ME syntax: more than Pyles and Algeo want to tell you


Principal source: for these notes

-Fischer’s chapter on “Syntax” in Volume II: 1066-1476 of the Cambridge History of the English Language (Cambridge UP, 1992).

-another source that I haven’t confirmed yet, possibly Lehmann on Indo-European


Examples and supplementary points from:

-Closs Traugott’s chapter on “Syntax” in Volume I of CHEL (Cambridge UP, 1992)

-Mustanoja’s Middle English Syntax (1960)

-Oxford English Dictionary



Big development from OE to ME:


Still some exceptions to SVO word order in PDE:


Questions to consider:


Briefly, review the dilemma about OE


A bit less briefly, can we determine a relationship between


More extensively, what are the implications or concomitants of these changes? Some are

‘Linguistic universals’: Entrenchment of VO order should entail other changes


Greenberg’s ‘linguistic universals’


OV languages tend to have

-prepositions that follow their objects (“herein”)

-adjectives that precede their noun (“the fat cat”)

            so, English has maintained the ‘OV’ pattern for descriptive adjectives


VO languages tend to have

-prepositions that precede their objects (“in here”)

-possessives that follow their noun (“the ”)




Why not?

Word order before OE

(from Lass, Old English)


Word order in PIE and PGmc very contentious! Why?


Word order in NWGmc basically SOV

Word order in OE

(from Lass, Old English; Fischer in CHEL2)


“Linguists still argue on the point whether OE was truly a SOV-type language that changed into an SVO language in the course of the ME period. The difficulty in deciding this matter lies in what kind of theoretical attitude the linguist wishes to adopt.”


What about early OE? Lass looks at Caedmon’s hymn (this is the Northumbrian version)


What about early OE prose? Lass looks at one early text


What about OE prose generally?


Typical OE sentence:


And đa he hig forlćten hćfde, he eode on ţone munt, and hyne ţćr ana gebćd

And when he them released had, he went up the mountain, and [him] there alone prayed.

Word order changes in ME


Verb-final order hung on in ME in some contexts

-in different ways in the North and the South (Kroch and Taylor)

            -contact with Scandinavian in the Danelaw

            -don’t homogenize ME!

-with pronoun objects

            -in the Ormulum

-51% of pronoun objects OV (in all clauses)

-18% of nouns


And VS inversion retained for quite a long time

-after wh- elements

            “Why make ye youreself for to be lyk a fool?”

-after adverbials

-perhaps not a problem “because in all cases the subject was still next to the verb”


And (optionally) after negatives: Never have I taken such an exciting course ....

-in OE VS after ne

            buton hwa beo ge-edcenned of wćtere, and of Haligum Gaste,

            unless one [who] be reborn by water, and by the holy ghost

ne mćg he in-faran on Godes rice

not can he go into God’s kingdom


-in ME, negation shifted from ne + verb (+ naht) to verb + not

            -the naht shifted from a stylistic option to being grammatically required

            -and then ne could be dropped since it was supported by naht


no but a man schal be born a3en, he may not se the kyngdom of God (Wycliffite  bible)


-but perhaps since many negatives were adverbials (never, scarcely) and since “the earlier system” (OE) had permitted VS after negatives, we have “a renewed grammaticalisation of the inversion rule after negatives and implied negatives” (377)


scarsly shaltou fynden any persone that may kepe conseil secrely (Chaucer)


But SVO order establishes itself quite rapidly at least in the ‘continuations’ of the Peterborough Chronicle (last entry 1154)

-Mitchell found 72% and 88% SVO order in subclauses (cf 41% in his late OE prose sample (Aelfric))



Disappearance of inflections or Fixing of word order?


Arguments in favour of ‘loss of inflections’ (nb there are other arguments for and against)


Work on OE

Dancev looked at OE phrases with and without prepositions

-Phrases without prepositions have NP elements with lots of formal distinctiveness

-Phrases with prepositions have NP elements that don’t tell you very much

-the more meaningless the inflection (i.e. –e) the more likely you are to find a preposition

-argues that the loss of inflections would have to come first


Comparative work:

Gerritsen looked at Middle Dutch and argued that loss of inflections triggered SOV -> SVO

-“statistical evidence” for “a strong and significant interrellation between development from SOV to SVO and loss of inflections”


Fischer’s summary of the implications of studies like that (p. 374):

“With the loss of inflections, the greatest need was for subjects and objects to become distinguishable since both were normally represented by NPs. Because only pronominal subjects and objects could still be distinguished in case, SOV order first disappeared in the case of nominal NPs.”

SVO order has impact on


‘Impersonal’ constructions in OE

o       difficulty defining:

o       hit as subject

§        Hit licode Herode

o       no expressed subject

§        Hu đincđ eow?

§        Swa mé đyncđ.

§        eow gebyrađ


In ME an expressed subject before the verb becomes increasingly obligatory:

o       ‘dummy’ (h)it, there

§        It was pleasing to the king, It pleased the king

§        It behoueth 3ou

§        It seems to me

o       but there are still examples of subjectless constructions:

And happed so, they coomen in a toun


o       animate experiencer (formerly in oblique cases) reanalysed as subject?

§        The king liked ...

§        I think


o       argument over whether the verbs changed in meaning

o       from causative, e.g. OE lician ‘to please’

o       to receptive, e.g. ME like ‘to like’

o       or had a more general meaning,

o       e.g. lician and like ‘the existence of pleasure’


And SV order might also be correlated with the disappearance of some of the OE ‘correlative’ conjunctions


Correlatives in OE

-many had the same form whether they’re adverbs or conjunctions,

e.g. đaer ‘where’ SV, đaer ‘there’ VS

e.g. đa ‘when’ SV, đa ‘then’ VS


Around in eME with SV / VS word order:

And đat ođer dei đa he lai an slep in scip,

‘when he lay asleep in the ship’

đa đestrede đe daei ouer al landes

then darkened the day over all the land


ţanne he komen ţere ţanne was Grim ded

when he came there then was Grim dead


But as word order gets fixed as SV, we find “a more transparent system, in which conjunctions are distinct from adverbs”:

-e.g. in Chaucer, ţo is an adverb but not a conjunction

-when (that) starts to be used (from OE interrogative hwanne ‘when’)


Same text:

          Wan ţe godemen ţat sawe / he stirten up sone anon

          When the worthy men saw that ... they leapt up all at once





 Word order changes relating to noun + modifier


According to ‘language universals’ languages with VO order tend to have head-modifier order

          -noun-descriptive adjective: “dog big”

-but “English has maintained the OV pattern for descriptive adjectives”

          -possessive construction: “the dog of his neighbour”


How and why did the of-phrase appear in English?

o       “may have been helped along by the parallel French construction with de

o       some evidence of its higher frequency “in works written under strong French influence”

o       but “a native development, parallel with

o       Romance developments from Latin de

o       Dutch van and German von

§        arguably a concomitant of SVO word order


Of course the inflected genitive survives, but mostly

o       in adnominal use, with possessive/subjective function: “John’s book”

o       reinforced by S(V)O order: “John has a book”


Where and why was the inflected genitive otherwise lost?

o       ‘objective genitive’ more likely to go:

o       e.g. OE. his feonda (gen.) slege ‘the slaughter of his enemies’

o       e.g. OE Iudea ealdor ‘the leader of the Jewish people’

§        an essentially OV structure  (enemies-kill, people-lead)

o       in ME, with SVO typology, this structure becomes ambiguous/opaque

o       exceptions: phrases like the king’s assassination or his death

§        it’s clear who’s being killed!


o       genitives dependent upon adjectives,

o       e.g. OE Beođ hyra geóca gemyndige ‘they are mindful of their safety’

§        genitive-adjective relationship often OV

o       in ME, VO relationship expressed with adjective + of-phrase

ME myndfule I was of dayes old


Do we find any postmodification in ME?

-as in OE, where two adjectives are involved: a good man and a fair

-in adjectives borrowed from French: goodes temporels, service divine

-in poetry on metrical grounds

-with heavy adjective phrases: wise advocatz lerned in the lawe

Prepositions in ME: more, and more often


Representative contexts:


Verbs which in OE took objects in the genitive,

§        OE examples, e.g. wundrian ‘wonder’, wyscan ‘wish’, e.g.

[Hie] his tocymes wyscton.


o       though the genitive inflection –es was a relatively healthy one, nevertheless in ME, we find these verbs taking

o       prepositions

§        wonder took of first, but often then lots of variation (e.g. OED has wonder at, sometimes over, formerly of, on, upon)

§        wish could take after, now for

c1200 Trin. Coll. Hom. 3 Men..wisten {ygh}erne after ure lauerd ihesu cristes tocume.

o       sometimes only an oblique case

§        c1470 HENRY Wallace IX. 1413 Sum wald haiff had Boyd at the suerdis lenth; Sum wyst [ed. 1570 wissit] Lundy.

§        Many a man wonderinge the bewtye of a straunge woman, haue bene cast out


Unlike genitive -s, dative inflections did ultimately disappear.


What happened to monotransitive verbs with dative objects?

§        OE examples, e.g. helpan ‘to be of assistance to’

{Edh}u mone{asg}um helpst.

§        in ME, the dative usually becomes indistinguishable from the accusative

1382 WYCLIF Rev. xii. 16 The erthe helpide the womman.


What about ditransitive verbs (e.g. offrian: acc. (d.o.) and dat (i.o.)


OE: You offer God (gode, dat.) a sacrifice (lác, acc.)

ME: offer God a sacrifice / offer a sacrifice to God (i.e. no dative inflection; preposition obligatory when DO IO)

Prepositions – a digression


A few new prepositions were borrowed, e.g.

till adopted from ON (& OE ‘until’ becomes obsolete)

accordant to, during adapted from Lat/OF durant(e)


Some of the new prepositions were participial: e.g. accordant / according to, considering, during, excepting,


c1386 CHAUCER Frankl. T. Prol. 3 And gentilly I preise wel thy wit, Quod the ffrankeleyn, considerynge thy yowthe, So feelyngly thou spekest, sire, I allowthe.


Did they develop from absolute uses of participle (in concord with the subject), into prepositions? The OED doesn’t actually find many “clear examples of the former”, e.g. *‘considering his youth, we were surprised at his attainments’. They assume instead that the present participle considering was substituted for the past participle considered “(formerly placed before its n.), is used in an absolute clause, = ‘being taken into account’.”


?1426 Lett. Marg. of Anjou (Camden 1863) 33 Considered this that here is reherced.

Many prepositions like during, notwithstanding were adapted from Fr/Latin constructions (durant, non obstant):

The pres. pple. of DURE v. = enduring, lasting, continuing, was used in Fr. and Eng. in a construction derived from the Latin ‘ablative absolute’; thus L. vita durante, OF. vie durant, Eng. life during, while life endured or endures.
1480 CAXTON Chron. Eng. lxxxviii. 72 She neuer was seyn among folke hir lyf durynge.

The participle also often stood before the n., e.g. L. durante bello, F. durant la guerre, Eng. during the war; in which construction during came in the modern langs. to be treated as

c1385 CHAUCER L.G.W. Prol. 283 (MS. Gg. 4. 27) Stedefaste wedewys durynge alle here lyuys.



But many prepositions of native origin were originally adverbs


In PDE, the same word can function as both, e.g.


They went up / They went up here / They went up the hill

She sat near / She sat near me.


For example, before and behind were used adverbially in OE before they became prepositions:


“Behind is used both absolutely (as adv.), and with an object (as prep.), the latter originating in an OE dative of reference, behindan him ‘in the rear as to him’.”


Here’s the adverb be hindan:   c900 O.E. Chron  {Edh}a Deniscan sćton {th}ćr be hindan.


Here’s what the OED classifies as the preposition behind: “In a place left by (one who has gone on). Usually with leave, remain, stay, expressed or understood.”


c1200 ORMIN 8913 He wass {th}a bihinndenn hemm bilefedd att te temmple.


Before: Primarily an adverb; its relation to a n. was expressed by putting the latter in the dative, ‘in front as to a thing,’ whence it passed into a preposition (cf. B 2, quot. 971).”


 [971 Blickl. Hom. 15 [He] {asg}ehyrde myccle meni{asg}o him be~foran feran.]

c1000 ĆLFRIC Ex. xiii. 21 And Drihten fór beforan him and swutelode him {th}one we{asg}.


And many prepositions (before that) can also be conjunctions (via that-clauses?).  e.g. ‘think before (that) you speak’


  c1200 ORMIN 964 Biforenn {th}att te Laferrd Crist Wass borenn her to manne.

  c1325 E.E. Allit. P. A. 529 On oure byfore {th}e sonne go doun.

c1386 CHAUCER Frankl. T. 233 By cause that he was hire Neighebour.

1477 Paston Lett. 794 III. 186 Putt hym away by cause he is daungerous.

1454 Paston Lett. No. 223. I. 311 Cosetheryng that youre doutyr is desendyd of hym be the modyr syde.


Loss of inflections / Rise of verb phrases


Inflected vs periphrastic subjunctive


Already variation within OE, e.g. in subordinate noun clauses / ‘dependent desires’

§        ic wylle ţt he wunige đus ođ ic cume

§        ...wiscton ţćt hi moston swa wunian ođ ende


In ME, periphrasis increases

o       “The gradual erosion of verbal inflections made it necessary to replace the subjunctive by something more transparent.”

o       “The early use of the periphrastic construction may be due to a desire to be more emphatic and possibly to be more specific than was possible with the subjunctive form.”


Examples in main clauses

God gyve ţet ure ende beo god”


c1430: “now ţrift and ţedom mote ţou have my leve swete barn”

                       prosperity                               beloved


Examples in dependent clauses “particularly after volitional expressions (wishes, exhortations and commands”

o       inflected

§        God gyve ţet ure ende beo god”

§        I wisshe ţanne it were myne”

§        Loke ţat ţou wite wel who do mikel or litel


o       periphrastic: should, mote, would

§        “gladly hym biddes ţat his hert and his honde schulde hardi be boţe” (GGK 371)

“and prayed her to han good fame And that she nolde doon hem no shame”





Other verb phrases:


How is the ‘future’ marked in ME?


o       with the finite non-past

although it be soure to suffre, ţere cometh swete after


o       with shal and wil (although these “remain modally marked”—conveying necessity or desire – and aren’t grammaticalized)



·        (OE sculan ‘to have to’): obligation, commands

o       very common in the third person

·        ‘In ME often used .in all the three persons to indicate that an event is ordained to take place in accordance with divine will or fate” (Mustanoja 491): e.g.

“And rightful folk shul gon, after they dye, To hevene”

·        -> use in prophecies and predictions

o       develops earlier as a future marker

o       not related to the will of the subject



o       (OE willan ‘to want to’)

o       “since modally it is connected to the desire of the speaker/subject, occurs far more often in the first person”


o       “may have developed out of its use in habitual contexts”

He is a fool that wol foryete hymselve


o       if the subject is inanimate, it’s lost its modal meaning

And I, boke, wil be brent, But Jhesus rise to lyve


o       Some examples are clearly not ‘desire’!

Oure manciple, I hope he wil be deed (northern meaning of hope)


How could ongoing action in the present be expressed in ME?


o       with the finite non-past:

“What! Alison! Herestow nat Absolon, 

That chaunteth thus under oure boures wal?”


o       in phrases with BE + ing participle


“As Cancacee was pleyyng in hir walk

There sat a faucon over hire heed ful hye.”


Optional in ME constructions where it’s not permissible in PDE:

o       habitual action

“Arestotill sais ţat ţe bees are feghtande agaynes hym ţat wil drawe ţaire hony fra thaym” 


o       imperative

“John, be thou here abydand


o       stative verbs

“The tour ... was joynynge in the wal to a foreyne” [adjoined ... privy]


Factors promoting the development of the ‘progressive’ aspect

o       Loss of OE prefixed verbs and the distinctions conveyed by no prefix

o       prefixed verbs conveyed perfectivity: forbaernan ‘burn up’

o       non-prefixed verbs conveyed duration: baernan ‘burn’

§        once the distinction was lost, new strategy needed?

o       Conflation of present participle and verbal noun

o       OE He is on huntunge, He is huntende ->

o       ME He is hunting



Other issues, not to be covered in class


“That” and “wh-“ as relative pronouns


How did that become a relative pronoun?


It already was in OE, in its role as a demonstrative pronoun (cf. se, seo, etc.)


Stephanus is Grecisc nama, ţćt is on Leden Coronatus, ţćt we cweđađ on Englisc, Gewuldorbeagod


That in ME

§        with the loss of case forms, that emerged as the demonstrative

§        se got levelled to the and took over the function of the definite article

§        the old relative subordinator ţe disappeared. Reasons offered include

o       phonologically rather weak

o       confusion with definite article

o       that was well entrenched as a conjunction in other sorts of clauses (e.g. purpose and result)


Indeed, in ME, that was the ‘general subordinator’: added to all kinds of conjunctions

§        now that, if that, when that

§        before that, in that


How did interrogative pronouns become relative pronouns? Probably via


1. Use of interrogative pronouns in indirect questions:


ţa ascode he hwa ţćr ferde.    ‘then asked he who there went’


2. Pronoun loses interrogative character and becomes a ‘generalizing’ relative (‘whoever, whichever’; cf OE swa hwćt swa ‘whatsoever’):


          hwam mai he luue treweliche hwa ne luues his broţer

          whom may he love truly, [he] who does not love his brother


3. Pronoun has a clearly definable antecedent:


          for Adames gulte, to hwam ure Drihten seide...