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General Terminology

Sentence Structure

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           The inflection of Old English results in a system of cases, which indicate the grammatical relationship of the words. These case markers simultaneously demonstrate both gender and number. There are five main cases in the Anglo-Saxon language: Nominative, Accusative, Genitive, Dative and Instrumental. Almost any Old English grammar book explores these five cases in detail but for our purposes we will discuss their basic function. Examples will be in present day English in order to ensure that the functions of the cases are clear. For some students this exercise may serve as a review of material previously learned in grammar classes or other language courses.

Nominative: the subject of the verb; the thing that is doing the action

Example: I saw him.

Accusative: the direct object of the verb

Example: I saw him.

Genitive: indicates possession or measurement; modifies the noun; if it is of something it is genitive

Example: I saw his ball.

Dative: the indirect object of the verb; a dative clause is easily recognized by words such as 'for,' 'except,' 'about,' 'in,' 'before,' 'underneath,' 'against,' etc. These clues are usually present but a dative clause can exist without them. In Modern English we do not distinguish between the dative and accusative in our pronouns but in Old English we do. Over time the form has become simplified and the distinction between the two has lessened.

Example: I saw John with him.

Instrumental: Expresses means or manner; when there is no instrumental form the dative serves. Instrumental and dative endings of nouns are not distinguishable in Old English but are recognizable for adjectives in the masculine singular[5]

General Terminology

            Before we engage in any further discussion of Anglo-Saxon grammar, it is important that students have a thorough understanding of present-day English and its grammatical components. Old English texts often already include commas, semi-colons and other aspects of recognizable grammar that have been inserted by the publisher to aid your translation of the piece. Understanding the function of general punctuation and other aspects of Modern English is thus elemental to one’s comprehension of Old English. For this reason I highly suggest that students look up elements of grammar that they are unfamiliar with and concepts that need more clarification. Often students of English find themselves unaware of basic grammatical terms as many English classes fail to go over the language in exquisite detail. For this reason I have included some key terminology which will be beneficial while undertaking a translation. [6] This is by no means an extensive list, but will rather serve as a quick reference guide.

Auxiliary: a form of verb used with other verbs to form voice and tense. For example, “Sarah was injured” or “Tom is going home.”

Conjunction: a word which connects other words, phrases and clauses together. 'As,' 'because' and 'but' are all examples of conjunctions.

Declension/Conjugation: the inflection of pronouns, nouns, adjectives and verbs.

Pronoun Example: That gift is for him. He is very happy about receiving a present.

Noun Example: I bought a gift for Heather but she did not buy any gifts for me.

Adjective Example: The fridge is cold but the freezer is much colder.

Verb Example: I love to talk. Yesterday I talked to Sam for hours on the phone.

Indicative mood: form of the verb used to ask a question or to make a general statement. I.e “Are you driving there?” or “Ashley talks too much.”

Imperative mood: form of verb used in commands. The subject of the verb is usually obsolete, for example, “Stop talking!” or “Be quiet!”

Infinitive: the simplest form of verb. Usually has the word “to” preceding it. For example: “I love to sing” or “Jack hates to fly.”

Participle: a form of verb that can be used in a sentence as an adjective or that can be used with an auxiliary to form certain voices and tenses. For example, the verb singing': "I was singing," "Jackie likes singing."

Predicate: In a sentence the clause, the verb plus all the words that belong with it. For example, "Brandon moved to Canada last year."

Preposition: A word that conveys position or direction. With a pronoun or noun it forms a prepositional phrase. Some common prepositions include 'to,' 'about,' 'above,' 'below,' 'under,' 'since,' etc. An example of a prepositional phrase: “John is going up the mountain.”

Preterite: A verb that describes a past state or action. For example, “Billy shot his gun.”

Subjunctive mood: verb construction used to express unlikely conditions and doubts. For example: “I doubt Josh will ever find a job.” 

Superlative: The highest form of comparison involving three or more units. For example: “I am the youngest child in my family” or “Michael has the largest scar on his pinky finger.”

Sentence Structure

           Now that we have an understanding of the cases and some basic terminology we will explore sentence patterns. It is important to understand that while these patterns are useful, they are generalizations intended to aid the translation process and are thus not finite. Such regimented structure will not always exist in Old English verse and exceptions to these general rules will always be present. That said, there are three overlaying trends [7] :

1) If the sentence is a prediction, saying or promise and if the proposition is affirmative the order of the words are: Subject (Auxiliary) Verb (Object)…

2) If the sentence is interrogative ( a command), if the proposition is negative or if adverbs of time and place occur the order follows: (X) [8] [Verb/Auxiliary] Subject…

3) If the sentence is a subordinate clause or any coordinated clause except the first, the order is: Subject (Object)…Verb (Auxiliary)

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Back to Verb Exercise #1

Back to Solving the First Riddle

[5] Over time the instrumental case has been absorbed by the dative and ceases to exist as a category

[6] Frederick Crews, The Random House Handbook Ed. Steve Pensinger and James R. Belser, 6th ed. Toronto: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992.

[7] Traugott, 106-109. Note: I recommend this book for further reading once the basics of Old English are thoroughly understood. This text goes into immense detail about the grammatical structures of the language and is useful to those trying to enhance their translation skills.

[8] X = represents adverbs, pronouns, interrogatives, etc.