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A) Common IE Words.

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OLD ENGLISH VOCABULARY

 

 

The full extent of the OE vocabulary is not known to present-day scholars. There is no doubt that many words have not been recorded in the extant texts at all. The evidence of the records has been supplemented from other sources: from the study of the words of closely related OG languages and from later, more extensive ME texts.

Modern estimates of the total vocabulary of OE range from about 30 000 words to almost 100 000 (A. I. Smirnitsky, M. Pei), — the latter figure being probably too high and unrealistic. (Among other causes the differences in the estimates depend on the treatment of polysemy and homonymy. But even the lowest estimates show that OE had already developed about as many words as used by a present-day cultured English speaker.) Despite the gaps in the accessible data, philological studies in the last centuries have given us a fairly complete outline of the OE vocabulary as regards its etymology, word-structure, word-building and stylistic differentiation.

Examination of the origin of words is of great interest in establishing the interrelations between languages and linguistic groups. Word etymology throws light on the history of the speaking community and on its contacts with other peoples.

The OE vocabulary was almost purely Germanic; except for a small number of borrowings, it consisted of native words inherited from PG or formed from native roots and affixes.

 

Native Words.

Native OE words can be subdivided into a number of etymological layers coming from different historical periods. The three main layers in the native OE words are: a) common IE words, 2) common Germanic words, 3) specifically OE words.

a) Common IE Words.

Words belonging to the common IE layer constitute the oldest part of the OE vocabulary. They go back to the days of the IE parent-language before its extension over the wide territories of Europe and Asia and before the appearance of the Germanic group. They were inherited by PG and passed into the Germanic languages of various subgroups, including English.

Among these words we find names of some natural phenomena, plants and animals, agricultural terms, names of parts of the human body, terms of kinship, etc.; verbs belonging to this layer denote the basic activities of man; adjectives indicate the most essential qualities; this layer includes personal and demonstrative pronouns and most numerals. In addition to roots, this portion of the OE (and Germanic) heritage includes word-building and form-building elements. OE examples of this layer are: eolh, mere, mōna, trēow, sāwan, næ3l, beard, brōθor, mōdor, sunu, dōn, bēon, nīwe, long, ic, mīn, þæt, twā, etc. (NE elk, 'sea', moon, tree, sow, nail, beard, brother, mother, son, do, be, new, long, I, my, that, two). Some words of this oldest layer are not shared by all the groups of the IE family but are found only in certain areas. In the early days of their separate history the Germanic tribes were more closely connected with their eastern neighbours, the Baltic and Slavonic tribes, while later they came into closer contact with the Italic and Celtic groups. These facts are borne out by the following lexical parallels: OE beard (NE beard) is found in the Germanic group (OHG bart) and has parallels in Latvian barda and in R борода. OE tun (NE town) belongs to the Germanic vocabulary (cf. O Icel tun) and is also found in Celtic: Old Irish dun; OE lippa (NE lip), and its OHG parallel leffur, appears in the Italic group as L labium; other examples of the same type are OE spere, NE spear, OHG sper, L sparus, OE 3emæne 'common', OHG gimeini, L communus.


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