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

Negative-Initial Sentences in Old and Middle English

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

Negative-Initial Sentences in Old and Middle English

Article excerpt

Beside other things best left unnamed here, I share with Roger a love for historical puzzles and scenarios. Therefore, a small contribution on a little ripple in the verb syntax of the oldest English seems a fitting tribute in the context of this volume.

There is an intriguing and seemingly minor syntactic difference between Old English and Middle English. (1) In Old English negated main clauses, there are two principal word order patterns: in the first and very dominant pattern, the negated finite verb comes first, as illustrated in (1); in the second, the subject comes first, immediately followed by the negated finite verb, as illustrated in (2). It is, however, rather difficult to find examples where the negated finite verb is preceded by a topic, although (3) is one of the rare examples:

(1) Nolde se Hoelend for his bene swapeah hym fram gewitan not-wanted the Lord for his prayer however him from depart


(2) poet cild ne mihte na oa gyt mid wordum his hoelend gegretan the child not could not yet with words his Lord greet


(3) oinra synna ne weoroe ic gemunende, ac gemun du hiora your sins not become I mindful, but be-mindful you them 'may I not be mindful of your sins, but you be mindful of them'


In early Middle English, all three word orders are frequently attested:

(4) Ne cam ic noht te bidden [LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]ew forbisne Not came I not to give you example VV.15.9

(5) Ich nat nawt pe time I not-know not the time SW.249.18

(6) Alle pine preates ne drede ich all your threats not dread I St.Katherine.2102

These facts suggest that in Old English, the occurrence of a topic is not readily compatible with a negative element in first position whereas in early Middle English, it is. (2) This touches on the nature of the first constituent position in Old English main clauses, which is related to issues concerning the Verb Second constraint. Since there is no independent evidence that there are any essential changes in the Verb Second constraint between Old English and Middle English (van Kemenade 1987, 1997), I will here explore the possibility that changes in the force of negation are responsible for the difference between Old and Middle English illustrated above. To see this, we will first discuss the issues concerning the Verb Second constraint in section 1. Then, we will look at the historical line of development of negation, and in section 2, we will consider negative-initial sentences in the earliest Old English of Beowulf In section 3, I will present an analysis for the historical development of negative-initi al sentences. The conclusion will be that the possibility of having a topic in a negated sentence in Middle English arose out of the weakening of the negative element ne in first position, which fits with the general trends observed in Jespersen's cycle (Jespersen 1917).

1. Verb Second in Old and Middle English

Old English clause structure cannot be considered without regard to the Verb Second constraint. While Old English has mixed OV and VO word orders, and can be reasonably analysed as being typologically an SOV language, it is also clear that the sentence has some satellite positions in main clauses that are reserved for some first constituent and the finite verb. An initial illustration of this is given by the following sentences:

(7) a. hwi wolde God swa lytles pinges him forwyrnan

why would God so small thing him deny

'why should God deny him such a small thing?' AEHomTh.i.14.2

b. On twam pingum hoefde God poes mannes sawle gegodod

in two things had God the man's soul endowed

'With two things God had endowed man's soul' AEHomTh.i.20.1

Observe that these examples illustrate the phenomenon of subject-aux-inversion that we still find in Present Day English. …

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