Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Story of Old English - The Building Blocks of a Language

I love English. It has a richness and depth that is unmatched by any other language. German has a vocabulary of about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000. Compare that to the 650,000 to 750,000 entries in an unabridged English dictionary. According to The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg, “Our everyday conversation is still founded on and funded by Old English… We can have intelligent conversations in Old English and only rarely do we need to swerve away from it. Almost all of the hundred most common words in our language, wherever it is spoken, come from Old English. There are three from Old Norse: “they,” “their” and “them,” and the first French derived word is “number” at seventy-six.” Here are the 100 most commonly used words:

(1) the, (2) of, (3) and, (4) a, (5) to, (6) in, (7) is, (8) you, (9) that, (10) it, (11) he, (12) was, (13) for, (14) on, (15) are, (16) as, (17) with, (18) his, (19) they, (20) I, (21) at, (22) be, (23) this, (24) have, (25) from

(26) or, (27) one, (28) had, (29) by, (30) word, (31) but, (32) not, (33) what, (34) all, (35) were, (36) we, (37) when, (38) your, (39) can, (40), said, (41) there, (42) use, (43) an, (44) each, (45) which, (46) she, (47) do, (48) how, (49) their, (50) if

(51) will, (52) up, (53) other, (54) about, (55) out, (56) many, (57) then, (58) them, (59) these, 60) so, (61) some, (62) her, (63) would, (64) make, (65) like, (66) him, (67) into, (68) time, (69) has, (70) look, (71) two, (72) more, (73), write, (74) go, (75) see

(76) number, (77) no, (78) way, (79) could, (80) people, (81) my, (82) than, (83) first, (84) water, (85) been, (86) call, (87) who, (88) oil, (89) its, (90) now, (91) find, (92) long, (93) down, (94) day, (95) did, (96) get, (97) come, (98) made, (99) may, (100) part

Most of these words are the building blocks of a sentence. An examination of the list shows that the first noun is #30, and, ironically, it is the word “word.” After that, there are only seven additional nouns: time #68, number #76, people #80, water #84, oil #88, day #94, and part #100. I find it interesting that “oil” has a higher placement than “day.”

There are nine action verbs: make #64, look #70, write #73, see #75, call #86, find #91, get #96, come #97, and made #98, and only a pair of adjectives: first #83 and long #92.

“He” is just out of the top ten at #11, while “she” checks in at #46, indicating that the world was run by men. Interestingly enough, “you” precedes “I,” and while “no” is #77, “yes” doesn’t even make the top 100. What does that tell us?

Neither “where” nor “why” make the first 100, but “what” #33, “when” #37, “how” #48, and “who” #87 do. Does this indicate that people moved about so little that “where” just wasn’t information that most people needed, and does the absence of the word “why” indicate a lack of curiosity or a reluctance to ask questions?

In one of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotes, the master of oratory rallied his nation in 1940 during the first year of the Second World War using Old English. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Only “surrender” is not Old English. As Mr. Bragg states, “That, in itself, might be significant.”


  1. Thanks for this, Mary.I was always taught at school that English is an ever evolving language.

    I remember learning how to read Chaucer when I was doing my English Literature O'level at school.

    Here are the opening lines of The Pardoners Tale.

    "Heere bigynneth the Pardoners Tale

    In Flaundres whilom was a compaignye
    Of yonge folk, that hauntededen folye,
    As riot, hasard, stywes, and tavernes,
    Wher as with harpes, lutes, and gyternes
    They daunce and pleyen at dees, bothe day and nyght,
    And eten also and drynken over hir myght,
    Thurgh which they doon the devel sacrifise
    Withinne that develes temple in cursed wise,
    By superfluytee abhomynable.
    Hir othes been so grete and so dampnable
    That it is grisly for to heere hem swere.
    Oure blissed lordes body they totere -"

    Well, things don't change much do they!!!!!!!!!!!


  2. At first glance, Chaucer appears difficult to read, but actually he isn't. I had a friend who could speak in Middle English. It sounded nothing like what was on the paper. What is an O level?

  3. Hi Mary, we all need a bit of Middle English to get us going in the morning. Imagine recittng some of it loudly on the bus or train in the morning on the way to work. You's get thrown off for swearing.

    42 years ago when I was 16 , to finish our legally required stint at school, we took exams in every subject at O'level. I took 12 different O'level exams. O meaning ordinary.We then took the two or three best results at O'level, in my case it was history, English literture and Geography and then studied for a further two years at A'level (advanced level) A'levels (A meaning advanced) are equivalent to a first year at university in some countries. After A' levels we went on to university to a degree in our best subject.

    Nowadays O'levels have been replaced by GCSE's general certificates in education. The children do as many subjects at GCSE as we did at O'level. The higher GCSE grades, A, B and C are equivalent to the old O'level grades.They then go on to do A'levels like we did. However there are a much broader choice of courses and types of courses to get you into university these days than there used to be.It's not just A'levels. Many more people, nearly half of 18 year olds are getting onto university courses now. The Government has just announced higher fees for university so i can see that number reducing. It's just getting more and more expensive.
    Distance learning and part time degrees will become more fashionable I should think.

  4. Thank you for the interesting post!

  5. Thank you, Katherine. Glad you enjoyed it. I love reading about the nuts and bolts of the English language.

    Tony, re "distance learning" A lot of high school kids are taking remote classes. A lot of them are self-motivated and can get it done or there are those who are involved in sports at such a high level that they don't have time go to school, e.g., a golf prodigy. But I imagine it's easy to "fool" the system.