Synonymity and Semantic Variability in Medieval French and Middle English

Article excerpt

Texts in medieval French and English often string together two or even three (quasi-)synonyms carrying a wide range of senses, a feature commonly regarded by modern scholars as stylistic rather than semantic. However, while for the modern reader the dictionary has become the accepted arbiter of form and meaning, the printing-press which made possible the dictionary came only in the late Middle Ages. In the absence of any such prescriptive authority, the synonyms in a medieval text often play a semantic role.


The expansion over recent decades of linguistic knowledge gained from the rapid advances in the field of electronics is now making possible a far-reaching review of the lexicographical heritage of past centuries in both France and England. Kurt Baldinger's additions to the later volumes of the Franzosisches Etymologisches Worterbuch (1) in his Etymologien (2) have been followed in France by the start of a fundamental revision of the entire work involving both enrichment and correction, a project which is already producing a wealth of new material that will greatly increase the size of the dictionary and refine its contents in the process. What is more, this work has already borne fruit elsewhere, Jean-Paul Chauveau applying the results of his revision of the first volume of the FEW to correcting etymological material provided in the authoritative Tresor de la langue francaise, completed only a decade or so ago. (3) Also within the framework of this second major project (Projet TLF-Etym.), but in quite different lexicological areas, Frederic Duval has shed new light on the history of French vocabulary referring to the civilization of Rome, Pascale Baudinot has brought up to date the entry 'addition' in the TLF, and a recent conference on historical lexicography has produced papers on the place of Spanish and Occitan in the history of French as set out in the TLF. (4) These ongoing revisions of the FEW and TLF are joined by the early fascicles of the Dictionnaire etymologique de l'ancien francais, (5) to be followed by the Dictionnaire du moyen francais. (6) Similar advances in lexicographical knowledge are currently being made in respect of the principal languages of medieval England: the Middle English Dictionary (7) was completed at the beginning of this century, the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, (8) now past the halfway stage of publication, is already much more extensive than the whole of the Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (revised in 1963) (9) from which it derives, and the early fascicles of the first edition of the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (1977-92) (10) have been completely revised over the last decade and are now being published in greatly extended form in a second edition, both in print and online. (11)

The body of new evidence being made available by all this work may now be used to illustrate an important difference between medieval vernaculars and their modern counterparts brought about by the invention of the printing-press. The medieval glossaries, the predecessors of the modern dictionary, which provided vernacular equivalents of Latin terms found in individual texts, were the work of many scribes of varying competence living in widely separated areas and at different times, with the result that the glosses they offer are of necessity uncoordinated. Only when a substantial number of them can be studied as an entity, as in the three volumes of Tony Hunt's Teaching and Learning Latin in Thirteenth-Century England, (12) can their true extent and, more importantly, their frequent diversity be fully appreciated. In the absence of any standard (13) lexical authority to which reference could be made, the meaning of a communication in the Middle Ages was often determined by the overall tenor of its context rather than by the modern method of interpreting each word as an independent unit whose spelling and semantic content are laid down authoritatively in dictionaries. …