Research Seminar – James Stratton (UBC)

Friday September 22, 2023
3:30 PM - 4:30 PM
Totem Field Studios

James Stratton (UBC, Department of English Language and Literatures) will present an in-person research seminar on September 22nd, 3:30-4:30pm at Totem Field Studio (TFS) seminar room (121).

The title of his talk is “Where did wer go? Lexical variation and change in the semantic field of ‘man’ in Old and Middle English“. A detailed abstract of the talk can be found below.

Where did wer go?

Lexical variation and change in the semantic field of ‘man’ in Old and Middle English

To refer to a male adult, speakers of Present Day English have several lexical items to choose from (e.g., man, guy, dude, fella, bloke, gentleman, and geezer). However, variation within this semantic field is not new. According to The Thesaurus of Old English, there were at least 25 lexical items which denoted ‘male adult’ in Old English (e.g., guma, man, wer) which could occur in referentially comparable contexts. This study uses variationist quantitative methods to examine the evolution of this semantic field from Old English and Middle English. Specifically, this study examines changes in lexical preference over a period of 600 hundred years and investigates whether any factors influenced lexical choices within this semantic domain.

The results show that wer is replaced by the gender-specific use of man, a change that is almost complete by Early Middle English. As wer decreases in frequency, man takes on the former function of wer, with the diachronic shift in frequency following a prototypical s-curve distribution. Language-internal (e.g., alliteration) and language-external factors (e.g., text type, text origin) are found to significantly affect variation within this semantic field. By showing the replacement follows an s-curve distribution, this study provides evidence for the applicability of s-curve patterns for diachronic lexical variation and change.