Theme: Syntax in Old English

The syntactic structure of a language

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The syntactic structure of a language

The syntactic structure of a language is usually closely connected with its morphology. In a highly inflected language a word mostly carries with it indications of its class, of its function in the sentence, of its relations to other words. It depends but little on its position in the sentence, and it may do without special function words. With the loss of inflections the dependence of the word grows. Much of the difference between the Old English and the Modern English syntax is of that nature.

The order of words in a sentence was comparatively free in OE as contrasted with the rigid word order of Modern English.

The comparative freedom of word order was felt not only in the predicative word combination but in other combinations of words, too. It is by no means rare to find modifiers following their nouns instead of preceding them. Prepositions, which usually preceded the nouns or pronouns they governed, often followed them, sometimes at a considerable distance.

In OE the inflections played a much greater role in the indication of syntactical relation between words in a sentence or group than in Modern English.

Grammatical agreement and government were of much greater importance in OE than in Modern English.

The subject of a sentence or clause was frequently unexpressed in OE.

In OE usage of multiple negation was perfectly normal.

The OE interrogative pronouns hwœt ‘what’, hwilc ‘which’, hwa ‘who’ etc. were not used as relative pronouns. Relative clauses were usually introduced by the invariable þe, alone or with a demonstrative pronoun.

OE complex sentences often involved correlation. There were many sets of correlative elements in OE; among the commonest were þa (…þa) … þa, þonne… þonne, swa … swa.

The subjunctive mood was an additional means of indicating subordination in OE complex sentences. It is mostly found in clauses of condition, concession, cause, result, purpose, in indirect questions, though it was by no means rare in independent sentences or principal clauses.

In OE texts we often come across certain verbal phrases which have proved of great importance in the development of the grammatical structure of English. The analytical forms of the verb, so typical of Modern English, derive from those Old English verbal phrases, so that the latter might be called analytical form in embryo.5

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