Some Notes on the Historical Layers of English

Adapted from Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style, pp 24ff

OE Core

This is the language used in Beowulf, historical legal documents about 600 CE. Core terms tend to cluster as everyday words applying to everyday events and relationships - the stuff of life and death.

Some words of Greek origin came in with religion at this time:

Circa 800 CE, the Danes invade English and bring some Scandinavian additions to the language. These are worth remarking because some of them are adapted into OE syntax: they, get, are.

Norman French

1066 CE. The Norman invasion of England created social stratification and language distinction. There are a lot of borrowings but they tend to cluster in the area of life controlled by the Normans: law, civil administration, control of goods and services.


OE core and Norman French borrowings co-existed, and acquired different meanings and usage domains (We call them registers.)


c 1300, English moves into ME

Chaucer, Mallory. A London dialect becomes standard but does not eliminate outcounty use.

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Written Scholarly Additions from Latin and Greek

Formal written English uses more Latin and Greek words that are clustered around academic studies and formal documents that would have been written in Latin at the time.

The scholarly additions tend to be polysyllabic (L, OE would say, long), and aligned with scholarly and legal domains that tend to fall outside everyday events. They gain a sense of being untrustworthy and obfuscatious. But, Fahnestock asserts, "Many of these learned borrowings have become indispensable for any communication not about everyday objects and topics" (28).

Some Layerings

We can see the layerings of OFr and Latin with the OE core in the following sets. There are some fine distinctions between meanings, but the terms also suggest different contexts for usage.

scare frighten terrify
kind generous magnanimous
hate loathing antipathy
food viands comestibles
anger rage consternation
apart asunder divided
thin gaunt | emaciated

And one set over time

When core words dominate

Fahnestock's explanation about plain language: perception.\
[Written passages] in which the core vocabulary dominates ... will strike most English users as simple and straightforward. This effect occurs because core words ... are also the oldest in the experience of native speakers: they are the first heard, the first spoken, the first read, the first written. They are associated with simple messages, and often with immediate, familial, and physical contexts. They have the [rhetorical] force of familiarity and truthfulness. Hence texts perceived as clear and even sincere will tend to feature words from the OE core of the language. (32-3)




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