John Palsgrave as Renaissance Linguist: A Pioneer in Vernacular Language Description

By Gabriele Stein | Go to book overview

Preface

The most conspicuous feature in the history of English is surely the way the vocabulary has undergone enormous change and expansion. Yet, doubtless because of the general neglect of lexicology by Anglophone scholars, even the best historical treatments of English deal with relatively restricted aspects of vocabulary only, often recycling the same familiar examples from generation to generation, and neglecting the quite extraordinarily rich resources available to scholars in medieval and Renaissance word books. In consequence, students find it impossible to learn about the overall structure or even size of the lexicon at key points in the history of English, let alone about lexical phenomena such as functional differentiation in specific subject fields or the stylistic differentiation that enabled users to respond to the varying situations of communication.

In The English Dictionary before Cawdrey ( Tübingen, 1985), as well as in numerous papers before and since, I have sought to redress the position by drawing attention to the achievements of the many 'clerks' who compiled the first 'repositories' and word lists that gradually led to dictionaries as we now know them. In the detail of observation and depth of linguistic penetration, however, one work stands out as a foremost document and treasure trove of sixteenth-century French and English usage, inexhaustible in its wealth of linguistic and cultural information. This is John Palsgrave's Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse. The stature, originality, and sheer scale of his work demanded a separate book-length treatment. In Lesclarcissement we have a unique achievement, presenting as it does the description of two major vernaculars, lexically and grammatically, and -- what is still more remarkable -- in explicit comparative and contrastive relation- ship one with the other. This is a pioneering achievement of breath- taking dimension, and expounding Palsgrave's achievement has been no light task.

Although the majority of my research time throughout an entire decade has been enjoyably and often excitingly devoted to establish- ing Palsgrave's pioneering analyses and approach, I am acutely aware that the present book can do little more than open the field of

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