This paper focuses on the semantics of multi-word units in early modern legal discourse. The empirical part is based on the material from the Helsinki Corpus of Older Scots. The question of non-compositionality of meaning in multi-word units is puzzling, because in special-purpose contexts opacity should not be the underlying cause of phrasal fixedness. The study shows that in early modern legal texts there is a clearly definable group of multi-word expressions, binomials proper (e.g., assent and consent, captain and skippar, etc.), whose meaning and function do not stem from the semantic relationship between their individual constituents. Since the constituents exhibit semantic repetition, their repetitive character does not seem to be motivated by precision of expression (complementation, enumeration, antonymy and contrast, etc.). Such multi-word units, unmotivated semantically, are in fact the most frequent ones in the corpus. Contrary to what previous discussions of legal vocabulary have suggested, semantic motivation is visible only in a limited group of multi-word expressions.
Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX 2)
edited by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja, and Jukka Tyrkkö
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