If you compiled a list of common Middle English words and their corresponding Modern English translations, how many entries would have been replaced by an etymologically distinct word in Modern English? It's difficult to Google, since I just get articles on the vocabulary changes from Old to Middle English, which is not what I want.

By 'common', I mean concepts you would expect people to have a word for in both eras, like go, hand or red, and by 'replace', whether the default word is a direct descendant of the Middle English word in both meaning and form or if it was replaced by another word, either native or loaned.

So, tongue would count as retained, since it existed with the same meaning and use in Middle English. While dog would be a replacement, since while hound exists today and dog existed then, dog is the default word now where hound was before.

  • 2
    You're asking the wrong question. Modern English spelling is designed for Middle English (it was standardized by printers before the Great Vowel Shift was complete), so written Middle English looks like written Modern English. But if you heard Middle English, you wouldn't understand it, because it does not sound like Modern English; and that's why there's a difference. Oct 18, 2018 at 17:27
  • Are you looking for spelling changes or phonological changes? Oct 18, 2018 at 17:51
  • I'm looking for lexical changes. The replacement of one word by another.
    – Sid
    Oct 18, 2018 at 18:04
  • Despite its non-etymological ending, tongue is Germanic: Old Eng. tunge, Mod. Ger. Zunge.
    – KarlG
    Oct 19, 2018 at 3:02
  • @KarlG Oh, I think I misread my source. Fixed.
    – Sid
    Oct 19, 2018 at 6:44

1 Answer 1


A good place to start for a list of common words is a Swadesh list. They have questionable usefulness in some cases, but I believe it's a decent tool for comparing iterations of a language.

Wiktionary has a 207-word Middle English (ME) Swadesh list, conveniently with the modern word listed. Of course, it's hard to count some words, because if they were replaced in the roughly 350-year span of ME, are we counting them as ME or not?

Some findings:

  • The top 26 words (mostly pronouns) seem to be related. The 27th word is "big," which the list gives as in ME as "large, larche, largh, grete, gret, greet."
  • Modern English (MdE) words that have changed: big, wide, animal, bird, dog (nice one), to vomit, to split, to stab, to squeeze, to push, fog, road, dirty, dull, correct
  • MdE words given with primary translations that have different roots, but have secondary translations that line up: man (male), forest, bark (tree), skin, belly, guts, back, to know, to die, to kill, to dig, to walk, river, with

All this together gives 15-29 (7-14%) replacements, depending on how you count.

Note though, that I'm not a scholar of English, and could have made oversights or misjudgements in tallying. Happy to accept corrections or additions from people more versed in M/MdE than me. I also didn't click through the majority to make sure they are related, just going off sounds and what knowledge I do have about historical English.

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