Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nitpicking at Bruce Mitchell

I just started reading his Old English Syntax, vol. I.

I really did like his say about computer syntacticists and people who would make up syntactic word categories such as "squares, circles, triangles" (genuine example of what I have seen in a Chinese beginners' manual in pinyin) and apply them to anglosaxon. I might yet quote it, as it is not only a very good reply to them, but also to other Academic reality view skewers. Be thankful you are a linguist and have as yet the right to use Latin Grammar Categories and, for that matter, the right to refute principles like "examples are rare, therefore this cannot be an example" with a mere but well-deserved shrug of the shoulder.

Now for the nitpicking:

There are two tenses ... and one voice - the active - apart from the forms hatte 'is/was called', plural hatton.

In English, to be called is passive of call. In Swedish heta is not the passive of kalla. There is a difference between heta and kallas (obviously the passive of kalla), insofar as heta refers to baptismal name with family name and kallas to nickname. I think this differenciation between heta and kallas is secondary to the fact of Swedish acquiring the passive of kalla by introduction of s-passives, a novelty of Nordic languages, as they presume. Even when heta and kalla were semantically passive and active aspects of same thing (not quite), it would be better to say that kalla was one factitive to heta. The real factitive is of course nämna - give a name. And heta is less fluently but more closely translated as "have a name" or "be in respect of name", which may be true for Old English too.

Or do you think falls should be considered a passive as it is semantically close to is dropped?

Other nitpick:

It is difficult (indeed, impopssible) for us to know how real a problem it was for an Anglo-Saxon speaker, writer, hearer or reader, that wine was nominative, accusative, and dative, in form, or that giefe could be accusative, genitive, or dative.

Not at all. Ask a German or a Pole. Adjectives and adjectival pronouns (including article in German and Old English) tend to have supplementary information on case. As in Latin where bono nautae is dative and boni nautae is genitive. Word order is the way to see which word is nominative and which is accusative with verbs having those arguments, and as such the fixed one is necessary in the precise extent in which this is not relieved by other word having a clear marker. "Erich mochte Emilie" means "Ericus Æmiliam diligebat" rather than anything else, but "den Erich mochte Emilie schon" means "Ericum autem diligebat Æmilia" (as in after speaking of someone she did not like). Adding a clarifying article on one automatically eliminates ambiguity on other as well. Usually I would if topicalizing the object say "den Erich mochte die Emilia" but adding "schon" takes away weight from "die Emilie" and justifies reducing it to "Emilie" for rhytmical reasons - all the better to illustrate that only one of the two needs a distinctive case marker. Which also works when one is a pronoun: "Emilia sagte: Erich mag ich." Sometimes, also, the semantic content allows a departure from normal word order without ambiguity. Which means that for a fluent native speaker there is no problem involved. Mutatis mutandis this applies to Old English too.

Helms too they chose

is modelled after Old English syntax, uses both context (helmets do not chose men but men chose helmets) and the unambiguous nominative "they" to be clear.

By the way, testing what combinations are used in the corpus might be a valid use for computerised search in computerised text corpora. This of course only answers "does this occur" with a yes or a no, it does not supply information on whether I am asking all the right questions and doing all the right searches.

Hans-Georg Lundahl
Georges Pompidou library
of Paris
Trinity Sunday YooL 2011

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