Monday, 11 January, 2016 - 13:30

Lexical obsolescence and loss: two methodological probes


Our understanding of lexical mortality crucially depends on the nature of sources, methods that the sources allow the analysis to employ, and principal sociolinguistic and structural tendencies at work in a language at any given point in time.

Our joint paper proposes to offer methodological observations on, and ultimately two historical structural perspectives of, the problem of lexical obsolescence and loss, namely as reflected in “Updated Old English” (Dance (2013; cf. also The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220 (2010)) and in Late Modern English (17002000).

In the first part of the paper, our analysis attempts to show several structural tendencies at work in the demise of the English vocabulary between 1066 and 1220, illustrating the devastating effect exercised by changes in word-formation patterns and their productivity on a vocabulary organized on the etymological (Mathesius 1939‒40) or associative principle (Kastovsky 1992). Comparing the electronic evidence provided by The Dictionary of Old English (A‒G) and The Middle English Dictionary with textual material of updated copies of Old English homiletic prose, attention is paid to the interaction between lexical losses (in nouns, adjectives and verbs) and the marginalisation of some of the word-formation patterns employing typological introflection (mainly ablaut and i-mutation) and suffixes of an inflectional, rather than agglutinating, character. The processes described are shown to testify to small, slow, gradual but perceptible beginnings in the intertwined domains of lexis and word-formation of the well-known large-scale typological reshaping of English, at a time when much of the estimated 65–85% loss of Old English lexis (Minkova – Stockwell 2006) is thought to have been taking place.

In the second part of the paper a corpus driven methodology is proposed and applied on large data (over a hundred billion tokens of English text from 1700–2000) made available through the Google Books project. Our main goal is: a) to establish a methodology for finding relatively common words that became obsolete based on their frequency and distribution; b) to selectively analyse and discuss the conditions of their decline; and c) to propose a classification of obsolete words – both in terms of the degree of their obsolescence (based on their frequency and distribution in the last decade under scrutiny) as well as in terms of the conditions and circumstances of their decline.

Since the practice of current English dictionaries shows relative lack of systematic labelling of obsolete words, we hope the proposed classification may find its use in contemporary lexicography.

In a comparative conclusion, we comment on the differences between the early period of typological reshaping and the latter period of standardisation and stabilisation in light of the processes of obsolescence observed in both parts of the paper.



A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English, 11501325. Compiled by Margaret Llaing. []. Edinburgh © 2008– The University of Edinburgh.

An Electronic Version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Middle English []. Compiled by M. Benskin, M. Laing, V. Karaiskos and K. Williamson. Edinburgh: © 2013 – The Authors and The University of Edinburgh). 

Assmann, B. (ed.) (1989; 1964).  Angelsächsischen Homilien und Heiligenleben, Bibliotek der angelsächsischen Prosa, 13, Kassel: Wigand.

Belfour, A. O.  (ed.) (1909). Twelfth-Century Homilies in MS. Bodley 343, EETS, OS 118, London: Kegan Paul Trench Trübner.

Bosworth, J. (ongoing). An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online (T. N. Toller, S. Christ, O. Tichý, Eds.). [].

Clemoes, P. (ed.) (1997). Ælfricʼs Catholic Homilies: The First Series: Text, EETS, SS 17, London: Oxford University Press.

Coleman, Robert. The assessment of lexical mortality and replacement between old and modern English. In: Adamson, Sylvia M., Vivien A. Law, Nigel Vincent and Susan W. (eds.) Papers from the 5th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics. right, 1990. xxviii, (pp. 69–86)

Čermák, Jan (2008). Ælfric’s homilies and incipient typological change in the 12th century English word-formation. Acta Universitatis Philologica, Prague Studies in English, XXV, 1, s. 109–115.

Dance, Richard (2013). Getting A Word In: Contact, Etymology and English Vocabulary in the Twelfth Century. The 2013 Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture at the British Academy of Arts and Sciences delivered on 26 November 26 2013 (

Davies, Mark. (2010-) The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009. Available online at

Davies, Mark. (2004-) BYU-BNC. (Based on the British National Corpus from Oxford University Press). Available online at

Davies, Mark. (2011-) Google Books Corpus. (Based on Google Books n-grams). Available online at

Dekeyser, Xavier – Luc Pauwels (1989). The demise of the Old English heritage and lexical innovation in Middle English: two intertwined developments. Dutch Working Papers in English Language and Linguistics 15, 1–21.

Dictionary of Old English. A–G on CD-Rom (2008). The Dictionary of Old English, University of Toronto.

Godden, M. (ed.) (1979). Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series; Text, EETS, 5, London: Oxford University Press.

Irvine, Susan (ed) (1993). Old English Homilies from MS Bodley 343, EETS, OS 302, Oxford: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press.

Kastovsky, D. (1992), “Semantics and Vocabulary”, in: Hogg, R. M. (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language. Volume I: The Beginnings to 1066, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 290-409.

Mathesius V. (1939-40), “Příspěvek k strukturálnímu rozboru anglické zásoby slovní“ [‘A Contribution to Structural Analysis of English Wordstock’],  Časopis pro moderní filologii 26, č. 1, pp. 79-84.

McSparran F. (ongoing). The Middle English Compendium. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service. Retrieved from

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, William Brockman, The Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden. Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books. Science. issue #6014, 2011.

Minkova, Donka – Robert Stockwell (2006). English Words. In: Aarts, Bas – April McMahon (eds.), The Handbook of English Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Morris, R. (ed.) (1867, 1868/1988). Old English Homilies. Early English Texts Society 29, 34. First Series. 2 vols. London.

Petersen, Alexander M., Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin, and H. Eugene Stanley. "Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death." Scientific Reports vol. 2 (2012-3-15). Print.

Plank, Frans (1999). Split morphology: How agglutination and flexion mix. Linguistic Typology 3, 279-340.

Pope, J. C. (ed.) (1967–1968). Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, EETS, 259, 260, London: Oxford University Press.

The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220, edited by Orietta Da Rold, Takako Kato, Mary Swan and Elaine Treharne (University of Leicester, 2010; last update 2013), available at, ISBN 095323195X

Scragg, Donald (ed.) (1992). The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts, Early English Text Society, OS 300, Oxford: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press.

Skeat, W. W. (ed.) (1881–1900; 1966).  Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, EETS, OS 76, 82, 94, 114, London and Oxford: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.

Warner, R.D.N. (ed.) (1917). Early English Homilies from the Twelfth-Century MS. Vespasian D.XIV. EETS 152. London.