This paper explores words for speaking in Old English poetry, which form a highly populated semantic field in which the connotative differences are ill understood. It investigates the possibility that these words are chosen by poets to colour speeches in various ways, revealing important semantic distinctions between words hitherto treated as synonyms. The paper explores some general difficulties inherent in semantic research, notably distinguishing metrical and alliterative from semantic elements in word choice. The paper explores these semantic distinctions, with reference to cognates in other surviving Germanic languages. The focus of this exploration is the use of secgan in Old English verse. The paper argues that the use of secgan, particularly collocating with soð, distinguishes it from other comparable verbs of speech in Old English.
‘Word-foot’ theories of Old English meter, first devised by Geoffrey Russom (1987) and modified by Thomas Bredehoft (2005), have emerged as a major alternative to the longstanding Sievers–Bliss system that posited five metrical types of verses (Types A through E). Russom and Bredehoft claim that certain unstressed syllables lack all metrical salience, falling outside of any poetic foot. This paper tests this claim against variable-word poetic formulas to determine whether syllables that would be considered extrametrical, in a word-foot analysis, indeed behave differently with respect to formulaic diction than do those syllables that would be considered metrically salient. If only the putatively extrametrical syllabes are ‘invisible’ to formulaic diction (i.e., uniquely unable to disrupt it by their presence or absence), this pattern would provide independent support for their analysis as extrametrical. The data appear to demonstrate predicted extrametricality in certain metrical-grammatical scenarios but not in others: the evidence supports but simultaneously complicates the word-foot analysis of extrametricality.
Back in 1920, August Brink in his work Stab und Wort im Gawain discovered a certain statistical pattern in the distribution of poetic synonyms: some words in Middle English alliterative verse invariably alliterate, while others can either alliterate or not. Marie Borroff (1962) coined the term ‘alliterative rank’ based on Brink’s work. Tom Shippey (1972), following Brink’s and Borroff’s research on Middle English poetic style, adopted a similar approach to study Old English alliterative verse, differentiating between ‘low-rank’ and ‘high-rank’ words. This line of research was later continued in the works by Dennis Cronan (1986) and Mark Griffith (1991; 2013). However, an important question still remains: does the concept of ‘alliterative ranks’, when applied to Old and Middle English verse, describe one and the same phenomenon? This paper seeks to find an answer to it, examining in detail the alliterative ranks of the synonyms for ‘man’ in Old and Middle English alliterative poetry.