Lexical obsolescence and loss: two methodological probes

Ondřej Tichý, Jan Čermák
Our understanding of lexical mortality crucially depends on the nature of sources, methods that the sources allow the analysis to employ, and principal sociolinguistic and structural tendencies at work in a language at any given point in time.

Our joint paper proposes to offer methodological observations on, and ultimately two historical structural perspectives of, the problem of lexical obsolescence and loss, namely as reflected in 'Updated Old English' (Dance (2013; cf. also The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220 (2010)) and in Late Modern English (1700‒2000).  In the first part of the paper, our analysis attempts to show several structural tendencies at work in the demise of the English vocabulary between 1066 and 1220, illustrating the devastating effect exercised by changes in word-formation patterns and their productivity on a vocabulary organized on the etymological (Mathesius 1939‒40) or associative principle (Kastovsky 1992). Comparing the electronic evidence provided by The Dictionary of Old English (A‒G) and The Middle English Dictionary with textual material of updated copies of Old English homiletic prose, attention is paid to the interaction between lexical losses (in nouns, adjectives and verbs) and the marginalisation of some of the word-formation patterns employing typological introflection (mainly ablaut and i-mutation) and suffixes of an inflectional, rather than agglutinating, character. The processes described are shown to testify to small, slow, gradual but perceptible beginnings in the intertwined domains of lexis and word-formation of the well-known large-scale typological reshaping of English, at a time when much of the estimated 65–85% loss of Old English lexis (Minkova – Stockwell 2006) is thought to have been taking place.

In the second part of the paper a corpus driven methodology is proposed and applied on large data (over a hundred billion tokens of English text from 1700–2000) made available through the Google Books project. Our main goal is: a) to establish a methodology for finding relatively common words that became obsolete based on their frequency and distribution; b) to selectively analyse and discuss the conditions of their decline; and c) to propose a classification of obsolete words – both in terms of the degree of their obsolescence (based on their frequency and distribution in the last decade under scrutiny) as well as in terms of the conditions and circumstances of their decline.

Since the practice of current English dictionaries shows relative lack of systematic labelling of obsolete words, we hope the proposed classification may find its use in contemporary lexicography.

In a comparative conclusion, we comment on the differences between the early period of typological reshaping and the latter period of standardisation and stabilisation in light of the processes of obsolescence observed in both parts of the paper.

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