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Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon
Marc BaratinMarc Baratin, Barbara CassinBarbara Cassin, Irène Rosier-CatachIrène Rosier-Catach, Frédérique IldefonseFrédérique Ildefonse, Jean LallotJean Lallot, Jacqueline LéonJacqueline Léon







onoma [ὄνομα‎], rhêma [ῥῆμα‎], lexis [λέξις‎]




vox, verbum, dictio, locutio, muttum, pars orationis, vocabulum






slovo [слοвο‎]




All European languages have a term that refers to an element of the language felt spontaneously to be distinct, grammatically and/or semantically, and that corresponds to the English term “word”: Italian parola, Spanish palabra, Portuguese palavra, French mot, German Wort, Russian slovo [слοвο‎], etc.

This pleasing unanimity glosses over several questions, however. The first is knowing whether the word is a universal category. It is not in fact certain that in all languages there is a signifying unit perceived as autonomous by its speakers. Furthermore, even if we confine ourselves to the Greco-Roman tradition, this unit was constituted for its speakers in a way that was not independent of the process of the formation of its grammar. Finally, the designation of such a unit has been the object of so many political and religious debates over the centuries that its modern form was not established until the end of the seventeenth century.

In addition to this, whether we distinguish the minimal unit that is a word on the basis of criteria that are grammatical (morphology, function) or semantic, different words to say “word” are related to, or in competition with, each other, not only from one language to another but also within the same language, to the extent that there is sometimes no generic term, or no longer any generic term, to designate a “word.” Thus, in Aristotle’s De intepretatione, the word is made up of the pair onoma-rhêma [ὄνομα-ῥῆμα‎], “noun-verb,” which constitutes logos [λόγος‎], so that when medieval commentators introduce dictio (the “word”) as a generic term covering both nomen and verbum, it appears as a distortion.

Moreover, the terms that are continually reinvested from within other perspectives are particularly difficult to translate, terms such as onoma (word/name), verbum (word/verb), and at the confluence of several different traditions, lexis [λέξις‎] (speech, style, expression, articulate vocal sound, word) or vox (voice, word).

I. A Linguistic Entity? The Word as a Result of Grammar Formation

In Greek and in Latin, everyday language did not contain a term devoted specifically and monosemically to a linguistic entity that corresponded to the word and that was endowed with its general properties (Fruyt and Reichler-Béguelin, “La notion”; Lallot, “Le mot”). It was the predominance of parts of speech in the process of forming a grammar that placed the segmentation into words at the center of how language was discussed (see Auroux, Histoire des idées linguistiques, vol. 2). In the Hellenic graphic tradition, the norm was the scriptio continua, and the regular separation of words by a space did not appear until later in the Byzantine era. As for the designation “word,” which since Plato had been confused with that of “name,” onoma [ὄνομα‎], from the Hellenistic period onward it was expressed by the term lexis [λέξις‎]: “word” was understood at that time to mean “part of speech.” It was only with the grammarians in the Alexandrine tradition that the word came to be characterized as an autonomous segment with a single stress and meaning (see Lallot, “Le mot”). For Latin, it would seem that it was Varro (1 BCE) who named the word verbum (whose etymology was verum boare, “to proclaim what is true”) in his De lingua latina.

Nevertheless, the polysemy of the word verbum was omnipresent for this author, who assigned it several meanings (Di Pasquale, “La notion”). This polysemy (see below) was evident in the first French-Latin dictionary, Jean Nicot’s Thresor de la langue françoyse tant ancienne que moderne (1606), where the entry “Mot: dictio, verbum” contains a list of expressions in which the occurrence of the word mot is translated alternately as verbum, dictio, oratio, vox, vocabulum, tessera: “haec vox dominus,” “dictum breviter,” “prisca vocabula,” “oratio capitalis,” “vigiliarum tesserae,” “pervetusta verba.” This polysemy, which is still very much present in modern dictionaries through collocations, is as much indicative of the questions linked to the designation of the word as it is of the difficulties of translating the different terms that name it.

The word is not a universal category

The word poses a problem as a universal category. We know that it is extremely difficult for Western grammarians to deal with agglutinative and polysynthetic languages from the vantage point of the Western model of the dictionary of words, which presupposes a segmentation into units. In the cases where grammars were constituted independently of the Western model, the system of writing played a fundamental role. So in languages with logographic writing, such as Chinese, the unit is iconic and does not always correspond to a fixed acoustic image (the number “5” can be expressed as “five,” cinq, fünf, etc.). In Chinese, two ideograms correspond partially to the word: the ideogram that translates the notion of word or term, the character ci, was only recently imported (after 1920), whereas the unit of analysis remains the character zi (Alleton, “Terminologie de la grammaire chinoise”). In certain cases, two systems can coexist, such as when the parts of speech derived from the Greco-Latin model are superimposed on the traditional units. The Japanese tradition thus has two terms: kotoba in everyday language, and tango as a grammatical term. Japanese presents a duality of the basic units, at present visualized through notation: the referential part (called either kotoba or shi, depending on the era) is notated as an “ideogram,” and the syntactic or enunciative part (teniha or ji, depending on the era) is notated using syllables. The grammatization of Japanese by Western languages, in this case by the translation of Dutch grammars from the beginning of the nineteenth century, produced terms for the parts of speech that reduplicated those of the Japanese tradition. The terms ending in -shi correspond to the parts of speech (dôshi, verb) and translate the Dutch woord: those containing the Chinese root -go correspond to the functional groups (shugo, subject). Moreover, -go refers to lexical units: tango, “simple word”; fuku-go, “complex word” (Tamba, “Approche du signe et du ‘sens’”).

In the Greco-Roman tradition, the word was finally accepted as a unit by grammarians, by theologians, and by everyday language during the first few centuries of the Common Era. This did not, however, resolve the problems of designating this unit. If we confine ourselves to the Romance languages, we notice that there are in fact three terms that contribute to the naming of the word: mot, verbe, and parole. Romanian is an exception, since it is the only Romance language that does not have an equivalent of parole, and the word for mot is cuvânt, which comes from the Latin conventus, “assembly.” The semantic shift from “assembly” to “conversation” then to “word” is apparent in other Balkan languages, such as ancient Bulgarian, Albanian, and Serbian, in which kuvent means “assembly,” “conversation.” Romanian also uses (at a more stylistic and familiar level) the noun vorb ā, meaning “speech,” “way of speaking.” In modern Greek, there is a very common word, kouventa [ϰουβέντα‎], also derived from the Latin, which means both “conversation” and “spoken word,” “word.” Mot, parole, and verbe were all present in their Latin forms, muttum, parabola, and verbum, as names for a unit of language, and one of these terms, in a given vernacular, would become the established term meaning word. We should also mention here historical, political, or religious reasons, and one would have to make a detour through the various etymologies.


Alleton, Viviane. “Terminologie de la grammaire chinoise.” Travaux du Groupe Linguistique Japonaise 1 (1975): 12–23.Find this resource:

    Tamba, Irène. “Approche du signe et du ‘sens’ linguistique à travers les systèmes d’écriture japonais.” Langages 82 (1986): 83–100.Find this resource:

      II. The Word in Greek, Grammatical and Semantic Issues

      A. Onoma/rhêma: “Word,” “noun,” “verb”

      In Greek grammatical terminology, onoma and rhêma [ῥῆμα‎] refer to the basic constituent elements of logos (“statement, phrase”; see LOGOS), the noun and the verb. These are the preferred terms of merismos [μεϱισμός‎], the separation of the sentence into functionally different constituent parts. But this pair has a history, and the terms onoma and rhêma preexist their conjunction.

      1. Onoma and rhêma: Two possible designations for “word”

      The term onoma is intimately associated with the oldest and most elementary awareness of the referential function of language: language gives names to things, it is a nomenclature that has the world as its referent. Even though at this stage it is still not a question of “parts of speech,” the elements of nomenclature are prototypically substantives, that is, nominal types of words that are applied to concrete—“substantial”—objects around us: it is quite likely that in the first instance these are proper names of people (Socrates, Zeus—it is important to note the Greek use of the definite article, so they would say ho Sôkratês [ὁ Σωϰϱάτης‎], literally “the Socrates” or “the Zeus”; see SUBJECT). During this roughly pre-Platonic stage, onomata [ὀνόματα‎] in the plural refers to the “vocabulary” of a language, and the singular, onoma, to a “word” (proper noun, common noun, adjective, or verb). As for the other kinds of “words” (articles, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, particles, etc.), we can see that for Aristotle, in any case (Poetics, 20), all of this “small matter” of the language is classified, like syllables, as phônai asêmoi [φωναὶ ἄσημοι‎], “vocal sounds that have no meaning” and in this respect is quite distinct from onoma, the first vocal sound to be recognized as “signifying” (sêmantikê [σημαντιϰή‎]) in the ascending hierarchy that goes from the phoneme to speech in general.

      This generic meaning of onoma would continue in Greek, including in the writings of the grammarians, well beyond the grammatical specification of the term that we will go on to discuss (so we can find in Galen [17A], who was certainly aware of the grammar of his time, the second century CE, the expression, the “onomaillainein’” [τὸ ἰλλαίνειν ὄνομα‎], which is remarkable once we understand that that illainein is a verb).

      Alongside onoma, a synchronically unmotivated term inherited in its prototypical sense of “proper noun” from a distant Indo-European past, the Greek language in its ancient period came up with a postverbal derivation with a very clear formation, rhêma, first attested in the sixth century BCE. As an integral part of the family of rhêtôr [ῥήτωϱ‎], “orator”; rhêsis [ῥῆσις‎], “speech”; etc., rhêma is the action noun with a -ma ending derived from a root *wera-/*wre-, meaning “to speak,” “to say” (see Gr. Ϝεϱέω‎, “I will say,” Lat. verbum, Ger. Wort, Eng. “word,” etc.). As its formation suggests, rhêma seems initially to have designated something “said,” a complex expression or a simple word, no doubt noted first of all for its semantic range, and then, in a more banal sense, any “word” as an instrument used to say something (an expression such as kata rhêma apaggeilai [ϰατὰ ῥῆμα ἀπαγγεῖλαι‎], “to report word for word” [Aeschines, Peri tês parapresbeias, 2.122] illustrates well this aspect of the materiality of saying), so in this respect it is explicitly opposed to “acts” and to “truth.” Plato uses rhêma widely and does so at times in this loose sense of an unspecialized linguistic indicator (see Timaeus, 49e, where he refers to the demonstrative tode [τόδε‎]), which is more or less equivalent to onoma, and with which he alternates freely in the same contexts (Laws, 906c 3; see also in this same free variation, the composite noun prosrhêma [πϱόσϱημα‎] [Politics, 276b 4, Phaedrus, 238b 3], which refers initially, no doubt, to a form of salutation; see chaire [χαῖϱε‎], “salute” [Charmides, 164e 1]).

      2. Platonic pairs

      We might conclude from the above that in Plato’s time the Greek language invented, by different routes, two interchangeable words for “word” as an instrument of linguistic expression: onoma and rhêma. Although it is not essentially incorrect, this conclusion does not do full justice to the semantic richness of the pair onoma/rhêma. It is precisely in Plato that we can observe how the two terms, far from sinking into banality and a lack of differentiation, each develop in opposition to one other (in the Saussurean sense) its own semantic potentiality and produce a very unusual pair.

      We can distinguish three types of contexts in which the pair regularly appears with a formulaic regularity that deserves our attention:

      1. A. Typically “Cratylian” contexts, in which rhêma is opposed to onoma as the “etymological expression” is opposed to the “name” it accounts for, formally and semantically. So Dii philos [Διΐ φίλος‎], “dear to Zeus,” is the underlying rhêma of the onoma Diphilos [Δίφιλος‎], “Diphilus” (399b 7, 421 1). This feature appears as a local analysis of the opposition between onoma as name (a single term that designates) and rhêma as expression (a syntagm with a predicative content), an opposition that is clear in the Republic, 463e, where onomata are names of relations (“father,” “mother,” etc.), and rhêma is a time-honored expression, such as “things are going well.”

      2. B. Contexts that have a rhetorical connotation. Here, the pair onomata te kai rhêmata [ὀνόματα τε ϰαὶ ῥήματα‎] (sometimes in inverse order) refers to the variety of forms of linguistic expression that the masters of spoken language, orators (Apology, 17c 1; Symposium, 198b 5, see 199b 4; Theaetetus, 184c 1, see 168c) or poets (Republic, 601a 5), are capable of exploiting to aesthetic ends, whereas Socrates, who had no technical training, is content to speak with the words (onomata) that he happens to have been provided with (eikêi legomena tois epituchousin onomasin [εἰϰῇ λεγόμενα τοῖς ἐπιτυχοῦσιν ὀνόμασιν‎]; Apology, 17c 2). Influenced by what we observed in group A, translators readily translate the pair as “words and expressions.” A plausible alternative would be to consider that in the contexts in group B, we are dealing with a more-or-less redundant expression of the kind, “ways and customs”: Plato can be seen, then, to have freely exploited the combination of two terms of weakly contrasting values in order to create an expression that “imitates” in its very superfluity the use of language it attempts to describe.

      3. C. Contexts in which the pair onoma-rhêma is closely associated with logos. We can probably distinguish between two varieties here:

        1. 1. Typical of this variety is the first definition of logos in Theaetetus (206d 2): “make one’s thought [dianoia (διάνοια‎)] manifest with one’s voice using rhêmata and onomata.” Although there is no question in this passage of a rhetorical logos, and although the paired expression certainly has no aesthetic connotation here, we could be very close to group B (see LOGOS). We would place in this section the passage from Letter 7, 342b, where the noun (onoma) kuklos [ϰύϰλος‎], “circle,” is opposed to the logos, “definition” of the circle, “composed of onomata and rhêmata” (see 343b 4), namely “that of which the extremities are always equidistant from the centre.” There is clearly no question here of aesthetics, but it would be no less risky, as regards the logos of “circle,” to claim to be able to say precisely what is onoma and what is rhêma—the French translators of the Belles Lettres edition (A. Diès for the Theaetetus and J. Souilhé for the Letter 7) are certainly making a bold statement in translating them as “nouns” and “verbs.”

        2. 2. Although it is similar to the two passages quoted in C1 in that the logos is said there to be “composed of onomata and rhêmata,” the famous passage from the Sophist 262a–e is decisively different on one point: onomata and rhêmata each have their own distinct definition and exemplification. The sui generis combination that is a “first and minimal” logos, such as “man learns,” owes its singularity to the fact that it connects an onoma that designates an agent (prattôn [πϱάττων‎]), for example, “lion,” “stag,” or “horse,” to a rhêma that designates an action (praxis [πϱᾶξις‎]), for example, “walks,” “runs,” or “sleeps.” Onoma and rhêma each have here, without question, an inalienable specificity of minimal, noninterchangeable constituent elements of the predicative statement, and they are prototypically represented by what grammar will call, with the help of the very terms Plato uses, onoma and rhêma, a “noun” and a “verb.” We have to stress that this in no way implies that in the Sophist onoma and rhêma refer exclusively to the grammatical categories of “noun” and “verb”: the only thing we can say is that onoma here designates a propositional constituent, typically a noun that is liable to function as a subject, and rhêma designates a propositional constituent, typically a verb that is liable to function as a predicate. That being the case, no single word can provide a satisfactory translation of these two terms. This in itself matters little, but what is important is that Plato was able to analyze a simple affirmative proposition in terms of its two fundamental constituent elements and to find in his language two terms capable of designating each one of these. The innovation of the Sophist would prove to be exceptionally productive.

      3. Nouns and verbs

      a. The Aristotelian polarity

      Aristotle, for whom the functional pair appears to be a successful outcome of the analysis of logos as a simple affirmative statement, enriches the definitions of the two constituent terms and makes their relationship more symmetrical. In the Peri hermêneias (16a 19), onoma is defined as “a vocal sound, which has a conventional meaning, without reference to time, and no part of which has any meaning when it is taken separately” [φωνὴ σημαντιϰὴ ϰατὰ συνθήϰην ἄνευ χϱόνου, ἧς μηδὲν μέϱος ἐστὶ σημαντιϰὸν ϰεχωϱισμένον‎]. In the following chapter (16b 6), rhêma is defined as “that which adds to its own meaning the meaning of time, and it always indicates something that is affirmed by something” [τὸ πϱοσσημαῖνον χϱόνον, οὗ μέϱος οὐδὲν σημαίνει χωϱίς, ϰαί ἐστιν ἀεὶ τῶν ϰαθ’ ἑτέϱου λεγομένων σημεῖον‎]. Rhêma is thus clearly identified as conveying a predicative function and is functionally opposed to the substratum, or subject (hupokeimenon [ὑποϰείμενον‎]). The insistence on the nonsignifying nature of the parts that onoma and rhêma can be broken down into has the effect of not allowing these terms to be applied to segments of more than one word: in “the little horse is white,” the constituent subject “the little horse” is not a noun nor is the constituent predicate “is white” a verb, since they each can be broken down into separate signifying parts. What was only implicitly explained in the Sophist thus becomes an intrinsic part of the definition of each of the terms: onoma is a single word that can occupy the subject position, typically a substantive noun, and rhêma is a single word that can occupy the predicate position, typically a verb. The latter is distinguished from the former by its capacity to “signify time as well”: clearly one thinks here of the system of verbal inflection, which produces, among other things, temporally specific forms. Even though Aristotle from his own logical perspective refines his analysis by further restricting the application of rhêma to the verbal forms of the present (see PARONYM, Box 2) and that of onoma to the nominal nominative (which effectively corresponds to the form that the noun takes in the subject position), it is clear that he laid the foundations of a specifically grammatical understanding of “noun” and “verb.”

      b. Parts of speech

      Stoic dialectics undoes the self-evident nature of the polarity between onoma and rhêma as it was defined by Plato and Aristotle, since onoma and rhêma are now seen as two of the five parts of speech presented in place of the vocal sound (topos peri phônês [τόπος πεϱὶ φωνῆς‎]) and form part of the investigation concerning the signifier (see SIGNIFIER/SIGNIFIED).

      Rhêma is defined by Diogenes Laertius (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.58) as “an element of speech which cannot be declined, signifying a non-composite predicate” [στοιχεῖον λόγου ἄπτωτον σημαῖνον ἀσύνθετον ϰατηγόϱημα‎], or by others as “an element of speech which cannot be declined, signifying what can be formed with one or several subjects, for example: (I) write, (I) say” [στοιχεῖον λόγου ἄπτωτον, σημαῖνόν τι συνταϰτὸν πεϱί τινος ἤ τινων, οἷον γϱάφω, λέγω‎] (ibid.). In accordance with how Aristotle characterizes it, rhêma is here clearly presented as signifying a predicate—in other words, a morphological entity that, having no case, is opposed to the noun and its satellites; more precisely, in relation to the composite predicate “eats the mouse,” which includes an oblique case, rhêma signifies the noncomposite predicate “eats.” Rhêma thus seems to be the part of speech that signifies a part of what enables complete predication. The verb, since we need to call it by its name, is understood here by its subtraction as the part that has no case of a composite predicate (its definition also allows it to include the case of an intransitive verb that would constitute a predicate by itself).

      In the same context, onoma means “proper noun,” which is defined as “a part of speech designating a particular quality, like Diogenes, Socrates” and is distinct from prosêgoria [πϱοσηγοϱία‎], the “appellative,” which for its part is defined as “a part of speech signifying a common quality, like man, horse” (Diogenes Laertius, ibid.). After the initiative taken by Chrysippus, there is in Stoic dialectics no longer any generic term meaning a noun, whether proper or common.

      Among grammarians, and most particularly Apollonius Dyscolus, the noun and the verb are considered, of all eight parts of the sentence (merê logou [μέϱη λόγου‎]), to be “the most essential,” “the most important,” or even, “the most lively.” Without a noun or a verb, indeed, no phrase is “complete” (“sugkleietai [συγϰλείεται‎]”; Apollonius Dyscolus, Syntax, 1.14). The other parts of the sentence fulfill auxiliary functions and are all related to the functions that the noun and the verb perform.

      In the ordered list of parts of the sentence, the noun precedes the verb. Following on from Apollonius Dyscolus (Syntax, 1.16), the Alexandrine grammatical tradition—for example, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (De compositione verborum, 5)—almost unanimously justifies the precedence of the noun over the verb by the physical primacy of the body over its dispositions or of a substance over its accidents.

      Among grammarians, onoma and rhêma are given new technical definitions, but the symmetry of these definitions means that they preserve the memory of the pair invented by Plato and incorporate the criterion of time introduced by Aristotle. In the Technê grammatikê of Dionysius Thrax, onoma is defined (chap. 12) as a “part of the sentence that has a case, designating a concrete entity, for example ‘stone’, or abstract, for example, ‘education,’” and rhêma (chap. 13) as a “word [lexis, see below] that has no case, which includes tense, person and number, and which expresses the active or the passive.” The personal inflection of a verb, which has no case, corresponds to the inflection of a noun, which has a case, and the verb opposes its temporal variation and diathetic flexibility to the stability of the entities reflected by the nouns. In Alexandria, the Stoic legacy is partially rejected: onoma restores the generic value that Chrysippus had taken away from it—“the appellative [prosêgoria] is classed as a kind of noun [onoma]” (Technê grammatikê, chap. 11). On the other hand, Apollonius Dyscolus remains faithful to the Stoic definition of the noun in terms of quality (poiotês [ποιότης‎]) and not of substance (ousia [οὐσία‎]) (ibid., chap. 12). The pair quality-substance is used to contrast the noun to the pronoun; for him a noun and a pronoun do not have the same attributes; indeed, a noun does not involve deixis [δεῖξις‎] but instead signifies quality, whereas a pronoun does have deixis but only signifies substance. One could say, then, that strictly speaking pronouns are “substantives” par excellence, whereas nouns are “qualifiers.” Whereas all that “I,” “this,” etc. do is to point to a substance without describing it, “Socrates,” “man,” “big,” “Greek,” etc. in their own way each give some qualitative indication, whether the quality in question is given as something “proper” to a substantial individual (Socrates), as “common” to a class of substantial individuals (man), or as predicating a substance of which it will designate an “added” attribute—epitheton [ἐπίθετον‎]—(large), etc.

      By including predicable terms, we might be concerned that onoma comes dangerously close to rhêma. For a grammarian, the protection against this danger resides in morphology: defined by the case inflection and having nothing to do with personal inflection, the noun could in no way be confused with the verb, which is also endowed with personal inflection and has no case inflection. So, for better or worse, the meanings of the two terms that Plato was the first to join together as a pair become stabilized in grammatical theory, but their values are still multiple and fluid.

      B. Lexis

      1. The evolution of the meaning of lexis

      The gains made in the reflection on language that gave the specia lized meanings of “noun” and “verb” to onoma and rhêma paradoxically deprived Greek of two potential designations of “word.” Even though onoma, as we mentioned, could on occasion continue to designate a word once it had been given its specialized meaning of “noun,” we can legitimately ask whether or not Greek grammatical vocabulary produced a specific term for “word.” The answer is yes: in grammatical texts, the word for “word” is lexis, and this perfectly stable term remains the designation for “word” in modern Greek (demotic, lexi).

      But lexis has a singular history that should also be mentioned. As an action noun derived from the root leg-, “to say,” this term refers in principle to saying, as opposed to doing (praxis), (for example, Plato, Republic, 396c), but also as opposed to “the said.” This latter distinction is stipulated by Plato as well, for instance in Republic 392c, where lexis is opposed to logos as the form of a linguistic expression is opposed to the content expressed—or the style opposed to the thought, if one prefers. This semantic orientation is clearly confirmed by Aristotle, who makes a distinction between dianoia, “thought,” or the “faculty of saying … the appropriate thing,” and lexis, “expression,” or “manifestation, interpretation [of the thought] by means of its being put into words” (tên dia tês onomasias hermêneian [τὴν διὰ τῆς ὀνομασίας ἑϱμηνείαν‎]; Poetics, 6.1450b 14–15), whose “figures,” schêmata tês lexeôs [σχήματα τῆς λέξεως‎], refer both to an actor’s vocal schema for asking or demanding and to the varieties of an enthymeme or the morphology of an expression. This same opposition structures the argument of Rhetoric, which makes a distinction between “what is to be said,” the dianoia, and “how it is to be said,” the lexis (3.1.1403b 15). The meaning of lexis as “style” will continue in Greek well beyond the appearance of its meaning of “word”: in the entire Alexandrine and Byzantine tradition, lexis pezê [λέξις πεζή‎], like its Latin calque sermo pedestris, will be the technical designation for prose, as opposed to metrical expression, lexis emmetros [λέξις ἔμμετϱος‎].

      In Aristotle, On Sophistical Refutations forces us to widen the meaning of the term, so it is closer to the Saussurean signifier than to style. Aristotle in fact makes a distinction between two tropes of refutation: those that are “exô tês lexeôs [ἔξω τῆς λέξεως‎]” (extra dictionem, “outside expression,” “independent of speech”), which are designed to dispel the errors of reasoning produced in particular by the confusions between the different meanings of being; and those that are “para tên lexin [παϱὰ τὴν λέξιν‎]” (in dictio, “tied to expression,” “part of speech”), which are designed to dispel the confusions produced by the very materiality of language (homonymy and amphiboly, composition, separation, accentuation, morphology of expression: 4.165b 23–27). In the examples he uses to support his argument, we can see that what comes under lexis is what we would nowadays call the signifier, via the play of audible meanings in the sounds of the language (thus, sigônta legein [σιγῶντα λέγειν‎] is an amphiboly that can be understood both in the sense of ‘to speak of mute things,’ neuter plural, and ‘to speak by being silent,’ masculine singular: 4.166a 12–14; 10.17a 7–10.17b 2; 19.177a 20–26). But these illusions are highlighted in order to be dispelled with the aid of the tools of the categories and of grammar (see HOMONYM).

      Schêma tês lexeôs and the schêma in grammar


      Schêma [σχῆμα‎], documented in Greek from 5 BCE onward, is a nominal derivation constructed from the root σχε/ο‎- of the verb echein [ἔχειν‎], “to hold,” “to have,” and intransitively, “to stand,” “to be in such and such a condition”: semantically, schêma is related to the intransitive value of the verb and so refers primarily to the “way one stands.” This basic meaning took on many more specific and diverse meanings during the fifth and sixth centuries: it is variously translated according to the context as “stature,” “posture or pose,” “look,” “style,” “configuration,” “figure (including geometrical),” “form.” Schêma, one of the Greek names for “form,” refers usually to a complex configuration; in geometry, it is a closed figure.

      In Aristotle, we see quite a wide variety of applications of schêma in the domain of language: configurations of the mouth allow the air to be shaped into distinct sounds, characteristic morphological features of certain classes of signifiers, the modulation of an utterance to assist modal differentiation, and syntactic and rhetorical configurations. Several of these meanings are conveyed by the syntagm schêma tês lexeôs [σχῆμα τῆς λέξεως‎], which can be translated literally as “figure of expression.” Post-Aristotelian rhetoric would retain schêma to refer generically to any unusual turn of phrase: via the intermediate stage of the Latin translation figura, the schêma of Greek orators would become the figure of classical rhetoric.

      Grammatical theory, which we can see being formed as of 2 BCE, would retain, alongside a diverse and loosely specified usage of schêma as the name for a form, three clearly technical kinds of usage:

      • In inflectional morphology, schêma forms the basis of a family of words describing the phenomenon of the variation of meaning of inflected words: at the heart of this family, metaschêmatismos [μετασχηματισμός‎], literally “trans-formation,” applies principally to the case variation of nominals and to the variation in person of verbs;

      • In lexical morphology, schêma, “figure,” refers to the simple or compound status of a word. Three schêmata can be distinguished: the simple (for example, Memnôn [Μέμνων‎]), the compound (for example, Aga-memnôn [’Αγα-μέμνων‎]), and the derivation of a compound (for example, Aga-memnon-idês [’Αγα-μεμνον-ίδης‎]). Why schêma was applied to this particular type of morphological feature is not clear: commentators would later on (for want of a better reason?) suggest that the greater or lesser complexity of the word gives it the “look” of a type, comparable to the poses (schêmata) of a statue;

      • In syntax, based on the rhetorical meaning of “figure” as an unusual turn of phrase, schêma would acquire the specialized meaning of “deviant turn of phrase in relation to the syntactic norm.” As an anomalous turn of phrase that is in theory incorrect, schêma can, however, become an acceptable part of the language whenever an ennobling origin can be assigned to it, which can be found either in a dialect (an Attic figure, a Boeotian figure, etc.), or in a renowned author (a Pindaric figure, a Sophoclean figure, etc.). One commentator combines the defining characteristics of syntactic schêma in a striking expression: a schêma is, he says, an “excusable error.”

      The Stoics, who invented the analysis of language in terms of signifier/signified/referent, thematize this relationship between lexis and signifier and define lexis as one of the three moments of the signifier that may or may not present a meaning (see SIGNIFIER/SIGNIFIED, and below, 2). Nothing is said, however, either by Aristotle or the Stoics, of the dimension of lexis, and articulate vocal sound could correspond equally to a syllable, a word, or a succession of words. It is not easy to explain precisely how, from there, the shift in meaning occurred that led grammarians to define lexis as referring to “the smallest part of the sentence constructed” (meros elachiston tou kata suntaxin logou [μέϱος ἐλάχιστον τοῦ ϰατὰ σύνταξιν λόγου‎]; Dionysus Thrax, Technê grammatikê, chap. 11). It is possible, as Baratin has suggested (“Les origines stoïciennes”), that grammarians, while retaining the intermediary position that the Stoics had assigned to lexis (between an inarticulate sound and a statement as a site of meaning), also used the term to refer to an intermediary unit, the word, as a compound of syllables devoid of signification and as a unit in a signifying sentence. While remaining faithful in part to the Stoic analysis, this new meaning of lexis had the unquestionable advantage for the grammarians of Alexandria, philologists that they were, of finding a concrete application and a functional usefulness for this term in the field of textual studies. The word, as a minimal signifier resulting from the segmentation of logos, constituted a precious empirical entity that ancient grammar would make into its object par excellence. Its definition, even in the Technê of Dionysus mentioned earlier, explains that lexis (word) and meros logou (part of a sentence) are strictly interchangeable and alternate in free variation.

      We can thus see how, after having allocated to the terms onoma and rhêma the designation of specific parts of speech that could, at least in some instances for the latter, refer to the word, the Greek language ended up taking lexis as a truly generic name for the word as a minimal signifying unit. It would later on derive the name for a collection of words from it, lexikon [λεξιϰὸν‎] (biblion [βιϐλίον‎]), the ancestor of our “dictionary,” which itself is derived from dictio, the Latin calque for lexis. The most ancient collections of words, simply entitled Lexeis [Λέξεις‎], “words,” or Glôssai [Γλῶσσαι‎], “strange words,” did not at all claim to be exhaustive but were lists of words that were, for one reason or another, marginal to the reference idiom (obsolete words, dialect words, etc.). (On glôssa [γλῶσσα‎], see Aristotle, Poetics, 1457b 4; glôssarion [γλώσσαϱιον‎], “glossary,” is a late derivation.)

      2. The tripartite Stoic division into phônê, lexis, and logos and the change of perspective in relation to Aristotle

      We have to give a particular mention here to the Stoic reinvestment of Aristotelian terms, which are placed in a new order. This blurring, which is the sign of a doctrinal will, is the only way we can understand the terminological complexity of someone like Boethius, for example, who superimposes or assimilates these different usages.

      For the Stoics, lexis is the second of the three stages of the signifier (see SIGNIFIER/SIGNIFIED; on this, see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.56–57). The first stage is the phônê: it is both a generic term, since the signifier is studied in treatises Peri phônês (On Sound), and the basic signifier as a physical body, that is, air that is percussed as an effect of an animal impulse (hormê [ὁϱμή‎]) or of a human reflection (dianoia), which goes from the sender to the receiver. Thus specified, the phônê is not as such articulate (it can be animal, and then it is an êchos [ἦχος‎], a “noise” that is not written), and it certainly does not carry meaning. The second stage is then the lexis, which is a phônê eggrammatos [φωνὴ ἐγγϱάμματος‎], a sound (this time, phônê tends to be translated as “voice”) that lends itself to writing, and the “letters” that make it up (stoicheia [στοιχεῖα‎]) are a guarantee of articulation (enarthron [ἔναϱθϱον‎]; ibid., 7.57): for example hêmera [ἡμέϱα‎], “day” (ibid., 7.56). It is lexis that is properly human, but it is quite remarkable that it should be defined as not necessarily carrying meaning (asêmos [ἄσημος‎]): blituri [βλίτυϱι‎], an onomatopoeia imitating the sound of a vibrating string, is as much a “lexical item,” or lexie, as “day.” In fact, only the logos, the final stage of the “vocal sound endowed with meaning impelled by a reflection” (phônê sêmantikê apo dianoias ekpempomenê [φωνὴ σημαντιϰὴ ἀπὸ διανοίας ἐϰπεμπομένη‎]; ibid.), is at once a voice that is articulate and that carries meaning; for example, hêmera esti [ἡμέϱα ἐστι‎], the statement from a sentence implying, by means of a conjugation, something like an event, “it is day.” The summary at the end is clear: “The phônê differs from the lexis in that the phônê can be a noise, whereas the lexis is always something articulate. The lexis differs from the logos, because the logos always has meaning (aei sêmantikos [ἀεὶ σημαντιϰός‎]), whereas the lexis can be devoid of meaning (kai asêmos [ϰαὶ ἄσημος‎]), for example, blituri, but never the logos (ibid., 7.57). This can be illustrated by the following diagram:


      Claude Imbert remarks that “the Stoic terms seem to have been deliberately chosen to contradict Aristotelian semantics” (“Théorie de la représentation”). It is not the word as such, whether a noun or a verb, that constitutes the signifying unit, as it does at the beginning of De interpretatione, but rather the statement—obviously an entirely different way of apprehending the world, in terms of events and not of substances or in terms of a narrative of action and not of predicative syntax; in short, an entirely different “phenomenology.” First of all, the Stoic phônê is not the Aristotelian phônê. Aristotle defines phônê in De anima as “a certain noise [psophos (ψόφος‎)] produced by an animate being” (2.8.420b 5; see De historia animalium, 1.1 and 4.9): this “noise” applies to man as well as to an animal, and the definition goes from noise to voice by means of a certain number of physical dichotomies, each determining a category of exemptions (the sound made by an animate being—not flutes; produced by a movement of the air inside—not fish, but dolphins; striking the trachea-artery—not a cough). This definition appears to be compatible initially with the Stoic definition until it intersects with another kind of prerequisite, presented as self-evident by means of a simple “and,” which I will quote here for emphasis:

      Not all sound emitted by an animal is a voice, as we have said (since we can make a noise with our tongue or by coughing), but what strikes has to be animate and accompanied by a certain representation [meta phantasias tinos (μετὰ φαντασίας τινός‎)], since the voice is of course a semantic noise [sêmantikos gar de tis psophos estin hê phônê (σημαντιϰὸς γὰϱ δέ τις ψόφος ἐστὶν ἡ φωνή‎)].

      (Aristotle, De anima, 420b 29–33)

      The “voice” in Aristotle is a kind of noise that already involves articulation (it is said to be dialekton [διάλεϰτον; 420b 18‎], with the same property, precisely the property of articulation, as the lexis of the Stoics) and meaning (it is said to be hermêmeia [ἑϱμηνεία; 420b 19 ff.‎], having this time the same particularity, meaning, as their logos). So the three levels that the Stoics chose to keep distinct are collapsed here, three levels that in Aristotle gravitate toward, so to speak, this last one the “end” and the “good,” which, beyond animal impulse, constitutes meaning for man: “A living being has … hearing so that meaning can be conveyed to him, and a tongue so that he can convey meaning to someone else” (ibid., 435b 19–25). We might say that all the Stoics did, in the end, was to move Aristotle’s sequence forward a notch, giving the name phônê, “vocal sound,” to what he had chosen to call psophos, “noise.” What it involves, however, is a shift in the very direction of the hierarchies: noise can be, and even must be, envisaged independently of meaning. Whereas the Aristotelian lexis, particularly in On Sophistical Refutations, was at first an analytical tool and involved initially through the definition of homonymy in a relationship to the signified, the Stoic logos is conceived, conversely, in terms of the category of the signifier, as a particular kind of lexis. At the same time, the requirement of fullness of meaning that defines logos means that the most relevant unit has no longer to do with the word, whether it is onoma or lexis.

      III. The Words Designating “Word” in Latin

      A. Dictio, locutio, pars orationis, verbum, vocabulum, vox: Distinctions and polysemies

      In Latin, the word is understood as form, as the combination of form and meaning, and, finally, as a linguistic category.

      As form, the term for word is vox. This term, which originally meant “voice,” “phonic matter” (and it retains this meaning at all times), becomes the object of all sorts of classifications, depending on whether the vox is articulate or confused, can or cannot be written, etc. When it applies to linguistic entities, vox is used to designate their form and, insofar as the word is the natural frame of reference for etymological, semantic, and morphological analysis, vox signifies the form of the word: so Varro contrasts the vox and the significatio of the word (De lingua latina, 9.38–39; 10.77), vox being “what is made up of syllables,” “what is heard,” as opposed to what the word means. Vox thus also refers at the same time to the different forms that appear as the variables of a same word or as the inflected forms of a declined or conjugated word: Aemilius is a word, but this form itself is the nominative and all of the oblique corresponding forms (Aemiliu, Aemilii, Aemilio, etc.) are discrimina vocis, variable forms of this word. Varro’s text (ibid., 8.10) clearly suggests a dissociation between the notions of word and of form, insofar as a single word can have several forms if it is inflected. Vox is thus one of the forms of word, but at the same time refers, in the concrete reality of its realizations, to a particular word (Aemilius, or Aemilium, Aemilii, etc.).

      Identified in this way with the word, and unlike its synonyms forma and figura, which are less determinate, vox is even used by Varro to signify the word in relation to the thing (ibid., 10.69 and 72). This use is also attested in Quintilian (De institutione oratoria, 1.5.2) and is occasionally found in the texts of the grammarians. However, it remains an exception in relation to the two original terms used to designate the word, verbum and vocabulum.

      The first characteristic of verbum in Varro is that it is presented as being at the heart of a process of signification, between vox, which is the means by which the verbum signifies, and res, which is what the verbum signifies (De lingua latina, 10.77, and see 9.38–39, where verbum is defined as the combination of a vox and a significatio).

      These two terms are polysemic at all times. Verbum in fact also signifies “verb,” beginning with Varro and then constantly among grammarians. Another specialized use appears with Saint Augustine, in the De dialectica, with a very particular distinction between verbum, or a word “when it is spoken for itself,” that is, when it “only refers to itself,” and dictio, or a word when it is used “to signify something else.”

      Verbum, dicibile, dictio, res: St. Augustine, De Dialectica, 5.8

      Haec ergo quattuor distinct teneantur: verbum, dicibile, dictio, res. Quod dixi verbum, et verbum est et verbum significant. Quod dixit dicibile, verbum est, nec tamen verbum, sed quod in verbo intellegitur et animo continetur, significat. Quod dixi dictionem, verbum est, sed quod jam illa duo simul id est et ipsum verbum et quod fit in animo per verbum significat. Quod dixi rem, verbum est, quod praeter illa tria quae dicta sunt quidquid restat significat.

      (These four terms must be kept distinct: verbum, dicibile, dictio, res. What I call verbum both is a word and means “word.” What I call dicibile is a word but does not signify “word,” but what is understood in the word and what is contained in the soul. What I call dictio is a word, but signifies together the two preceding meanings, that is, the word and what is produced in the soul by the word. What I call res is a word and signifies everything else, that is, everything not signified by the three preceding words.)

      The young Augustine, in his De dialectica, introduces a four-term system: verbum, dicibile, dictio, res. The passage quoted makes clear the distance he takes in relation to Stoic dialectics: Augustine considers that it is the simple term, and not the statement, that is “the meeting point between the signifier and the signified.” The verbum is a sign of a thing (verba sunt signa rerum), and the sign is what is offered to the senses and, in addition, shows something to the soul (signum est quod se ipsum sensui, et praeter se aliquid animo ostendit). The verbum is the word understood insofar as it refers to itself, thus independently of its relation of meaning to something else, and this sense becomes manifest in a metalinguistic context. The word “autonym” is sometimes used in this respect. This does indeed correspond to something of this kind, but on condition that one does not give too restricted a definition of the signified of autonym. Augustine’s verbum corresponds to a use that is a mention; that is, it does have its signified but is not used to manifest this signified. This usage of verbum is not attested among grammarians. The dicibile is the mental content associated with the word, which Augustine sometimes says is anterior to the utterance of the word, sometimes simply contained within the word, and sometimes even what is given to be understood in the mind or soul of the listener. The dictio is the word insofar as it is uttered to signify something: it is a verbum taken in its relation to a dicibile. The res is everything that is not yet either expressed by a word nor conceived by the mind, whether or not there is a word that can signify it. So if a grammar teacher takes the first word of the Aeneidarma—and asks about its grammatical category, he takes it in itself as a verbum, whereas in the line by Virgil, it is a dictio, used to signify arms. These same arms, insofar as they were in fact borne, could be pointed at and are in that case neither verba, nor dicibilia, nor dictiones, but res. Augustine is keenly aware of the distinction between the linguistic level and the metalinguistic level: all of the terms—verbum, dicibile, dictio and res—are verba when they are part of statements that refer to themselves, but dictiones when they are understood in terms of their relation to the mental content that corresponds to them and things. The rest of De dialectica attempted to examine the value of words that are used in argumentation, either understood in and of themselves or in terms of their relation to what they signify. These relations can be seen from the original point at which they are established (the discussion about whether the nature of this connection is natural or not) or according to the way in which they work in synchrony, with all of the potential for discordance because of the equivocality and obscurity that can affect them.

      One question for French translators is knowing whether to use mot for verbum or for dictio: Baratin and Desbordes (L’analyse linguistique) chose the first solution, even though in De dialectica verbum sometimes appears to be equivalent to the simple signifier: they translate dictio as dit [thing said] in order to keep the close connection with the mental content of dictio, the dicibile. It is not possible to translate res as “referent” because this term is relational: while res can be the res of a sign, it is not necessarily so. In the De doctrina Christiana, the term res gathers together all the elements of the world, with signs constituting a subset. Shortly before the passage cited earlier, Augustine defined the thing as “everything that is perceptible to the senses or to the intellect, or which escapes perception” (Res est quidquid vel sentitur vel intelligitur vel latet). In the passage cited, res are all the things which are not in some relation to a signifier—just like actual weapons if they are considered as material objects, and not as things that can be signified by the word “arm” (whether this is understood as verbum, and does not refer to them in speech, or whether it is understood as dictio, and is used to signify these arms) or that can be the mental contents associated with this word. In the English translation, Darrell Jackson translates verbum as word, notably in the initial definition in chapter 5 (“verbum est uniuscujusque rei signum” [a word is a sign of any sort of thing]), but when it is a question of the four-term system, he keeps them in the Latin (which gives for the Latin sentence “Quod dixit verbum, et verbum est et verbum significat” [see above], and for the translation: “‘verbum’ both is a word and signifies a word”). In his Italian translation, Mariano Baldassarri interprets the passage in light of Stoic dialectics, which introduces some confusion, since he makes sêmainon [σημαῖνον‎] correspond to both signum and verbum (equivalent to the signifier alone) but also posits verbum as equivalent to phônê; he interprets dictio as lexis sêmantikê [λέξις σημαντιϰή‎], dicibile as lekton [λεϰτόν‎], and res as tughkanon [τυγχάνον‎]. These problems of translation ultimately depend on the weight assigned to the Stoic influence in the writing of De dialectica.


      Augustine, Saint. De dialectica. Edited by Jan Pinborg. Translated by B. Darrell Jackson. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1975. I principii della dialettica. Translated by Mariano Baldassarri. Como: Noseda, 1985.Find this resource:

        Baratin, Marc. “Les origines stoïciennes de la théorie augustinienne du signe.” Revue des etudes latines 59 (1981): 260–68.Find this resource:

          Baratin, Marc, and Françoise Desbordes. L’analyse linguistique dans l’Antiquité classique. Paris: Klincksieck, 1981.Find this resource:

            Baratin, Marc, and Françoise Desbordes. “Sémiologie et métalinguistique chez saint Augustine.” Langages 65 (1982): 75–88.Find this resource:

              Long, A. A. “Stoic Linguistics, Plato’s Cratylus, and Augustine’s De Dialectica.” In Language and Learning: Philosophy of Language in the Hellenistic Age, edited by Dorothea Frede and Brad Inwood, 36–55. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                Munteanu, Eugen. “On the Object-Language/Metalanguage Distinction in St. Augustine’s Works: De Dialectica and De Magistro.” In History of Linguistics I: Traditions in Linguistics Worldwide, edited by David Cram et al., 65–78. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1996.Find this resource:

                  Vocabulum alternates in Varro’s work with verbum, with no apparent nuance (see for example De lingua latina, 6.1 or 9.1), and pairs up with res in the contrast of the word and the thing. Vocabulum is itself also polysemic, but whereas verbum signifies the verb, vocabulum signifies the noun, exactly opposed to verbum (ibid., 8.11, 9.9). At the other end of the history of the Latin language, Priscian suggests moreover that nomen, a term normally used to signify a noun, could also be used as a generic term for “word.” So there would have been a perfect parallelism between vocabulum and nomen, both able to correspond to both noun and word, but with vocabulum signifying primarily a word and secondarily a noun, and nomen the other way around (this use of nomen is, however, only documented by Priscian). Another specialized use of vocabulum appears in the texts of the grammarians, where this term is sometimes cited as representing a specialized category of common nouns, those which designate concrete objects, as opposed to abstract common nouns (see Dositheus Magister in RT: Grammatici latini, 7:390, l. 16), or inanimate objects (see Diomedes in RT: Grammatici latini, 1:320, l. 23).

                  Perhaps in order to clarify a terminology suffering from these phenomena of polysemy (this is Quintilian’s interpretation, at least in relation to verbum [De institutione oratoria, 1.5.2]), these different terms were subsequently supplanted by dictio, which appears in the sense of “word” after Varro.

                  The fundamental characteristic of dictio is that it is made up, like verbum, of a signifier and a signified: Diomedes (ibid., 7:436, l. 10) defines this term as “vox articulate cum aliqua significatione” (an articulate vocal sound with a meaning). Similarly Priscian, while readily acknowledging that a dictio can have only one syllable, makes a careful distinction between the syllable, as a signifier without a signified, and the dictio, which has a signified (RT: Grammatici latini, 3:3, ll. 13–18). The use of dictio by St. Augustine in De dialectica is based on this same contrast.

                  Dictio can, however, also be contrasted with sensus, that is, to the signified alone: when it is a question of accounting for the phenomena of syllepsis (agreements with more than one meaning), for example, in the case where the subject of a plural verb is pars (part), a singular that we would call collective (in an expression such as “part of them are cutting out pieces …”), Priscian remarks that the verb “relates not to the dictio, but to the sensus, that is, to what we understand by the word in the singular” (RT: Grammatici latini, 3:201, ll. 22–23). To relate the verb to the dictio would have consisted in matching it to the form of the word pars, which is singular, to get to the signified “singular,” whereas relating it to the sensus consists in starting with the meaning “part” and then inferring that it can apply to a plurality of persons, so it therefore contains the signified “plural.”

                  There is a sort of parallelism between the disjunction of word and form in Varro, and the disjunction between a word and its sense in Priscian (a single word, but more than one sense, that which corresponds to the form and another).

                  Dictio, moreover, can be understood within a hierarchical perspective as the constituent part of a much larger whole. This is how Diomedes explains the relationship between the dictio and the oratio (statement)—by emphasizing that the statement is a construction of which the dictio is the unit (“dictio … ex qua instruitur oratio et in quam resolvitur” [the word … from which the statement is formed and in which this statement is resolved (that is, is analyzed)]; ibid., 1:436, l. 10). Priscian likewise notes that the dictio is the “pars minima orationis constructae” (the smallest part of the constructed statement).

                  The most frequent expression, however, for designating the word as a constituent of a much larger whole is pars orationis. The meaning of the whole that is referred to here, oratio, is not obvious. For Varro, oratio can apply to the language in its entirety (De lingua latina, 8.1 or 44, etc.), and in this sense, the partes orationis are the main divisions of the language, the “categories of words.” But elsewhere oratio also means “statement,” and it is indeed in this sense that Priscian, just like all the grammarians, understands the partes orationis, as the “constituent parts of the statement.” However one understands it, pars orationis signifies the word as a set of traits (accidentia) such as gender, number, person, tense, etc. in a system in which each set of traits is in contrast to the others, just as the noun is in contrast to the verb or to the pronoun.

                  One last term appears as a way of saying word: locutio, already documented in Quintilian (De institutione oratoria, 1.5.2), but its uses in this sense are rare and isolated.

                  B. The double meaning of vox in the Middle Ages

                  1. The semantic understandings: Aristotle, the Stoics, Boethius

                  Vox is used among Latin grammarians, along with verbum, vocabulum, and dictio, to designate the word. All through the Middle Ages, the term vox will keep the two meanings Boethius gives to it, that is, “vocal matter” and “vocal sound endowed with signification,” which for him are merged because of the two sources that are in the background of his commentaries on the Peri hermêneias (Commentarii in librum). The term vox, at the start of the second commentary, is defined on the one hand in Aristotelian terms: the vox is the result of the tongue striking the air and is produced with some intended meaning. But elsewhere, Boethius uses vox to translate phônê on the basis of the Stoic tripartite division phônê, lexis, logos (see above, II.B.2), which he renders as vox, locutio, interpretatio. The hiatus is clear: signification is present in the first definition, whereas in the economy of the Stoic system, signification does not take place at the level of the phônê-vox, rather only at the third level, with the second level, as we saw earlier, being one of articulation (the fact of being made up of letters or of discrete sounds: thus, blituri is a lexis but not a logos).

                  With Boethius, the problem resurfaces and becomes even more confused once we move on to the question of the parts. What he understands by the expression partes locutionis, because of the translation of the Stoic Greek lexis as locutio, is the merê lexeôs [μέϱη λέξεως‎] of Aristotle’s Poetics (elements, syllables, conjunctions, articles, nouns, cases, verbs, orationes), and by partes interpretationis (because of the equivalence of logos and interpretatio), the merê logou of Aristotle’s Peri hermêneias (noun, verb, oratio), although he also talks about partes orationis, taking oratio in the stricter sense of “minimal statement” (noun, verb). Later tradition will generally leave this lack of precision aside and will focus on how Boethius uses these terms, not on his definitions. Indeed, in his commentaries on logic, Boethius uses vox to refer to any articulate expression, which can be meaningful or not and may, if it is significant, have been the object of an imposition and thus signify ad placitum, or may signify “naturally” (see SIGN). It is this term that forms part of the triad vox, intellectus, res in the first chapter of the Peri hermêneias. Sermo is sometimes used when it is a question of mentioning or talking about a word (“hic sermo homo,” “hic sermo lexis”; Boethius, Commentarii in librum). Elsewhere, however, vox alternates with other terms, notably at the beginning of the commentary on the Categories, a work which, according to Boethius, deals with “de primis vocibus [the first voces]” (RT: PL, vol. 64, col. 161A), “sermonibus prima rerum genera significantibus [sermones signifying the first types of things]” (col. 162B), and in the same context we find the term vocabula (col. 162D).

                  Vocales and Nominales

                  The question of the origin of the term Nominales, used in the eleventh century, has given rise to an interesting debate. Were the Nominales partisans of a particular position on universals, which considered genera and species to be names (nomina), or were they defenders of the so-called theory of the unita nominis, the unity of the name? According to this latter theory, the three vocal expressions (voces) albus, alba, album constitute one and the same name (nomen), and based on this assertion, certain theologians have maintained that the three complex statements or expressions “Christ is going to be born,” “Christ is born,” “Christ will be born” correspond to one and the same enunciable (enuntiabile), which constitutes the eternal and sole object of faith (see DICTUM). The debate was not settled, nor was the question of knowing whether Abelard was dubbed the “prince of Nominals [Princeps Nominalium]” (Walter Map, 1181) by virtue of his position on universals. The interesting point regarding universals is that the Nominales are in reality the successors of the Vocales, and that strictly speaking, Roscelin de Compiègne and Abelard are Vocales, and indeed, for them, genera and species are voces. The first accounts of the existence of this current of thought, which appeared around 1060–70, show that it was originally concerned with a discussion about how to engage in dialectics, that is, how to read and interpret Porphyrius’s Isagoge and Aristotle’s Categories, and thus about the primary object of these texts and of dialectics: in other words, did Porphyrius and Aristotle aim to deal with vocal sounds or things (de rebus de vocibus agere) (see Iwakuma, “Vocales or Early Nominalists”)? Boethius’s position is not clear: in the Categories (RT: PL, vol. 64, col. 160A), he maintains that Aristotle’s aim was to talk about voces, but he also describes the categories as “first names of things” (de primis rerum nominibus; col. 159C), and also says that species “are in certain sense names of names” (nomina nominum; col. 176D). In the commentaries on the Isagoge, he agrees with Porphyrius in saying that predicables are res. Those who, like Roscelin, maintain that universals are voces (the sententia vocum) are until the middle of the twelfth century called Vocales. Abelard clearly seems uncomfortable with the imprecision of the term vox. He attempts to make a distinction between vox as physical matter, and vox as an expression that conveys meaning (Super Porphyrium) and will in the end keep the term vox in the first sense, and for the second use the term sermo: “there is another position on the universals, which is more in accordance with reason; it attributes community neither to things (res) nor to sounds (voces); according to its advocates, they are sermones, whether they are singular or universal” (Logica “Nostrorum petitioni sociorum”). In his French translation (Abélard ou la philosophie dans le langage), Jolivet translates sermo as terme (term), but in his commentary also uses mot (word) and nom (name), which is justified by certain passages in Abelard (nomen sive sermo, he says on the same page). It is perhaps out of concern for originality that he chose sermo rather than nomen, but perhaps also because he considered that other expressions than those which grammatically speaking are nouns, such as verbs, could be universals (Super Porphyrium). So it is no longer voces but sermones that are now universals, insofar as they are vocal expressions that convey meaning. It is likely that it is Abelard’s critiques of the universal as vox, along with the alternation between vox and nomina in Boethius, that led to the term nomen being retained and that ultimately motivated the transition from Vocales to Nominales around the middle of the twelfth century (see Marenbon, “Vocalism, Nominalism”). Whatever the primary motivation was for using the term Nominales, it is clear that the theses attributed to the Nominales are not restricted to a position on universals (in logic) or on the unita nominis (in theology) but concern other questions as well, on propositions, on the relationship of the parts to the whole, and so on. Theologians from the middle of the thirteenth century will remember the Nominales exclusively as the defenders of the theory of the unity of the enunciable. Only Albert the Great will talk about the Nominales as supporting a thesis about universals, according to which they exist within the intellect, and this transition constitutes an essential link between the Nominales of the twelfth century, and those of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, a period in which the term refers unequivocally to Nominalists (see Kaluza, Les querelles doctrinales à Paris).


                  Abelard, Peter. Abélard ou la philosophie dans le langage. Translated by J. Jolivet. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1994.Find this resource:

                    Abelard, Peter. Logica “Nostrorum petitioni sociorum.” Edited by B. Geyer. Münster: Aschendorff, 1933.Find this resource:

                      Abelard, Peter. Super Porphyrium. Edited by B. Geyer. Münster: Aschendorff, 1919.Find this resource:

                        Courtenay, William. “Nominales and Nominalism in the Twelfth Century.” In Lectionum varietates: Hommage à Paul Vignaux, edited by Jean Jolivet, Zénon Kaluza, and Alain de Libera, 11–48. Paris: Vrin, 1991.Find this resource:

                          Iwakuma, Yukio. “Vocales or Early Nominalists.” Tradition 47 (1992): 37–111.Find this resource:

                            Kaluza, Zénon. Les querelles doctrinales à Paris: Nominalistes et réalistes aux confins du XIVe et du XVe siècles. Bergamo: Lubrina, 1988.Find this resource:

                              Libera, Alain de. Querelle des universaux: De Platon à la fin du Moyen Age. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1996.Find this resource:

                                Marenbon, John. “Vocalism, Nominalism and the Commentaries on the Categories from the Earlier Twelfth Century.” Vivarium 30 (1992): 51–61.Find this resource:

                                  Tweedale, Martin M., ed. and trans. Scotus vs. Ockham: A Medieval Dispute over Universals. 2 vols. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1999.Find this resource:

                                    When De anima (2.8.420b 5ff.) began to be reread at the beginning of the thirteenth century, particularly with Avicenna’s commentary, the questions that arose centered immediately on the imprecision of the terms vox and vocare. Given that vox is both the “vocal” sound made by animals that have lungs, a trachea, etc. and the same sound inasmuch as it is associated with a representation (“cum imaginatione aliqua”; 420b 29) (it is a sound that signifies, sonus significativus), the question of knowing whether animals vocant (this is glossed by habent vocem) or whether this activity is particular to man is literally untranslatable, since the verb refers to the two meanings of the noun (according to the classical etymology: vox a vocando dicitur [vox is the term for what is expressed with a voice]). The answer to the question also depends on the status of the imaginatio for animals and on the role that the imaginatio plays in the vocals sounds made by animals in relation to instinct (see PHANTASIA and LANGUAGE). Along with Avicenna, some consider that the emission of voces (Avicenna’s Latin text has soni) is confused for animals, in the sense that even if two vocal productions are numerically distinct, they are specifically distinct—in other words, all dogs bark, but each bark does not correspond to an individual mental imago (see the Quaestio de voce by Albert the Great). For Dante, when Ovid in the Metamorphoses talks about fish “that speak [loquentibus],” he is talking figuratively, since the act of fish or birds is not in fact a language (locutio) but rather an “imitation of the sound of our voice” (imitatio soni nostre vocis), “an imitation in the sense that we make sounds, and not in the sense that we speak” (vel quod nituntur imitari nos in quantum sonamus, sed non in quantum loquimur; De vulgari eloquentia, 2). So for him, the answer is clear: man alone was endowed with the ability to speak (loqui) (“Et sic patet soli homini datur fuisse loqui”; ibid.). It is worth noting again the terms locutio and interpretatio in the translation of De anima: “Jam enim respiranti congruit natura in duo opera, sicut lingua in gustum et locutionem, quorum quidem gustus necessarium est, unde et pluribus inest, interpretatio autem est propter bene esse” (For here nature uses the air that is inhaled for two purposes, just as it uses the tongue for tasting and for speech, the former use, for tasting, being indispensable, and therefore more widely found, while expression of thought is a means to well-being; Aristotle, De anima, 420b 16–20). Locutio, according to an anonymous commentator, is what allows man to “express what is within him by means of his speech [sermo]” (Lectura in librum “De anima”). He then posits an equivalence, glossing the second part of the sentence, between interpretatio, sermo, and loquutio (sic), to which he attributes this same definition. This distinction exists, however, in Greek, intepretatio translating hermêneia, a faculty that is not specific to man and that certain birds have, according to De partibus animalium (2.17.660a 35-b 1). This passage from De anima will become an oft-cited adage in universities (see LANGUAGE).

                                    Medieval logicians were in general agreement about a minimal system in terms of a hierarchy that starts with sonus and to which successive differences are applied. The sonus (sound) is simply what is perceived by the ear. It can be vocal (vox) or not (non vox). The vox can be meaningful or not. The meaningful vocal sound can signify ad placitum or naturaliter (see SIGN, Box 3). The dictio is a vox significativa ad placitum, no part of which can signify separately, as opposed to the oratio, whose parts are meaningful. In the Peri hermêneias, Aristotle opposed the noun and the verb, on the one hand, with the logos, on the other, using a single criterion: the former have parts that are not meaningful, and the latter is made up of parts that are meaningful. The Latin authors later introduced the generic term dictio as a means of joining together the noun and the verb and distinguishing them from oratio, which allows them to oppose a simple signifying unit to a “complex” signifying unit. In practice, however, vox will be synonymous with dictio in the sense of “simple word.” It is worth noting that vox, unlike dictio but like nomen, can be constructed with a genitive and thus becomes a relative term (see for example Roger Bacon, De signis, §148: “rebus corruptis utimur vocibus illarum significative” [when things are destroyed, we use (lit.) the vocal sounds of these things (that is, the ones which refer to them) in a way which signifies]). The terminus is a word insofar as it fulfills a function in a proposition, and “categoremic terms” are distinguished from “syncategoremic” terms, leading to the two types of treatises that constitute the so-called terminist logic, or logica modernorum (see TERM).

                                    2. Dictio within speculative grammar

                                    While dictio and vox were used almost interchangeably, as we have seen, to signify a word, the Modists, or Modistae, philosopher grammarians of the second half of the thirteenth century, proposed an original theory that articulates these two terms in a precise way on the basis of a double articulation of language. In this sense, no term in our modern languages can translate exactly what dictio meant for the Modists.

                                    The theory of the Modists is based on a reflection on the process of the imposition of words, which is conceived in two stages. The process begins with vox, sound matter. Since it is endowed with a property that confers upon it an aptitude to signify (ratio significandi), at the end of the process of the first imposition vox becomes dictio. In a second stage, dictio is endowed with a property that confers upon it an aptitude to consignify (ratio consignificandi), and at the end of this process of second imposition, or articulation, dictio becomes pars orationis or constructibile. Strictly speaking, dictio is the signifier (matter) in that it is associated with the signified (form) that corresponds to the things as it is conceived, then signified (res significata). All of these terms correspond to the same res and are thus the same dictio (for example, “to suffer,” “suffering,” “ouch,” etc.). In this context, dictio is untranslatable and corresponds to a sort of arch-word, or lexeme, or signifying unit that conveys a signified, although it would be difficult to imagine a single “vocal” vehicle that could carry the identical meaning that all of these expressions have. It is only once it is specified as a grammatical category (for example, as a verb) with its own grammatical properties, the means by which it can signify, that the linguistic unit is complete and able to be part of a statement: only then is it constructibile. The distinction between the two processes of imposition is justified on both an ontological and a psychological level. For the first time, and rather ephemerally as it happens, the two types of properties of the linguistic unit—the semantic properties and the morphosyntactic properties—are distinguished in this way: dictio corresponds only to the first, and constructibile to the second (See SENSE, III.B.3, and Box 3).

                                    The notion of word as a minimal unit of meaning and of construction seems unavoidable and was not challenged until the nineteenth century. It was with comparative grammar that the idea of signifying units that are less than a word was first introduced, some expressing a meaning (roots, semantemes, Ger. Bedeutungslaute), others expressing a relationship (morphemes, Ger. Beziehungslaute), which are themselves separated into inflections and affixes. Realizing that this distinction is not valid for all language, linguists preferred to use a single term for all of the signifying units making up a word (Eng. “morpheme,” “formative”; Fr. morphème, formant, or even, in Martinet, monème), which correspond, depending on the theory, either to signifiers (physical entities) or to signs. Moreover, the problem, which Aristotle and his commentators had already confronted with examples such as tragelaphus (goat-stag) or respublica, was that of the minimal signifying units which appear to be greater than the word, since they are made up of other minimal signifying units, and the consequent difficulty of separating them out from the sentence. One solution was proposed based on the notion of choice: for the speaker, tragelaphus or “pineapple,” say, each correspond, just as “table” does, to one single choice and not to several consecutive choices. In the same way, the syntagm has been recognized as a minimal unit of construction after breaking the sentence down, since a syntagm can be made up of several words of morphemes that do not necessarily appear to be joined together in the linear chain of speech. In the same way again, the prospect of translation becoming an automatic process led French structuralist linguists at the beginning of the 1960s to define the units of segmentation of the written chain, which could also be units of translation. They therefore had to coin new terms to define syntactic units that are greater than the word being understood, not only from the point of view of their internal mode of construction, but also in terms of their relationship to the rest of the statement. All of these new names introduced (lexies in Bernard Pottier, synapsies in Émile Benveniste, synthèmes in André Martinet, and so on) reflect an unprecedented questioning of the criteria of identification, of construction, and of classification of minimal units and are based on precise theoretical choices (see Léon, “Conceptions du mot”). Attempts to eliminate the word and to treat it as one syntagm among others, in order to assimilate the different processes of combination, have ultimately been called into question. In recent linguistics, attention has turned once again to the word, and to its specificities as a unit (that is, as the site of realization of phonological or morphological phenomena), which is distinct from the sentence (the constrained, non-motivated, non-free nature of the combination of its constituent elements, and so on). What is more, the segmentation into words remains, in the Western tradition, inseparably bound up with certain practical ends: teaching, classifying, translating, and making dictionaries.

                                    IV. The Terms for “Word” in French

                                    A. Mot

                                    Latin (RT: Du Cange, Glossarium mediæ et infimæ latinitatis) and etymological dictionaries (RT: Ménage, Dictionnaire etymologique, ov Origines de la langue françoise; RT: Ernout and Meillet, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine; RT: von Wartburg, Französisches etymologisches Wörterbuch) all agree that the word mot comes from the Low Latin muttum (word, grunt), derived from the verb muttire meaning “to say mu,” that is, both (a) to make a grunt, or an inarticulate sound like cattle, or humans deprived of the power of speech (mute, mutus), and (b) to breath a word, to make an articulate statement. This etymology, which might seem paradoxical, is, however, part of the tradition in that it accumulates two types of etymology anticipated by Isidore of Seville: onomatopoeia and antiphrasis. The recourse to onomatopoeia in etymology was a common practice from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (see Buridan, L’étymologie). It constituted the privileged site and example of the principle of a fit between designation and signification, insofar as the signification reduplicated the designation, and motivated it by giving it a meaning. Moreover, the contradictory meaning of “to say mu,” both an inarticulate sound and an articulate statement, can be compared to the etymology by antiphrasis, or opposition, that the ancients were fond of: so, for example, lucus (wood) was said to be derived from lucendo (light), because there is no light in a wood (lucus a non lucendo [a clearing because one cannot see clearly]).

                                    If we postulate more simply that muttum means “sound emitted” (RT: Bloch and von Wartburg, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française; RT: DHLF), we see that, in Low Latin, the first attested uses of the word mot were always negative, meaning “not to make a sound”: ne muttum quidem audet dicere (he does not dare say a word); ne mu quidem audere facere (to not even dare to say mu). This is also true of the first attested uses of the word mot in Old French, in the Song of Roland in the eleventh century: “N’i ad paien qui un sul mot respondet” (Not one pagan replied with a single word), or “N’i a celui qui mot sont ne mot tint” (There was no-one who made the sound or the ring of a word). We might also think of the French exclamation motus, urging someone to remain silent (in present-day French one also says ne mot dire (not to say a word). Mot is said to have evolved into its meaning of parole (spoken word) through its contact with verbs such as dire (to say), sonner (to sound), tinter (to ring), respondre (to reply), and mot became the signifying unit we use today through the expression mot à mot (word for word), suggesting as early as the twelfth century a segmentation of language.

                                    B. Verbe

                                    Verbe comes from the Latin verbum, which shares the same Indo-European root with terms from a dialect region of Indo-European.

                                    Compared to the Latin verbum, which has three meanings, the meaning of verbe in French is more restricted. Firmin Le Ver’s first Latin-French dictionary (RT: Firmini Verris dictionarius) thus contains three entries for verbum: (1) a conversation among several people, (2) the son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, and (3) a part of speech that has tense and mood. The last two meanings of verbe are attested in French from the twelfth century as a part of speech, tel fist personel del verbe impersonal, and as the word of God, Deu verbe (1120), which will become le Verbe (the Word), the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate, from the sixteenth century.

                                    C. Parole

                                    Parole comes from the Greek parabolê [παϱαϐολή‎], which Latin borrows as parabola, documented since Seneca. It was when the Septuagint was being written (the first Hebrew-to-Greek translation of the Old Testament) that its translators gave two meanings to parabolê: “comparison” and “allegory,” using the Greek parabolê to translate the Hebrew mashal [מָשַׁל‎], which did have these two meanings. This double meaning was adopted by the Christian Latin writers Tertullian and Jerome, and the term parabola, as well as its derivations, would spread throughout the everyday language of Christianity between the fifth and eighth centuries, with the meaning “fable,” “tale” and would then finally assume the meaning of “speech,” “way of speaking.” In almost all Romance languages it therefore replaced the Latin verbum as a term designating the word; verbum would remain in these languages, but it would be reserved for technical, theological, and grammatical uses.

                                    D. Verbe/parole

                                    The Low Latin parabola was used to designate the word in Romance languages (with the exception of Romanian) because of how frequently this term was used in sermons and also because people were loath to use verbum, which was reserved for Verbe, the translation of the Greek Logos [Λόγος‎], the Word of God in John’s Gospel (see LOGOS). In French, parole was used until the sixteenth century in a nonreligious sense. But as a result of the wars of Religion and the advent of French as the national language with the creation of the Académie française in 1635, Parole began to compete with Verbe as a translation of the incarnation of God in religious texts during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the Geneva Bible of 1669 we thus find the following commentary: “the Greek ho Logos, which in vulgar language is called le Verbe, and which is more conveniently translated as la Parole.” But it was the term Verbe, first used in the Œuvres chrestiennes of Desportes (around 1600), that would replace Parole, first in religious literature and then gradually in the translations of the Bible (Le Maistre de Sacy, 1678), where it would finally become the accepted term.

                                    This was a transitional period from a linguistic and religious point of view. In the sixteenth century, French prevailed over Latin as a means of expression in literature and theology. The debate was complicated by the religious disputes between Protestants and Catholics, who supported opposing positions. Protestants called for the use of French as the ecclesiastical language, and Catholics firmly held on to Latin in the liturgy and the translations of the Bible. In the sixteenth century, parole became a word that was appropriated by Protestants, who called their ministers ministres de la Parole de Dieu (ministers of the Word of God). La Parole was even used to refer to Protestantism (“The king … has proclaimed a general abolition whereby the prisons have been opened for all those who were prisoners for the word [parole]. This is the term we use instead of saying religion”; É. Pasquier, Lettres, 4.5). For Calvin, the Word (Parole) was the incarnation of God: “Therefore, as all revelations from heaven are duly designated by the title of the word of God, so the highest place must be assigned to that substantial Word, the source of all inspiration, which, as being liable to no variation, remains for ever one and the same with God, and is God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 71); “Christ is that Word become incarnate” (ibid.). It was thus no surprise that it was Verbe that would prevail during the Counter-Reformation.

                                    The transition was apparent in the first monolingual dictionaries of the seventeenth century. Verbe was thus defined as Parole in the Richelet dictionary, RT: Dictionnaire françois (1680): “This word is used in terms of Theology and Holy Scripture, and means Jesus-Christ, the second person of the Trinity. It also means la parole”; see also the RT: Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (1694): “Jesus-Christ is called la parole éternelle, la parole incréée, la parole incarnée [the eternal word, the unbegotten word, the word incarnate] although one more commonly says le Verbe.” The Word of God (Verbum Dei) refers in both dictionaries to the Holy Scripture.

                                    E. Mot/Parole

                                    In the seventeenth century, as a result of the establishment of French as the language of the state and the national language (see Collinot and Mazière, Un prêt-à-parler), the production of the Port-Royal Grammaire générale et raisonnée (1660), and the appearance of the first monolingual dictionaries, French came of age as a language and as a rival to Latin.

                                    Parole was the scientific term referring to the faculty of language. It was the only entry in the Dictionnaire des arts et des sciences de l’Académie française (1694) to the exclusion of mot and verbe: “The articulation that the sound produced by the air passing through the trachea receives from the tongue and the throat,” a definition copied from the way Aristotle defined phônê [φωνή‎], the “voice,” that is, the noise produced by an animate being (De anima, 2.8.420b 5–29; see above, vox, III.A).

                                    In the first monolingual dictionaries, even though mot and parole were defined the one by the other—“Mot: parole of one or more syllables. Parole: articulated mot of one or more syllables” (RT: Furetière, Dictionnaire universel)—mot became the unit of language, and parole the unit of speech.

                                    So, following Furetière’s definition, mot was clearly defined as a linguistic unit required by the dictionary and by the grammars that classified words as parts of speech. As for parole, it referred more generally to the language “used to explain thought, and that man alone is capable of speaking” (ibid.). Likewise, in the RT: Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, the first collocations referred to mot as a unit of language—“French word, Latin word, Greek word, Barbarian word”—whereas parole was a unit of speech: “mot prononcé” (spoken word). Finally, in RT: Richelet (Dictionnaire françois), it is the unit of language as a distinct unit that is foregrounded for mot: “Everything that is spoken and written separately … To transcribe word for word [mot pour mot]”; while parole was defined as “speech and explanation of thought by using sound and voice.”

                                    Nonetheless, the norm advocated during the seventeenth century by no means dispelled the different meanings of mot and parole, and present-day dictionaries retain many traces of this historically determined polysemy (see also LANGUAGE).

                                    Marc Baratin

                                    Barbara Cassin

                                    Irène Rosier-Catach

                                    Frédérique Ildefonse

                                    Jean Lallot

                                    Jacqueline Léon


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