A corpus-based study on adjective use in 16th century prayers and letters

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

27 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Grammatical aspects of adjectives
2.1.1 Morphological aspects
2.1.2 Semantic aspects
2.1.3 Syntactic aspects
2.2 Background information on Prayers
2.3 Background information on letters

3. Linguistic analysis and discussion of the findings
3.1 Analysis of the prayer corpus
3.1.1 Morphology
3.1.2 Semantics
3.1.3 Syntax
3.2 Analysis of the private letter corpus
3.2.1 Morphology
3.2.2 Semantics
3.2.3 Syntax
3.3 Analysis of the official letter corpus
3.3.1 Morphology
3.3.2 Semantics
3.3.3 Syntax

4. Conclusion

5. Appendix

6. References

1. Introduction

At first sight, prayers and letters might appear to be completely different genres. In fact, they show similarities, which make them worth comparing. A typical feature of prayers and letters is “the high involvement of the addressor with the addressee and the fact that the addressor performs speech acts which directly aim at the addressee” (Kohnen forthcoming b: 5). One can say that the basic communicative setting in both genres is similar.

This study will provide a corpus-based linguistic description and comparison of adjective use in prayers, private letters and official letters from the 16th century. Besides the analysis of the individual text types, there will be an analysis of different functional text sections within these three text types.

The linguistic analysis will be on the level of morphology, semantics and syntax. The morphological analysis concentrates on the method and distribution of comparison. In the semantic analysis, the adjectives will be grouped into semantic categories and it will be looked at the distribution of these categories in different text sections. Concerning syntactic aspects, there are two aims. Firstly, it will be distinguished between attributive, predicative and postpositive adjectives. The second aim is to look at occurrences, where more than one adjective modifies a noun phrase and additionally, the composition of these constructions will be considered with regard to the semantic categories the adjectives belong to.

The overall aim of this paper is to find out differences and similarities in these genres and text sections with regard to adjective use and to look at the effect they have on the language.

Kohnen writes concerning prayers that except for the work by Crystal and Davy, Investigating English Style from 1969, “there are hardly any linguistic descriptions, leave alone corpus-based studies” (forthcoming b: 1). On the other hand, there are many studies on letters from the Early Modern English Period, and it would go beyond the scope of this introduction to give an overview of the current status of research. However, what can be said is that there have not been quantitative studies on adjectives, providing a detailed description of the above mentioned text types and different functional text sections. The Longman grammar of spoken and written English from 1999 for example, provides corpus-based data concerning adjectives, but considers only the four registers of conversation, fiction, news and academic writing. Another example is a study by Anneli Meurman-Solin published in 1997, in which she looks at adjectives and adverbs in the Early Modern Period. She does not focus on a particular text type, but includes all text types from the Early Modern English section of the Helsinki Corpus. Therefore her description of letters is not detailed and different fictional text sections are not considered in her study.

The prayers for this study are taken from the Corpus of English Religious Prose (see Kohnen 2007) and cover the 16th century. The total number of words in the prayer corpus adds up to 15.121. For a more detailed account of the sources see the Appendix. For the private letters and the official letters the Helsinki Corpus served as a source. Here, all the letters from the first sub-period, i.e. from 1500 to 1570, of the Early Modern English part of the corpus are taken (CEPRIV1 and CEOFFIC1). Due to the availability of private and official letters in the corpus, the number of words for the two letter types varies from 11.319 words for private letters and 6.546 words for official letters. However, it is possible to collect enough data for a representative description and comparison of 16th century official letters, as adjectives can be regarded as high-frequency items.

Chapter 2 of this paper will provide a delineation of the basic grammatical concepts with regard to the morphology, semantics and syntax of adjectives. Secondly, this chapter gives background information on the different text types and functional text sections, which is necessary for a better understanding of the study. Following that chapter, which has only an introductive character, the sources of this study are introduced in more detail, analysed and put up for discussion against the background of the above mentioned aims of this paper. Finally, in the conclusion section the main findings will be summed up.

2. Theoretical background

2.1 Grammatical aspects of adjectives

2.1.1 Morphological aspects

In Present-Day English there are two possible ways of comparing adjectives. The first method is the use of the inflectional endings -er and -est and the second is the periphrastic method using more and most. It would go beyond the scope of this paper to delineate the various rules and regulations for the two different methods in today’s English. However, what can be said in comparison to the use of these methods in the Early Modern English Period (EModE) is the fact that today “there is a fairly strict regulation of the two methods” (Barber 1997: 146). In EModE there were no such regulations and both methods were almost in free variation. However, one can say that the periphrastic or phrasal method was used in a more formal context, especially in written or educated language. As the sources for the analysis in this paper stem from the 16th century, one needs to consider that in this period the use of the methods was still optional and only later during the 17th century more rules appeared (Görlach 1991: 83-84).

It was also possible in EModE to use double gradation, i.e. to use the inflectional and the periphrastic method together as in more easier for instance. This phenomenon “was frequent in colloquial speech, in which it could serve to express emphasis” (Görlach 1991: 84). However, these constructions “are less common than is sometimes assumed” (Nevalainen 2006: 99).

In the Early Modern Period, there were also some comparative and superlative forms, which are not used today anymore like ‘lenger’ or ‘lengest’. There is only the form ‘elder’ and ‘eldest’, which can be used today in some contexts (Barber 1997: 147).

2.1.2 Semantic aspects

Different grammars offer various semantic classifications and categorisations of adjectives. The standard grammar A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Quirk et al. classifies adjectives into three different semantic scales, rather than categories. According to their distinction an adjective can be stative or dynamic, gradable or nongradable, and inherent or noninherent. Using these scales, one is able to describe all adjectives with regard to their semantic properties. However, this subclassification is not appropriate for the investigation in this paper, because it only considers properties and not the meaning and function of the adjectives.

The Longman grammar of spoken and written English makes a general distinction between descriptors and classifiers. These broad semantic groups are subdivided into further categories. Descriptors include adjectives denoting colour (e.g.: black, dark, brown), size/quantity/extent (e.g.: big, long, little), time (e.g.: annual, early, old), evaluative!emotive (e.g.: bad, good, nice) and miscellaneous descriptive (e.g.: cold, dead, free). The classifiers are subdivided into three groups containing relational!classificational/restrictive (e.g.: chief, main, single), affiliative (e.g.: American, Christian, German) and topical!other (e.g.: human, official, social) (Biber et al. 1999: 508-509). Although the classification fits better to the investigation in this paper, one can still make changes in order to avoid categories like miscellaneous descriptive or topical!other, which are not satisfying.

A further source for the categorisation used in this paper is a study by Anneli Meurman-Solin. She distinguishes between the following subcategories: temporal, locative, descriptive, evaluative, state of mind, modal, intensifying and focusing (1997: 273).

The semantic categorisation of adjectives, which was used for this study, is based on the three different classifications mentioned above and consists of 7 different categories. The first category temporal contains all adjectives that denote chronology, age or frequency (e.g.: everlasting, eternal, young)[1]. The next category is evaluative/emotive and here all adjectives are included which denote judgement, affect and emotions (e.g.: glorious, almighty, worshipful). The third category contains intensifying adjectives like pure, great or high. These adjectives are used in order to heighten or lower the referent (see example 1)

(1) “I praye the that I may haue true confessyon" (Prymer of Salysbury Vse, 1531, ciiiv)

Sometimes, the distinction between an intensifying and an evaluative/emotive adjective is difficult to make and one has to look at each individual case and decide to which category the adjective belongs. In example 1 the function of ‘true’ is to emphasise the noun, rather than to evaluate it. In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, a further subclassification of intensifiers is made containing emphasizers, amplifiers and downtoners (Quirk et al. 1985: 429). The adjective true in example 1 belongs to emphasizers, because it has a heightening effect. An amplifier would be great, like in great mercy. Here, the function is to “scale [the noun] upwards from an assumed norm” (Quirk et al. 1985: 429). A downtoner has the opposite effect of an amplifier, i.e. to scale downwards, like feeble.

The next category is locative, which contains all adjectives referring to positions, directions or distances (e.g.: outward, left, near). The fifth category contains relational/restrictive adjectives. These adjectives put the noun in relation to other referents and they restrict it within other referents (e.g.: first, single, very). Another category is topical, including adjectives which could be used as generic terms for certain topics (e.g.: worldly, spiritual, carnal). In the seventh and last category of descriptive adjectives, all adjectives are included which have a mere descriptive function (e.g.: fast, red, bloody).

2.1.3 Syntactic aspects

Broadly speaking, one can distinguish between attributive and predicative adjectives. An adjective which is used attributively premodifies a noun phrase, i.e. it stands before the head of a noun phrase. A predicatively used adjective postmodifies a noun phrase, i.e. it stands after the head of a noun phrase and functions as subject complement or object complement. A third case is when adjectives are postpositive, i.e. “they can immediately follow the noun or pronoun they modify” (Quirk et al. 1985: 418).

Basically, the above mentioned syntactic properties with regard to noun phrases were the same in the Early Modern English Period (Görlach 1991: 102). However, some features are more prominent in Early Modern English. For example, it was more common to use an adjective in postposition (Görlach 1991: 103-104). According to Crystal and Davy, this is also a typical feature of religious language. Furthermore, they mention that “adjectives as such are frequent [...] and it is by no means uncommon to see sequences of three” (1969: 163).

Where more than one adjective occurs, one could be postponed (see example 2). However, this construction had “almost disappeared by the early sixteenth century” (Nevalainen 2006: 106).

(2) “And said it was a goodly cry and a ioyfull to here euery man with one voice no manne saying nay.”

(HC, Thomas More, The History of King Richard III, 1514-18: 76)

2.2 Background information on Prayers

Considering prayers one can say that “the general communicative setting of prayers seems to have been quite stable across the past centuries” (Kohnen forthcoming b: 1). However, the distinction between four different manifestations is possible. The basic manifestation, which can be called prayer proper, includes a first person addressing a transcendental addressee using the second person. In the second manifestation the person praying, talks about God using for example the address terms “Father” or “Lord”. A further manifestation includes an introduction by a request like “Let us pray”, where the first person is mostly used. There are also prayers, which contain text passages from the psalms or gospels. (Kohnen forthcoming b: 1-2)

As the main focus in this investigation will not be on the communicative setting of the prayers, this study includes all the above mentioned manifestations. However, there will be no differentiation between the first three manifestations and only the sections where passages from the bible are delineated are going to be given separately under the name of narration. The reason why only this manifestation is considered is the fact that here the basic communicative setting is clearly different from the other three above mentioned. Intuitively, one would probably not consider text passages about Jesus’ life for instance as a typical part of prayers. Nevertheless, in these cases the narrative passages are closely linked to the prayers proper, as the content of the narration is often reflected in there.

One major aim of this study is to describe and compare different functional text sections of prayers and letters and therefore, one first needs to distinguish the various sections. Prayers usually contain an invocation section, where the transcendental addressee is addressed. They may also include a petition, where a request is uttered, a thanksgiving section, confession/profession, where one’s sins are confessed and one’s faith is professed and an adoration section, where acts of praising and worshipping are performed (Kohnen forthcoming a: 15).

Although, a prayer can contain all the above mentioned sections, it does not necessarily have to contain all of them. Shorter prayers are usually made up of at least an invocation and a petition, whereas the other sections are additional. Concerning the invocation section, it has to be mentioned that they include an address term, for example God or Lord, which can be followed by an apposition or a relative clause, or both. “This construction seems to be quite peculiar to prayers” (Kohnen forthcoming b: 10). In this study, the whole section, including the appositions and relative clauses are considered as invocation (see example 3).

(3) “O My souerayne lorde Ihesu the veray sone of almyghty god and of the moost clene & glorious vyrgin

Mary / that suffred the bytter deth for my sake and all mankynde vpon good fryday & rose agayne the thyrde daye.” (Prymer of Salysbury Vse, 1531, ccviir)

2.3 Background information on letters

In this paper the text type letter will be divided into private letters and official letters. An underlying assumption is here “that such a functional and thus primarily language-external distinction is somehow mirrored by language internal phenomena.” (Bergs 2004: 27) Once they are now classified in the above mentioned categories it is advisable to make further text internal classifications, in which different functional sections of the letters are displayed.

Norman Davis and Malcolm Richardson created both a model of letter-writing which shows that in the 15th century there were “certain formulaic conventions [...] in official as well as private letters [which] consisted of various routinized expressions of respect and politeness.” (Nevalainen 2001: 203) Simply speaking, Davis distinguished between a form of address, followed by a formula commending the writer to the recipient and five expressions relating to health. These five formulas “are summarized by Davis as the ‘health formula’.” (Nevalainen 2001: 206)

Richardson’s model contains nine divisions. The first is the address, then the salutation and notification, followed by an exposition and a disposition/injunction. The closing of the letter is made up by a final clause, followed by a section containing a valediction and appreciato and the attestation and date.

Terttu Nevalainen did a study on these conventions focussing on 16th century correspondence and analysed her letters “according to the Chancery model suggested by Richardson, supplemented by Davis’s ‘health’ formula” (Nevalainen 2001: 208). She found out that not all of the mentioned formulas were present in her 16th century samples and therefore, she developed a simplified model, containing firstly, the place and date, then a salutation, an address, the above mentioned ‘health’ formula, a notification and a form of valediction (Nevalainen 2001: 210). However, the results of her study suggest “that even the mixed dictaminal model was not consistently followed in sixteenth-century personal letters. Nevertheless, at least one or two opening and closing formulas were used by all the writers.” (Nevalainen 2001: 220)

The establishment of a universal model that covers all letters seems to be a difficult task. This paper is not intended to be another voice in this discussion and therefore, the division of the functional text sections will be simplified. Considering Nevalainen’s conclusion that there are always opening and closing sections, this paper will summarise the salutation, the address and the ‘health formula’ under the keyword of opening. What will be called closing in this study comprises the valediction and the appreciato. The section of the letter which contains the notification will simply be called main body, because in this part usually the topics or intentions of the letter are presented. Although an official letter “may have had its specific contents, it did not deviate much from the rest of the personal correspondence of the time in terms of its conventional structure” (Nevalainen 2001: 215) and therefore, the same functional sections are used for official letters in this paper.

3. Linguistic analysis and discussion of the findings 3.1 Analysis of the prayer corpus

The investigation of prayers is based on a corpus of five samples taken from four different collections. The first two samples from the year 1531 are written by an anonymous author and add up to 1,365 words. The second extract was printed two years later and is called “The Mystik sweet Rosary of the faithful soule”. Here, the author is also unknown. The text consists of only one sample, which adds up to 7,567 words and so it presents the largest sample of the prayer corpus. It has to be mentioned that in this sample several passages of narration are included, in which the author describes certain aspects of the life of Jesus Christ.


[1] The examples for the different categories are taken from the sources of this study.

Excerpt out of 27 pages


A corpus-based study on adjective use in 16th century prayers and letters
University of Cologne
Corpus Linguistics: Studies and Exercises
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ISBN (Book)
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Corpus, Corpus Linguistics, Prayers, Letters, Adjectives, Early Modern English, Historical Linguistics, Historical Corpus Linguistics, Religious Language, Morphology, Semantics, Syntax, Comparison
Quote paper
André Valente (Author), 2009, A corpus-based study on adjective use in 16th century prayers and letters, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/163190


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