Syntactic functions of the infinitive and participle in Old English

Module 5



1. General characteristics of language structure

2. The structure of OE sentence

3. Word order

4. Negation

5. Secondary predication constructions

6. Conclusions

General characteristics of language structure in OE

Old English, like other Old Germanic languages, was much closer in structure to other Indo-European languages than Modern English. A typical peculiarity of language structure in OE was the expression of grammatical categories and relations by means of changing the word form with the help of inflections.

The syntactic structure of OE was determined by two major conditions: the nature of OE morphology and the relations between the spoken and the written forms of the language.

OE was largely a synthetic language; it possessed a system of grammatical forms which could indicate the connection between words; consequently, the functional load of syntactic ways of word connection was relatively small. It was primarily a spoken language, therefore the written forms of the language resembled oral speech. Accordingly, the syntax of the sentence was relatively simple: coordination of clauses prevailed over subordination; complicated syntactical constructions were rare.


The structure of OE sentence

The most common type of sentence in Early OE was the simple (expanded) sentence, e.g. Sōðlice sum mann hæfde twē¥en suna truly a certain man had two sons. In this sentence mann is a subject and hæfde is a simple predicate. Predicates could also be compound: modal, verbal and nominal, e.g. hwæðre þū meaht sin¥an nevertheless you can sing.

Compound and complex sentences existed in the English language since the earliest times. Coordinate clauses were mostly joined by and, a conjunction of a most general meaning, which could connect statements with various semantic relations. The connection between the parts of the sentence was shown by the form of the words as they had formal markers for gender, case, number and person.

Repetition of connectives at the head of each clause (termed correlation) was common in complex sentences, e.g. þā hē þā slēpte þā stod him sum mann æt when he was sleeping then a man stood before him.

The subjunctive mood was widely used in OE not only to express volition, doubt, supposition, uncertainty, but also to introduce indirect speech, e.g. hē sæ¥de þæt hē wǽre ¥earuhe said that he was ready. The predicate of the subordinate clause wǽre is used in the form of the subjunctive mood.

In contrast to Mod E the OE sentences seem clumsy, loosely connected, with many seemingly unnecessary repetitions, which is natural in a language whose written form had only begun to grow.

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¥enhis two sons. An attribute often follows its head word when used in direct address: wine mīn my friend.


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 didnt buy nothing, i.e. he didnt buy anything. The similarity is not accidental: the non-standard forms demonstrate a direct line of descent from OE.

Syntactic functions of the infinitive and participle in Old English

In OE there were syntactic phrases that later developed into infinitive and participle / gerund constructions, which are widely used in Mod E.

The dative case of the infinitive was used as an adverbial modifier of purpose:

hīe cōmon þæt land tō scēawiennethey came to spy out that land.

In combination with the forms of the verb bēon the dative case of the infinitive made the structure of the following type: hē is tō cummene he is to come.

Infinitive Phrases

When an infinitive follows a phrase V + N/pronoun + Infinitive, the construction accusative and infinitive is formed. It is mainly found with verbs of perception: seon see, hieran hear, ¥efri¥nan learn, and also with verbs expressing order or permission, such as hatan order, lætan let etc. E.g. fyrleoht(Acc.)¥eseah (finite verb), blacne leoman (Acc.) beorhte scinan (Inf.)he saw a fire-light, a glittering flash shine brightly; ne-hyrde ic cymlicor ceol ¥e¥yrwan I did not hear a more handsome shipconstructed.

5.2. Noun + Participle Constructions

Such constructions also form a predicative group, e.g. ¥edeþ him swa ¥ewealdene (PII) worolde dælas (Acc.)he will make parts of the world so subdued to him.

5.3. Noun + Adjective Constructions

An absolute participle construction is occasionally found in OE, with the noun and participle in the Dative case, e.g. forlætenre (Dative) þære ceastre,(Dative) he com the camp having been left, he came (= leaving the camp, he came).


6. Summary: Peculiarities of OE syntax

1. The syntactic structure of a sentence in OE was characterized by relative simplicity. Coordination of clauses prevailed over subordination; complicated syntactical constructions were rare.

2. The prevailing type of sentence structure was the simple (extended) sentence, with no definite, grammatically distinct connections between the sentence members.

3. There was considerable freedom in the sphere of word order in OE. Morphological means make the dependence of words on one another clear enough, so that words syntactically connected need not stand close together in the sentence. Varieties of word order can therefore be used for stylistic purposes. This was to undergo radical changes in later periods of language history.

4. Negation could be multiple in a sentence, unlike Mod E.

5. Subjunctive was widely used not only to express volition, doubt, probability, uncertainty, but also in sentences with indirect speech in the subordinate clause.

6. Infinitive and participle / gerund constructions of Mod E developed from syntactic structures with the infinitive and participle in OE.


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