By Alaric Hall
Change in Meaning and the Meaning of Change: Studies in Semantics and Grammar from Old to Present-Day English, ed. by Matti Rissanen, Marianna Hintikka, Leena Kahlas-Tarkka and Roderick McConchie (Helsinki, 2007)
Abstract: It is difficult to detect lexical change within Old English, since most of our texts derive from a relatively short period, but lexical change can afford valuable insights into cultural change. The paper identifies changes in the semantics of the Old English word ælf (‘elf’) through a rigorous analysis of two textual traditions in which Old English words based on ælf are used to gloss Latin words for nymphs.
Around the eighth century, it appears that Old English had no close equivalent to words for the supernatural, feminine and generally unthreatening nymphs: words for supernatural females denoted martial, monstrous or otherwise dangerous beings, while ælf seems not to have denoted females—at least not with sufficient salience to be used as a gloss for words for nymphs. Glossators instead found ways of altering ælf’s gender in order to create a vernacular word for nymphs.
By the eleventh century, however, things had changed, and ælf had come to have the female denotation which was to prove prominent in Middle English. Tracing these lexical changes allows us to trace changes in Anglo-Saxon non- Christian belief-systems, and implicitly in Anglo-Saxon gendering more generally. overplayed, and the more general meaning of ‘otherworldly’ is to be preferred.