Christian Terminology in the OE Lexicon

Before the Christianization Period



by Rosa Corradi

copyright 2005


Nature of the OE vocabulary


When the Jutes, Saxons and Angles invaded Britain in the fifth century, they brought a Germanic language to the continent that was predominantly homogeneous in nature.  It was an ingenious and resourceful language, since it had its own mechanisms (i.e. compounding, affixing, etc) for expanding its vocabulary.  However, the OE language that landed in this area during the fifth century already contained traces of foreign linguistic influences – i.e. the Greek, Roman and Celtic influences – that would make lasting contributions to the nature of the OE language by expanding the scope of its lexicon.


Over the span of the early OE period, the OE vocabulary grew and developed in order to reflect not only the political and cultural changes in England, but also to cope with the new system of religious beliefs (mainly Christianity) that was entering Britain via these foreign languages.  These changes in the vocabulary reflect the Germanic awareness of the importance of particular institutions and officials – namely those of the Roman Church.  All of the borrowing that transpired during the pre-Christianization period (ca 450-650) was mainly done through the oral language.  Some of the loans that entered the OE language at this time were distinguishable from later loans because of their close identification with a corresponding linguistic symbol in other Germanic dialects.



Greek Influence on Early OE Christian Terminology


It is true that most of the early loan words were influenced by OE contact with the Romans.  However, the Latin language may have acted as an intermediary for the adoption of some loan words from Greek.  For example, the OE deofol (‘devil’) borrowed from the Latin term diabolus, stems from the Greek item diabolos.   The OE engel (‘angel’) derived from the Greek word  ayyehos.   The OE term for ‘church’ – cirice – traces back to the Greek word kuriakon, which translates literally into ‘(house) of the Lord’ – a word that reaches far back into the heathen days of Greek culture.  The OE word preost derived from the Greek term presbyter, meaning “elder or priest’.



Latin Influence on Early OE Christian Terminology


Latin Influence during the Continental Period. (before ca 450)  The first Latin words to make their way into the English language are a result of the contact between the Romans and the German tribes on the continent.  Studies have found that approximately fifty Latin words can be traced back to ancestors of the English in their continental homes, and a few of these words dealt with religion and/or areas of learning.   Latin was the language of a more sophisticated and cultured civilization – not the language of a conquered people - and thus would have had a much more prominent role in every aspect of OE society, especially its system of communication. The few Latin religious loans that entered the vocabulary before the Anglo-Saxon migration to England did so through the Vulgar (spoken) Latin language.  [NOTE:  This is not the Classical written Latin that was used for religious and learned purposes as in the Christianization period ca 600-650.]  Two very early examples of Latin loan words that eventually became crucial  symbols of Christianity were:  candel (‘candle’) < candela  and win (‘wine’) < vinum.   (An important contact the English had with the Romans revolved around the commerce of wine, thus explaining the adoption of such a word).  Other words to enter during this initial period were:  predician, ‘preach’ < praedicare;   maesse, ‘mass’,< missa; abbud, ‘abbot’ < abbat – em.

Though some scholars speculate that words such as “mynster” and “munuc” are loan words from the settlement period (see ‘Latin Influence of Settlement Period’ below), others argue such loans had entered the OE lexicon as early as the mid-400s: 

mynster, ‘minister’ < monasterium;  munuc, ‘monk’, < monachus.


Obviously, many of these early religious words reflect the ritualistic aspect of religious practice typical of early civilizations, whereby those lexical items borrowed during the Christianization period reflect Church organization and rank [eg, papa (‘pope’);  sacerd (‘priest’)]  There are some early exceptions, however, that indicate the developing importance of a structural hierarchy in Britain, eg, biscop (‘bishop’).  


Latin Influence during the Settlement Period (ca 450-650)  The number of Latin words that filtered into the English language during this period declined significantly when the Roman troops withdrew from Britain in the early 400s, and  there continues to be much scholarly debate as to the exact time period in which the borrowing of loan words occurred.  Scholars such as Serjeantson believe words such as ‘munuc’ and ‘mynster’ are continental loans.  Others researchers, such as Kastovsky, believe they entered the OE language during the settlement period.  Regardless of such a debate, the relevant issue for such a purpose remains that there is no doubt that these words entered OE before the influential Christianization period radically transformed the face of the OE lexicon.


During this time, Latin still remained the official language of Britain, and though it is difficult to assess precisely the exact way and time these words entered the language, most of the following religious terms entered through oral channels.  A few examples of Christian terminology that is said to have appeared at this time in Britain were:  (munuc);  nunne (‘nun’) ;  mynster (‘monastery’) < monasterium;  relic (‘relic’) < reliquia;  and segnian (‘to make the sign of the Cross’) < segn.



Celtic Influence on Early OE Christian Terminology


Relations between the Celts and the English differed significantly from England’s relations with the Romans and their language.  Therefore, even though the Celtic vocabulary had adopted over 600 Latin words, most of these loan words were never integrated into the OE vocabulary.  It appears that the Celtic words that became adopted into the OE vocabulary were mainly popular words for commonplace terms such as “doctor”, “king” and “iron”.  The Celtic words adopted into the OE language were not of the ‘learned’ or ‘intellectual’ type, as were their Latin counterparts.  Seeing as to how Latin was not only the language of learning, but the language of the Church, it would follow that Celtic religious terms would not have been as easily integrated or accepted into OE  as would the corresponding Latin religious terms.


The Celtic loans that were transmitted into OE during the pre-Christianization period have three layers of classification:  (i) the loans from the early continental period borrowed from Old Celtic that were common to most Germanic dialects;  (ii) the few loans adopted by the English during the settlement period;  (iii) and finally, the religious and ecclesiastical terms introduced orally into the language by Irish missionaries towards the end of the seventh century.    Examples of such Celtic religious terms are:  dry (‘magician’) < drui;  and, ancor (‘hermit’) < Old Irish anchara from Latin from Greek anachoreta.  The word clucge , ‘bell’, is recorded only once in OE, since it is the OE native word ‘belle’ which is found in early manuscripts. The most enduring – and disputed – Celtic loan is the word cros (‘cross’) < cross (Oir) < crux (Latin).  The word is rare in OE, but it is found in reference to Normannes cros and other Cross-names.  It does not appear in recorded literature until about 1200.



For Further Reading


Barber, Charles.  The English Language:  A Historical Introduction.  London: Cambridge University Press, 1993.


Baugh, Albert C.  A History of the English Language.  London:  D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., 1935.


Blake, Norman F.  A History of the English Language.  London:  University of Sheffield, 1996.


Clemoes, Peter. ed. Anglo-Saxon England.  Vol. 17.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1988.


Crystal, David.  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.  London: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Fisiak, Jacek.  Historical Semantics:  Historical Word Formation.  Berlin:  Mouton Publishers, 1985.


Hogg, Richard M. ed.  Cambridge History of the English Language.  London:  Cambridge Univeristy Press, 1992.


Leith, Dick.  A Social History of English.  New York:  Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1983.


Millward, C.M.  A Biography of the English Language.  2nd edition.  Boston:  Thomson Wadsworth, 1996.


Serjeantson, Mary S.  A History of Foreign Words in English.  London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1935.


Strang, Barbara M.H.  A History of English.  London:  Methuen and Company, Ltd., 1970.


Williams, Joseph M.  Origins of the English Language:  A Social and Linguistic  History.  London:  Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1975.


Wollmann, A.  “Early Christian Loan-Words in Old English.”  in Pagans and Christians.  ed.  T. Hofstra, L. Houwen and A.A. MacDonald.  Groningen:  Egbert Forsten, 1995.