Reading older English texts, I’ve encountered plenty of antique constructions that became phased out over the centuries. Many of them I find highly convenient and would love to see in modern use.
I’ve not the precise reasoning for their gradual disappearance and replacement with something of often far greater verbosity. A linguist would better address the issue.
However, the instance I write these words, a potential hypothesis dawns upon me. Many of these handy constructions, being of the terseness that they are, present a lower degree of entropy to the ear. That is to say, their compactness opens a higher possibility to misinterpretation. A shorter word makes an easier victim to noise than the longer.
It follows, as English gained an increasingly higher world-wide prominence towards the latter nineteenth century and onward, a necessity arose to minimize the element of incomprehensibility to foreign speakers. All this development, would, however, span a far greater period of gradual shift, this being merely one of the infinite web of causes.
And be that as it may, as a speaker of effectively native aptitude, I remain all the more desiring to see these ancient constructions in present use. I list some examples.
Anon. This equates to ‘momentarily’, ‘in just a moment’, or ‘any moment now’, although could, figuratively, encompass a larger time span.
Equivalent to the Spanish/Portuguese ‘ya/já’ or the Russian ‘сейчас’, yet modern English lacks the compact form.
Ere. Same as ‘before’, but terser.
Hence: one of my favorites. Means ‘from here’. Although still in operation, it only makes sense in the limited use case of ‘consequently’, ‘therefore’, or similar. Now traditionally, the construct enabled great versatility as I demonstrate in a handful of cases:
- Hence!: The simple one-syllable word pronounced with the right emphasis bore the same authority and colloquial rigor as the modern ‘get out of here’, or better yet, ‘get the f*** out of here’, or the Spanish fuera/lárgate. ‘Away’ could serve as an awkward substitute, but it still sounds too dandy for modern employ.
- Let’s hence: Let’s get moving, let’s get out of here.
- I’m hence: Per literal interpretation - I’m from here. Many syllables saved with this short construct.
Whence: ‘from where’. Rather than the verbose ‘where are you from’, Elizabethan English speakers could say ‘Whence art thou?’, much closer to the compact Russian ‘откуда ты’ or my preferred Polish ‘skąd jestesz’.
Trow (verb): ‘to believe’. Clearly of relation to the noun truth, ‘I trow’ saves a syllable over ‘I believe’.
Yonder/yon: at the indicated vicinity (usually nearby), within sight, ‘over there’. The compacter yon is even more ancient, but both lend to shorter phrases such as ‘that house yonder’ vs the modern ‘that house over there’.
This was a way of indicating subtle variations in distance perception, similar to the different degrees of ‘there’ in Spanish/Portuguese.
Nigh: near/nearby. A one-syllable saving isn’t a big deal, but more alternatives at our disposal make for greater poetry.
Nought: nothing. Similar deal. Now, I suspect, the ‘nough’ in the word enough owes to the Older English remnant.
Al: short for ‘although’. This contraction dates back to the middle ages. I haven’t encountered it’s use even in the Elizabethan English, hence it’s very old.
While probably close to all in sound, as you suspect, context renders such confusion unlikely, beyond the low entropy of the very compact syllable. However, I would love to see a word of equal terseness in modern English. Of all the languages I speak, I can only think of a one-syllable equivalent in the Russian хоть.
Betwixt: between. The older betwixt doesn’t seem to suggest any advantage to the modern variant. However, there was the contraction ‘twixt, which not only saves a syllable (as any modern contraction we use today), but enables further poetic subtlety.
Questions, comments? Connect.