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Why aren’t words ending with -enk/-eng more common in Modern English?

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    I found only banteng, ginseng, and even they are foreign words.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 15:17
  • @GEdgar Loanwords. But then which words aren't? Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 17:12
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    @EdwinAshworth Words that Old English directly inherited from ancestral "Proto-Germanic/Old Germanic" are not loanwords. Loanwords are those that have been imported from elsewhere, not ones inherited from our parent language.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 23:12
  • @tchrist Ah. 50-60 000. Out of ...? Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 11:33
  • @EdwinAshworth That’s only one way to reckon such things, and perhaps not always the best and truest way, either. Another way is by seeing how often each word shows up within some overall body of work. When you tally such words in this way you quickly see that it is none other than the very oldest words in our tongue, those that came to us more or less straight from Old English, which even now make up the far greater lot of all the words we say and write every day, the same as it ever was.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 15:59

1 Answer 1

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Mostly because -eng, -enk didn’t survive Middle English

We don’t have native words in -eng, -enk because of a regular sound-change that any such words underwent in their evolution from Old English to Middle English to Modern English.

For example, Old English had a verb lengen meaning to lengthen (transitively) or to linger (intransitively). In Middle English this became linge, ling before it died out in the late 1500s. The OED notes:

The normal modern form, if the Old English word had survived, would be linge.

Under clink, which was occasionally clenk in Middle English, they write that “the change of ‑eng, ‑enk, to ‑ing, ‑ink, being usual in Middle English”, from this larger entry:

Clink is probably simply a later phonetic form of clenk = clench < Old English clęnc(e)an, the change of ‑eng, ‑enk, to ‑ing, ‑ink, being usual in Middle English; compare think from Old English þencan, also stink, stench, blink, blench, bink, bench, earlier benk; also Inglish = English. But klink might be the Danish or Low German word, and clinch a result of its action upon clench.

Similar transitions can be seen in words like

  • Old English crengan becoming Modern English cringe.
  • Middle English frenge became Modern English fringe because per the OED:

    The change of Middle English /ɛ/ to modern English /ɪ/ before /ndʒ/ is normal: compare hinge, singe.

  • Old English sængan or sæncgan, sengan or sencgan became Middle English synge, sindge and thence to Modern English singe.
  • Middle English heng (probably from Old English hęncg deriving from the verb that became hang) became hinge today except for in Stonehenge.

But also from neutralization before ‑ng, ‑nk

Today under æ tensing, any words with -ang, -ank in them like cancre, dank, blank, fang, bang, bank, rank, rang, sank, sang, slang, sprang, spank, tank, thank, yank, language all tend to have their original /æ/ phoneme raised to [ɛ] or even [e] phonetically for most native speakers — pace Stephen Fry, who really does actually have [æŋ] in the word whenever he says language.

But many of us do not. That’s because for us this raising and tensing effect also neutralizes any possible tense–lax distinction in words like rank compared to lax/open-ɛ in wren versus tense/close-e in rain. So it doesn’t matter whether we spell it reng or rang, renk or rank these days because we wouldn’t be able to hear a difference there either way.

It’s possible for native speakers to produce lax [ɛ] in loanwords like ginseng if we try hard enough. But we really don’t like that vowel showing up there, so normally it instead becomes either “ginsing” like sing with neutralized [ɪ]/[i] or “ginsang” like sang with neutralized [æ]/[e] in our minds — and, often as not, in our speech as well unless we should try very, very, very hard.

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  • Thanks for the detailed answer. I would appreciate if you could elaborate on the role of the velars, since at least the neutrlisation seems to depend mostly on the nasal and words like "send" seem relatively common. If the difference is only in spelling a timing difference could be enough. The word "bench" lead me to think that in some cases a front vowel caused the raising of the preceding one and palatalisation of velars, but didn't affect other consonants (I would like to know if this makes sense). There seems to be a dialectal benk.
    – user439754
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 0:49
  • @Harpistry Yes, it seems that it was the velar consonants as stops that caused the instability. When there was palatalization into affricates as from causatives like drink, drench, it didn't force the change.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 1:00
  • Certainly deserving of an upvote, though 'why' questions can usually(/always?) be pushed back farther. Why didn't -eng survive Middle English? ..._Why_ is Stephen Fry unique? ... Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 19:07
  • @Harpistry I found the crucial sound rule. It’s covered in the paywalled OED entry on clink, where they say that words with ‑eng, ‑enk usually became ‑ing, ‑ink during Middle English. You can hear this happening in the way that we now pronounce English, England as though those were Inglish, Ingland today. Those special two didn't get respelled for other reasons, but they still changed from [æŋ] or [eŋ] into [iŋ].
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 29, 2021 at 23:01
  • The public domain versions of OED also clearly use -eng, -enk. There is a much older and broader pre-nasal raising in Proto-Germanic, which doesn't fully explain the current state in English, but partially explains my confusion. Palatalization also seems to be older (Old English), at least roughly. As for 'why', nasals are well known to lead to linguistic changes, I can think of ŋ playing a role or of these clusters being already uncommon because of the mentioned changes or other previous ones, but unless someone has some solid source to bring to the table this is just wild speculation.
    – user439754
    Commented Nov 30, 2021 at 5:49

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