The Historical Development of the English Lexicon
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The Historical Development of the English Lexicon

1. The Historical Development of the English Lexicon


English belongs to the Indo-European
language family, namely, to its Germanic
branch, together with German, Dutch,
Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic,
Afrikaans, Yiddish and some other
The periods of English are:
Old English – 5th century-1066;
Middle English – 1066-1500;
Modern English – 1500- 1800;
Present-Day English – 1800 till present


1. The historic facts related to the period
5th-6th c. - Germanic tribes inhabit the British
Isles: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.
597 A.D. – Christianization of England;
the 9th century. The reign of King Alfred; many
works were translated from Latin;
invasions of the Vikings (8th-9th centuries); the
influence of Old Norse (Old Scandinavian) as a


2. The scope and types of texts
5th-6th centuries: inscriptions in the Runic
alphabet; (before the adoption of the Latin
(The runic alphabet is an alphabet, consisting of 29,
and later, even 33 characters. It was used from the 5th
century. It was used for carving in wood or stone and
is characterized by angular shapes).
7th century: glossaries (lists) of translations of
Latin words in manuscripts;


Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (about 731)
It begins with the Ceasar’s invasion in 55. B.C.
The aim was to show the growth of the united
church throughout England.
9th century: religious texts translated from
Beowulf – Old English epic poem (around


3. Peculiarities of spelling and the
spelling was not unified;
no capital letters;
j v f q x z were absent;
numbers were written only in the Roman


4. The structure of the vocabulary
• mostly of native origin; compounding, affixation
were common types of word formation;
• numerous synonymous expressions (because of
alliteration in poetry)
e.g. messenger has at least 14 synonyms
• original compounds (kennings);
e.g. hronrad ‘whale-road’ – sea
banhus ‘bone-house’ –human body
heofon-candel – the Sun


• The words had inflectional endings which
showed relations within sentence; no conversion
as a type of word formation which is common in
Modern English (love –to love)
• Very few borrowed words (loanwords).
Latin borrowings (only about 200 found) are
related to religion (e. g. mass,
monastery),trading , military activities.
Celtic words are mostly place names (the
Thames, London)
About 80 per cent of OE vocabulary was lost!


The Middle English Period
(1066 – 1500)
The historic events related to the period:
• The Norman Conquest (occupation of England
by Duke William II of Normandy)
• Normandy lost to France in 1204 (the influence
of French diminishes)
• The Hundred Year War with France (began in
The languages used : French, Latin, English
(by different layers of the society)


The Main Texts of Middle English
• The documents of the royalty (French, Latin,
later English);
• Translations from Latin and French, texts used
for teaching these languages;
• Literature:
William Langland (author of an allegorical
John Wycliffe (philosopher, translator,
Geoffrey Chaucer
(Spelling still varied; borrowings from French
were frequent).


Important historical and social factors
• Invention of printing (W. Caxton, 1476) –
freezing of spelling; spreading of literacy
(because books became less expensive);
• The Protestant Reformation of the Church –
English, not Latin is used during the Mass
• The Renaissance - interest in classical
languages (Greek and Roman) which led to
massive borrowing from these languages


• Shakespeare’s works
• King James Bible (1611) – an English
translation of the Bible for the Church of
• The spread of the London dialect in the
15th century (because the court moved
from Windsor to London) helped in the
formation of the national language;
• Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755)
which helped to standardize English


Characteristics of Present-Day English
(1800 – till present)
• emergence of American English;
• growth of scientific vocabulary and
• new varieties of English around the world
(Australian, New Zealand, South African,


The Process of Borrowing


Direct vs. indirect borrowing
Direct – a language takes a word directly
from another language;
e.g. omelet, (from French); metaphor (from
Indirect – a word travels from one language
to another and then another, etc.
e.g. quahwah (Arabic) – kahve (Turkish) –
caffee (Italian) – coffee (English)


Loanwords and loanshifts
Loanword – one word belonging to a language is
adopted by another
e.g. government (Fr), street (L), lexis (Gr)
Loanshift (calque) – the meaning of a loanword is
represented by a word in a foreign language.
The meaning is taken but not the word itself.
Parts of the words are translated.
e.g. Superman (from German Ubermensch); Holy
Spirit (from Latin Spiritus Sanctus)


Why do languages borrow?
Most borrowed words belong to open lexical
classes, especially nouns. There is often a need
to give a new name to an unfamiliar thing,
cultural phenomenon, etc.
Often reasons are not purely linguistic and are
related to new achievements in science, cultural
relations, etc, There may be no suitable word in
the native language.
Algebra, zenith, zero, alcohol (from Arabic came
via Latin)


Names of animals and plants from around the
world have entered English from all kinds of
e.g. Panda (Nepalese), koala (a native
Australian language), chimpanzee (an African
Bantu language)
Words are often borrowed to assert identity and
prestige (use of code-switching).
Nativisation of borrowings
Many borrowed words become completely
e.g. parent (from Latin in the 14th c)


Café (from French at the end of the 18th c) still
has the diacritic mark.
Naïve (Fr 17th c)
How to recognize borrowings?
Some sounds at the beginning of a word indicate
that it is a borrowing [dz, v z]
jungle (Hindi)
volcano (Italian)
zero (Arabic via Latin)


The morphological structure of words and
their grammatical forms:
suffixes (e.g. –osis >neurosis)
prefixes (e.g. a->atypical, non->non-toxic)
(e.g. bio-, geo-, tele-, -derm)
Irregular plurals:
referendum – referenda,
corpus – corpora,
formula – formulae


The lexical meaning of the word may
clearly indicate that a word has been
borrowed. E.g.panda, Islam,
The words borrowed from French can be
recognized by their typical patterns of
spelling: -ity (felicity), -our (favour), -ant
Effects of borrowings
Phonological and semantic.


Some examples of semantic effects
• Peod meaning “people” (OE) was lost
when the word people was introduced
from French.
• Deor (>deer) meant “animal” in OE. When
animal came from French, it changed its
• Pig – pork, sheep – mutton, cow – beef,
calf – veal.


The vocabulary of English
Native English vocabulary
It is made up of Anglo-Saxon words.
These words arrived with the Germanic
• Grammatical (be, in, that) and lexical
words (father, love, name).
• Most of them are common words; some
are colloquial, some are literal, and some
are neutral. It is basic vocabulary, often
short words.


The influence of Celtic on English
Celtic could not have a great impact on English
because it was the language of a conquered
nation. Very few Celtic words were borrowed.
A few words have survived in regional dialects,
e.g. carr “rock”, etc. (see the textbook).
Place names:
rivers: the Thames, the Severn, the Trent,
the Avon (it meant “river”)
towns: London (a tribal name), Kent, Leeds


Scandinavian words in English
The words came as a result of the Viking raids in Britain,
which began in 787 A.D. and continued with intervals for
about 200 years..
The linguistic influence: place names
(in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire)
–by meaning “farm or town” Derby
-thorpe meaning “village” Astonthope
-toft meaning “homestead” Sandtoft
-thwaite maning “clearing” Applethwaite
personal names
-son (Davidson, Jackson)


Sometimes a Scandinavian word just replaced an
OE word:
e.g. vindauga was replaced by window.
Semantic contamination: OE dream “joy”
“vision in sleep” because of ON influence.
sk/sc- indicates ON origin scrape, skill, skin,
scrub, sky.
Thus skirt and shirt come from the same
Duplicate words also arose from the contact:
sick-ill, raise-rise.


French loanwords
Because of some contacts between the
countries there were loanwords from French
even before 1066. E.g. prison. Out of about
10,000 French loanwords (taken during ME) 70
per cent were nouns.
The most common semantic fields: law,
administration, medicine, arts, education,
everyday life, etc.
E.g. crime replaced sin, which changed its
meaning and remained in the religious sphere.


What happened when a French word entered
the English word disappeared;
the English word changed its meaning
e.g., harvest meant autumn in OE, but
when the latter came from French it changed
its meaning;
crime replaced sin, which also changed its
meaning and remained in the religious sphere.


The same word could be borrowed again:
chief – chef (the 19th century)
gentle – genteel
The later borrowings may retain stress not on the
first syllable.
After the 17th century the French words are less
nativized. They may retain the pronunciation of
[š], not changed into [tš],
e.g. chauffeur
but chamber (ME)


Latin words in English
The influence was greater or smaller depending
on the period. It is sometimes hard to decide
whether a word came from Latin or French at
that time.
E.g. library (ME)
Most of the words were scholastic, religious,
from law and literature.
Triplets – sets of three items, all expressing
basically the same notion:
e. g. ask – question – interrogate


During Early Modern English the
borrowing from Latin greatly increased
(often via French). Often scientific words.
e.g. atmosphere, formula, focus,
energy, apparatus
From the Renaissance on, English
borrowed roots and affixes to form new
words that had not existed in the Classical
languages themselves.
cortex >L, but cortical did not exist in L


• Some Latin words entered English twice –
during ME via French and later – directly
from Latin:
envious – invidious
treasure – thesaurus
porch – portico
Greek loanwords
a considerable number of technical and
scientific terms in all braches of knowledge


metaphor “transfer”
paradox “beyond belief”
phenomenon “appearance”
lexis “word, speech, diction, text”
German and Dutch loans
Commercial contacts mostly. The Dutch
were mostly famous for their sea travels.
Their languages have contributed some
nautical terms:
cruise, deck, skipper


noodle, frankfurter (sausage, 19th c), waltz
(18th c), Gestalt (a unified whole, 20th c).
Romance vocabulary (Spanish,
Portuguese and Italian)
From the 16th century onwards. Also from
the colonies where these languages were


• Spanish: from the 16th century – potato,
chocolate, cigar, sombrero, alligator.
• Portuguese: madeira, flamingo, mango,
• Italian: music and other arts – madrigal,
violin, adagio, cantata, soprano,
balcony, balloon, fresco, torso, studio,
volcano, vendetta.


Loanwords from the East
• Arabic: some words were borrowed
during the Middle Ages, they came mostly
via Latin or French: e.g. amber, alchemy,
alcohol, algebra, azimuth.
al- is an element which represents the
Arabic definite article.
Hindi: jungles, shampoo (18th century;
meant “massage”).
Sanskrit: karma, yoga.
Chinese: tycoon, judo, and kamikaze (but
came via Japanese).


Other languages
Slavic languages: polka (Czech; 18th c);
czar, intelligentsia, tundra, vodka (Russian);
20th c), tundra, and vodka
Native American: moccasin, skunk,
Place names: Chicago, Michigan, Saratoga.
West African: banana (via Spanish), gorilla.


Origin of the first thousand most frequent
words in English (based on O’Grady et al.
First 1000
83% 11% 2%
Second 1000 34% 46% 11%
Third 1000
29% 46% 14% 11%
Forth 1000
27% 45% 17% 11%
Fifth 1000
27% 47%
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