Old English, Parvus sed Potens
Since I am currently participating in an Old English seminar–we’re translating Beowulf–I’m especially sensitive to anything that may seem like a slur on Old English, the fascinating language that was the origin of modern English.
Today’s post is inspired by a reader’s comment taken out of context. (See Sue’s remarks in context at Among/Amongst. They’re really quite amusing.)
Reflect on the fact that 50% of the words we’re using here were stolen from other languages and the other 50% were invented by Shakespeare to plug the gaps.
The remark, taken literally, implies that Modern English vocabulary owes nothing to that of Old English and this is the idea that I want to address.
True, it’s estimated that surviving native forms make up only about one-sixth of the enormous vocabulary of modern English–although how this percentage is arrived at is not clear to me since no one seems to be able to agree as to how many words make up the vocabulary of Modern English.
According to Michael Quinion at Worldwide Words,
…estimates of Shakespeare’s vocabulary vary from about 18,000 to 25,000 in various books, because writers have different views about what constitutes a distinct word…you’d think it would be easy to assess [Shakespeare’s] vocabulary… But estimates…vary from about 18,000 to 25,000…because writers have different views about what constitutes a distinct word.
Writing on this subject in Slate in 2006, Jesse Sheidlower mentions an entity called the Global Language Monitor. GLM claimed then that the English vocabulary consisted of 988,968 words. GLM is still counting. As of September 9, 2008, the total given on their website is 996,444.
The point that I’d like to make is that although the native OE vocabulary may be small compared to the Latinate words that came into the language during Shakespeare’s time, and the deluge of words from every language of the earth we’ve adopted since that time, the fact remains that we’d be unable to say much without them.
Take the comment quoted above as an example of our reliance on Old English vocabulary. The comment contains 33 words.
I’m counting 50% (fifty percent), we’re (we are), and Shakespeare (shake+spear) as two words each. Take out the repeated words and that leaves 27.
Result: 70% of Sue’s vocabulary in this comment relies on good old Old English!
Words of Old English origin:
on, the, that, fifty, of, words, we, are, here, were, stolen, from, other, and, other, by, shake, spear, to
Words derived from other languages:
Latin: reflect, fact, percent, invented
Old French: using, languages
Old Norse: gaps
Here is Sue’s comment shorn of its Old English vocabulary.
One of my favorite Latin expressions is Parvus sed potens (small but mighty). Old English vocabulary may have dwindled in proportion to the new words, but it remains the most useful and important part of the modern language.
One of my favorite English quotations is this one from the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon”:
Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, / mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.
The poem describes the last stand of some English warriors fighting invading Danes in CE 991. It’s an Alamo situation. The English lose, but they don’t run.
Freely translated it says:
Our resolution will be the firmer, our hearts will be the keener, our spirits will be stronger as our power lessens.
If words could be said to have attitude, I’d say that’s the attitude of Old English vocabulary in modern English.
Vive Old English!
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