Archaisms in literature (43310)

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1 General information about archaisms



The process of words aging

Alternative meanings



List of archaic English words and their modern equivalents

2 Analysis of ancient texts

W. Shakespeare, Sonnet 2

Love and duty reconcil’d” by W. Congreve

3 Archaisms in literature and mass media

Deliberate usage of archaisms

Commonly misused archaisms




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.

Usually we do not notice the change that takes place during our own time because it happens quite slowly. But if we take a look back over a considerable span of time, language change becomes more obvious. If we touch the problem of historical development we can not pass over in silence peculiarities of early English language, and comparison between initial and today’s English. Such line of investigation considers diachronic approach to the main question of this course work – archaisms in literature. It’s very important to reveal the notion of archaism, the sphere of usage, origin and many other essential components that are comprised by the word “Archaism”. Besides the direct investigation of archaisms I included information about neologisms, as contrary notion, and also about retronyms. All the aspects stated above will be carefully investigated in this work; moreover there will be included olden text with and analysis of poetry.

1General information about archaisms


Archaisms are words which are no longer used in everyday speech, which have been ousted by their synonyms. Archaisms remain in the language, but they are used as stylistic devices to express solemnity. Most of these words are lexical archaisms and they are stylistic synonyms of words which ousted them from the neutral style. Some of them are: steed (horse), slay (kill), behold (see), perchance (perhaps), woe (sorrow) etc. An archaism can be a word, a phrase, or the use of spelling, letters, or syntax that have passed out of use. Because they are both uncommon and dated, archaisms draw attention to themselves when used in general communication.

Writers of historical novels, as well as historians and film makers, for example, do their best to represent time and culture accurately and avoid unintentional archaisms. Creating a fictional character from times past may require extensive research into and knowledge of archaisms.

An example of a fairly common archaism involving spelling and letters is businesses that include Ye Olde in their name. The word Ye does not actually start with a y, as it may appear; it begins with the letter thorn which has passed out of use. Thorn was a letter used to spell the sound we now spell with the consonant digraph th. Hence, Ye is pronounced as and means the. Olde reflects a spelling from Middle English of the word we now write as old. Businesses may use such archaisms to invoke a mood or atmosphere — as in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe or The Publick Theare; or to convey something about their product — as in Olde Musick and Cokery Books, an Australian firm specializing in sheet music and recipes from the past.

Certain phrases are associated with rituals and traditions, and though they would not be considered current if used in general speech or writing, they continue to be used in the venues or situations in which they are meaningful. For example, phrases such as “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” are considered archaic in general use, but being part of the common English translation of the Ten Commandments, they continue to be repeated and used in that context without calling attention to themselves. Syntax falls into this category as well. Legal writs characteristically include lists of phrases beginning Whereas, followed by one beginning therefore — an archaic style and structure not typically found elsewhere.

Archaisms can also be put to good use when they are carefully chosen to create irony or humor. One could, for example, mock the triviality of an errand run by saying, “Alas, I must away on my journey betimes. I must traverse the roads, journeying hither and yon in search of . . . muffins.” Used seriously in general discourse, however, archaisms can seem affected or be misunderstood.

Sometimes a lexical archaism begins a new life, getting a new meaning, then the old meaning becomes a semantic archaism, e.g. “fair” in the meaning “beautiful” is a semantic archaism, but in the meaning “blond” it belongs to the neutral style.
Sometimes the root of the word remains and the affix is changed, then the old affix is considered to be a morphemic archaism, e.g. “beauteous” - ous was substituted by - ful, “bepaint” - be- was dropped, “darksome” -some was dropped, “oft” -en was added etc.

 In language, an archaism is the use of a form of speech or writing that is no longer current. This can either be done deliberately (to achieve a specific effect) or as part of a specific jargon (for example in law) or formula (for example in religious contexts). Many nursery rhymes contain archaisms. Archaic elements that only occur in certain fixed expressions (for example “be that as it may”) are not considered to be archaisms.


Archaisms are most frequently encountered in poetry, law, and ritual writing and speech. Their deliberate use can be subdivided into literary archaisms, which seeks to evoke the style of older speech and writing; and lexical archaisms, the use of words no longer in common use. Archaisms are kept alive by these ritual and literary uses and by the study of older literature. Should they remain recognised, they can be revived, as the word anent was in the past century.

Some, such as academic and amateur philologists, enjoy learning and using archaisms either in speech or writing, though this may sometimes be misconstrued as pseudo-intellectualism.

Archaisms are frequently misunderstood, leading to changes in usage. One example is the use of the archaic familiar second person singular pronoun “thou” to refer to God in English Christianity. Although originally a familiar pronoun, it has been misinterpreted as a respectful one by many modern Christians. Another example is found in the phrase “the odd man out”, which originally came from the phrase “to find the odd man out”, where the verb “to find out” has been split by its object “the odd man”, meaning the item which does not fit.

The compound adverbs and prepositions found in the writing of lawyers (e.g. heretofore, hereunto, thereof) are examples of archaisms as a form of jargon. Some phraseologies, especially in religious contexts, retain archaic elements that are not used in ordinary speech in any other context: "With this ring I thee wed." Archaisms are also used in the dialogue of historical novels in order to evoke the flavour of the period. Some may count as inherently funny words and are used for humorous effect.

The process of words aging

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 peplume (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 recognised 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 archaic 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 borderlines between the groups are not distinct. - In fact they interpenetrate. It is especially 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 oirt 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 typeriever 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. 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".

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