Theme: Syntax in Old English

Compound and Complex Sentences

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5.3. Compound and Complex Sentences. 

The growth of the written forms of English, and the advance of literature in Late ME and Early NE manifested itself, among other changes, in the further development of the compound and complex sentence. Differentiation between the two types became more evident, the use of connectives — more precise. The diversity of sentence structures in Late ME and Early NE reveals considerable freedom in the nature and use of clauses. The flexibility of sentence patterns and the variable use of connectives were subjected to new constraints and regulations in the period of normalisation. The complicated hierarchical structure of the sentence in Late ME and also correlation of connectives inherited from OF is illustrated by the opening stanza of Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALE.The poem begins with an adverbial clause of time introduced by whan that: the interrogative adverb whan (‘when’) is accompanied by the conjunction that, the two words together being used as a conjunction; another adverbial clause of time whan Zephirus... goes on for two and a half lines, then two temporal clauses are joined by and, and two more clauses are inserted an attributive clause beginning with That slepen... and a parenthetical clause; then, finally, the principal clause begins with the adverb thanne which correlates with whan that and whan in the first and fifth lines.

Many new conjunctions and other connective words appeared during the ME period: both.. .txnd, a coordinating conjunction, was made up of a borrowed Scandinavian dual adjective bath and the native and; because, a subordinating conjunction, was a hybrid consisting of the native English preposition by and a borrowed Latin nouncause (by+cause ‘for the reason’); numerous connectives developed from adverbs and pronouns — who, what, which, where, whose, how, why. These connectives sometimes occurred in combination with that (like whan that in the above quotation from Chaucer), which probably served to show that the former pronouns and adverbs were employed in a new, connective, function.
The following examples from Chaucer’s works illustrate various types .of subordinate clauses in ME and some of the connectives used to join the clauses, especially the polyfunctional that:

Subject and object clauses:

And notified is thurghout the toun

That every wight, with greet devocioun,

Sholde preyen Crist that he this manage

Receyve in gree, and spede this viage.

(‘And it is notified throughout the town that every man should pray to Christ with great devotion that he receive this marriage favourably and make the voyage successful.’)

The development of English syntax at this stage of history – as well as later – was to a considerable extent determined by the formation and differentiation of styles which is beyond the scope of this course.


Preparing this course work I have learned the miscellaneous types of information related to Syntactic system of Old English. Modern English is a fairly analytical language. Most of the necessary grammatical information is communicated through word order. With the exception of questions and highly literary or poetic works, Subject Verb Object is the law of the land. It was not always this way. Old English, as a strikingly different inflectional language, communicated the grammatic information it needed through word endings and definite articles. With the burden no long resting on a set order, some flexibility could be allowed. These are the most common types of word order found in Old English, with original text, transliterations, and translations. Long vowels are marked with accents.

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