Old English, Parvus sed Potens

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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
Dutch: plug
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!

Quinion article
Sheidlower article
Global Language Monitor

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7 thoughts on “Old English, Parvus sed Potens”

  1. I used to teach Robert Nye’s Beowulf to my 7th graders and for fun googled up an audio of an old English reading of a passage of the original story. The kids were fascinated and couldn’t believe that modern English started there.

    My senior English Lit teacher forced us through an old English version. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but realize now that it was good for me.

  2. Hmm…

    I see what you are saying, but I think that you are looking at the English language in an extremely heterogeneous way. There are very few “pure” words in the English language.

    As you point out, many of our words come from Latin or Greek or French or Norse or so on. But in most cases, the word is then filtered and changed — literally anglicized. One of your examples is “language” from the French “langue”. But it is important to state the obvious: it is *not* langue, but language.

    (As an aside, it should be mentioned that many French words ultimately come from the Latin as well. Many of our words have been filtered several times before becoming the words they are today.)

    So even if the etymology of the word goes back to a different language, it is still ultimately and distinctly an English word. Which is a nicer way of say that we have an almost exclusively bastardized language (and therefore few pure words).

    In a way, old English has also been “anglicized” and morphed into modern English. I think that at the heart of it, old English is a bit of a misnomer since it is so completely different than the language we speak today. Yes, there may be a link to modern English through middle English. But even those words of old English descent are filtered through Latin and French, etc. influences.

    There is no denying the profound impact old English had as a basis of our language. But it is sort of like flour to bread — the changes are so absolute and so reliant on other outside forces that it really isn’t the “father” of modern English any more than Latin or French or any other language. It is an important ingredient, but simply an ingredient nonetheless.

    Great post though — very thought (and perhaps debate?) provoking!


  3. Ah, this post took me back to the good old days of my PhD in Old English poetry. (If you like the Battle of Maldon, read the Old English Exodus for a true literary thrill).

    I agree that Old English words are the lifeblood of our language – and I’m always telling my clients to use them instead of what the great Alistair Cooke described as ‘pompous Latinisms’.

    Why ‘commence’ when you can ‘begin’? Why say ‘alternatively’ when ‘on the other hand’ sounds so much more human?

    Sue’s remark that “50% of the words we’re using here were stolen from other languages” displays a rather odd view of the way languages develop.

    She makes it sound as though our modern vocabulary (or should that be ‘word-hoard’?) has been ransacked from poor, subdued foreign nations as part of our nasty imperial past.

    That – like the Elgin marbles – we should probably give all those pilfered words back.

    (Empire does play a small part in our language’s richness, of course, but it’s our past as an invaded island that on the whole created the language we speak today).

    And as for the idea that a single man – however talented – invented 50% of our language?

    If that were the case, I think Shakespeare would have found it very hard to make himself understood to his contemporaries!

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