Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Determination and Interpretation of Semantic Lexical Underspecification in Old English Homilies

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Determination and Interpretation of Semantic Lexical Underspecification in Old English Homilies

Article excerpt


One of the most challenging problems facing lexical semantics of old texts, like Old English homilies, is to explain how unspecified meanings are "controlled" allowing the proper senses to be selected and deployed to achieve successful goals. The term "underspecification" refers to "some feature value whose overt presence is required on the surface" but "is left underlyingly unspecified and must therefore be provided by a default mechanism" (Trask 1993: 291). The study of lexical underspecification not only sheds light on the semantic behaviour of polysemies by "unpacking" several senses for a single lexical item, it may enable this lexical item to be uniquely understood in the context and it may ultimately help us make suggestions about evolutionary semantic continuity of the word.

In this paper I examine a few lexical items used in Old English homilies and present a possible interpretation of the meanings of such words taking into account the context in which they are used, as well as the author's own explanatory exposition. The Old English words which have been analysed are: leorningcniht, apostol, arendraca, leornere, letanie, ele and prowend.


To those of us who remember Margaret Schlauch's brilliant lectures on medieval and renaissance English prose, always lucid and often witty, it seems astonishing that her trenchant observations made half a century ago are very seldom quoted nowadays. I was not her student but I remember her several books which I studied at that time and I certainly recall her lecture on Mary of Nijmeghen which she delivered in 1962 at the Jagiellonian University on the occasion of my doctoral defence. In this paper I should like to pay my attention to what Margaret Schlauch said about the work of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Old English homilists, AElfric. When translating and/or adapting the Latin homiletic material he "applied much skill to the task", says Schlauch, "taking pains to simplify, explain and adapt the exposition to his audience" (1956: 92). Taking a few lexical items as examples I shall try to show how he did it, how he coped with alien concepts to make them understandable to his Anglo-Saxon listene rs and readers.

Homilies, generally speaking, could be easily regarded as the domain of religious research: Latin in origin, cut off from laity, hidden behind the walls of medieval monasteries and cathedrals were worlds unto themselves. But they were written not only for the clergy and the clerical society among which the knowledge of Latin was poor, often practically nonexistent (cf. direct statements by homily writers, too well-known to repeat them here) but also "for the sake of the simple and unlearned listeners and readers" for whom the work was intended (Godden 1992: 521). Have a look at the example (1):

1) ic oas boc of ledenum gereorde to engliscre spraece awende. na ourh gebylde miceire lare. ac for oan oe ic geseah 7 gehyrde mycel gedwyld on manegum engliscum bocum. oe ungelaerde menn ourh heora bilewitnysse to miccium wisdome tealdon. 7 me ofhreow p hi ne cuoon ne naefdon oa godspellican lare on heora gewritum. buton oam mannum anum oe p leden cuoon.

(AElfric's Catholic Homilies I 174, 49-54)

'I translated this book from the Latin language to the English speech not because of the confidence in great knowledge but because I saw and heard great heresy in many English books which unlearned men in their simplicity ascribed to great wisdom and I felt sorry that they did not know, neither had they evangelical knowledge in their writings except for those men alone who knew Latin' [RN] (1)

As seen, AElfric's concern about the right religious background of the laity and his care to expose to them moral, ethical and philosophical views of the new Christian faith in an acceptable way to be emotionally relevant and cognitively understandable was one of his crucial aims in adapting the Latin sermons; for that very reason they are of significantly special interest for a historical linguist. …

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