CHWP B.17 Lancashire, "An Early Modern English Dictionaries Corpus"

5. Conclusion

Let me now recapitulate. Those books called dictionaries, up to the eighteenth century, explain words generally by giving equivalent words (synonyms, translations). The early lexicographers, on having to explain words like definition, meaning, and sense, refer to translation, etymology, and denotation, and only mention what we know of as referential definition when they refer to things (not words). These men do recognize multiple possible interpretations for words, but an examination of a single word, timber, as interpreted by both the early dictionaries and the OED, reveals pervasive differences in treatment. The OED entries are generalized and abstract, while the earlier works are rich with descriptive detail, as if they are pointing to or denoting real things rather than representing categories or qualities.

My working conclusion, for the time being, is that referential definition is an anachronistic concept in the English Renaissance and that, far from being mere sources of supplementary information for the OED, early dictionaries offer the best approach to EME word meaning that Shakespeare's contemporaries would have understood. EME words had fundamentally only three dimensions. They came from words with which they may or may not be equivalent (etymology); they had equivalents in their own language and in others (synonyms, translation); and they pointed to things, qualities, or concepts experienced in the real world by the speaker. Thinkers and authors categorized things in the world but did not argue that language could or should reflect their logical thinking. Words were labels for the world, but when the world changed, words seldom did, simply because it was not necessary for them to change. If we want to understand what English meant in the Renaissance, we must understand the world it experienced daily.

The problem of lexical indeterminacy goes away. If there are no fixed senses in the first place, there is nothing lexical in a word that is determinable. The lexical problem gives away to one of understanding human purpose and the world in which it operates. A word, denoting some object, state, quality, or experience in nature, is not tied to a single semantic class (being thus 'determined') or to multiple ones (being thus 'undetermined') but is bound instead to things in the world by the person who uses the word and by the circumstances of its usage. For Shakespeare, words would not have been indeterminate, rather the things that they denoted.

A Renaissance dictionary true to its period, and helpful to us, should not only show which words are equivalent to each lemma, and from which word or words the lemma was thought to come (never mind where it actually came from: that is irrelevant in a period dictionary), but it should also describe and depict, preferably with pictures, the things then denoted by those words. Things defined should not be confused with words defined. Renaissance speakers would not have needed the pictures and might have been puzzled by the need for logical definitions of things. They already understood generally which words denoted which range of things. Linguistic untidiness, where words overlap one another in denoting things in the world, did not trouble them. We are the ones who need the pictures, for the Renaissance world is dead and gone, replaced by strata upon strata of new worlds in which things have changed while the words we rely on to label them have not. This kind of dictionary would not help 'fix' the senses of Renaissance vocabulary; the very idea opens the flood-gates to lexical indeterminacy and may 'unfix' some accepted critical interpretations of major authors of the period. Yet I believe that this new prototype dictionary would be useful in reflecting back to readers alive today only how English of the time was employed, independently of how we regard it from our own perspective four centuries later.

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