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date: 13 December 2017


Register (esp. Latin), the level of language, especially with respect to vocabulary, appropriate to a particular genre. Studies have concentrated on poetic rather than prose texts, though there are distinctions between e.g. the speeches of Cicero and his more colloquial prose letters.

Latin prose and poetry share a common vocabulary: even the most elevated poetic genre, epic, contains a large proportion of everyday words. There are, however, important differences between (1) poetry and prose and (2) the various genres of poetry.

1. The language of poetry has been distinguished from that of prose by two methods.

  1. (a) Leumann demonstrated the existence of vocabulary and syntax with a peculiarly poetic colouring, i.e. not found in the ‘standard’ prose of Caesar and Cicero.

  2. (b) Axelson showed that many words or classes of words (e.g. diminutives) occur rarely, if ever, in poetry; these he labelled unpoetisch (unpoetic).

2. In selection of vocabulary, Latin poets were influenced by the place of their genre in a hierarchy which ranged from epic at the higher end to epigram at the lower. In general, the ‘higher’ the genre, the more poetic vocabulary and the fewer unpoetic words it contains. As well as generic appropriateness, subject matter may also affect vocabulary usage: e.g. the emotive/‘unpoetic’ formosus (‘attractive’) is common in *Ovid's epic Metamorphoses in erotic contexts. Furthermore, though Axelson criticized Horace in the Odes for excessive use of unpoetic words, vocabulary normally avoided in the ‘higher’ genres is often employed for special effect, e.g. at Verg. Aen. 4. 328 the abandoned Dido's wish for a ‘parvulus Aeneas’ (‘darling little Aeneas’) gains special poignancy because of the rarity of the emotional/everyday diminutive ‘parvulus’. All in all, Axelson's findings have been widely influential as a tool of stylistic analysis.


B. Axelson, Unpoetische Wörter (1945).Find this resource:

M. Leumann, Museum Helveticum 1947.Find this resource:

L. P. Wilkinson, Classical Quarterly 1959.Find this resource:

G. Williams, Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry (1968).Find this resource:

A. Watson, Classical Quarterly 1985.Find this resource:

R. O. A. M. Lyne, Words and the Poet (1989).Find this resource:

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