Old English Lexicon and Literature


Old English had a tremendously rich vocabulary; and, more importantly in terms of literature and rhetoric, we have evidence that the Anglo-Saxons admired individuals with a wide-ranging "word hoard." The Anglo-Saxons described their treasure-troves as "hoards," vast collections of wealth hidden from view. And it was thus they described their own vocabularies and their rhetorical deftness in deploying them.


Although most Old English texts have not survived (the Vikings and Henry VIII both did their share to obliterate Early English culture), thousands of words appear in Old English literature and many survive into Present-Day English. Old English poetry encouraged the expansiveness of Old English vocabulary. Since Old English poetry was both alliterating and formulaic, poets required a wide variety of synonyms and initially-rhyming words.

Formulaic poetry uses variation--the repetition of the same word/idea in varying contexts. Old English poetry also alliterated--used initial rhyme to hold itself together formally. Consider these lines from Beowulf:

Oft Scyld Scefing                sceaena reatum,                                
often Scyld Scefing           of enemies troops
monegum mgum,              meodosetla ofteah,                              
many tribes                   of mead-benches deprived
egsode eorlas.                 Syan rest wear                                 
terrified earls               After first became
feasceaft funden,             he s frofre gebad,                                  
property-less found     he for that comfort experienced
weox under wolcnum,            weormyndum ah,                            
waxed under clouds         honors gained
ot him ghwylc              ara ymbsittendra                                
until to him each             of those sitting around
ofer hronrade                hyran scolde,                                              
over the whale road   to obey should
gomban gyldan.                t ws god cyning!                               
tribute to yied            that was a good king

[Scyld Scefing often deprived his enemies, many tribes, of their mead-benches, terrified earls. After first he was found property-less, he experienced comfort for that, waxed under the clouds, gained honors. Until each of those sitting around him, over the whale-road should obey him, yield tribute. That was a good king!]

First, alliteration. Old English poetry used initial rhyme--the repetition of initial consonantal phonemes or allophones or vowels--to link together the verse. The poet would establish an alliterating sound in the first half line (the reason why there's the gully between the two half-lines in the editions) and repeat the sound in the first stressed syllable of the second half-line. One slightly odd feature of this is that all vowels rhymed with all other vowels. For each of the lines above, identify the alliterating sound or sounds (in the case of vowels) and write it to the right of the line in the space provided.

Second, variation. Old English poets used both variation and formulae in their poetry. For example, the formula "t ws god cyning" (that was a good king), appears a few times in the poem for radically different effects. In this passage, it highlights how the horrifying violence Scyld Scefing performed on the "ymbsittendra" (the tribes all around them) was a beneficial thing for the Danes themselves. Other elements of this passage represent variation in its purest sense: using multiple words to describe one person or thing over and over. As the poet describes Scyld's childhood, he describes him as "feasceaft funden" (found without property) and as someone who "weox under wolcnum" (waxed beneath the clouds).

The Kenning

The last element of Old English vocabulary building that this passage illustrates is the kenning a metaphorical compound that describes a thing according to its properties or its uses, either real or metaphorical. The kennings describing the sea always get to me: in this passage, the sea is the "hronrade" (the whale-road); in other passages, the "swanrade" (the swan-road). Many kennings have slowly coalesced into single words that we use today without considering their metaphorical origins. For example, PDE lady comes from OE hlafdige (loaf-maker).


Not all compounds are kennings. Old English, like most of the Germanic languages (and other Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit and Greek), had a great number of vocabulary items that were compounds. Some were true compounds, which had their origins in native settings (such as PDE nostril  OE nasryl 'nose-hole'), while others were calques, compounds created by translating elements of Latin or Greek words literally and then combining them. For example, L. unicornis became OE anhorn, L. evangelium OE godspell.

Compounding is still a productive way for English-speakers to create new words. Go to the Oxford English Dictionary's update page and choose one of the letter fields (e.g. mid-Mirzapur). Examine the letter field. Answer these questions concerning the fields:

1. How many compound words are there among the entries?

2. How many compound words are there of the type noun + noun = noun?

3. How many compound words are there of the type adjective + noun = noun?

4. How many compound words are there of the type adverb + noun = noun?

5. How many compound words are there of the type noun + adjective = adjective?

6. How many compound words are there of the type adjective + adjective = adjective?

7. How many compound words are there of the type adverb + adjective = adjective?

8. How many compound words are there of the type adjective + noun = noun?

9. How many words are there that are the product of a noun or adjective or adverb or verb plus an affix of some sort? (i.e. mid-shore)

Compare your results with Millward's discussion of compounding on pp. 122-123.

Old English Literature

As we discussed above, Old English poetry was largely alliterative and formulaic. We used an example from Beowulf to illustrate Old English poetry, but comparatively little of Old English poetry was actually "heroic." Most Old English poetry that survives takes biblical topics and translates them into Old English poetry that has a markedly Anglo-Saxon aesthetic. When discussing the poetry, we can identify three primary types: heroic/epic verse, elegiac verse, and didactic verse. 

Heroic verse focused on one principle narrative: emigration and settlement, conquering the land and gaining a foothold. Even the biblical epics focused on this topic. Old English Genesis, Exodus, Judith all focused on the efforts of the main characters to overcome opposition and gain control over their own fate.

Elegiac poetry expresses the emotions of loss and longing. Some of the best Old English poetry is elegiac in nature. Consider this ubi sunt (where have they gone?) motif from The Wanderer:

(Translated by Michael Alexander)

The Maker of men hath so marred this dwelling
That human laughter is not heard about it
And idle stand these old giant-works.
A man who on these walls wisely looked
Who sounded deeply this dark life
Would think back to the blood spilt here,
Weigh it in his wit. His word would be this:
'Where is that horse now? Where are those men? Where is the hoard-sharer?
Where is the house of the feast? Where is the hall 's uproar?
Alas, bright cup! Alas, burnished fighter!
Alas, proud prince! How that time has passed,
Dark under night's helm, as though it never had been!
There stands in the stead of staunch thanes
A towering wall wrought with worm-shapes;
The earls are off-taken by the ash-spear's point,
- That thirsty weapon. Their Weird is glorious.
Storms break on the stone hillside,
The ground bound by driving sleet,
Winter's wrath. Then wanness cometh,
Night's shade spreadeth, sendeth from north
The rough hail to harry mankind.

You'll note the sense of despair, of loneliness, that pervades this passage. Elegiac poetry demonstrates the complete interdependence of members of Anglo-Saxon society. Without his lord, a man really was set adrift, with no way to defend himself, no way to feed himself. He became, essentially, an aglca 'a solitary opponent'--the name given to Grendel in Beowulf.

I want you to go through this translation and see how many words of Old English origin the translator actually uses to translate the poem. Based on what you know about Old English word formation and morpheme combining, make guesses to establish which of these words is native, which borrowed. Look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary to determine. If the word is borrowed, write down the date at which its first occurrence in English appears. For example, glorious is a borrowed word (I guess that because the ending -ous is not among the affixes listed on p. 123).

WORD    SOURCE LANGUAGE   First Use     First User

glorious: Anglo-French source; first used in 1382 by Wyclif.


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