Lop-Webbe and Henne Cresse: Morphological Aspects of the Scientific Register in Late Middle English

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ABSTRACT

The aim of the present paper is to present an approach to the vernacularisation of English scientific texts with special attention to lexicon. Word-formation is a better indicator than other linguistic levels of the extent to which the scientific register is adapted to the vernacular because such vernacularisation can be seen clearly when scientific items reproduce the patterns of the general lexicon. To this end, we will attempt to measure the degree of development of the vernacular scientific register by analysing word-formation processes. It is also our intention to ascertain whether there is a predominance of one particular linguistic stratum in texts of that kind from the late Middle Ages, unveiling the etymological origin of some lexical items of diverse provenance. The paper is therefore divided into four sections. In section 1 the socio-historical context of the scientific register is described briefly. Section 2 covers the processes of lexical enrichment in Middle English due to word-formation. The presentation of the corpus material and the analysis of data is dealt with in the third section. Finally, section 4 contains the conclusions reached in the light of previous research.

1. Socio-historical context

Medieval scholars studied, praised, rejected and criticised the theses of classical authors. In the 12th century medieval scholasticism conceived of science as deduction from assumed principles. A century later, still influenced by the earlier intellectual current, some scholars began to devote themselves to establishing the tenets of natural science: induction, experimentation and mathematics. For a time, the coexistence of both stances induced a kind of chaos. The Late Middle Ages was witness to a transitional intellectual climate, pervaded by theological digressions, matters of faith, and a general interest in achieving an accurate understanding of nature.

Some socio-historical factors, such as growing national consciousness, contributed to the emergence of a vernacular scientific register and the consequent incorporation of English into prestigious fields of knowledge. The development of this specialised variety of English was facilitated by the Lancastrian language policy which attempted to strengthen the position of the vernacular against French (Taavitsainen 2000a, 2000b). However, vernacularisation was an arduous process that lasted around four centuries. The general use of English in the written record of scientific matters was adopted later than other new methodological proposals.

Studies of early scientific writings (Irma Taavitsainen, Paivi Pahta) reveal that the classical format of scholastic thought was still employed before the adoption of empiricism. There are two main external causes: the retention of the classical format was merely a linguistic necessity to cover the vacuum in English technical terminology; and socio-political interests were served in endowing the vernacular with prestige by incorporating Latin linguistic structures and lexical items.

2. Word-formation processes in Middle English

Halliday (1978: 87) has observed that in the field of scientific terminology there are seven strategies for lexico-semantic innovation, namely, reinterpretation of existing words, creation of new words from native resources, creation of new words from foreign resources, borrowing, calquing, creation of locutions and, finally, inventing new words. Of these seven strategies, only three were commonly used at this time: the reinterpretation of existing words to endow them with a specialised meaning, the creation of new words from a native word stock and borrowing, especially from classical languages. We will specifically concentrate on creation in our analysis.

Foreign words were adopted with their own structure, including affixes. Initially, these terms were considered foreign by speakers but as they spread among the speech/discourse community they became familiar terms and so did their affixes (Burnley 1992: 445-446; Runblad 1998; Castairs 2002: 103). …