was originally a legal term ‘house holder’, one who owns a house; similarly fellow which stemmed from O Scand fēlagi, indicated one who lays down a fee, as a partner or shareholder. In the subsequent centuries many Scandinavian military and legal terms disappeared or were displaced by French terms.

Examples of everyday words of Scandinavian origin which have been preserved in present-day Standard English are given below in alphabetical order according to the part of speech. The simple character of the borrowings is well illustrated by the lists of nouns, adjectives and verbs. Nouns — bag, band, birth, brink, bulk, cake, crook, dirt, egg, freckle, gap, gate, keel, kid, leg, link, loan, raft, root, score, scrap, seat, skill, skim, skirt, skull, sky, slaughter, sneer, steak, thrift, window, wing; adjectives — awkward, flat, happy, ill, loose, low, meek, odd, rotten, scant, scarce, sly, tight, ugly, weak, wrong; verbs — bait, bask, call, cast, clamp, crawl, cut, die, drown, gape, gasp, hit, happen, lift, nag, raise, rake, rid, scare, scatter, scowl, snub, take, thrive, thrust, want.

A most convincing proof of the close contacts between the two languages in everyday life and of bilingualism prevailing in many areas is the replacement of some native form-words by Scandinavian borrowings. It must be mentioned that form-words are rarely borrowed from a foreign language. The Scandinavian pronoun þegg (3rd p. pl) was first recorded in ORMULUM, a text which contains many Scandinavian loan-words (c. 1200, North-East Midland dialect). Gradually they, together with the forms them, their, themselves displaced OE hīe. It is believed that the final selection of they (instead of hīe) was favoured, if not caused, by the resemblance of ME descendants of several pronouns of the 3rd p.: hīe, hē, and hēo, (‘they’, ‘he’, ‘she’). It was at that time that OE hēo was replaced by she.

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Other form-words borrowed from Scandinavian are: both, though, fro (which was used interchangeably with the native parallel from and has been preserved in the phrase to and fro).

Vocabulary changes due to Scandinavian influence proceeded in different ways: a Scandinavian word could enter the language as an innovation, without replacing any other lexical item; such was probably the case of law, fellow, outlaw. More often, however, the loan-word was a synonym of a native English word and their rivalry led to different results: the loan-word could eventually disappear or could be restricted to dialectal use (e.g. Late OE barda ‘ship’, liþ ‘fleet’); it could take the place of the native word (e.g. they, take, call, which replaced OE hīe, niman, clipian); both the borrowed and the native words could survive as synonyms with a slight difference in meaning. Cf. NE bloom (from O Scand blōm) and native blossom; ill (from O Scand illr) and native evil; sky (from O Scand ský ‘cloud’) and heaven; die and starve; bask and bathe; want and wish. In the course of semantic differentiation the meaning of one or both words became narrower and more specialised and the spheres of reference of the synonyms were divided, e.g. OE steorfan had a more general meaning ‘die’ before deyen was adopted from O Scand deyia (NE die); NE starve has narrowed its meaning to ‘die of hunger’; sky and heaven have different spheres of application, the same is true of other pairs of synonyms. Sometimes the semantic difference is very slight but the survival of both synonyms is supported by their stylistic or syntactic distinctions (cf. want and wish, happy and merry, scare and frighten, skill and craft).

It is interesting to note that sometimes the Scandinavian parallel modified the meaning of the native word without being borrowed. For instance, OE dream indicated ‘joy’, but acquired the meaning of the Scandinavian parallel, hence NE dream; OE seman ‘reconcile’ acquired the meaning ‘be fit’, hence modern seem. OE ploh was a unit of measurement of land, from Scandinavian it obtained the modern meaning of plough ‘agricultural implement’.

Since both languages, O Scand and OE, were closely related, Scandinavian words were very much like native words. Therefore, assimilation of loan-words was easy. Both in ME and nowadays it is difficult to distinguish Scandinavian loans from native words. The only criteria that can be applied are some phonetic features of borrowed words: the consonant cluster [sk] is a frequent mark of Scandinavian loan-words, e.g. sky, skill; [sk] does not occur in native words, as OE [sk] had been palatalised and modified to [∫]: cf. ME fish, ship (from OE fisc, scip; some words with [sk] come from other foreign languages: Latin and Greek school, scheme; sketch comes from Netherlandish). The sounds [∫] and [sk] are sometimes found in related words in the two languages: native shirt and the Scandinavian loan-word skirt are etymological doublets (which means that they go back to the same Germanic root but have been subjected to different phonetic and semantic changes; cf. also scatter and shatter, scream and shriek).

Other criteria of the same type are the sounds [k] and [g] before front vowels, which in native words normally became [t∫] and [d3].Cf. kid (from O Scand) and chin (native, from OE cin), girth (from O Scand) and yield (from OE 3ieldan). These criteria, however, are not always reliable. ([k] could sometimes be retained in native words before a front vowel as well, e.g. king).

The intimate relations of the languages, among other things, could result in phonetic modification of native words. Words like give, get, gift are included by some scholars in the list of Scandinavian loan-words on the basis of this criterion, but are also regarded as instances of phonetic influence upon native words; we may say that ME gyven, geten and gift were Northern variants of the words whose pronunciation was influenced by Scandinavian; nevertheless, they are native words. The same is true of the word sister, which goes back to native OE sweostor and to O Scand systir.

3. French Influence on the Vocabulary in Middle English

The French language was brought to England by the Norman conquerors. The Normans remained masters of England for a sufficiently long time to leave a deep impress on the language. The Norman rulers and the immigrants, who invaded the South-Western towns after the Conquest, spoke a variety of French, known as “Anglo-Norman”. This variety died out about two hundred years later, having exerted a profound influence upon English. In the 13th and 14th c. English was exposed to a new wave of French influence; this time it came from Central, Parisian French, a variety of a more cultivated, literary kind.

The effect of these successive and overlapping waves was seen first and foremost in a large number of lexical borrowings in ME. At the initial stages of penetration French words were restricted to some varieties of English: the speech of the aristocracy at the king’s court; the speech of the middle class, who came into contact both with the rulers and with the ruled; the speech of educated people and the population of South-Eastern towns. Eventually French loan-words spread throughout the language space and became an integral of the English vocabulary. Early borrowings were mostly made in the course of oral communication; later borrowings were first used in literature — in translations of French books.

The total number of French borrowings by far exceeds the number of borrowings from any other foreign language (though sometimes it is difficult to say whether the loan came from French or Latin). The greater part of French loan-words in English date from ME.

During the initial hundred and fifty years of the Norman rule the infiltration of French words into the English language progressed slowly. Early ME texts contain very few French words: only twenty French words are found in ORMULUM (c. 1200, North-East Midland). More words are recorded in manuscripts coming from the southern regions: 150 words in Layamon’s BRUT and up to 500 words in ANCRENE RIWLE (South-West Midland). On the whole, prior to the 13th c. no more than one thousand words entered the English language, whereas by 1400 their number had risen to 10,000 (75% of them are still in common use). The majority of French loan-words adopted in ME were first recorded in the texts of the 14th c. Chaucer’s vocabulary, which amounts to 8,000 words, contains about 4,000 words of Romance origin, i.e. French and Latin borrowings.

Among the earliest borrowings are Early ME prisun (NE prison), Early ME castel (NE castle), Early ME werre (NE war), Late OE prýto, prūt (NE pride, proud).

The French borrowings of the ME period are usually described according to semantic spheres.

To this day nearly all the words relating to the government and administration of the country are French by origin: assembly, authority, chancellor, council, counsel, country, court, crown, exchequer, govern, government, nation, office, parliament, people, power, realm, sovereign and many others. Close to this group are words pertaining to the feudal system and words indicating titles and ranks of the nobility: baron, count, countess, duchess, duke, feudal, liege, manor, marquis, noble, peer, prince, viscount. It is notable that very few words of these semantic groups are native, e.g. lord, lady, king, queen, earl, knight. (OE cniht originally meant ‘boy’, ‘servant’, OE earl ‘man’, ‘warrior’.) These borrowings show that the Normans possessed a far more elaborate administrative system and a more complex scale of ranks.

The host of military terms adopted in ME is a natural consequence of the fact that military matters were managed by the Normans and that their organisation of the army and military service was new to the English. The examples are: aid, armour, arms, army, banner, battle (from O Fr and ME battaille), captain (from earlier cheftain), company, dart, defeat, dragoon, ensign, escape, force, lance, lieutenant, navy, regiment, sergeant, siege, soldier, troops, vessel, victory and many others. It is interesting that some of the loan-words from French were originally borrowed from Germanic languages at an earlier stage of history, e.g. ME werre (from O Fr werre, Mod Fr guerre) entered O Fr, or rather its parent-language, the spoken Latin of Gaul, at the time of the first Franconian kingdoms. (Other words with similar histories are: guard from O Fr guarde, cf. O Scand vördhr; garden from O Fr garden, jardin, cf. OHG garto).

A still greater number of words belong to the domain of law and jurisdiction, which were certainly under the control of the Normans. For several hundred years court procedure was conducted entirely in French, so that to this day native English words in this sphere are rare. Many of the words first adopted as juridical terms belong now to the common everyday vocabulary: acquit, accuse, attorney, case, cause, condemn, court, crime, damage, defendant, false, felony, guilt, heir, injury, interest, judge, jury, just, justice, marry, marriage, money, penalty, plaintiff, plead, poor, poverty, properly, prove, rent, robber, session, traitor.

A large number of French words pertain to the Church and religion, for in the 12th and 13th c. all the important posts in the Church were occupied by the Norman clergy: abbey, altar, archangel, Bible, baptism, cell, chapel, chaplain, charity, chaste, clergy, divine, grace, honour, glory, lesson, miracle, nativity, paradise, parish, passion, pray, preach, procession, religion, rule, sacrifice, saint, save, sermon, tempt, vice, virgin, virtue.

Besides these spheres which reflect the dominant position of the Normans in Britain as conquerors and rulers, there are many others which reveal the influence of the Norman way of life on the English.

From the loan-words referring to house, furniture and architecture we see that the Normans introduced many innovations, which became known to the English together with their French names: arch, castle, cellar, chimney, column, couch, curtain, cushion, lamp, mansion, palace, pillar, porch, table, wardrobe. Some words are connected with art: art, beauty, colour, design, figure, image, ornament, paint. Another group includes names of garments: apparel, boot, coat, collar, costume, dress, fur, garment, gown, jewel, robe.

Many French loan-words belong to the domain of entertainment, which is natural enough, for the Norman nobles amused themselves with various pastimes. The borrowed chase competed with its native synonym hunt, which has survived as well; other examples are: cards, dance, dice, leisure, partner, pleasure, sport, tournament, trump. Some of these words can be described as relating to knighthood, such as adventure (ME aventure), array, chivalry, contest, courteous, honour, romance.

We can also single out words relating to different aspects of the life of the upper classes and of the town life: forms of address — sir, madam, and also mister, mistress (as well as master and servant); names of some meals — dinner, supper — and dishes. It was first noticed by J. Wallis (1653) that the names of meals are often French, whereas the names of the animals from whose meat they are cooked are English. Cf. beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, brawn, venison (French loan-words) and native English ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, bear, deer. The prevalence of French terms in cooking, as well as in clothes, can be accounted for by the fact that the French led the fashion in both these spheres, and that French professional cooks and tailors had settled in Britain. It is notable that town trades bore French names while simple country occupations retained their native names: cf. butcher, carpenter, draper, grocer, painter, tailor coming from French and the native miller, shepherd, shoemaker, smith.

Finally, many French loan-words cannot be referred to a definite semantic sphere and can only be listed as miscellaneous, e.g.: advice, air, allow, anxious, boil, carry, change, close, cover, cry, deceive, double, eager, enjoy, enter, envy, excuse, face, firm, flower, honest, hour, joy, large, letter, manner, move, necessary, nice, noise, obey, occupy, pale, pass, please, previous, push, river, remember, satisfy, search, scissors, single, sudden, sure, travel, treasure, very, use.

French influence led to different kinds of changes in the vocabulary. Firstly, there were many innovations, i.e. names of new objects and concepts, which enlarged the vocabulary by adding new items. Secondly, there were numerous replacements of native words by French equivalents, which resulted in a shift in the ratio of Germanic and Romance roots in the language, e.g. the loan-words very, river, peace, easy displaced the native OE swiþe, ēa, friþ, ēaþe. The adoption of a word synonymous with a native word did not necessarily lead to replacement. Most frequently the co-existence of a borrowed and native synonym ended in their differentiation, they were both retained as they differed in style, dialect, shades of meaning or combinability. This third kind of influence enriched the English vocabulary even more than the adoption of pure innovations. The influx of French words — as well as the later borrowing of Latin words — is one of the main historical reasons for the abundance of synonyms in Mod E. The difference between the native and borrowed words often lies in their stylistic connotations: French loan-words, particularly those which were adopted in Late ME (and later) preserve a more bookish, literary character; hence such pairs of words as French commence — native begin, conceal hide, prevent —-hinder, search look for, odour smell, desire wish.

The impact of French upon the English vocabulary was not limited to the borrowing of words or roots. The vocabulary was also enriched by the adoption of French affixes. Derivational affixes could not be borrowed as such; they entered the language in scores of loan-words, were unconsciously or consciously separated by the speakers and used in derivation. They could become productive in English only after the loan-words with those affixes were completely assimilated by the language; that is why the use of borrowed French affixes dates largely from the Early NE period.

Assimilation of French words by the speakers of English was a more difficult process than assimilation of Scandinavian words. The French language belonged to a different linguistic group and had very little in common with English.

Anglo-Norman words must have been very hard to pronounce as they contained many sounds which did not exist in English, such as nasalised vowels, the sound [y] and soft, palatalised consonants. Word accentuation in O Fr was foreign to English, a language of the Germanic group: in French the main stress fell on the ultimate or penultimate syllable of the word. Nevertheless, phonetic assimilation of borrowed words progressed quickly. The foreign features were lost and the words were adapted to the norms of English pronunciation. French sounds were replaced by resembling English sounds. Thus French [y] was reflected in English as [u] or [ju], e.g. O Fr juge, ME juge, NE judge, O Fr vertu, ME vertu, NE virtue. Palatalised [1'] and [n'] were shown as ordinary [1] and [n] or as sequences [il, in], cf. e.g. O Fr faillir, which contained [1'], and ME fallen, NE fail; O Fr compagnie — ME companye, NE company. The nasalised vowels lost their nasal character: e.g. O Fr chambre, ME chaumbre, NE chamber, O Fr changier, ME chaungen, changen [a:], NE change.

(Sometimes the difference between the French and the English word is accounted for not only by assimilation but also by the peculiarities of the Anglo-Norman variety of French: e.g. ME variants of changen contained the diphthong [au], chaungen (also straunge, comaunden) like the corresponding Anglo-Norman word; the difference in the consonants of Fr changer and NE change [∫] and [t∫] reflects the dialectal difference between Anglo-Norman and Parisian French).

The stress in French loan-words was shifted in conformity with the English rules of word accentuation, due to the rhythmic or recessive tendency. This was probably a slow process, since in Chaucer’s time (14th c.) we still find many words accented in the French way, like ME nature [na'tju:r∂], condicioun [¸k∂ndi'siu:n]. By the 17th c. they sounded ['nε:tf∂] and [k∂n'di∫n].

The degree of phonetic assimilation of foreign words is further attested by their participation in the sound changes of English. ME borrowings from French underwent the same Early NE phonetic changes as native words, and as words borrowed in the preceding periods, e.g. long accented vowels were subjected to the Great Vowel Shift, final unstressed vowels were reduced and dropped, e.g. ME robe ['ro:b∂]>NE robe; ME changen ['t∫a:nd3∂n]>NE change.

Grammatical assimilation of borrowed words evidently did not give much trouble to the speakers. They freely added English grammatical endings to the stems of the borrowed words and used them in all grammatical forms like native words: e.g. countable nouns took the universal ending -(e)s in the pl, all the verbs (except strive) became weak and took the suffix -d- to form the Past and Part. II.

A most important aspect of assimilation was the participation of borrowed words and their components in word formation. As early as ME some French roots came to be combined with English affixes and other roots, e.g. Late ME verrai-ly, un-fruit-ful, gentil-man, gentil-woman (NE very, unfruitful, gentleman, gentlewoman). These words are hybrids as their component parts come from different languages. French derivational affixes began to be used in word-building some time later.

Since the French loan-words of the ME period were completely assimilated, it is not easy to identify a French borrowing and to distinguish it from native words or borrowings from other languages. Some French loans have retained their bookish character, but this stylistic connotation is even more typical of later borrowings from classical languages (cf. e.g. sorrow, sorry — native, grief — Fr, affliction — L). Many French words are polysyllabic, but so are many native words and borrowings from other languages. More reliable criteria are French suffixes and prefixes frequently occurring in borrowed words: -ment, -ty, -ion, re-, de- and others; and yet, since they came to be employed as derivational means in English and yielded new specifically English words, they cannot serve as absolutely reliable marks of French words.


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