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Axelson Revisited: the Selection of Vocabulary in Latin Poetry

  • Patricia Watson (a1)

Although it is now fifteen years since G. Williams' thorough-going criticism of B. Axelson's Unpoetische Wörter, his discussion has failed to elicit the adverse response which might have been expected in view of the widespread influence exerted by the earlier work.

The reason for this may be that Axelson's theory is so widely accepted that any refutation thereof may be disregarded. Yet surely Williams was right to point to the dangers of total reliance on statistics and to the necessity of considering the contexts in which words occur in Latin poetry. In this respect, he was not so much rejecting Axelson's work as pointing to its inadequacies: whereas Axelson would be content to label a word that occurs only rarely in poetry as ‘unpoetisch’, it is necessary, as Williams demonstrates, to take the further step of determining the effect that such a word has in a given context. This approach will be particularly helpful, for example, in the case of parvulus at Virg. Aen. 4.328, where the heightened pathos achieved by Virgil's use of a diminutive is better appreciated by the reader who is aware of the scarcity of diminutive adjectives in poetry and in epic above all. To recognise parvulus as an ‘unpoetic word’, with Axelson, is the essential first step, but we should proceed a stage further to inquire what effect was intended by the employment of a form not normally found in elevated poetry.

Of greater importance is Williams' rejection of the ‘hierarchy of genres’ theory, taken for granted by Axelson, that is, that Latin poetry may be divided into a number of higher- or lower-ranking genres and that the more elevated a genre the less unpoetic vocabulary it is liable to employ.

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D. T. Benediktson , ‘Vocabulary Analysis and the Generic Classification of Literature’, Phoenix 31 (1977), 341ff

A. S. F. Gow , CQ 26 (1932), 150ff

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The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
  • URL: /core/journals/classical-quarterly
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