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Language Change

Language reflects history: it changes and adapts with contemporary events and influences. The more cultures we are exposed to, the more we pick up new ideas and new words to describe them. For example, words like juggernaut, pyjamas and jodhpur are widely understood but have only come into the English language through contact with India in the days of the British Empire.

Here are just a few examples of words that have recently been added to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Blogging | Chav | Biodegrade | Bling | Texting | Hoodie

Student Task 3

Can you think of other new words that describe modern ideas, things or situations?

Tricks of the Trade

Alliteration is used throughout the poem Beowulf, and often modern translations of the text will keep in the alliterative effects. You can see a clear example of alliteration in this extract from the Anglo Saxon text:

381 …heaþorof hæbbe. Hine halig god…

Which could be roughly translated as:

battle-brave. Hail holy God…

Think back to the way that Beowulf was first 'written' (see Telling the Tale: Beowulf through the ages).

  • Why do you think the original poem, and the later versions, use alliteration?


This is a poetic device used in Old English where a person, idea or object is described using an unusual combination of words. It is a bit like a metaphor: to give an example, an Old English term for the sea was 'hwael-weg', which means 'whale road' - the path by which these great sea-creatures travel. Some 'kennings' seem very strange to us now: 'onion of war' is the literal translation of a kenning for sword. Some examples are more complicated: to 'feed the eagle' meant to kill enemies, leaving their bodies to be eaten by birds of prey.
Today the word 'ken' is used in Northern England and Scotland to mean knowledge or understanding.

Can You Ken It?
Student Task 4

Have a go at describing something from the modern world using kenning. Here are some examples to get you started:

Soldier: cannon-fodder | Book: tree-born tale-teller

Words you could try kenning:
Motorway; computer; student…