Sunday, September 03, 2006

Old English Redux

Yesterday I read a delightful post at Tenser, said the Tensor another linguistic web log. Its focus on good German words resonated nicely with the issue I've been honing for this post: Old English words that I wish had survived into Modern English. German is a wonderfully direct and literal language -- as is English. One example in the Tensor post notes the lovely flatness of the German word for an airplane: flugzeug, fly-thing. This sounds funny but makes sense as further discussion on the post calls attention to the English word for some toys: plaything.

If we look at the body of OE words that have survived we can put together the rules for language change and follow the phonological and orthographic trajectory from then to now. We can then apply those rules to the words that didn't make it to today.

We'll do one of those aging techniques tricks that America's Most Wanted and Cold Case Files like to do. What would these words look like today. Roughly. Of course there are factors that are hard to account for and predict - you can't tell by looking at a kid if he's going to go bald or if she's going to get braces or if a firecracker's going to mess up an ear lobe or leave some other scar.

Words have their own little lives full of events - and I'm only a 2nd year PhD student who is very good at making mistakes and misunderstanding formulas. So I've picked simple words many of which comprise roots and affixes that should look familiar. At the very best these words are approximations. But wouldn't it be cool if we still had...

firnamind n < OE fyrngemynd = ancient history. (We still have firn to signify the loose snow found on top of glaciers. It's also called névé)

thrackful adj < OE þræcful = strong. (Lovely onomatopoetics)

shewspeak n < OE scéawendsprǽc = theater speech, silliness.

wombhoard n < OE wambhord = stomachful. (This could as easily be an unsentimental word for an unborn child or the contents in the hull of a ship. OE doesn't always worry about the appropriateness or sanctity of an image)

landrest n < OE landrest = grave. (Very typical of the understated OE language.)

bonehouse n < OE bánhús = body, torso, chest.

brightwhat adj < OE bearhtmhwæt = quick as a flash, fleeting.

One nice morpheme to work with could be nith- - from níð meaning ill-will hostility or violence. In Old English it was used in such words as níðgæst and níþgeweorc and which we could still use as nithguest -- hostile stranger; nithwork -- hostile deed, or fight.

It's hard to get away from appreciating the mere novelty of these words. I'm sure if they had survived I would consider them as prosaic and obvious as overcome friendly or alderman

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