Intertextual variation in Old and Middle English

Øystein Heggelund, HSN

The existence of word order differences between individual authors in Old and Middle English is well known (eg Mitchell 1985, Eitler 2005, Eitler & Westergaard 2014). A number of factors may influence the syntax of individuals, including social status and target audience. Nevertheless, many empirical investigations of earlier English word order have focused on just one or two texts from each time period, and may not be sufficiently representative. 

English changed from a language with a strong V2 constraint in main clauses to a V3/subject-verb language in the course of Middle English. In subordinate clauses, which my paper focuses on, the shift was one from a mix between verb-final and subject–verb to overwhelmingly subject–verb (eg Kohonen 1978, Pintzuk 1999, Bech 2001). In the transition period between the old and the new order, synchronic variation is expected, both intratextually and intertextually. In this paper, 2,400 clauses from four late Old English (lOE, 950–1100) texts and six early Middle English (eME, 1100–1300) texts are analysed, in order to find out how much word order variation there is between different texts with different authors.

The analysis reveals a high degree of variation between texts from the same period. Interestingly, the variation appears to be relatively independent of dialect and genre. Consequently, conclusions about the speed and nature of the word order change in English should be based on a wide selection of texts by different authors. Moreover, the analysis indicates that both lOE and eME are very heterogeneous with respect to word order, and that the change in English word order must have been slow and gradual. As such, the findings lend support to the variationist paradigm currently dominating English historical syntax.

Bech, Kristin. 2001. Word order patterns in Old and Middle English: a syntactic and pragmatic study. Doctoral dissertation, University of Bergen. Available from
Eitler, Tamás. 2005. Some dialectal, sociolectal and communicative aspects of word order variation and change in Late Middle English. In Michael Fortescue, Eva Skafte Jensen, Jens Erik Mogensen & Lene Schøsler (eds.), Historical Linguistics 2003: Selected papers from the 16th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Copenhagen, 11–15 August 2003, 87–102. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Eitler, Tamás & Marit Westergaard. 2014. Word order variation in late Middle English. In Kristin Bech & Kristine Gunn Eide (eds.), Information Structure and Syntactic Change in Germanic and Romance Languages, 203–32. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Kohonen, Viljo. 1978. On the development of English word order in religious prose around 1000 and 1200 A.D.: a quantitative study of word order in context (Meddelanden från Stiftelsens för Åbo Akademi Forskningsinstitut 38). Åbo: Research Institute of the Åbo Akademi Foundation.
Mitchell, Bruce. 1985. Old English syntax, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Pintzuk, Susan. 1999. Phrase structures in competition: variation and change in Old English word order. New York: Garland.


Emneord: Old English, Middle English, Corpus linguistics
Publisert 18. feb. 2016 14:54