Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Graphotactics of the Old English 'Alexander's Letter to Aristotle'

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Graphotactics of the Old English 'Alexander's Letter to Aristotle'

Article excerpt


This paper describes empirical evidence in the Old English MS text of 'Alexander's Letter to Aristotle' for study of syntactic, morphotactic, and phonotactic aspects of a text representative of late West Saxon Old English--the same linguistic system in which Beowulf is preserved. If is written by the same scribe who copied more than hall of that superb poem. That evidence lies in graphotactic features, where spacings occur within letter-strings, and how wide they are in linear measure; these features are obliterated in printed editions on which nearly all historical linguistics of English has been based. The person who penned these texts was following conventions of writing then shared (and subsequently modified), which recorded linguistic features that later textual conventions left out. Here is extensive and consistent empirical evidence for syllable division, for example, which agrees with scholarly inferences about syllable division, but with some small exceptions; here is evidence about the prosodics of reflexive constructions ([thorn]a wolde we us ge-restan, for example); here is evidence about the hierarchic clustering of particle + prefixed verb (e.g., on be-cwome). A new edition of this text in electronic format will be published on my Graphotactics website. Full linguistic and historical analysis of this electronic text can then be undertaken by anyone with basic computer facilities.


Standard editions of the Old English translation of 'Alexander's Letter to Aristotle' (British Library Cor Vit A.XV, fols. 107r-131v) print the words, which come predictably packaged between equalized blank spaces. Editions of Beowulf and two other prose texts, in the same manuscript and written by the same hand, do the same. Not only that, the words also have been compressed so that no spaces are allowed inside them. That is, the editions disregard the spacings in the manuscript, assuming them to be irrelevant, if not arbitrary or capricious. Yet these were produced by Anglo-Saxons who, to their credit and to out good fortune, had not embraced 'canonical word separation' and instead used spacing to record something more than lexical demarcations. Much is to be learned about English and its history, I believe, from the graphotactics of certain vernacular texts written by native speakers of English before the early eleventh century. 'Alexander's Letter' is a prime example.

I use the term graphotactics to designate patterns of letter-string formation. The early English texts are later than the Latin texts first segmented by Irish readers and writers, whether the segments parsed text per cola et commata, or for words or small combinations of them. That initial segmentation by small markings was succeeded by spacings between letter-strings, a method picked up in England (and elsewhere) and used regularly in the earliest extant writings in English. This method of data structuring then reached a unique stage of development in some tenth and early eleventh century texts.

This transitional use of spacings has its clearest illustration in a swatch from one of the manuscript texts of AElfric's Grammar of Latin, British Library MS Royal 15.B.xxii, f. 65r; sec Fig. 1. The Grammar is composed in English, describing a language foreign to native speakers of English. It is meaningless to refer to 'normal word spacing' in a text of this kind. Some word sequences are written without intervening space, some words have internal spacing, and the spacing between letter strings that correspond to words is anything but normative. Below the facsimile is the same text edited to represent the spacings for their locations, their morphological contexts, and their magnitudes. Arabic numerals represent the relative measures of the spacings. Further:


space numeral space      represents separation of words
hyphen numeral hyphen    represents morphemic separation within
--numeral--              represents separation at other than
                         morpheme (and word) boundary

Overall, it will be obvious that the spacings, where they occur, and their relative magnitudes, correspond in part to the sequence of syntactic structures at the sentence level and the phrasal level, and some at the syllable level. …

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