The Basics of Syntax

If grammar is defined as a set of rules governing how a language works, then syntax is the branch specifically dealing with the arrangement of words to form clauses and sentences. While Old English word order often follows the same patterns found in modern English, there are exceptions to this. There are also a number of rules and conventions that differ between prose and poetry that you need to be aware of to understand the texts.

Word Order

Due to its case system, word order is more flexible in Old English than in modern English, but it is still generally governed by a set of rules. For example, in modern English we would never say 'he him gave a dog', however it is common for an object pronoun to come directly after the subject. For example, 'He him geaf hund - he gave him a dog'. Similarly, in certain situations, the verb can come before the subject, or even at the end of a sentence.

Old English Prose Style

There are several features of Old English sentences that makes them feel a little alien even when we recognise the individual clauses. For example, Old English often drops subject pronouns since they can be infered by the conjugation of the inital verb. It is also common for the subject to be repeated or even split in long sentences, and Old English makes more frequent use of conjunctions to join clauses and make very long sentences.

Old English Poetic Style

Old English poetry contains unfamiliar conventions and employs rhetorical devices that make it hard to understand for modern English readers. For example, Old English poetry was alliterative and relies on stressed syllables for its meter. It was common for poets to change word order to fit alliteration, and create poetic compound words known as 'kennings' which use figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun, to fit the alliteration and meter.

In the coming topics, we will explore the fundamentals of Old English syntax, and the peculiarities of both prose style and poetic style.

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