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Archaism in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Archaism?
  • 1:30 Archaic Words
  • 2:40 Literary Examples
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Have you come across words like 'thee' and 'hence' and wondered why we still use them? Read about archaism in literature, and see some examples of archaic language used in literature from hundreds of years ago as well as more recently.

What is Archaism?

Have you ever read a word in a book and thought, 'Wow, what century are we in?' Well, did you know rarely used and older words have a name... and a purpose? Archaism is the use of writing that is today considered outdated or old fashioned. Derived from the Greek word arkhaios, meaning 'ancient', archaic language in literature can be in the form of a word, a phrase, or even the way the sentence is formed (the syntax).

Of course, when you come across archaic language in Shakespeare, you're reading text that was in common use during that time - it wasn't archaic then; it's only archaic now. But archaic language is also used deliberately by more modern writers who are likely trying to simulate an older style or create an effect from the mimicked time.

It is important to understand the difference between 'archaic' and 'obsolete' language. Obsolete language refers to words and phrases that are never (or almost never) used anymore, whereas archaism refers to antiquated language that is still used, though usually just for specific purposes.

For example, words like 'thee' and 'thou' are considered archaic. Though we do not use words like these in everyday speech, readers are still familiar with them. On the other hand, if you came across obsolete words like 'mawk' and 'puggry', you have probably never seen them before. You cannot find obsolete words in the dictionary today since they aren't used anymore.

Archaic Words

Here is a list of some archaic words you might come across while reading:

  • Afeard - frightened
  • Behold - see/observe
  • Behoof - benefit
  • Damsel - a young, unmarried woman
  • Fair - beautiful
  • Fruit - offspring
  • Hark - listen
  • In sooth - actually
  • Naught - nothing
  • Prithe - please
  • Quoth - said
  • Slay - to violently kill
  • Thither - towards that place
  • Yea - yes

You may recognize some of these words. Some we still use, except the meanings have changed. For example, we hardly ever use 'fair' to mean beautiful anymore. The more common meaning of 'fair' is reasonable or good.

And some of these are words you might have used mockingly or in a common phrase. For example, I'm sure you've heard 'damsel in distress' or 'fruits of my labor'. Using these words stirs up the older ambiance or style, and doing so establishes a tone that cannot come from using a modern word. 'Young woman in distress' just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it?

Literary Examples

You can find archaism in both contemporary and older literature. Here is an example of each.

Ernest Hemingway's novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, is known for its use of archaic language throughout the book. Hemingway situated the story around an American in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. His archaic language was meant to create a strange, yet romantically old-fashioned quality to the storytelling. While partly criticized for it, Hemingway incorporated archaism with purpose and intention.

(here is an excerpt from Chapter 13)

... 'There,' she said. 'How is that? Do I kiss thee better?'

Then they were walking along the stream together and he said, 'Maria, I love thee and thou art so lovely and so wonderful and so beautiful and it does such things to me to be with thee that I feel as though I wanted to die when I am loving thee.'

'Oh,' she said. 'I die each time. Do you not die?'

'No. Almost. But did thee feel the earth move?'

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