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Word Structure

§ 248. The bulk of the OE vocabulary were native words. In the course of the OE period the vocabulary grew; it was mainly replenished from native sources, by means of word-formation.

According to their morphological structure OE words (like modern words) fell into three main types:

a) simple words (" root-words" ) or words with a simple stem, contain­ing a root-morpheme and no derivational affixes, e.g. land, sinʒ an, ʒ ō d (NE land, sing, good);

b) derived words consisting of one root-morpheme and one or more affixes, e.g. be-ʒ innan, weorp-unʒ, un-scyld-iʒ, ʒ e-met-inʒ (NE begin, 'worthiness', 'innocent', meeting).

c) compound words, whose stems were made up of more than one root-morpheme, e.g. mann-cynn, norpe-weard, fē ower-tiene, weall-ʒ eat, scir-ʒ e-refa (NEmankind, northward, fourteen, wall gate, sheriff).

As stated above (§ 66), in Late PG the morphological structure of the word was simplified. By the age of writing many derived words had lost their stem-forming suffixes and had turned into simple words. The loss of stem-suffixes as means of word derivation stimulated the growth of other means of word-formation, especially the growth of suffixation.

Ways of Word-Formation

§ 249. In OE there existed a system of word-formation of a com­plexity similar to that of Mod E. One of the most striking examples of the potentials of OE word-formation was the ability of a single root to appear in an abundant store of simple, derived and compound words. For instance, OE mō d (NE mood)yielded about fifty words: derived words, such as mō diʒ, ʒ emō ded, ofermō d ('proud', 'disposed', 'arrogance'), compound words mō d-caru, mō d-leof, mō d-ʒ epō ht, ʒ læ dmō dnis ('care', 'beloved', 'thought', 'kindness'). Scores of words contained the roots of OE dæ ʒ, ʒ ō d, monn, weorp, lonʒ (NE day, good, man, worth, long). Many derivational affixes appear to have been very productive as they occurred in numerous words: wip- a prefix in more than fifty words, ofer- in over a hundred words.

It is not always possible for the present-day linguist to assess cor­rectly the productivity of OE word-building means. It is difficult to distinguish processes which were active from those that had ceased to be productive but whose products were still in use. Due to the scarcity of written evidence sometimes we cannot say whether the word was in common use or it was created by the author of a certain text for one occasion — these kinds of words " said once" are termed " hapax legomena".

OE employed two ways of word-formation: derivation and word-composition.


§ 250. Derived words in OE were built with the help of affixes: prefixes and suffixes; in addition to these principal means of derivation, words were distinguished with the help of sound interchanges and word stress,

Sound Interchanges

§ 251. Sound interchanges in the roots of related words were fre­quent, and nevertheless they were used merely as an additional feature which helped to distinguish between words built from the same root. Sound interchanges were never used alone; they were combined with suffixation as the main word-building means and in many cases arose as a result of suffixation.

Genetically, sound interchanges went back to various sources and periods.

§ 252. The earliest source of root-vowel interchanges employed in OE word-building was ablaut or vowel gradation, inherited from PG and IE.

Vowel gradation was used in OE as a distinctive feature between verbs and nouns and also between verbs derived from a single root. The gradation series were similar to those employed in the strong verbs:

ridan v — rā d n [i: ~ a: ] (like Class 1 of strong verbs), NE ride, raid

sinʒ an v — sonʒ n [i ~ a ] (like Class 3 of strong verbs), NE sing, song

sprecan v — sprǣ ce n [e ~ æ: ] (see Class 5 of strong verbs)

beran v — bǣ re n — the same; NE speak, speech, bear, bearer.

In the following pairs both words are verbs; the weak verbs given in the second column are derived from the strong verbs with the vowel grade of the Past sg:

findan — Past sg fand — fandian, NE find, 'find out'

sittan — Past sg sæ t — settan, NE sit, set

drincan — Past sg dranc — drencan, NE drink, drench.

(The two latter verbs, settan and drencan were built with the help of the stem-suffix -i, therefore the vowels of the Past tense stems were narrowed; (heir earlier forms were *sæ tjan, *drankjan — see weak verbs of Class 1, § 205. )

§ 253. Many vowel interchanges arose due to palatal mutation; the element [i/j] in the derivational suffix caused the mutation of the root-vowel; the same root without the suffix retained the original non-mulated vowel, e.g.;

a) nouns and verbs: dō m— dē man from the earlier *dō mjan (NE doom — deem); fō d — fē dan (NE food — feed); bō t — bē tan and also bettre ('remedy', 'improve', NE better);

b)adjectives and verbs; full — fyllan (NE full — fill); hā l — hæ lan ('healthy' — heal), cf. Gt fulljan;

c) nouns and adjectives: long — lenʒ pu (NE long, length), stronʒ — strenʒ pu (NE strong — strength); brā d — brǣ dpu (NE broad — breadth); the nouns were originally derived with the help of the suffix -in, which was later replaced by -pu.

§ 254. Vowel interchanges could also go back to Early OE breaking, or to several phonetic changes, including breaking. Cf. beran — bearn (NE bear, 'child', dial, barn)breaking has modified the vowel [æ ] which developed from the Germanic [a] by splitting; the original vowel interchange [e ~ a] is a case of ablaut.

§ 255. The use of consonant interchanges as a distinctive feature in word-building was far more restricted than the use of vowels. Like most vowel interchanges consonant interchanges arose due to phonetic changes: Verner's Law, rhotacism, hardening of [ð ] and the Early OE splitting of velar consonants (see relevant paragraphs). Cf. the following pairs:

risan — rǣ ran (NE rise, rear) — Verner's Law + rhotacism

dē ap — dē ad (NE death, dead) — Verner's Law + hardening

talu — tellan (NE tale, tell) — gemination of consonants

sprǣ c [k'] — sprecan [k] (NE speech — speak) — splitting of velar consonants.

Word Stress

§ 256. The role of word accenfuation in OE word-building was not great. Like sound interchanges, the shifting of word stress helped to differentiate between some parts of speech being used together with other means. The verb had unaccented prefixes while the corresponding nouns had stressed prefixes, so that the position of stress served as an additional distinctive feature between them, e.g. ond-'swarian v — 'ond-swaru n (see more examples in § 115, dealing with word stress). In some nouns, however, the prefix was as unaccented as in the verbs.


§ 257. Prefixation was a productive way of building new words in OE. Genetically, some OE prefixes go back to IE prototypes, e.g. OE a negative prefix (the element -n- is found in negative prefixes in many IE languages, cf. Fr ne, R не, ни). Many more prefixes sprang in PG and OE from prepositions and adverbs, e.g. mis-, be-, ofer-. Some of these prepositions and adverbs continued to be used as independent words as well.

§ 258. Prefixes were widely used with verbs but were far less pro­ductive with other parts of speech. We can cite long lists of verbs derived from a single root with the help of different prefixes:

ʒ ā n — 'go' faran — 'travel'
ā -ʒ ā n — 'go away' ā -faran — 'travel'
be-ʒ ā n — 'go round' tō -faran — 'disperse'
fore-ʒ ā n — 'precede' — 'traverse' for-faran — 'intercept' —'die'
ofer-ʒ ā n forp-faran
ʒ e-ʒ ā n — 'go', 'go away' ʒ e-faran — 'attack', etc.

The most frequent, and probably the most productive, OE prefixes were: ā -, be-, for-, fore-, ʒ e-, ofer-, un-. Of these only un- was common with nouns and adjectives, the rest were mainly verb prefixes.

§ 259. The prefix modified the lexical meaning of the word, usually without changing its reference to a part of speech: ʒ e-boren — unʒ eboren (adjectivised participle; NE born — unborn); sip— for-sip n 'journey', 'death'; dǣ d — un-dǣ d n NE deed 'crime'; iepelice — un-iepelice adv 'easily', with difficulty', spē diʒ — unspē diʒ adj 'rich', 'poor'.

Some prefixes, both verbal and nominal, gave a more special sense to the word and changed its meaning very considerably: e.g. ʒ ytan — on-ʒ ytan (NE get), 'perceive', weorð an — for-weorð an v, forwyrð n 'be­come', 'perish', 'destruction', bū ʒ an — bebū ʒ an (NE bow), 'surround'. A distinct semantic group was constituted by negative prefixes un-, mis-, wan-, or- (the two latter were nominal prefixes only), e.g.: hā l — unhā i or wan-hā l 'healthy', 'unhealthy', wisdom — unwisdō m (NE wisdom), 'folly'; lician — mislician (NE like), 'displease', limpan or ʒ elimpan

— mislimpan 'happen' — 'go wrong', sorʒ n — orsorʒ adj (NE sorrow), 'unconcerned, careless'.

Some prefixes had a very weak or general meaning bordering on grammatical, e.g.: ʒ e-, the commonest verb prefix, conveyed the meaning of result or completion and was therefore often used as a marker of the Past Participle — sittan — ʒ e-sett, stelan — ʒ estolen (NE sit, steal). (For the use of ʒ e- with Participle II and as a marker of aspect see § 193 and § 197). ʒ e- and ā - changed the aspective meaning of the verb and turned it from durative into perfective or terminative without affecting its lexical meaning as in feran — ʒ eferan 'go —reach', drincan — ʒ edrincan 'drink — drink off', winnan — ʒ ewinnan 'fight — win', sendan

— ā sendan 'send — send off'. With some verbs the meaning of the prefix was so weak and vague that there was practically no difference between the verb with the prefix and without it, e.g.: ā bidan — bidan 'await', swerian — ā swerian 'swear'. With other verbs the same prefix could bring about a shift of meaning, e.g.: sittan — ʒ e-sittan 'sit — oc­cupy' (see more examples in § 193).


§ 260. Suffixation was by far the most productive means of word derivation in OE. Suffixes not only modified the lexical meaning of the word but could refer it to another part of speech. Suffixes were mostly applied in forming nouns and adjectives, seldom — in forming verbs.

Etymologically OE suffixes can be traced to several sources: old stem-suffixes, which had lost their productivity, but could still be distingyished in some words as dead or non-productive suffixes; derivational suffixes proper inherited from PIE and PG; new suffixes which devel­oped from root-morphemes in Late PG and OE in the course of morpho­logical simplification of the word.

§ 261. The old stem-suffixes cannot be regarded as means of deri­vation in OE. They must have been productive at earlier stages of his­tory, probably in PG, and had left their traces in the morphological classes of nouns, verbs and adjectives. Their application in word deri­vation can be best shown in reconstructed, pre-written forms of weak verbs. Weak verbs of Class I were originally derived from nominal or verbal roots with the help of the stem-forming suffix -i/l-, e.g. *tæ l-i-an, *mō t-i-an, OE tellan, mē tan — from the roots of OE talu, ʒ e-mot [25]; verbs of Class II were formed with the help of the most productive stem-suffix -ō -, or -ō j-, e.g.: *hop-ō -jan, *luf-ō -jan, OE hopian, lufian from corresponding nouns hapa, lufu (NE tell, meet, hope, love).

The productivity of -ō j-in verb derivation is confirmed by the fact that Class II was the most numerous of all classes; verbs of this class continued to be formed in Early OE (see § 207).

Most stem-suffixes had been lost by the age of writing; the surviving suffixes were dead or non-productive, e.g. -t in OE meaht (NE might), see also § 263, 264.

§ 262. Suffixes are usually classified according to the part of speech which they can form. In OE there were two large groups of suffixes: suffixes of nouns and suffixes of adjectives. Noun suffixes are divided into suffixes of " agent nouns" (" nomina agentis" ) and those of abstract nouns.

§ 263. Among the suffixes of " agent nouns" there were some dead, unproductive suffixes: -a, as in the Masc. a-stem hunta (NE hunter), -end, originally the suffix of the Present Participle, e.g. OE frē ond, fiend, hǣ lend (NE friend, fiend, 'saviour'). -end in word-building was later replaced by -ere, a suffix of IE descent, whose productivity grew after the adoption of numerous Latin words with the same suffix, e.g. scō lere, sutere (NE scholar, 'shoemaker')[26]. OE agent nouns in -ere were derived from nouns and verbs: bō cere, fiscere, leornere, bæ cere, etc. (NE 'scribe', fisher, learner, baker).

The nouns in -ere were Masc.; the corresponding suffix of Fem. nouns -estre was less common: bæ cestre, spinnestre ('female baker', 'female spinner'). The suffix -inʒ was used to build patronymics and to show the descent of a person, e.g.: Æ pelwulfinʒ 'son of Æ pelwulf, Centinʒ 'a man coming from Kent', cyninʒ 'head of clan or tribe" — OE cynn 'clan'.

§ 264. Among suffixes of abstract nouns there were some survivals of old stem-suffixes and numerous later formations: the stem-suffix -t in meaht, siht or sihp (NE might, sight)was dead; -p reinforced by the addition of a vowel, was more alive: alongside -pu the element -p- appears in -op, -ap, -up, e.g. piefp (NE theft), huntop, fiscap, ʒ eoʒ up ('hunting', 'fishing', 'youth'). Some nouns in -pu had a mutated root-vowel, prob­ably a trace of the earlier suffix -in, which caused the palatal mutation and was displaced by -p; cf., e.g. brā d adj — brǣ du, brǣ dpu (NE broad, breadth); lanʒ — lenʒ pu (NE long — length); stronʒ — strenʒ pu (NE strong, strength). Another productive suffix which formed abstract nouns from adjective stems was -nes/-nis: beorhtnes (NE brightness), blindnis (NE blindness), unrihtwisnes 'injustice', druncennis (from Part. II druncen).

Another productive suffix, -ung/-ing, was used to build abstract nouns from verbs (especially weak verbs), e.g. bodian — bodung ('preach, preaching'), earnian — earnung (NE earn, earning), witnian — wilnung ('desire' v, n).

§ 265. A most important feature of OE suffixation is the growth of new suffixes from root-morphemes. The second components of com­pound words turned into suffixes and the words were accordingly trans­formed from compound to derived. To this group belong OE -dō m, -had, -lā c, -scipe, -rǣ den. As compared with the same morphemes used as roots, the suffixes had a different — usually a more general — meaning. Thus, OE dō m as a noun meant 'judgement, choice', 'honour', while as a second affixal component it lost this lexical meaning to a varying extent, e.g.: frē odō m 'free choice', 'freedom' (NE freedom), wisdō m 'wise judgement' (NE wisdom), cristendō m 'Christianity', lǣ cedō m 'med­icine'. Likewise OE hā d 'title' yielded words like cildhā d (NE childhood); the noun lā c 'gift' became a suffix in OE wedlā c (NE 'wedlock').

As long as the morpheme was used as the root of an independent word, the ties between the root and the new affix were still felt, and the transition into a suffix was not complete as was the case with -dō m, -had and -lā c. If the word went out of use, the new affix was no longer associated with a root-morpheme and became an ordinary suffix. Thus -scipe occurred only as a component part of abstract nouns — frē ond-scipe (NE friendship), ʒ ebē orscipe 'feast', hǣ penscipe 'heathenism'. The growth of new suffixes from root-morphemes made up for the decline of the old system of stem-suffixes.

§ 266. In the derivation of adjectives we find suffixes proper such as -, -isc, -ede, -sum, -en (from the earlier -in)and a group of morphemes of intermediate nature — between root and affix — like the noun suffixes described above. The suffixes with the element -i-, that is -isc, - and -en (-in)were often, though not always, accompanied by muta­tion. Adjectives were usually derived from nouns, rarely from verb stems or other adjectives. The most productive suffixes were -, and -isc: mō diʒ 'proud' (from mō d, NE mood), hā liʒ (NE holy), bysiʒ (NE busy); mennisc 'human' (from man with the root-vowet [a]). Enʒ lisc, Denisc (NE English, Danish). Examples with other suffixes are: lanʒ sum 'lasting' (from lans, NE long); hō cede 'curved, hooked' (from hō c, NE hook)(for the use of -ede with compound adjectives see § 272).

§ 267. The productive adjective suffix -tic originated from the noun tic 'body', but had evidently lost all semantic ties with the latter. It could derive adjectives from nouns and other adjectives: sceandlic 'disgraceful' (from sceand 'disgrace'), woruldlic 'worldly' (from woruld, NE world), scearplic 'sharp' (from the adjective scearp), dē adlic (NE deadly), frē ondlic (NE friendly), etc.

By adding another suffix -e the adjective was turned into an adverb: frē ondlic — frē otidlice 'friendly, in a friendly manner', wundorlic 'won­derful' — wundorlice 'wondrously'; also: heard adj — hearde adv (NE hard), lanʒ adj — lanʒ e adv (NE long). The use of -e after -lic was very common; thus -lice became a frequent component of adverbs and began to be applied as a suffix of adverbs, even if they were not derived from adjectives in -lic, e.g.: rot 'glad' adj — rotlice adv 'cheerfully', innweard 'deep' adj — innweardlice adv 'deeply' (NE inward)1

The ties of the other new adjective suffixes with corresponding roots are more transparent: OE full was an adjective which yielded derived adjectives (or compounds) being attached to other stems, mostly those of abstract nouns: weorð full 'illustrious' (lit. " full of worth" ), carfull (NE careful), synnfutl (NE sinful). The adjective leas 'deprived, bereft of employed as a suffix retained its meaning: sā wollē as 'lifeless, de­prived of soul', hlā fordlē as 'without a lord', slǣ plē as (NE sleepless).

§ 268. Verb suffixes were few and non-productive. They can be illus­trated by -s in clǣ nsian, a verb derived from the adjective clǣ ne (NE clean)and -lǣ c in nē alǣ can 'come near, approach' and ǣ fenlǣ can, an impersonal verb meaning 'the approach of evening' (R вечереть).


§ 269. Word composition was a hignly productive way of developing the vocabulary in OE. This method of word-formation was common to all IE languages but in none of the groups has it become as widespread as in Germanic. An abundance of compound words, from poetic meta­phors to scientific terms, are found in OE texts.

As in other OG languages, word composition in OE was more pro­ductive in nominal parts of speech than in verbs.

§ 279. Compaunds in OG languages are usually divided into two types: mor­phological or primary compounds and syntactic or secondary. Morphological com­pounds — which must have bean the earlier type — were formed by combining two stems, with or without a linking element, e. g.: OE mid-niht and midd-e-niht (NE midnight). Syntactic compounds were a later development; they reproduced the pat­tern of a syntactic group, usually an attributive phrase consisting of a noun in the Gen. case and a head noun: OE Sunnan-dæ ʒ — Sunnan — Gen. sg of sunne (Fem. n-stem); dæ ʒ — the head word, 'Sun's day' (NE Sunday); Enʒ laland 'land of the Angles' (NE England) — Enʒ la Gin. pl of Enʒ le; Oxena-ford 'oxen's ford' (NE Oxford). The distinction between the two types can help to determine the origin of the linking element, which may be a remnant of the stem-suffix in a morpho­logical compound or a grammatical inflection — in a syntactical compound. In OE, however, syntactical compounds are rare and the linking vowels in morphological compounds are either reduced and generalised under -e or lacking.

§ 271. Compound nouns contained various first components — stems of nouns, adjectives and verbs; their second components were nouns.

'Originally -e was the. ending of the Instr. case of adjectives used in an ad.' verbial function. The loss of -e has produced homonymous pairs in Mod E; hard adj — hard adv; the suffixes -tic and -lice were reduced to -ly, which is now both an adverb and an adjective suffix, cf.: deadly adj and meekly adv.

The pattern " noun plus noun" was probably the most productive type of all: OE hē afod-mann 'leader' (lit, " head-man" ), mann-cynn (NE mankind), hē afod-weard 'leader' (weard 'guard'), stā n-brycʒ (NE stone bridge), ʒ imm-stā n (NE gem, lit. " gem stone" ), bō c-cræ ft 'literature' (lit. " book craft" ), lē op-cræ ft, sonʒ -cræ ft 'poetry' (lit. " song craft, art of singing" ), eorp-cræ ft 'geography' (OE eorpe, NE earth).

Among compound nouns there were some syntactical compounds: OE witena-ʒ emō t 'assembly of Elders', dæ ʒ es-ē aʒ e 'day's eye' (simplified to NE daisy; see also the names for the days of the week in § 245).

Compound nouns with adjective-stems as the first components were less productive, e.g. wid-sæ 'ocean' (lit. " wide sea" ), cwic-seolfor (NE quicksilver), ʒ ō d-dǣ d (lit. " good deed" ). Compound nouns with verb and adverb-stems were rare; bæ c-hū s 'baking house', inn-ʒ anʒ 'entrance'.

§ 272. Compound adjectives were formed by joining a noun-stem to an adjective: dō m-ʒ eorn (lit. 'eager for glory'), mō d-ceariʒ 'sorrowful'. The following adjectives are compounded of two adjective stems: wid-cū p 'widely known', fela-mō diʒ 'very brave'.

The most peculiar pattern of compound adjectives was the so-called " bahuvrihi type" — adjective plus noun-stem as the second component of an adjective. This type is exemplified by mild-heort 'merciful', stip-mō d 'brave', an-ē aʒ e 'one-eyed'; soon, however, the second component acquired an adjective suffix -ede, thus combining two methods of word-formation: composition and suffixation; cf. ā n-ē aʒ e lit. " one eye" and ā n-hyrnede 'one-horned, with one horn'.

§ 273. The remarkable capacity of OE for derivation and word-composition is manifested in numerous words formed with the help of several methods: un-wis-dō m 'folly' — un — negative prefix, wis — ad­jective-stem (NE wise), dō m — noun-stem turning into a suffix; pē aw-fæ st-nes 'discipline' — pē aw n 'custom', fæ st adj 'firm' (NE fast), -nes — suffix.

§ 274. Table 3 gives a summary of the principal means of word-formation employed in OE and the main spheres of their usage.

Table 3

Word-Formation in Old English



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