Theme: Syntax in Old English



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Syntax OE
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Word order

One of the most obvious contrasts between OE and Mod E is word order. In Mod E the word order is fixed, i.e. the subject precedes the predicate, which in turn precedes the object. The word order in the OE sentence was relatively free. This was at least in part due to the comparatively rich system of case endings and other inflectional morphology. The general tendency was first to refer to something known, understandable (the theme) and then to something new, unknown (the rheme). At the same time, often it is the rheme that comes first, e.g. hē christen wīf hæfde ‘he had a Christian wife’. In this sentence the word christen presents the most meaningful part of the sentence content, since at that time a Christian, and not pagan, wife was rare.

Speaking of the order of the subject and the predicate, we must distinguish between declarative and interrogative sentences. In interrogative sentences the predicate comes first, as in the example quoted above: Eart þū sē Bēowulf, sēþe wiþ Brecan wunne? In declarative sentences there are different cases to be considered. If the sentence opens with an adverbial modifier it is the predicate that usually comes first, the subject following, as can be seen from the examples þā se¥lede hē þanon norþryhte ‘then sailed he thence northward’; þā on¥an hē sōna sin¥an ‘then began he soon to sing’. If no adverbial modifier stands at the head of the sentence, it is the subject that usually comes first, as in Ohthere sǽde his hlāforde ‘Ohthere said to his lord’; sē hwæl bið micle læssa þonne ōðre hwalas ‘this whale is much smaller than other whales’.

It is typical of OE to have secondary parts of the sentence stand between the subject and the predicate (the so-called synthetic word order), as may be seen from the following example: and Samson þā dranc and his drihtene þancode ‘and Samson drank it and thanked his Lord’. The main parts form, as it were, a kind of frame, which encloses the secondary ones, e.g. Eart þū sē Bēowulf, sēþe wiþ Brecan wunne? ‘Art thou the Beowulf who competed with Breca?’. Here, in the subordinate clause, the indirect object wiþ Brecan comes in between the subject sēþe and the predicate wunne.

The object may either precede or follow the predicate. An attribute usually precedes its head word, e.g. en¥lisc ¥ewrit ‘English text’. However, a numeral may follow its head word, e.g. his sūna twe¥en‘his two sons’. An attribute often follows its head word when used in direct address: wine mīn ‘my friend’.

Negation

The general usage in OE was that in negative clauses the most common negative particle ne appeared before the finite verb and that it also attached itself to any suitable indefinite pronoun or quantifier, which reinforced the meaning of negation. The usual name for this construction is multiple negation.As a rule, negation preceded the predicate and the object: hīe ne cūþon nān-þin¥ yfeles, nāþer ne on sprǽce ne on weorce ‘they did not know anything evil either in words or in actions’; ne can ic nōhtsin¥an ‘I cannot sing anything’.

This looks like the non-standard forms of present-day English which are quite widely found everywhere in Britain, as in he didn’t buy nothing, i.e. ‘he didn’t buy anything’. The similarity is not accidental: the non-standard forms demonstrate a direct line of descent from OE.6



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