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

Churls, Harlots and Sires: The Semantics of Middle English Synonyms of Man

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

Churls, Harlots and Sires: The Semantics of Middle English Synonyms of Man

Article excerpt


While early students of linguistics such as, Bechstein (1863), Paul (1880), Breal (1879), Trench (1892) devoted much effort to the issue of diachronic semantic change, the second half of the 20th century was, until the 1980s, marked by a particular dearth of publications on the problems of diachronic semantics. This overall picture started to change with the advent of cognitive linguistics as new ideas caught on and were put to the test by those who thought that cognitive linguistics offered the means by which historical semantic changes could be studied more successfully.

This preliminary analysis is concerned with meaning and change of meaning within a well-defined group of lexical categories that are, panchronically speaking, ME synonyms of man (cf. Kleparski 1996, 1997). Notice that this report merely signals a number of problems rather than satisfactorily solves any of them. Although I believe that no available theory is capable of encompassing all the facts concerning meaning and its development, the absence of a strict formal apparatus here does not mean that I am in favour of semantic botanising; the aim set to what follows is the exploration of the semantic status of a group of lexical categories during a strictly-defined historical period.


Hallig and Wartburg (1963) list three main conceptual macrocategories, i.e. UNIVERSE, HUMAN BEING and HUMAN BEING AND UNIVERSE, of which the conceptual macrocategory HUMAN BEING has undoubtedly drawn most attention and research. The preliminary analysis proposed here is a continuation of my long-lasting interest in diachronic semantics that started with the publication of Kleparski (1986), where an attempt was made to analyse pejorative developments in the history of English. In turn, Kleparski (1990) offers a study of evaluative developments in the conceptual macrocategory HUMAN BEING, while in Kleparski (1996) I narrowed my perspective to the conceptual category BOY. Finally, Kleparski (1997) carries out the analysis of semantic developments of ME and EModE synonyms of GIRL/YOUNG WOMAN. Here, we are concerned with the semantic content of a large corpus of ME (1050-1500) synonyms of man which is, however, but a fragment of the onomasiological dictionary one could list for the conceptual macrocategory MALE ADULT HUMAN BEING. Figure 1 lists the corpus of ME synonyms of man:


2. OE heritage

Notice that the use of several categories documented for the sense 'man' is restricted to the OE period and hence these lexical categories are not provided in Figure 1. This lot includes both morphologically simple lexical categories such as beorn, carl, haele, maga, waepned, esne, as well as a substantial number of morphologically complex categories, such as waepnedmann, woruldman, carlmann, folcagende, folcbearn, folcwer, freomann, gum mann, gumrinc and others. On the other hand, the ME body of synonyms of man comprises a body of lexical categories used in the sense already in Anglo-Saxon times. Thus, Germanic wer (cf. OFris, OHG wer, ON verr) appears already in Beowulf alongside with the sense 'husband' documented from OE down to the middle of the 13th century (OE > 1275). The lexical category churl was employed in the sense 'man' from OE until late 14th century. Like many other lexical categories associated with the core of the conceptual category HUMAN BEING, already in the EME period churl underwent the process of pejoration as it started to be used in the now predominant yet archaic sense 'base and low fellow'. OE sc(e)alc (cf. OFris, OHG scalc, scalh 'servant'), was originally linked to the conceptual microcategory SERVANT as it was used in the sense 'serving man', while in alliterative poetry it acquired the status of a synonym of man documented from OE down to the beginning of the 16th century (OE > 1508). The Germanic guma (cf. OHG gumo, gomo, Goth, guma) in poetic use was from the OE times till the 16th century used in the sense 'man'. …

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