LINGUIST List 12.2289

Mon Sep 17 2001

Review: Kay & Sylvester, Lexis & Texts in Early English

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  1. Simon Horobin, Review of Lexis and Texts in Early English

Message 1: Review of Lexis and Texts in Early English

Date: Mon, 17 Sep 2001 15:38:34 +0100
From: Simon Horobin <>
Subject: Review of Lexis and Texts in Early English

Kay, Christian J., and Louise M. Sylvester, ed. (2001) Lexis and
Texts in Early English: Studies Presented to Jane Roberts.
Rodopi, paperback ISBN: 90-420-1001-0, xiii+302pp, $53.00,
Costerius New Series 133.

Simon Horobin, University of Glasgow

This volume is a collection of nineteen papers presented to
Jane Roberts on the occasion of her retirement from the
Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at King's
College London. The contents reflect the wide scholarly
interests of Jane Roberts herself, encompassing Old and
Middle English language and literature, paleography,
lexicology and lexicography. Despite this wide range of
coverage there is a strong focus on historical semantics and
lexicography which provides a coherent theme. Indeed the
editors are to be congratulated on producing such a coherent
and focused volume. It will not be possible to deal with
every individual contribution in this review so I have
chosen to focus on several individual studies and to
consider some of the overall themes which emerge.
	An important theme concerns the interpretation of hapax
legomena and several articles consider the methodological
problems that such words present. In 'Ualdenegi and the
Concept of Strange Eyes' C.P. Biggam interprets a glossary
entry in the Third Erfurt Glossary using a variety of
evidence from Old and Middle English and Old Norse. The
Erfurt Glossary is a late eighth or early ninth century
Latin-Latin glossary with a number of Old English
interpretations. This paper deals with the lemma 'caesius'
which is glossed as 'glaucus' in Latin and 'ualdenegi' in
Old English, a word not otherwise recorded in the Old
English corpus. In attempting to interpret the first
element of this compound Biggam demonstrates the uses of
etymology and cognation in determining meaning, as well as
the need for a sensitivity to context. Biggam proposes that
the Old English glossator wished to convey a rare eye-
colour, yellow-green, while also hinting at a sense of
strangeness. J-A George considers the large number of hapax
legomena found in the OE poem Daniel and other Old Testament
poems contained in the manuscript Junius II. Having
attempted to categorise these words according to semantic
fields George then focuses his analysis on those concerning
nature and the created world. George's interpretations are
much less linguistically-rigorous than Biggam's and rely
more heavily and less successfully on preconceptions of the
poem's form and meaning.
	Kay, Sylvester and Wotherspoon contribute an essay
which provides a useful orientation for the entire volume,
and could perhaps have served as an introduction to the
volume as a whole. This essay outlines the authors' work on
3 historical thesauri: a Thesaurus of Old English, a
Historical Thesaurus of English and a projected Thesaurus of
Middle English. The Thesaurus of Old English was originally
conceived as a research resource for the ongoing Historical
Thesaurus project. However this work was published in its
own right in 1995 and, as is evidenced by the present
volume, has quickly established itself as a major reference
work for Old English studies. Indeed it is fitting that, as
one of the editors of the Thesaurus of Old English, Jane
Roberts' festschrift should bear such testimony to the
importance of this work. The Historical Thesaurus of
English presents the data of the Oxford English Dictionary
according to a semantic classificatory system similar to
that of Roget. By comparing the TOE with HTE the authors
are able to suggest reasons for the disuse of words which
appear in OE and then disappear for several centuries. In
addition to a number of cultural and linguistic reasons,
they suggest that in certain instances such words were
probably in continuous use but dismissed by lexicographers
as uninteresting. The recently-completed Middle English
Dictionary provides examples of some such words and will
thus provide an invaluable resource for the projected
Thesaurus of Middle English. Julie Coleman's contribution
'Lexicology and Medieval Prostitution' is an extremely
thorough and fascinating examination of the lexical evidence
for prostitution in Medieval England. This essay provides
an excellent example of how the data in OED, MED, TOE and
HTE can be harnessed to an produce an assessment of lexical
and sociological history. Coleman also presents a number of
caveats concerning the way these data can suggest misleading
conclusions. Many prostitution terms appear only in
glosses, glossaries, translations and non-native contexts
and therefore the evidence they provide concerning
prostitution in Medieval England must be supplemented by
historical studies.
	In his study of 'Doublets in the Translation Techniques
of John Trevisa', Ronald Waldron provides an interesting
overview of this stylistic feature of the one of the most
important writers of scientific prose in Middle English. By
comparing the use of doublets in Book VI of Trevisa's
translation of Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon with the Latin
original, Waldron is able to make important suggestions
concerning Trevisa's theory of translation and the status of
Latinate and French loanwords during this period. Waldron's
study contradicts previous theories that doublets were used
to explain recent loans to monoglot English speakers.
Waldron's analysis shows that a large percentage of the
vocabulary of such doublets is Germanic; where a Romance
word appears as the first element this is usually a common
word with a long history of use in the English language.
Even where the Romance loans are recent these are frequently
recorded elsewhere in Trevisa without a defining synonym, or
in the work of one of his contemporaries. Waldron suggests
that Trevisa's motivation in using doublets is part of his
attempt to provide a translation with renders the meaning of
the Latin original as completely and clearly as possible.
It will be interesting to see whether this theory can also
be applied to Trevisa's other work and with other ME prose
translations, such as those by Chaucer and Caxton. George
Kane's contribution 'Language and Literature' is a critique
of the New Historicist method and argues for the importance
of an analysis of linguistic structure in literary
interpretation. However rather than attacking the method
itself, the subject of his critique is Derek Pearsall's 1999
Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture on 'Chaucer and
Englishness'. The unnecessarily vindictive and personal
tone of Kane's critique severely detracts from its overall
message, and its vituperative style seems oddly
inappropriate in a festschrift.
	It is hoped that this review has presented a taste of
some of the range and detail of the studies this book contains,
although there is much more besides. In short this is a
valuable and stimulating book which will appeal to anyone
interested in the language and the literature of the
Medieval period and especially those interested in
historical semantics.

Simon Horobin has research interests in Middle English
language and literature, the history of English, manuscript
studies and humanities computing.
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