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C) Archaic, Obsolescent and Obsolete Words


The word-stock of a language is in an increasing state of change. Words change their meaning and sometimes drop out of the language altogether. New words spring up and replace the old ones. Some words stay in the language a very long time and do not lose their faculty of gaining new meanings and becoming richer and richer polysemantically. Other words live but a short time and are like bubbles on the surface of water — they disappear leaving no trace of their existence.

In registering these processes the role of dictionaries can hardly be over-estimated. Dictionaries serve to retain this or that word in a language either as a relic of ancient times, where it lived and circulated, or as a still living unit of the system, though it may have lost some of its meanings. They may also preserve certain nonce-creations which were never intended for general use.

In every period in the development of a literary language one can find words which will show more or less apparent changes in their meaning or usage, from full vigour, through a moribund state, to death, i. e. complete disappearance of the unit from the language.

We shall distinguish three stages in the aging process of words:

The beginning of the aging process when the word becomes rarely used. Such words are called obsolescent, i.e. they are in the stage of gradually passing out of general use. To this category first of all belong morphological forms belonging to the earlier stages in the development of the language. In the English language these are the pronouns thou and its forms thee, thy and thine; the corresponding verbal ending –est and the verb-forms art, wilt (thou makest, thou wilt); the ending -(e)th instead of -(e)s (he maketh) and the pronoun ye.

To the category of obsolescent words belong many French borrowings which have been kept in the literary language as a means of preserving the spirit of earlier periods, e. g. a pallet (=a straw mattress); a palfrey (=a small horse); garniture (=furniture); to emplume (=to adorn with feathers or plumes).

The second group of archaic words are those that have already gone, completely out of use but are still recognized by the English-speaking community: e. g. methinks (=it seems to me); nay (=no). These words are called obsolete.

The third group, which may be called arņhaiņ proper, are words which are no longer recognizable in modern English, words that were in use in Old English and which have either dropped out of the language entirely or have changed in their appearance so much that they have become unrecognizable, e.g. troth (=faith); a losel (=a worthless, lazy fellow).

It will be noted that on the diagram (p. 71) the small circles denoting archaic and poetic words overlap and both extend beyond the large circle "special literary vocabulary". This indicates that some of the words in these layers do not belong to the present-day English vocabulary. . The border lines between the groups are not distinct. In fact they interpenetrate. It is specially difficult to distinguish between obsolete

and obsolescent words. But the difference is important when we come to deal with the stylistic aspect of an utterance in which the given word serves a certain stylistic purpose. Obsolete and obsolescent words have separate functions, as we shall point out later.

There is still another class of words which is erroneously classed as archaic, viz. historical words. By-gone periods in the life of any society are marked by historical events and by institutions, customs, material objects, etc. which are no longer in use, for example: Thane, yeoman, goblet, baldric, mace. Words of this type never disappear from the language. They are historical terms and remain as terms referring to definite stages in the development of society and cannot therefore be dispensed with, though the things and phenomena to which they refer have long passed into oblivion. Historical words have no synonyms, whereas archaic words have been replaced by modern synonyms.

Archaic words are primarily and predominantly used in the creation of a realistic background to historical novels. It must be pointed out, however, that the use of historical words (terms) in a passage written in scientific style, say, in an essay on the history of the Danish invasion, will bear no stylistic function at all. But the same terms when used in historical novels assume a different stylistic value. They carry, as it were, a special volume of information adding to the logical aspect of the communication.

This, the main function of archaisms, finds different interpretation in different novels by different writers. Some writers overdo things in this respect, the result being that the reader finds all kinds of obstacles in his way. Others under-estimate the necessity of introducing obsolete or obsolescent elements into their narration and thus fail to convey what is called "local colour".

In his "Letter to the Young Writer" A. N. Tolstoi states that the heroes of historical novels must think and speak in the way the time they live in, forces them to. If Stepan Razin', he maintains, were to speak of the initial accumulation of capital, the reader would throw the book under the table and he would be right. But the writer must know all about the initial accumulation of capital and view events from this particular position.

On the whole Tolstoi's idea does not call for criticism. But the way it is worded may lead to the misconception that heroes of historical novels should speak the language of the period they live in. If those heroes really spoke the language of the time they lived in, the reader would undoubtedly throw the book under the table because he would be unable to understand it.

As a matter of fact the heroes of historical novels speak the language of the period the writer and the reader live in, and the skill of the writer is required to colour the language with such obsolete or obsolescent elements as most naturally interweave with the texture of the modern literary language. These elements must not be archaic in the narrow sense. They must be recognizable to the native reader and hot hinder his understanding of the communication.

The difficulty in handling archaic words and phrases and the subtlety

required was acutely felt by A. S. Pushkin. In his article "Juri Miloslavski, or the Russian of 1612," Pushkin writes:

"Walter Scott carried along with him a crowd of imitators. But how far they are from the Scottish charmer! Like Agrippa's pupil, they summoned the demon of the Past but they could not handle him and fell victims of their own imprudence."

Walter Scott was indeed an inimitable master in the creation of an historical atmosphere. He used the stylistic means that create this atmosphere with such skill and discrimination, that the reader is scarcely aware that the heroes of the novels speak his language and not that of their own epoch. Walter Scott himself states the principles which he considers basic for the purpose: the writer's language must not be out of date and therefore incomprehensible, but words and phrases of modern coinage should not be used.

"It is one thing to use the language to express feelings common both to us and to our forefathers," says Scott, "but it is another thing to impose upon them the emotions and speech characteristics of their descendants."

In accordance with these principles Walter Scott never photographs the language of earlier periods; he sparingly introduces into the texture of his language a few words and expressions more or less obsolescent in character, and this is enough to convey the desired effect without unduly interlarding present-day English with outdated elements of speech. Therefore we can find such words as methinks, haply, nay, travail, repast and the like in great number and, of course, a multiplicity of historical terms. But you will hardly find a true archaism of the nature indicated in our classification as archaisms proper.

Besides the function just mentioned, archaic words and phrases have other functions found in other styles. They are, first of all, frequently to be found in the style of official documents. In business letters, in legal language, in all kinds of statutes, in diplomatic documents and in all kinds of legal documents one can find obsolescent words which would long ago have become obsolete if it were not for the preserving power of the special use within the above-mentioned spheres of communication. It is the same with archaic and obsolete words in poetry. As has already been pointed out, they are employed in the poetic style as special terms and hence prevented from dropping completely out of the language.

Among the obsolescent elements of the English vocabulary preserved within the style of official documents, the following may be mentioned: aforesaid, hereby, therewith, hereinafternamed.

The function of archaic words and constructions in official documents is terminological in character. They are used here because they help to maintain that exactness of expression so necessary in this style.

Archaic words and particularly archaic forms of words are sometimes used for satirical purposes. This is achieved through what is called Anticlimax (see p. 221). The situation in which the archaism is used is not appropriate to the context. There appears a sort of discrepancy bet-

ween the words actually used and the ordinary situation which excludes the possibility of such a usage. The low predictability of an archaism when it appears in ordinary speech produces the necessary satirical effect.

Here is an example of such a use of an archaic form. In Shaw's play "How He Lied to Her Husband" a youth of eighteen, speaking of his feelings towards a "female of thirty-seven" expresses himself in a language which is not in conformity with the situation. His words are:

"Perfect love casteth off fear."

Archaic words, word-forms and word-combinations are also used to create an elevated effect. Language is specially moulded to suit a solemn occasion: all kinds of stylistic devices are used, and among them is the use of archaisms.

Some archaic words due to their inner qualities (sound-texture, nuances of meaning, morphological peculiarities, combinatory power) may be revived in a given period of the development of the English language. This re-establishing in the vocabulary, however, is generally confined to poetry and highly elevated discourse. The word albeit (although)1 may serve as an example.

The stylistic significance of archaic words in historical novels and in other works of fiction (emotive literature—belles-lettres) is different. In historical novels, as has been pointed out, they maintain "local colour", i.e. they perform the function of creating the atmosphere of the past. The reader is, as it were, transplanted into another epoch and therefore perceives the use of ārņhaiņ wîrds as a natural mode of communication.

Not so when archaic words are encountered in a depiction of events of present-day life. Here archaisms assume the function of an SD proper. They are perceived in a twofold function, the typical quality of an SD, viz. diachronically and synchronically. The abundance of archaic words playing the role of poeticisms in the stanza of "Childe Harold" quoted on p. 81 sets the reader on guard as to the meaning of the device. On the one hand, the word 'whilome' triggers off the signal of something that took place in times remote, and therefore calls forth the necessity of using archaic words to create local colour. On the other hand, the crowding of such obsolete units of the vocabulary may be interpreted as a parody on the "domain of the few", whose adherents considered that real poetry should avoid using "mean" words. At any rate, the use of archaic words here is a stylistic device which willy-nilly requires decoding, a process which inevitably calls forth the double function of the units.

One must be well aware of the subtleties in the usage of archaisms. In American English many words and forms of words which are obsolete or obsolescent in British English have survived as admissible in literary usage.

A. C. Baugh, a historian of the English language, points out that in some parts of America one may hear "there's a new barn a-building down the road". The form 'a-building' is obsolete, the present form being



1 Compare the Russian conjunction čáî.

building (There is a house building = A house is being built). This form has undergone the following changes: on building > a-building > building; consequently, ' a-building' will sound obsolete in England but will be considered dialectal in the United States. This predetermines the stylistic meaning when used in American or British texts.

The extension of such forms to the passive: 'A house is being built' took place near the very end of the 18th century.

Stylistic functions, of archaic words are based on the temporal perception of events described. Even when used in the terminological aspect, as for instance in law, archaic words will mark the utterance as being connected with something remote and the reader gets the impression that he is faced with a time-honoured tradition.


Date: 2015-12-18; view: 1707

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