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Synonym Clustering in Beowulf. Retrieved April , from http: University of Glasgow, Document Synonym Clustering in Beowulf Author s: Prof Christian Kay Copyright holder s: Information about document and author View plain text Download plain text Cite this document Highlight word: Summary The paper describes an analysis of the repetition of words from twelve synonym sets in the poem Beowulf.
The poet is found to have a tendency to repeat individual words or clusters involving compounds with a common element, or simplex-compound clusters. It is concluded that this clustering tendency may be accounted for by the fact that the poet composed orally or was influenced by an oral formulaic tradition. It is finally suggested that such clustering may be a feature of oral style in general. The starting point for this study was the casual observation that the Beowulf poet tends to repeat words within the space of relatively few lines.
This seemed worthy of investigation because many of the repeated words belong to sets of synonyms which offered him a wide choice of expressions, and because the vocabulary of Old English verse is more noted for variety than for repetitiveness.
Twelve sets of synonyms were therefore selected for analysis: In addition, note was taken of a selection of compounds in which one of the elements was one of the simplices under consideration.
It should be emphasised from the beginning that the study is in no way intended to be statistical: This part of the survey showed that there were quite considerable differences in the vocabulary of the three major sections.
In the first place, of the words occurred only once in the poem 84 in section 1; 47 in section 2; and 32 in section 3. Of the remaining words, 50 occurred in all three sections, 59 in two out of the three, and 32 in only one.. The study of repeated words, or of groups of words with a common element, yielded far more interesting results.
Altogether, instances of such phenomena were recorded. These will be discussed according to the type of repetition involved.
There were 99 examples of repeated simplices for example, cempa in ll. Many more examples of this kind were discarded because the words involved occurred too frequently in the poem to make their recurrence significant. Another example of this kind is flota, which occurs in , , and , and nowhere else.
The occurrences felt to be significant are underlined: The alternating use of sele and reced in ll. Similar tendencies were discovered in other groups. There were 22 examples of the repetition of two or more compounds with the same first element, and 45 examples of the repetition of compounds with the same second element.
An instance of the first kind is herebyrne, l. In all these examples, the words happen to be unique or to occur only at the point recorded. In fact, almost all the instances of this kind of clustering included at least one unique compound. The fact that these unique words should make their appearance in the company of related words makes the clusters doubly interesting. The 89 occurrences of simplex-compound clusters, that is of compounds grouped round the simplex which is one of their elements, showed by far the most interesting results.
If the compounds in turn are, as in so many cases, unique or rare, this association becomes the more noteworthy. An example of this kind is the group of 5 words containing bil as one element.
None of these words occurs elsewhere in the poem, nor are there any other synonymous compounds with bil as an element. A similar cluster involving wudu, ll. Without going into all the details, it is worth noting that bord, and six of the eight occurrences of its compounds, appear only in the third section of the poem. Three of the compounds appear in close association with the simplex, and three thereafter. Similarly, only one of the six rond compounds is isolated from its simplex.
Moreover, five of the seven occurrences of these compounds come in the first lines of the poem, where rond is the most common simplex. Comparing these with the bord compounds, it almost seems as if the latter took over once their simplex had been introduced. Of course, not all the compound-simplex groups yielded such positive results. The compounds of lind and scyld, for instance, showed few clustering tendencies. Beowulf criticism has undergone something of an upheaval in recent years, largely because of research on the formulaic composition of ancient oral poetry, and the application of oral formulaic theory to Old English verse.
An acceptance of the theory that oral tradition at least influenced the Beowulf poet goes some way towards explaining the existence of clustering, as does the less controversial fact that the poem was presented orally to an audience.
The very fact that the poem, because of its length, must have been presented at several sittings, may help to explain the overall differences in vocabulary. The method of presentation may also explain intensive clustering. Unlike the lettered poet, the oral poet cannot review his previous work before beginning a new section, and thereby re-establish its vocabulary in his memory.
Nor, at a more conscious level, can he look through his work and decide that a particular word has been overused or used with particular appropriateness and so on. Because of the demands of composing orally and at speed, the poet would concentrate his attention on short sections of the poem rather than on the work as a whole. It is conceivable that within these short sections he might repeat a word simply because it was conveniently in the forefront of his mind.
Thus, under the stress of composition, he might well tend to use several formulas in which the key word was, say, byrne, rather than search for totally different formulas with searo or syrce. His choice of words would be influenced by both semantic and phonetic association.
Comparison with written literature is unlikely to reveal much; if we must make comparisons, it is perhaps better to compare oral poetry with -the speech or impromptu written material of our own period. While a modern writer is unlikely to repeat a word except on rare occasions where he is aiming at a deliberate literary effect, such repetition is, I think, quite common in conversation, or a letter, or a rough draft of a piece of writing.
Words may well have stuck in the mind of the oral poet, who would not have the opportunity, nor, since his stylistic assumptions were different, the desire to vary his vocabulary. Thus, clustering may have arisen naturally from the conditions under which the oral poet worked. Like the poet himself, they would be more concerned with getting the story told than with stylistic minutiae. Nevertheless, repetition may have aided them in their comprehension of the poem by establishing a train of verbal continuity in their minds.
A repeated word, or a group of related words, would help them to grasp an essential idea. It is, then, possible, that clustering in the various ways outlined above is a feature of oral style, helpful to both the poet and his audience. As the phenomenon is preserved in our version of Beowulf, it may represent either an oral poet at work or the stylistic legacy left by generations of such poets to a lettered man.
In any event, the limits of the present paper by no means indicate the limits of the study of clustering as a whole, If the results are felt to be significant, it would obviously be desirable to extend the analysis to the entire vocabulary of the poem, and to see how the clusters are related to the known formulas in it. One could also study the clusters in terms of the fitts as this might be one means of determining whether the fitts were one of the units of composition used by the poet.
It might also be profitable to make a similar study of other Old English poems where oral composition is a strong possibility, or even to study clustering in known oral style of different genres and periods. If it could be shown that clustering was a constant feature of oral style, the existence of this phenomenon in works of dubious origin might prove to be one method of determining how such works were composed.
Such possibilities suggest that the clustering of individual words, or of words similar in sound or meaning, is a significant feature of style, and one which would repay further investigation. After consulting many authorities, whose own estimates of the number of synonyms in each group varied considerably, it was decided to include within a synonym group all words which are interchangeable to the extent that they convey the same essential meaning.
Thus helmberend was considered synonymous with scyldfreca, holm with sund, etc. Although this ignores etymological and connotational meaning, it was felt to be consistent with the character of the OE poetic vocabulary. If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend: Method of composition Handwritten Year of composition Word count