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Sentence Structure Page 1


  1. The OE inflexional system, with more distinctive forms than that of PDE, means that OE word-order can be much more flexible than that of its descendant. Thus, in PDE

    1. THE LORD BINDS THE SERVANT.

      and

    2. THE SERVANT BINDS THE LORD.

      mean very different things. The word-order indicates the relative functions of the phrases THE LORD and THE SERVANT. This was not necessarily the case in OE. Sentence 1. above can be translated into OE as

    3. Se hlāford bindeþ þone cnapan.


    4. However, it could also be translated as

    5. Þone cnapan bindeþ se hlāford.

      or

    6. Se hlāford þone cnapan bindeþ.

    and so on. In sentences 3. - 5. above, the phrase se hlāford, because it is in the Nominative case, is always the Subject of the clause in whatever position it appears; because it is in the Accusative case, þone cnapan is always the Direct Object of the clause. The cases, not the word-order, here determine the relationship between the two Noun Phrases.

  2. This does not mean, however, that OE word-order was entirely arbitrary. In a sentence like Þæt wīf bindeþ hit THE WOMAN BINDS IT, for instance, there are no inflexional means of determining that þæt wīf is the Subject and hit the Direct Object, for the Nominative and Accusative forms of these words are not differentiated. Although it is true to say that OE allowed more variation in word-order than PDE does, nevertheless there were norms of word-order in OE. Mitchell and Robinson (1992) distinguish three types of OE phrase-order in clauses; modified to the conventions of this book, these are:

    (a) SP: the predicator immediately follows the subject;

    (b) S ... P: other elements of the clause come between subject and predicator;

    (c) PS: the subject follows the predicator.

    SP is the usual order in main clauses; S ... P is most commonly found in subordinate clauses; and PS occurs most commonly in questions, and in main clauses introduced by certain adverbials (notably Þā THEN). However, OE writers frequently departed from these norms for stylistic effect.

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