Synonymy and Rank in Alliterative Poetry

Jonathan Roper

Alliterative verse, such as that found in the Finnic and Germanic languages, is often rich in synonyms. Quite why this should be is an open question. Possible factors include the greater demands for sound repetition found in alliterative verse (as opposed to those involving rhyme or even no formal sonic constraints), and the typical tendency for parallelism and restatement in many alliterative metres. Whatever the causes, the frequent recourse that alliterative poets have to the use of synonyms has not gone unnoted by scholars. Notable attempts to document this stock of synonyms in the Estonian context include Peegel (2004) on nouns and Labi (2006) on verbs. There is no working of matching extent on synonyms in Germanic alliterative verse (where attention has perhaps waylaid by the more properly skaldic concept of the kenning).

Nevertheless, the concept of rank, developed by scholars of the English alliterative tradition (initially Brink 1920; subsequently Boroff 1962 and Cronan 1986) may prove to be of interest to the Finnic scholar, for with it we can descry that not all synonyms are created equal. This presentation compares the semantic areas in which synonyms are most likely to occur in alliterative corpora, acquaints its audience with the idea of alliterative rank, and discusses its relevance to researchers of alliterative verse traditions.