Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Nim or Take? A Competition between Two High Frequency Verbs in Middle English

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Nim or Take? A Competition between Two High Frequency Verbs in Middle English

Article excerpt


The paper discusses the fates of the verb nim (OE niman) which began to be displaced in later Old English by its synonym ON take. The native verb was eliminated from the standard speech in the 15th century, although it still survived until the 17th century in non-standard varieties of English. In order to establish the circumstances of the replacement the study concentrates on the chronological and geographical aspects of the process. Also, it confronts the research data with the statistics offered in Rynell's similar study (1948). The evidence comes from corpora such as the MED, the OED and selected Middle English texts.

1. Lexical substitution in English

The turn of the 11th century witnessed drastic changes on all levels of English, which rapidly began to modify its phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon. The Norman Conquest of 1066 and its consequences only contributed to the precipitation of those processes occurring in what is now called the period of transition from Old English to Middle English. The enrichment of the vocabulary was effected either through the semantic modification of less frequent English words or through borrowing from other languages, French and Scandinavian in particular. In both cases the new word, native or foreign, often replaced the one used earlier, as in the case of the native noun hund, now semantically peripheral hound, which became replaced by dog, another native noun, or a substitution of Norman French flour 'flower' for the native noun blom(a) 'flower', now bloom surviving with a restricted sense. What a student of the history of English very often finds surprising is the apparent lack of logic in such substitutions. In other contemporary Germanic languages the original vocabulary which is strongly rooted in their lexicons in a prevailing number of cases survives into our times with only slight modifications of meaning, if any at all, as in the case of German Hund 'dog' and Blume 'flower' which continue in Standard German with their original sense retained.

The employment of a loanword which refers to a new object, idea or activity is easily understood, while a process of replacing one word by another with the same sense is sometimes triggered by factors difficult to comprehend. Likewise illogical seems to be the English replacement of the Anglo-Saxon verb weorfan by Scandinavian cast, in turn replaced by another native verb throw (OE prawan), which can again be confronted with German, a language retaining the verb werfen 'throw' in its original sense whose tradition goes back to the Old High German times. Occasionally the substitution could be caused by phonological factors, like attrition, as in the case of OE ae 'law', a modest residue of the earlier more substantial form OE aewe. The poor phonological structure of the noun only consisting of a single vowel may have determined its replacement by the Scandinavian borrowing lagu 'law' in Middle English.

The present author's earlier paper (Welna 2001) discussed the loss in Middle English of the continuations of eode, the preterite of the infinitive gan 'go', which seems to have reflected an attempt at removing the suppletive past tense form from the Old English sequence inf. gan : pt eode : pp zegan. The attempt failed since the loss of eode coincided with the rise of a new sequence involving suppletion, ME go : wente : gone, with the preterite wente 'went' representing the native verb wendan 'turn'. The logical conclusion is that the functional factor, here an effort to introduce a new word to either fill a semantic gap or simplify a complex system, need not be the only reason for a replacement of an old item by a native item or a loanword. According to Hansen (1984), with reference to Weinreich (1968: 56-61), "also homonymy and the need for synonyms may be decisive in bringing about borrowings from the language which is incidentally made available by the contact". A similar conclusion is implied in the older studies on language contact in Germanic, such as Offe (1908), Teichert (1912), Holthausen (1915/1919), Jaeschke (1931) and Prins (1941-1942). …

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