Modern English is a fairly analytical language. Most of the necessary grammatic information is communicated through word order. With the exception of questions and highly literary or poetic works, Subject Verb Object is the law of the land. It was not always this way. Old English, as a strikingly different inflectional language, communicated the grammatic information it needed through word endings and definite articles. With the burden no long resting on a set order, some flexibility could be allowed. These are the most common types of word order found in Old English, with original text, transliterations, and translations. Long vowels are marked with accents.

Direct Word Order
The default, usual order for sentences, exactly the same as in modern English. Almost all sentences declaring a fact or making an equivalence used this word order.

  • Ælfréd kyning háteð grétan Wæferð biscep. - Alfred King commands to.greet Waerferth Bishop. - King Alfred commands to greet Bishop Waerferth.
  • Ic eom bæcere. - I am baker. - I am a baker.

Inverted Word Order
Not much more exotic here, despite first appearences. Inverted word order procedes Verb Subject Object. This exists in modern English as well, although in a way that's not immediately recognizable. Where English inverts by pulling a helping verb out of thin air, Old English is far more practical, just taking the verb and plopping it at the beginning of the sentence. Translate literally and you'll get what sounds like just really old fashioned English. Inverted word order is used for questions, negative statements using the 'ne' particle, questions introduced by words such as 'what', 'why', 'who', and certain adverbs. Those who know German will sense a great familiarity with this sort of system.

  • Hæfst þú þá wáépnu? - Have you the weapons? Do you have the weapons?
  • Ne cóm hé here - Not come he here. - He didn't come here.
  • Hú háélde þú mé? - How healed you me? - How did you heal me?
  • Þáér bið mycel gewinn on þáém lande. - There be great battle on the land. - There was great strife in the land.

A short note on that last one, you'll notice that the transliterated sentence is in the present tense, whereas its translation is in the past. This is due to the fact that Old English employed two different verb systems for 'to be' in the present indicative. I'm not very well-informed about the distinctions between them, but one of them was partially modeled after the irregular conjugation of the Latin verb 'to be', esse. Our modern conjugation is descended from this branch, which from so far as I can see more regularly follows distinctions between tenses than the other pattern (which did make one lasting contribution, the 'be' in 'to be').

Transposed Word Order
And here's the meat. Transposed word order is Subject Object Verb the preferred order of Latin plus many other languages, and in Old English it occurs under the exact same circumstances as in modern German. Any time you add extra information to the sentence with 'that', 'which', 'who', etc, the word order for the resulting clause must be transposed with the verb placed at the end. For dramatic flare, the subject and object may sometimes be interchanged as well, since inflection insures there will be no confusion.

  • þu slép under þáém tréowe þæt God us bebéad ne hrepodon. - You slept under that tree that God us commanded not to.touch - You slept under the tree that god commanded us not to touch.

In general, the rules by which Old English word order is changed are the same as modern German. The verb likes to be in the second position, the second content element of the sentence. It will shuffle most things out of the way to remain there, and if it cannot, it will go off to sulk at the end of the sentence.

Marckwardt, Albert H. Rosier, James L. Old English Language and Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 1972.

In a fit of stupidity which I hope can be mostly blamed on sleep deprivation, the original version of this document listed the normal word order for English as Subject Object Verb. I'm not that dunderheaded normally, I swear. Thank you to those who provided corrections.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.