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English Words in Time

The volume is a collection of papers read at the colloquium “Words in Time” held at Ragusa (a site of the University of Catania) in 2008. In addition to these, new essays were added to give the volume a coherent shape.

The theme of the colloquium was inspired by – and was a tribute to – G. Hughes’s <i>Words in Time. A Social History of the English Vocabulary</i>, which had been published exactly twenty years before. The book does not deal with historical lexicography only, but it also includes contributions which apply a sociolinguistic approach to the analysis of present-day English and its role as a global language.

The volume is organised as a “three-act play duly introduced by a prologue” (p. 9). The three parts are organised diachronically. Act I examines “Early Modern English Perspectives: Translations and the Making of Words”; Act II examines “Late Modern English Perspectives: Orthoepists, Lexicographers, and the Codification of English Words” and, finally, Act III examines “Present-day Perspectives: English in the Global Society”.

The prologue, L. Mugglestone’s chapter on “<i>The Illusions of History”: English Words in Time and the </i>OED”, offers a historical perspective on the development of English lexis. Words are not only the property of each successive generation of speakers, but also what lexicographers want or mean them to be. As Mugglestone makes it clear, “No preceding English dictionary had displayed the meticulous engagement with time and change which the entries of the OED systematically revealed” (p. 17). In particular, the <i>OED</i> aimed at “a new and ideal passivity” (p. 22) and facts were to speak for themselves, as opposed to “the interventionist strategies of Johnson” (p. 22). But, although the historical method “underpinned both the making of the dictionary as a whole, as well as the distinctive patterning of each entry” (p. 23), the lexicographer was involved in the active processes of choice and selection of data, as the various steps and stages of the making of the <i>OED</i> demonstrate.

The first part consists of papers by Carmela Nocera and by Giovanni Iamartino. The former analyses George Pettie’s translation (1581) of Stefano Guazzo’s <i>La civile Conversazione</i> and discusses how translators in Elizabethan England created new words by importing them from foreign texts or by giving new meanings to already existing words. After describing the fortune of <i>La civile Conversazione</i> through Europe and commenting on the relevance of the <i>Book of the Courtier</i> and of <i>The Galateo</i> in European culture at the dawn of the modern age, Nocera concentrates on the two words in the title (i.e. <i>civil</i> and <i>conversation</i>) of Guazzo’s book. She points out how <i>civil</i> underwent a significant semantic shift of generalization. As the <i>OED</i> records, beside senses relating to citizens, the adjective has in time taken up a more general, sometimes slightly negative, meaning. On the other hand, <i>conversation</i> and its various related lexical forms (e.g., <i>companie</i>) reveal the wide range of meanings they had and took on in 16th-century Europe. Nocera argues that these words “can be considered sociocultural ‘keywords’, as they certainly were significant, indicative words in certain forms thought in a given period of time” (p. 55).

Giovanni Iamartino’s chapter analyses lexical innovations in the English translation of William Harvey’s <i>De Motu Cordis</i>, a treatise originally written in Latin for an international readership (1628) , because “in Harvey’s world the use of Latin was associated with social authority” (p. 62) and later translated into English in 1653 for a new generation of doctors and scientists who were increasingly using the vernacular language for the promotion of experimental science because the prestige of English as the medium for medical discourse was growing. At the time, English medical terminology was considered inadequate and Latin and Greek words were commonly used, but with the evolution of science, English scientific terminology in the 17th and 18th centuries considerably developed and medicine, in particular, was in the vanguard of vernacularization. In this process, “translators were largely left to themselves to tackle the lexical problems posed by the texts they had to work on” (p. 64). Their main task was to expand or forge new words in the interests of precision since the polysemy of natural language was being rejected, although in Harvey’s case “the translator was often at a loss to make use of consistent terminology” (p. 70). The central part of the chapter provides a detailed analysis of a large number of lexical items and highlights the merits of the anonymous translator, whose “translation is characterized by the timely insertion of some neologisms or new words-senses” (p. 71). As Iamartino argues in his conclusion, the translation of Harvey’s book showed how different solutions might be found to make up for the existing lexical gaps in scientific English and contributed to the development of English scientific and medical terminology.

The second part of the volume concentrates on the process of codification and of promotion of a standard language and focuses on pronunciation and synonymy.

Joan Beal investigates the issues of codification and prescription in 18th-century pronouncing dictionaries, which provided explicit guides to the pronunciation of every word in the lexicon along with indication of correct and incorrect usage. In these dictionaries, ‘vulgar’ was a keyword, as opposed to ‘polite’, which referred to the pronunciation that 18th-century authors prescribed as the standard. Beal clearly points out that while 16th-century orthoepists mainly describe the different varieties and recommended the best one to be used, 18th-century authors give very specific comments about which pronunciations should be avoided. They also warned readers against ‘affectation’, so that speakers had “to steer a safe course between the Scylla of vulgarity and the Charybdis of affectation” (p. 91). At the end of the 18th-century, Walker’s dictionary (1791) ― the most successful pronouncing dictionary of those days, reprinted over 100 times and as late as 1904 ― and his author’s pronouncements show the process of codification at work: he selects variants and prescribes a rigid model of pronunciation and rejects all others. In her conclusion, Beal stresses that in pronunciation “complete uniformity can never be attained … [since]… every generation will introduce new pronunciations” (pp. 96-97). In spite of that, elocutionists and orthoepists of the 18th-century played a significant role in codifying the ‘best’ pronunciation and “have left us with a legacy of insecurity” (p. 97). Massimo Sturiale’s chapter focuses on another typically 18th-century lexicographic genre, i.e. dictionaries of synonymy. William Perry, one of the most important English lexicographers, after publishing a pronouncing dictionary (1775) and a bilingual English-French dictionary (1795), contributed to the codification of the English language by “synonymising” Dr. Johnson’s <i>Dictionary</i>. Sturiale highlights Perry’s merits, in particular his ability to improve on Johnson’s work as far as synonymy and pronunciation were concerned. He used Johnson’s wordlist, but he was able to contribute something new to the description of the English language. In particular, by pruning Johnson’s dictionary of all quotations, simply retaining the names of the quoted authors, he arrived at a potentially complete alphabetical dictionary of the language and “managed to create as easy, ready-for-reference, and user-friendly dictionary” (p. 106). As far as etymology is concerned, as Perry declares, he copied Johnson’s dictionary, but etymology “is to be intended not just as the origin of the word, but also as its morphological status” (p. 107). Sturiale also points out that the most original part of Perry’s dictionary is the section on pronunciation, which, obviously, was not Johnson’s main concern. Sturiale manages to point out that Perry, a highly experienced lexicographer and scrupulous scholar, was able to improve on the work of his great predecessor as far as synonymy and pronunciation are concerned and deserves a place in the history of English lexicography, and his dictionaries brought the phenomenon of synonymy from stylistics to semantics.

Act III of the book focuses on “Present-day Perspectives: English in the Global Society”. It opens with Ian Halliday’s chapter on the word ‘society’ and its derivative ‘social’, the linguistic history of which had been dealt with by Hughes in his 1988 book. Halliday discusses how these words have been used in a mainly British context since 1988 and highlights the semantic ambivalence in their use. He also points out that a major problem with words in time is that as we are inevitably out of their times, and out of the times of the people who have used those words through history. And this is true also in synchronic terms, since words are never the same for any given pair or group of interlocutors: in semantics “there is no such thing as true equivalence” (p. 125). The word ‘society’ is a case in point, as the development of the Anglophone world since Johnson’s <i>Dictionary</i> was published in 1755 has resulted in societies that are infinitely more varied and sophisticated than 18th-century Britain was. In particular, the element of fiduciary commitment, of mutual trust has declined in significance in recent years in the contemporary understanding of the word ‘society’, and “harmonious coexistence” and “mutual benefit” (OED, s.v. <i>society</i>, 2) are no longer intrinsic components of “the state or condition of living in association, company or intercourse with others of the same species”. The fact that in the <i>BNC</i> online the first collocate with ‘society’ is ‘building’ demonstrates this, though the second most frequent collocate ‘our’ “shows there is at least a collective perception of society as the system in which we live” (p. 130). In her chapter, Francesca Vigo argues that the presence and use of words of English origin worldwide should be included if we want a social history of the English vocabulary to be complete and updated, since, as Crystal wrote, “for every one person who speaks Standard English there must be a hundred who do not, and another hundred who speak other varieties as well as the standard” (p. 142). The increasing use of the English language in Italy in everyday contexts in recent decades has had some sort of impact on the Italian language, almost exclusively at the lexical level, with a considerable number of loanwords from English entering Italian. Vigo’s analysis points out that the introduction and use of English words in Italy runs parallel to that of words from other languages, although type numbers confirm that English words entering Italian grow gradually in time. Of course, many words and collocations of English origin seem to change their original semantic value once they are used in Italian, since the requirements these words fulfil are not merely linguistic, but largely pragmatic or social. Moreover, once adopted by Italian speakers, an English word may be adopted to perform new linguistic and communicative functions, quite often in an unpredictable, creative way. In the last chapter of the volume, Giuliana Russo investigates word-formation processes in the language of Computer-Mediated Communication. Her analysis demonstrates that the process of shortening is the most productive word-formation process in Internet English. Using a corpus of Internet terms created from C- and L-entries in the online dictionary <i>NetLingo@</i>, Russo shows that, compared to data from dictionaries of new Standard English words, the Internet is not disrupting the English language – quite the reverse: it is contributing to its creativity. Russo’s analysis shows that the most common way of creating Internet lexis is the combination of free and bound morphemes with percentages which are quite similar to those of Standard English. This coexists with a very high productivity of shortening processes, which, on the contrary, are far from frequent in Standard English. Acronyms and initialisms “signal that English is a lively language capable of adapting to the most varied socio-cultural situations and uses” (p. 176), despite the fact that these processes, which reflect the need for urgency and brevity, normally reduce clarity and transparency.

The volume offers a very interesting and in-depth analysis of the issues dealt with by the authors, which range from lexicography to semantics, from pronunciation to standardization processes, from translation studies to the role of the English language in today’s world, all of which are analysed from a variety of perspectives.