Guide Claim Of Language: A Case For The Humanities

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For men trained as clerics, literacy meant the ability to read Latin, and any competence in a vernacular whether Welsh, French, or English would presumably follow after. Lawman, for example, worked with Latin, French, English, and possibly Welsh. Although any generalizations about the competencies of literate groups in the thirteenth century are necessarily tenuous, it seems likely that someone who could read English could also read French, but not necessarily the other way around.

One reason might be that reading it aloud to an audience effectively expanded the benefits of the written text to those who could not read it. If the translation justified itself merely for the sake of expanding the listening audience, we might expect a version that resembles the Otho revision in having fewer arcane written forms. We are learning more about his sources beyond his obvious debt to Wace. They also raise questions about whether Lawman was imposing his own vision of history on his source text.

Things are not looking good for the British:.

They were then too audacious and looked after themselves too incompetently. Alas, alas, they were not vigilant then and did not know how to protect themselves against their enemies, for [the British] were too keen and too heedless and fought too energetically and advanced too far and spread out too wide throughout that extensive battle. Then the king of Mede advanced, a large and broad heathen warrior.

He caused much harm there. He led in his retinue twenty thousand horsemen. Instead, Lawman seems to innovate an ending here and in another two passages where the plural appears as ridearne and riderne. No other ME writer uses a weak ending for rider. As with any literary text, the language is not merely a transparent medium for conveying meaning.


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It would be absurd to consign the vast majority of the population—those without direct benefits of literacy—to a life without poetry. It is almost as absurd to assume that a poetic tradition could be maintained only via literacy. Although it is reasonable to assume that Lawman worked within an oral tradition, precisely what form it assumed in the decades around is almost impossible to know. In recent years, however, some studies have shown that the language of Brut is not as backward-looking as sometimes thought and more in line with the English spoken in Worcestershire.

The words need not be archaic in themselves, as if Lawman excerpted them from manuscript copies of OE poems like Beowulf or Exodus , but rather imitative of the archaic. What follows is an experiment in digital humanities.

The Claim of the Humanities: A Discussion with Christopher Fynsk

The citations of individual words from these texts are not exhaustive, but cumulatively they are ample enough to allow certain kinds of conclusions to be drawn. The search engines for the OED and the MED have advanced options, so that a user can do proximity searches within the MED quotations, for example, or boolean searches within the entries.

The OED provides a different set of options, including finding the authors of the first quotation for a given usage or searching for obsolete words. Selecting the appropriate options in the OED reveals that Lawman is the first author quoted for senses or subsenses; an author-only search reveals that, altogether, there are more than 5, quotations taken from the Brut. Putting together these two results, one sees that a large subset of all the quotations from Lawman in the OED illustrates the earliest attestation of a particular usage of an English word.

As impressive and expansive as the options are, the search engines for the MED and the OED only scratch the surface of the possibilities within the databases. To make this point is no criticism of these or any online resources because the initial goal of the electronic searches was to preserve and expand on the kinds of searches allowed by the print versions they were replacing. So, for example, many users of the print OED were interested in the earliest quotations of a word; fewer were interested, it seems, in the last quotation of an obsolete word.

One of the enormous and relatively untapped advantages of putting the print dictionary into an electronic database is the potential to create nontraditional search possibilities. It falls upon researchers to find new questions to put to these databases—questions that go beyond what could be asked of printed resources or even the first generation of electronic resources. It is encouraging to report that I received prompt and helpful responses from the editors of both dictionaries.

Were they archaistic as a group? The quotations are especially valuable in a study like this because they were chosen according to general lexicographical principles and not to privilege one aspect of the language over another.

In This Article

The totals are substantial enough that one can use the results with some confidence. The OED contains 5, individual quotations from Lawman. The MED results will figure more prominently in later parts of the discussion. Let me begin with the nearly quotations from the OED. Because the process does not privilege one aspect of the lexicon over another whether that may be a part of speech, a semantic field, loanwords, etc. The same is true of many kine- compounds like kineworthe : for a large number of them, Lawman provides the final or the only quotation, but a significant number also appear in texts from the Katherine group.

For every word like worthmint or kineworthe there are others that seem to be on their way out because no other writer from around the time of Lawman quotes them. If Lawman did in fact pursue an antiquarian agenda, then at least some archaistic features should be reflected in that part of his lexicon that became obsolete soon after. Let me begin with two representative instances. These are the familiar queen and slightly less familiar welkin ; in each case, Lawman preserves an older meaning that later fell out of use.

All the noblewomen [ quene ] and all the ladies who came there leaned along the walls. It is possible that Lawman was drawn to the more unusual choice for the sake of alliteration, and the regal connotations of the word would not be out of place in the context because the lafdies come from the highest ranks of society.

For most instances throughout Brut, queen has the more familiar meaning of the wife of a king or a woman ruler, but, in this instance, the word looks back to an older semantic usage. Then a wind rose against them, dark clouds [ weolcnen ] obscured everything under the sun, hail and rain arose there. It comes from a crucial turning point in the larger narrative, when Hengest and Hors present themselves to Vortigern, who concludes his opening address by demanding to know who they are, and Hengest responds:.

My name is Hengest, Hors is my brother. We are from Germany, the noblest of all countries, from the particular region that is called Angeln.

The Claim of Language — University of Minnesota Press

The nearest s - subjunctives from the historical sequence in the OED are from later copies of the eleventh-century West Saxon Gospels. Cador you are a powerful man. Your counsels will not be carried out, because a truce is good and peace is good for those who freely hold it, and God himself made it through his divine might. For a truce leads a good person do good deeds, and all people will be the better whose land is more pleasant.

T he MED quotes Lawman as the last writer to use frith and grith as a pair. Each has a well-attested history from OE. Aside from two quotations from the Ormulum , the Brut is the only quoted source for the seven subsenses of lithen. Do the examples adduced so far seon, godd-cunde, frith ond grith, fusen , etc. Not on their own, because the appearance of an individual word like fusen , for example, cannot be attributed with certainty to the rhetorical agenda of Brut , whatever that agenda might be. It might be bookish in a nonantiquarian way.

Or, the distinctiveness of such words in Lawman might be matched by similar sets from other works from eME. On the other hand, if usages like godd-cunde can be shown to form part of a coherent set distinct from the set of soon-to-be obsolescent usages of contemporary authors, then it supports the hypothesis that Lawman selected them for a purpose. I have already summarized some of the information provided by the OED regarding obsolete usages for which Lawman supplies the final quotation.

First, some cumulative numbers. For each of these, the precise number is less important than the general trend that the numbers in aggregate show, which is why the final column rounds off to single digits. In a broad survey like this, exact percentages can give a mistaken impression of precision. Table 1: Cumulative Numbers of Quotations.

Ancrene Wisse 1. However, a more realistic picture emerges when specific usages are considered, as the earlier examples of queen and welkin have shown. Let me give another example: the verb onfon , with a basic meaning of physically grasping something. It is an outlier. By contrast, eight of the twelve senses or subsenses of onfon have a quotation from Brut as the final one, another three from texts either earlier or contemporary to Brut , and the twelfth is the sense found in the NVP.

Looking at the level of the sense or subsense gives a more nuanced indication of lexical history. The rough ratios in Table 1 show a general equivalence among the three texts and a fairly high proportion of quotations bidding farewell to a usage as it passes into obsolescence. See the appendix for a list of AW manuscripts. Moving from aggregate numbers to closer examination of individual words can make clear the kind of features under discussion.

The first thing to mention is that most of the usages facing imminent obsolescence, it seems, are rather ordinary.

Additional Information

Vsp A. Brut Clg A. Clg A. Let me make two observations: first, foul-kin , like the others discussed earlier, seems to be part of ordinary English of the time—certainly not a poetic word or bookishly archaistic. The second point has to do with the order of citations in the MED entry. From our historical distance, it may not always be possible to distinguish between a word thought to be old-fashioned and an ordinary word destined to pass out of the language. The result offers a rough indication of the extent to which these words were changed because they were already thought to be too difficult.

In the case of at-somne and akimed , the conclusion seems unavoidable: the Otho reviser substituted other terms because at-somne and akimed had already crossed the threshold into obsolescence. Of the roughly 2, final quotations in the Caligula text, of the words in question were altered in some way in the Otho text. Those passages are quoted from the Caligula text with Otho readings interspersed:. The Otho reviser makes a change in each of the five.