Old English: the dilution of the language


By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

We know that there are about 6,000 languages ​​and that they keep changing, and that this change results in the production of dialects. We also know that all the languages ​​of the world and even the dialects of all these languages ​​are mixed together. It was a natural process. So how did the dilution of Old English begin, and what languages ​​have mixed with it to bring it to what it is today?

St Mary’s Parish Church, Breamore, Hampshire with an Old English inscription on the arch of the south portico. (Image: Hogweard / Public domain)

For a majority of people, word-level mixing is the most intuitive way to mix languages. In fact, this is only the beginning, languages ​​are mixed in grammar too, and a lot. But the beginning is at the level of words. In terms of the vocabulary of the English language, it is a bastard language. People speak it without thinking about its accuracy. But in reality the vocabulary is an extreme mix of origins, and traces of words dating back to French, Latin, Dutch or Greek can be found by consulting a dictionary. It would be an unexpected thing if it goes back to Old English. Presumably, to find out where even ordinary English words come from, someone would take a long trip to Europe and other parts of the world.

But in reality, compared to people who speak many other languages, it is more common for English speakers. For example, if someone is from Poland and looks at a dictionary, most of the time they will find that most of their base words come from the ancestral Slavic language. Seen against French, Dutch and all those other places, it doesn’t sound all that exciting. With English people have specific experience. This is so because among all the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is considered to be a relatively representative and complete sample of all the words that exist, it turns out that 99% of them are taken from other languages. This means that only 1% of the words have an Old English origin. But it is interesting to note that 62% of words are also spoken the most. So when you think about the Oxford English Dictionary, someone may very well think of various words which are not used very frequently. It’s all vocabulary levels.

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Old english words

The Beowulf manuscript.
The first page of Beowulf’s manuscript with its opening “Listen! We, the Spear-Danes of old, have heard of the glory of the popular kings… ”. (Image: Jwrosenzweig / Public domain)

Among the words most used in the spoken language, in particular, almost 62% of them belong to Old English. These are words like and, but, father, will fight, will love, to, not, should, of. All these words. But the point is, most of the vocabulary came from elsewhere. So in terms of words, how English started and where it is now are two totally different phenomena. So it’s not about things like Sushi it’s pretty obvious. It is known to be a Japanese word. Then, thinking of the word Tacos. Did Old English speakers have a word like “tachum” or something similar? No, they didn’t. Word Tacos is borrowed from Spanish.

Then there are words like adjacent. A lot of people think it’s one of those Latin words you hear often. One of those big words. But in reality, it’s a much more comprehensive penetration than that. The following sentence can be taken as an example: “Yet the vast majority of our vocabulary comes from foreign languages, including not only the obvious Latin elements like adjacent, but common banal forms that we do not consider continental at all. “

In the sentence above, every word that has more than three letters is not English, not even Old English. So, to put the emphasis, we can highlight it like this: “Yet the large majority of our the vocabulary is native in foreign languages, including not only the Latin elements evident as adjacent, corn common banal forms not treaty by us like continental in the lesser. “

All the words pronounced in a higher pitch come from foreign languages, but people don’t even think about them. This is how spoiled the English vocabulary is.

Learn more about when humans first acquired language.

Vikings and Old Norse

But where do these words come from? You have to travel through the history of language to understand its layers. From AD 787, when the northern half of the island of Great Britain was taken by Vikings from Scandinavia, this was the first major incursion. They spoke Old Norse. Old Norse and Old English were closely related. These two languages ​​were Germanic languages ​​and were related as closely as Spanish and Italian, or even Spanish and Portuguese. They weren’t the same languages, but they were close. But the Vikings didn’t speak Old English. They spoke a different language. Old Norse is actually the ancestor of today’s Scandinavian languages ​​like Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, and of course Icelandic which is very similar to it. But during that time there was only Old Norse and those modern languages ​​hadn’t grown up like modern English yet, and that’s what the Vikings spoke.

Viking ships in Paris in 845 AD
It is a depiction of Viking longships besieging Paris in 845. (Image: German history magazine / Public domain)

The Vikings didn’t just come to beat people. They were brutal but comparatively kinder and gentler. So they came and stayed, and then got married in society and mingled with it. This resulted in the introduction of many Old Norse words into Old English. According to one estimate, there were around 1,000 of these words. These are the basic things and not the things of the Vikings. These were the basic words like both, same, get, still, give, and the form are for to be: you are beautiful-here are comes from old norse, sky, skin. These words are not the original English words. These are the origin of the Scandinavian words. It was therefore the first time that the English-speaking boat was shaken.

Learn more about language changes and sound change.

Common questions about Old English

Q: What were the dialects of Old English?

There were four main dialects in Old English. They were associated with specific Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. These dialects were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon.

Q: When was Old English used?

The earliest form of the English language was Old English. It was used in Anglo-Saxon Britain and was spoken and written from AD 450 until 1150.

Q: Which of the accents in the English language is closest to Old English?

The counties of Gloucestershire, Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall and Devon constitute the West Country, and their dialect is closest to Old English. So someone from West Country would say “I am” instead of “I am”.

Q: Is Shakespeare’s English Old English?

Shakespeare’s English may seem difficult and it could be said that it needs to be translated into modern English. However, the truth is that Shakespeare’s English is similar to English today. It is in no way Old English.

Keep reading
Changes in grammar and pronunciation of English words
How is Shakespeare’s language different from ours?
What is linguistics?


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