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A Reconsideration of Old English fāh


The Old English (OE) adjective fāh—a word bearing a complex semantic profile and appearing in both poetic and non-poetic genres—has recently come under scrutiny. Filip Missuno argues that although fāh is usually listed in lexical aids as two separate lemmata, the words had actually fallen together into one polysemous lexeme bearing meanings of both lemmata, and that fāh 2 ‘particolored’ had disappeared as a separate lexeme in OE. Through diachronic evidence of pre-OE and post-OE forms, and through synchronic evidence that examines fāh’s place in the whole of the OE lexicon (rather than just poetry, as Missuno does), I demonstrate that fāh 1 ‘hostile’ and fāh 2 ‘particolored’ are in fact separate lexemes, and their lexical relationship is one of homophony and not polysemy. I also show that the allomorphic forms fāg 1 and fāg 2, previously thought to be the result of phonological processes in late OE, actually date from pre-Germanic and are beginning to show principled differentiation in OE records: allomorph fāg is being associated with the ‘particolored’ meaning while allomorph fāh is associated with the ‘hostile’ meaning. This association is loose in OE but produces distinct reflexes in late Middle English (foe from fāh, and fawe from fāg) with clearly differentiated semantics. Missuno is correct that the meanings of fāh 1 and fāh 2 show some overlap with one another, but I argue that this is an example of conventionalized word play, creating intentional associations between two distinct lexemes, rather than a seamless polysemous blend.

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  1. 1.

    For the sake of clarity, I call fāh the ‘h-form’ and fāg the ‘g-form’.

  2. 2.

    For Germanic reconstructions, I have consulted Orel’s A handbook of Germanic etymology (2003). For PIE, I rely on Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959); Rix & Kümmel’s Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben (2001); and Watkins’ The American heritage dictionary of Indo-European roots (2000). Typically, *peig- (or *peiǵ-) is listed as an unexplained alternate form of *peiḱ- 1 and *peiḱ- 2. *peiḱ-1 has reflexes in Lat. pingo ‘paint’, Grk ποικίλος ‘colored’, Skt péśas ‘shape, form, color‘, and Lithuanian piēšti ‘paint, write’. *peiḱ-2 has reflexes in Lat. piget ‘make angry’, Skt píśuna- ‘angry minded’ and piśāca- ‘demon’ See section “ fāh 1 and fāh 2 as separate lexemes: the diachronic evidence” below on the relationship between these roots.

  3. 3.

    Oxford English Dictionary (OED) s.v. foe, as an adjective, ‘hostile, unfriendly, in a state of enmity (to, with)’ disappeared in the early seventeenth century; foe, as a noun, ‘deadly enemy; personal enemy’ is now somewhat archaic but continues in use until the present day.

  4. 4.

    OED s.v. faw, adj., 1.a. ‘colored, stained, streaked; particolored, variegated’: this meaning, recorded as early as c.700 in the Épinal Glossary, continues until c.1522 according to the OED. As a noun, faw continues in use into the nineteenth century to refer to a gypsy, or attributively as faw gang (a gang of gypsies), which is clearly metonymic.

  5. 5.

    Missuno mentions that OE fāh survives as foe and fawe (127), but he does not trace the implications of the survival of fāg 2 as faw(e), which is key. The persistence of faw(e) into the EModE period meaning ‘(multi)colored’ is evidence that fāh 2 ‘particolored’ had not disappeared from OE, as I argue in more detail in the “Semantics of fāh 1 and fāh 2: Synchronic evidence” section.

  6. 6.

    The forms with [o] are reflexes of OE [a:], with OE [a:] becoming [o:] in all southern dialects (Jordan 1925: §44–45; Fulk 2012: §19).

  7. 7.

    See fn. 10 below for the outcome of OE /x/ in ME.

  8. 8.

    Supporting the evidence of the <w> forms, which certainly represent glides, are forms of the word spelled with <au> and <ou>, which most likely represent glides. Fisiak (1968: §1.44–45) claims that both <aw> and <au> could represent /aw/ and <aw, au, ou, ow> could represent /ow/, e.g., blawe, blouen, blowen, etc. But the <ou> spelling may at times also represent [o:] (Fisiak 1968: §1.38); see also Fulk (2012: §24.2). Thus, spellings <fau> and <fou> may have been pronounced with glides, especially in inflected forms, and may thus also derive from OE [ɣ].

  9. 9.

    OE /g/ is complex and has generated significant debate. See Hogg 1992b: 91 for a useful summary of the dispute over the shift from Gmc /ɣ/ to OE /g/. For more extensive discussion, see Hogg 1992a: §7.15–32.

  10. 10.

    Most accounts of ME phonology claim a reduction of allophones of OE /x/ from [x] (before back vowels) and [ç] (before front vowels) to just [x] in all environments (Jordan 1925: §197–198; Luick 1964: §636; Lass 1992: § How long and in what environments [ç] endured is uncertain, and not usually treated in the literature. Fisiak (1968: §2.57), Fulk (2012: §35), and Lass (2006: § assume some persistence of [ç] in the early ME period, but later in the period, perhaps by 1400, [x] had either become [f] (as in ‘enough’) or had disappeared.

  11. 11.

    In support of what may otherwise seem a tendentious claim about back-formations being based on the inflected form of the adjective, I cite a comment by Lass (1992: 63): “apparent deletion of final [ç] as in hi ‘high’ beside hiȝ [in ME]” (emphasis added) may not actually show deletion; rather, such forms “may well descend from OE inflected forms like nom./acc. pl. hēa, where intervocalic /x/ has been lost”.

  12. 12.

    The editors of the TOE (Roberts and Kay 2000) seem to have recognized the correlations between the g-form and the ‘particolored’ meaning, and the h-form and the ‘hostile’ meaning: they have arranged all the senses associated with the ‘particolored’ meaning (fāh 2), including ‘brightness, light’ (3.01.12), ‘darkness, obscurity’ (3.01.13), ‘a color; medley/variety of color; colored, multicolored’ with the g-form, while the senses associated with the ‘hostile’ meaning (fāh 1), including ‘bad feeling, sadness; hostility’ ( ‘moral evil, depravity” (, ‘guiltiness, guilt’ (12.08.09) are listed under the h-form.

  13. 13.

    There is a possible counter-argument here, based on my postulation of a voiced variant *faiȝaz as outlined below. The counter-argument would say that PGmc *faiȝaz, which became OE fāg in the (OE) uninflected cases/numbers, was optionally devoiced to fāh. This would help explain why there is a preponderance of the g-form in inflected (word-medial) words, and very few occurrences of inflected word-forms based on fah (which would lose word-medial h as according to regular OE sound change to produce forms like fane, faum, etc., though some forms with h intact survive, e.g., fahne). It is possible that such ‘devoicing’ of fag may have played a role in the uneven distribution of fag- roots in inflected forms and fah in uninflected forms; but if so, it’s not really part of the same process that created the burh/burg variation. At any rate, the overwhelming comparative evidence of the cognate languages with reflexes deriving from *faixaz as shown above makes it impossible that the only origin of the h is a devoicing of *faiȝaz, so we are left with positing *faixaz as the etymon for the reflexes found in the other Germanic languages and both *faixaz and *faiȝaz as etyma for the OE reflexes. Invoking the burh/burg variation does nothing for our argument, in other words.

  14. 14.

    See Lass (1994: 76) for a brief discussion of optional devoicing of the burg/burh type. He points out that this is a late OE phenomenon. For this reason, in addition to the etymological reasons stated above, optional devoicing cannot account for the variation between fāg and fāh in early records.

  15. 15.

    Admittedly, Hogg (1992b: 107) warns that because of how “unusual” the major changes of the OE phonemic system are in the period, the paradigms may well have demonstrated significant allomorphic variation.

  16. 16.

    Either Missuno was unaware that devoicing of word-final g was a late OE phenomenon, or he is implicitly aligning himself with the school of thought that dates Beowulf much later than traditionally held (i.e., roughly eighth century).

  17. 17.

    The uninflected forms only exist in the strong adjective declension, in these categories: masc. and fem. nom. sing., neu. nom./acc. sing./pl.

  18. 18.

    A good general overview of how OE fits into the larger Indo-European family is Bammesberger (1992). Ringe (2006) provides a thorough and approachable description of the linguistic changes between PIE and PGmc; see specifically §2.5.5 on the PIE accent system.

  19. 19.

    Orel lists a *faiȝaz as the etymon of OE fæge ‘doomed to die’. The relation between this *faiȝaz and the *faiȝaz I postulate above is disputed—see Orel s.v. fæge.

  20. 20.

    The occurrence of segmentally homophonous lexemes with different stress accents and different meanings is not unusual in Indo-European, e.g., Ancient Greek τομός, ή, όν, adj. ‘cutting, sharp’ vs τόμος, ο, n. ‘slice’ (Liddell and Scott 1940). The alternation CóC(C)-o- : CoC(C)-ó- was, apparently, a productive stem type in PIE.

  21. 21.

    The DOE entry for bysmor reflects that that it has much the semantic range that PDE ‘shame’ has, and that it occurs in a wide range of contexts. In his translation of Judith, Fulk (2010: 307) chooses to translate bysmerlic as ‘insultingly’.

  22. 22.

    Fulk (1992) treats The Phoenix in Appendix A (pp. 402–404). Based on the level of parasitic vowels (e.g., intrusion of o in OE hleahtor < Gmc *hlahtr) contained in The Phoenix, he posits that the poem was written sometime after Cynewulf’s oeuvre, which is widely attributed to the ninth century. See also Cable (1981: 80) for a rough diachronic outline of the dates traditionally ascribed to OE poetry.

  23. 23.

    OE and Latin from Orchard (1995: §21). I depart from both Orchard (1995) and Fulk (2010) in the translation of hwites hiowes as it seems to me hiowe does not mean ‘hue’ but rather ‘shape, form’.

  24. 24.

    Missuno acknowledges the derived forms fagian and fāgettan, claiming that they “can express darkening of weather”. But this reading ignores the main meanings of these words, namely, “to change color” and “a changing of color”, which are clearly derived from fāh 2 ‘particolored’. Missuno states that all the examples of fāh glossing Latin words relating to color and light, as well as the evidence of the derived forms, “should not be uncritically extended and generalized to the poetic occurrences, which are far more numerous” (130). By this, he seems to mean that these glosses and derived words should not impact our semantic reconstruction of fāh, whether we reconstruct one word or two. But I argue that it is not a matter of “extending and generalizing,” but rather, building a complete picture of the lexical status of the word(s) using the whole evidence available to us. Only then can we proceed to make a judgement on the semantics of the word(s) in a specialized context (poetry).

  25. 25.

    DOE s.vv. fāhnes, fāgung, fāgian, gefagod, fāgettung.

  26. 26.

    This appears only in a gloss to Esther 1.6: “et pendebant ex omni parte tentoria aerii coloris et carpasini et hyacinthini” (and there were hung up on every side dyed curtains of sky color and green and violet; Steinmeyer and Sievers 1879: v.1, 488 a.2—3).

  27. 27.

    Kastovsky (1992: 357) reminds us that “there is no way of testing productivity directly” and that we have only circumstantial evidence for arguing about productivity. He lists the circumstantial evidence as “the number of new formations occurring in texts of a given period, their semantic quality (i.e. their semantic regularity homogeneity, degree of lexicalization), the correlation of morphophonemic alternations with the overall morphophonemic system operating also in inflexion… or continued productivity in subsequent periods”. After taking these factors into consideration, they “give us a reasonably good indication as to whether a pattern was productive or not” but nothing more. It also bears reminding that ‘productivity’ is a spectrum with ‘more productive’ forms at one end and ‘least productive’ forms on the other.

  28. 28.

    Kastovsky (1992: 360, 408) laments the lack of a comprehensive treatment of OE word formation. However, he does list a number of what might be called ‘productive’ nominal suffixes, and here he includes -nes and -ung/-ing. Of -nes(s) he states that it is “used very frequently to derive feminine, mainly abstract, nouns from adjectives and verbs”, including beorhtnes ‘brightness’, biterness ‘bitterness’, clænness ‘purity’ and 29 more. In none of the examples he cites does the semantics of the derived form depart from the semantics of the stem.

  29. 29.

    Despite the difficulties of ‘ranking’ productiveness, linguists typically agree that productivity of an affix does impact the way a person accesses the word-form containing that affix in their mental lexicon. Specifically, Zimmer (1964) posits that members of the productive morphological classes like -ness are not stored individually in the speaker’s mental lexicon as are the members of unproductive classes, but rather are created as needed and discarded. Anshen and Aronoff (1999) provide a helpful discussion of how a person’s mental lexicon may access and discard morphological classes. Building on Zimmer’s argument, they reason that if words containing a productive morpheme are typically not stored but individually generated, then we should not expect members of this morphological class to have “idiosyncratic meaning,” since “any idiosyncrasies must be stored in order to be retained”. They name specifically the suffix -ness as being productive, and thus “words ending in this suffix should not be listed in speakers’ mental lexicons” (18–19).

  30. 30.

    Kastovsky (1992: 388) states that the -ung suffix forms deverbal nouns, primarily from weak class 2 verbs (the category to which fāgian ‘to vary’ belongs).

  31. 31.

    An excellent summary and chronology of the development of the oral-formulaic theory can be found in Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe’s ‘Diction, Variation, and the Formula’ in A Beowulf Handbook (1997: 85–104).

  32. 32.

    One homophone that would have been fairly common in poetry is that of ealdor ‘life’ and ealdor ‘elder’. Far more common were near homophones. For instance, symbel ‘feast’ (from Gmc *sumlan) and simble ‘always’ (from Gmc *semlēn ~ *semlai) may have been homophonous in the later OE period when rounding of y [Y] began to diminish, causing it to merge with i and the diphthong ie in West Saxon. Some words that are orthographically identical but would not have been true homophones because of vowel length include gǣst ‘spirit’ and gæst ‘stranger’, māga ‘kinsman’ and maga ‘son’.

  33. 33.

    Drawing on Holst (1925), Frank distinguishes between paronomasia, word-play based on an etymological relationship of words, whether real or perceived, and ambiguum, word-play based on the connection between two meanings of a single word (208).

  34. 34.

    Donne (1994: 387.15–16). Grierson’s (1912: 99) commentary on this wordplay is a useful reference guide.

  35. 35.

    Donne (1994: 340.II.5).

  36. 36.

    OED s.v. do I.1.a. This meaning is the earliest attested one, first appearing in the early OE of the Alfredian translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, traditionally assumed to be written 871 × 899. This use of do is last recorded in the nineteenth century; the OED claims this use is now regional and rare.


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Christiansen, B. A Reconsideration of Old English fāh . Neophilologus 102, 91–106 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-017-9539-3

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  • Old English language
  • Old English poetry
  • Philology
  • English lexical semantics
  • Lexicography
  • Historical linguistics