ENG6361F: OE Syntax

-Randolph Quirk and C.J. Wrenn's Old English Grammar has a particularly clear section on syntax--a nice clear synchronic slice

-learn/review terminology in the Traditional Grammatical Terminology booklet (course book pages 70-85)

-helpful list of common prepositions (p. 4) and conjunctions (p. 8)

-for a more advanced and/or a more historical explanation of OE, try

-The Cambridge History of the English Language also deals with morphology and syntax clearly (and from a historical perspective, if you like that sort of thing)

-Roger Lass's book Old English: a historical linguistic companion looks at Old English from an IE/Germanic point of view

-examples taken from

-COE "The Coming of the English" (cited by page number)

-G8 "Genesis 8: 6-18" (cited by verse)

-G22 "Genesis 22: 1-18" (cited by verse)

-CH "Cædmon's Hymn" (cited by line number: 3b = second half of line 3)

-R47 "Riddle 47" (cited by line number)

-Q&W = Quirk & Wrenn

1.Word order

1a.First: some PresE concepts illustrated with some complex sentences

-adjective/relative clauses

-adverb clauses

-noun clauses

Main clause is underlined. Subordinate/dependent clause is in bold face

The men who/that bought the bowler hats are carrying big briefcases.

The man that/whom/who/-- I love has disappeared.

Before you go any farther, you should read the instructions.

Read the instructions if you don't want to run into trouble.

After he plugged it in, it exploded.

I thought that you should have read the instructions.


2b.S .. V .. (O/C)

-in main clauses

-G22: 1 God wolde þa fandian Abrahames gehyrsumysse (S-V-DO)

"God wanted then to test Abraham’s obedience"

-in some subordinate clauses

-G22: 12 nu ic oncneow soðlice, þæt ðu swyðe ondrædst God (S .. V-DO order in noun clause)

2c.S . (O/C) .. V

-in main clauses with pronoun object [e.g. We it him gave]

-G22: 12 Se engel him cwæð to (S-IO-V)

-G22: 17 Ic ðe nu bletsige (S-DO-V)


-in an assortment of subordinate clauses

-e.g. of time

-G22: 12 Mid þam þe he wolde þæt weorc begynnan (S-Vaux-DO-Vinf)


-e.g. of condition

-gif we ða stilnesse habbað

"if we have peace"

-negative clause of condition:

COE 28 butan hi him maran andlyfne sealdon

"unless they gave them more sustenance"

-e.g. noun clause

-COE 26: And þa gelicode him ... þæt hi Seaxna þeode ... gecygdon and gelaðedon

"and then [it] pleased them ... that they [should] call and invide the Saxons' people"

-e.g. adjective/relative clauses, when the relative particle is functioning as the subject of the clause

-COE 27: þe hi hider gelaðode "who them hither invited" (S-DO-V)


-after initial adverb (e.g. ne, ða "then") in main clause

-COE 26: Þa gesomnedon hi gemot (Adv-V-S-DO)

-G22: 11 þa clypode Godes engel ardlice of heofonum (Adv-V-S ...)

-ða in a dependent clause with S(-)V order = "when"

-G22: 4 þa hi ða dune gesawon (Adv-S-O-V)

-from elsewhere:

þa he hine geseah, þa wearð he mid mildheartnesse ofer hine astyred

"When he saw him, then became he with pity over him stirred up"


Other kinds of clauses:

3.More on adjective clauses

-another term, "relative clauses"

-PresE: introduced with "who(m), "which", "that", or zero

The tree (which is dying) will be removed. The dying tree

The men (who robbed him) The greedy men

The man (who showed kindness to them) The kind man

-the usual subordinator in OE is ðe (indeclinable)

COE 28: þam sylfan landbigengan þe hi ær hider laþedon and cygdon

"to the very natives that them before hither had invited and called"

-you'll also find the demonstrative pronoun (alone or with ðe)

-it's usually in the number, gender, and case to fit the adjective clause

-COE 28: Hi wæron Wihtgysles suna, þæs fæder wæs Witta haten "they were Wihtgils' sons, whose father was Witta called"

-COE 28: wið Pehtum, þa hi ær þurh gefeoht feor adrifan "against the Picts, whom they before through battle far away had driven"


4.Correlative clauses

-ða "when" in the subordinate clause, ða "then" in the main clause

ða he ðas andsware onfeng, ða ongan he sona singan

"when he received this answer, then began he at once to sing"

ða he hine geseah, ða wearð he mid mildheortnesse ofter hine astyred

"when he saw him, then became he with pity over him stirred up"

-an example of what's called a "correlative" construction

-words that are part of the same construction but not occurring side by side

-eg "both ... and", "either ... or", "whether ... or"

-OE has many more "correlative" constructions than PresE

-eg swa ... swa "as ye sow, so shall ye reap"

-much of our difficulty stems from the fact that often in OE the conjunction and the adverb have the same form (þa ...þa; swa ... swa)

-word order is the most helpful way of working out which is which

-SV order in subordinate clause

-VS order in main clause


-OE verbs had only two tense-inflections, present and preterite

-for the most part, time-relationships other than present or past were either implicit in the context or were expressed with the help of contextual features such as adverbs of time

-present: present and future (remember the b- forms of beon)

-G22: 8 God foresceawað "God will provide"

-G22: 17 ic ðe nu bletsige and ðinne ofspringe gemenigfylde... ("now I bless thee and will increase thy offspring")

-past: past and past-in-the-past (pluperfect)

-eg COE 27 þe hi oft ær norðan onhergedon "who had often before harassed them from the north"

-often "pluperfectness" is explicit with a conjunction (eg siððan) or with an adverb (eg ær)

-OE also saw the rise of more complex verbal forms usually called "complex tenses"

-eg something like the perfect (pres/plu) could also be expressed with past participle + appropriate tense of habban (with transitive verbs) or wesan (with intransitive verbs)

-eg (from elsewhere) And ða he hig forlæten hæfde "released had"

-eg something like the progressive:

-COE 28: And þa wæron Seaxan secende intingan and towyrde

"and then were the Saxons seeking cause and opportunity" ...


6.Subjunctive mood

-IE subjunctive seems to have had a dual function

-semantic (marking unreal states)

-grammatical (marking certain types of subordinate clauses, usually but not necessarily involving unreal states)

-keep both categories in mind when translating OE: some conjunctions usually take it--eg ðæt in clauses of purpose, ær in clauses of time relating to future events)

-OE subjunctive:

-formed by adding -e (sg) and -en (plural) to present (infinitive) stem and past stem (3rd PP w/ strong verbs)

-in PDE (and even sometimes in OE) often translated with a modal (eg "might", "should") + infinitive

(here in a noun clause of purpose: þæt "so that"). Spelling should really be -en here but as you'll have noticed, the spelling of inflections often doesn't correspond to the paradigms!

-Q&Wp83: is nydþearf … þaet he Godes lage gym-e

"[it] is necessary … that he God’s law should follow"


7. Impersonal verb

-regularly no subject expressed: what seems like the subject to us is often in the dative case

-COE 26: "and þa gelicode him" "and then [it] pleased them"/"was pleasing to them"

-Q&W p73: aelcum menn þuhte "[it] to each man seemed"

-cf methinks = "[it] seems [to] me"



-ne (like most OE adverbs) precedes what it negates

-eg verbs, ne + mihte "could not"

-eg pronouns, ne + ænig > nænig "not any, none"

-eg adverbs, ne + a > na "never, by no means"

-ne could sometimes fuse with following words

-eg G8: 7 and nolde eft ongean cyrran "and did not desire to return"

-multiple negation was perfectly normal could reinforce other elements for emphasis

-eg nis næ:nig swa snotor not-is not-any so wise


9. Conjunctions (see fuller list on handout!)

-many with the structure preposition + demonstrative + ðe: good account in Mitchell and Robinson, §169

-eg G8: 7 ær ðan ðe "before"; 8 for ðan ðe "because"

-probably arise from a reanalyzed prepositional phrase

-eg (from elsewhere) oð ðæt hi ða menegu forlete

"until that: [that =] he the crowd released" > "until he released the crowd"

-then the prep phrase might be used with all-purpose subordinator ðe (or ðæt) (which signal that the phrase functions as a conjunction)

-G22: 11 Mid ðam þe he wolde þæt weorc begynnan



-adverbs in OE were formed chiefly from adjectives (some from nouns; see "case" sheet)

-simplest situation: adverb ending was -e

-so, deop "deep", deope "deeply"

-cf PresE Go slow, Speak loud-er

-but many adjectives had two endings, one with zero, one with -lic "ly"

-eg wrað "furious", wraðlic "furious" (abstract noun wræþu shows i-mutation!)

-adverbs are wrað-e & wraðlic-e "furiously"

-but -lic-e had been early reanalyzed as adverb suffix & became formative

-so in fact it's hard to tell whether wraðlice < wraðlic-e or wrað-lice

-here G22: 11 ardlice "quickly" (arod "quick")

22 soðlice "truly" (soð "true", "truth")

-soþ-e "truly" is also attested

-some adverbs were also formed from nouns (often dative or genitive case)

-hwilum "at times" -> Spenser's whilom

-nihtes "by night" -> I work nights



11.Functions of the Noun Cases

-note that the nominative case is also the case of the predicative complement (complement of verb be, verbs of seeming, etc.)

-"Min broðor is þeof"

-imperative verbs optionally take the nominative (think of Hear ye!):

G8: 17 weaxe ge..


12.Noun Modifiers and Pronouns


-se particularizes, singles out: equivalent both to "that" and "the"

-still interchangeable in some contexts

-Q&W: "Do you remember that/the man I was speaking to last night?"

-nothing that directly corresponds to our indefinite article a

-OE an "one" or, along with sum "a certain", ie "strong indefiniteness"

-ðæt wæs an cyning "that was a (unique) king"

-R47 3b: wera gied sumes "the speech of a certain one of men" = "the speech of a certain man"

-for most of OE, the function of "indefinite article" was expressed with zero

-eg COE 26 Þa gesomnedon hie ^ gemot "then they gathered an assembly"




-"reflexiveness" expressed with the simple form of the pronoun; some verbs were reflexive in OE but aren't any more

-eg (from elsewhere) se cyning hine ... wende "the king went/turned himself"

-indefinite pronoun mon/man

-COE 27: of þam lande þe mon hateþ ... "from the land which one calls ..."


14.Word order in the noun phrase

-note that words in the genitive case tend to precede the noun they modify; this will be discussed again when we talk about systemic changes in English word order

-COE 27 (þysses landes) wæstmbærnysse


15.Concord, or Grammatical agreement

-for instance, adjectives and demonstratives have to agree with pro/nouns in number, gender, case

-eg G8: 7 and asende ut æn-ne hremn (masc/acc/sg)

-eg subject and verb must agree in number and person (though you'll sometimes find a singular verb with a compound subject)

-eg G8 ær ðan ðe ða wæteru adruwodon ofer eorðan ("the waters" is nominative plural)