Definition of Archaism

Archaism is the derivative of a Greek word, archaïkós, which means beginning or ancient. It is a figure of speech in which a used phrase or word is considered very old fashioned and outdated. It can be a word, a phrase, a group of letters, spellings and syntax..

Archaism is the use of writing or speech which is now rarely used. It is the use of older versions of language and art. Such as in these lines, “To thine own self be true” (Hamlet by William Shakespeare). Sentences that may be considered as examples of archaism will most probably contain the words “thine” and “thou”.

Evolution of Archaism

Archaism is also known as the archaic diction. Languages evolve over the years. The English language which Shakespeare has written and spoken is very different from the English which is used today. The use of archaic language were found in the literary works of ancient medieval ages, as well as in the Victorian, Edwardian, 19th and 20th centuries.

Examples of Archaism from Literature

Archaism examples are found in the masterpieces of Shakespeare, S.T. Coleridge, Hemingway, and Keats.

Example #1

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

He holds him with his skinny hand,
‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.
‘Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’
Eftsoons his hand dropt he
‘I fear thy skinny hand!….

I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.’—
Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest!
This body dropt not down…

(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S.T Coleridge)
In the following extract, archaic words are used extensively. These words are: stoppeth, wherefore, thy, thou, quoth, unhand and dropt.

Example #2

“Where the hell are you going? ….
“Thy duty,” said Agustín mockingly. “I besmirch the milk of thy duty.” Then turning to the woman, “Where the un-nameable is this vileness that I am to guard?”
“In the cave,” Pilar said. “In two sacks. And I am tired of thy obscenity.”
“I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness,” Agustín said.
“Then go and befoul thyself,” Pilar said to him without heat.
“Thy mother,” Agustín replied….

(For Whom the Bell Tolls by Earnest Hemingway)

Hemingway has filled this paragraph with archaism. Such as the words “un-namable” and “vileness” are old fashioned and out of use. He has, however, used them purposefully to create special mysterious effect.

Example #3

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;…..
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;….
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

(Ode to Autumn by John Keats)

John Keats has used archaism frequently in his poems. This example is also based on old fashioned words. Like, “hath” is an older version of has, thou has replaced you, “watchest” is used as the past participle of watch.

Example #4

Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will

There- my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, 545….

I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf, 770
Wouldst thou not stir in this…

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare is famous for using archaic words to make his work more rhythmic, realistic and to draw the attention of readers. Here, “doth, thou, shouldst, thee and thy” are considered as archaic.

Function of Archaism

Archaism is frequently used in poetry, prose, science, law, geography, ritual and technology speech and writing. It may have been used accidentally or purposefully. The role of archaism in history is to suggest a superior, but maybe mythical, ancient golden age. Also, it can be used for creating humor and irony. However, the most effective use of archaism are in poetry. The sound patterns of the archaic words are helpful when it comes to assonance, alliteration and rhyme scheme.

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