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But what if one really authentic word-order used?

A few days ago, a Language Log post mentioned an old Onion article about reverting the grammatical rules of English to something roughly equivalent to Late Old English. It's satire of course (something that seems to have gone over some people's heads), and the article doesn't actually follow a consistent practice. Although the article mentions putting verbs last, the real procedure seems to be scramble the constituents for the best comic effect, but it did make me wonder what Present-Day English prose would look like if we really tried to implement something like it. Would it really lend a sense of gravitas to the prose? Would it really make it sound "as if every word coming from the tongue of a centuries-old, mystical wizard, is"?

Let's see if OE syntax can save a piece of wretched prose, namely, the opening of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code:

Jacques Saunière, renowned curator, staggered through the museum's Grand Gallery's vaulted archway. He lunged for the nearest painting, a Caravaggio, he see could. Grabbing the gilded frame, heaved the seventy-six-year-old man the masterpiece towards himself until it from the wall tore, and Saunière in a heap beneath the canvass backward collapsed.
As he anticipated had, an iron gate thundering nearby fell, barricading the suite-entrance. The parquet floor shook. Far off, began an alarm to ring.
The curator a moment lay, breath-gasping, stock-taking. Still am I alive. He out-crawled from under the canvass and the cavernous space for someplace to hide scanned.
Spoke a voice chillingly close. "Not move."
On his hands froze the curator and knees, slowly turning his head.
Only fifteen feet away his attacker's mountainous silhouette through the iron bars, outside the sealed gate, stared. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and white hair thinning. His irises were pink with dark-red pupils. The albino drew a pistol from his coat and the barrel through the bars, directly at the curator, aimed. "You not should have run." His accent not was easy to place. "Now tell me where it is."

I can't see that it makes a noticeable improvement. There are actually fewer word-order changes than you would expect, since Brown uses many fairly simple main clauses and relatively little subordination, which results in fewer differences between the word order of Old English and Present-Day English. Of course switching around word order can do nothing for the idiotic semantics of the description here.

In case you want to start writing like an Anglo-Saxon yourself, here are my rules. They are a vast oversimplification of OE syntax and turn what are really just tendencies into absolute dicta, so don't take them too seriously. We're aiming for the flavor, not complete accuracy. In the case of constructions that simply don't exist in OE, such as strings of multiple auxiliaries, we simply apply the basic word-order rules without trying to translate into something that would be more accurate.

Be warned that to apply them you will need a decent grasp of basic syntactic terminology.

[Update 12/06/2007: minor wording changes to clarify a few points]

1. In main clauses, the finite verb usually goes in second position. In other words, when the sentence opens with a subject, use the PDE order of subject-verb (SV). But when the sentence starts with an adverb, prepositional phrase, etc., the verb appears after that initial constituent, and the subject comes next.

For example, "Then Janice left home" becomes "Then left Janice home."
(NB: In a more restricted way, this still happens in PDE, cf. "Down came the rain and washed the spider out.")

Note that only the finite verb moves, so if there's an auxiliary, only move the first auxiliary, not the whole verbal group:

"Now Janice has explained her position" becomes "Now has Janice explained her position."

1a. A coordinated main clause (one introduced with "and") uses the above order (V second) if it starts with an adverbial, otherwise it is verb-final, as in rule 2 below.

2. In subordinate clauses, put the verb in final position within the clause.

For example, "After he downloaded the music from the Internet" becomes "After he the music from the Internet downloaded."

2b. When the subordinate clause has an auxiliary and a main verb, move the whole group to the end, but put the auxiliary last.

So "When you have finished your homework" becomes "When you your homework finished have."

3. Unless you already have VS word order as the result of rule 1 above, move direct or indirect objects consisting of just a pronoun before the verb.

"She likes him" becomes "She him likes."

4. Eliminate any use of DO in questions and invert the main verb:
"What did you see?" becomes "What saw you?"
(Questions like "What have you seen?" remain unaffected.)

5. Whether a clitic ('nt) or a separate word, move the verbal negator "not" to immediately before the verb over which it has scope, deleting DO if present.

"I didn't see George" becomes "I not saw George."
and "I haven't seen George" becomes "I not have seen George."

6. Put other one-word adverbial modifiers immediately in front of the word they modify:
"Joanna brought her toys upstairs" becomes "Joanna upstairs brought her toys."

7. When a name has an appositive element like a title or a descriptor, put it after the proper noun:
"President Clinton" becomes "Clinton President"
"The new senator Baxter" becomes "Baxter, the new senator,"
"Los Angeles County" becomes "County Los Angeles"

8. Delete the dummy subject "there" and move the complement in front of the verb:
"There will be snacks at the reception" becomes "Snacks will be at the reception."

9. Move later stacked adjectives after the noun and join with "and." (If there's only one adjective after the noun, you can omit the "and" if it sounds better.)
So, "my poor, tender child" becomes "my poor child and tender."

10. Change all synthetic genitives (i.e., possessives formed with "of") into inflected ones. (This one can lead to some misleading changes in meaning, so you can treat it as optional if you want):
"the end of the matter" becomes "the matter's end"

11. Split coordinate constructions unless they're already at the right edge of a clause.
"On his hands and knees, the curator froze" becomes "On his hands froze the curator and knees"

12. Shift heavy elements such as complex phrases towards the right edge of their clause. This principle plays a role in several of the rules above and can override some of the others, especially verb-final clauses. In particular, clauses, infinitive phrases, and the like should not appear in subject position.

So "That his prose is appalling did not affect Brown's sales" becomes "It not affected Brown's sales that his prose appalling is."

For extra credit:

Imitate OE word formation. Specifically:

Put particles from so-called "phrasal verbs" in front of the verb and attach them with a hyphen:
"She looked up the number" becomes "She up-looked the number."

Turn adjective phrases with PP modification into compounds:

"Eager for glory" becomes "glory-eager"

Use negative concord:

"No one lived better than he did" becomes "No one not lived better than he did."

For intransitive verbs that reflect a change of state (go, come, rise, fall, etc.), use forms of BE rather than HAVE to form the perfect:
"Mary has come" becomes "Mary is come"

These are just the points that occurred to me while working on the example above. I didn't systematically work my way through Mitchell, or even CHEL (although I did quickly glance at the latter). Additions or correction are welcome.


As someone trying to learn German, this version of OE grammar feels to me like something halfway between German and modern English. As a matter of curiosity, I've purchased but not yet watched the Star Wars movies in Austria to see what the German translators did to Yoda's syntax. Will report back once I've done so.

Karl, This is the best basic overview of both OE and PDE syntax and word order I've seen. All semester long my students have struggled with their translations and their grades have suffered because they often left too much of the OE word order, so their translations weren't truly PDE. I've banged my head against the wall, telling them over and over to go back to the chapter on syntax and translation in their book, and to look up PDE grammar that they didn't know in the book's appendix, but to no avail. It seems that my students -- senior English and linguistics majors, and MA students in English who teach composition! -- don't get *PDE* word order. But your fun post here lays out the differences in PDE and OE quite nicely. I'm bookmarking this post to use the next time I teach OE. Btw, you know me in real life. Dr. Virago is only my nom de blog. I'll e-mail you and reveal my secret identity as long as you promise to keep it secret. I wish I'd know about your blog earlier, but only discovered it when someone linked to it in on another blog in the recent rounds of the Beowulf movie bashing. The bits of quasi OE in the movie were my favorite parts, so thanks for that!

I was just thinking that these rules would work for teaching PDE syntax, even if OE had no direct part in the class. After all, in order to apply these rules to a preexisting piece of prose, you need to analyze the constituency to a fairly fine degree. And messing around with this stuff is more fun than drawing a diagram. My assumption about leaving things in OE word order would be that it reflects partly a lack of understanding about what the constituency is in OE, and partly a tendency to leave word orders that are marginal but not totally unacceptable in PDE, rather than not understanding PDE order, which presumably they do at least on an intuitive level. I can readily imagine a student not understanding what relationship a particular word has to the rest of the sentence and so simply leaving the word in its original place. That would be particularly likely for things like the right-shifted constructions, something like this from Orosius (6.4):
On þæm geare wæs micel hungor on Syrian 7 on Palestina, buton þæt Elena, Ætiubena cwen, sealde þæm munucum corn genog þe wæron æt Hierusalem, for þon þe hio þa wæs newlice cristen.
If we leave the word order in place and try to stay hyper-literal, we get a translation like this: "In that year was a great hunger in Syria and in Palestine, except that Elena, queen of Adiabenus, gave the monks corn enough who were in Jerusalem, because she then was newly Christian." A student might well think that adequate. The three major problems with it are all somewhat disguised. 1. The missing (for PDE) "there" isn't obvious because "In that year" is sentence initial and it's easy to assume inversion. If you move it, the problem is more obvious: ("Was a great that year"). 2. The postposed relative clause, "who were in Jerusalem", sounds odd here, but postpsed relatives are possible in PDE. For example, "I met a man the other day who says he knows you." (example from the Cambridge Grammar). And I can particularly see this relative being mistakenly assumed to refer to corn, in which case the (mis)translation would probably be "corn enough that was in Jerusalem." 3. "corn enough" is also a possible PDE word order, although it's usually followed by an infinitive. Standing alone, as here, we would expect it to appear before the noun. So much of the sentence makes sense with the original word order that it's very tempting not to monkey with it, but the translation really should be something like this: "In that year, there was a great hunger in Syria and in Palestine, except that Queen Elena of Adiabenus gave the monks who were in Jerusalem enough corn, because she was at that time newly Christian."

In the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter in Joyce's Ulysses the narrator moves his syntax steadily up the centuries. The OE-style passage is this (note the bits of alliterative verse embedded in it):
Some man that wayfaring was stood by housedoor at night's oncoming. Of Israel's folk was that man that on earth wandering far had fared. Stark ruth of man his errand that him lone led till that house.
Of that house A. Horne is lord. Seventy beds keeps he there teeming mothers are wont that they lie for to thole and bring forth bairns hale so God's angel to Mary quoth. Watchers tway there walk, white sisters in ward sleepless. Smarts they still, sickness soothing: in twelve moons thrice an hundred. Truest bedthanes they twain are, for Horne holding wariest ward.
In ward wary the watcher hearing come that man mildhearted eft rising with swire ywimpled to him her gate wide undid. Lo, levin leaping lightens in eyeblink Ireland's westward welkin. Full she drad that God the Wreaker all mankind would fordo with water for his evil sins. Christ's rood made she on breastbone and him drew that he would rathe infare under her thatch. That man her will wotting worthful went in Horne's house.
Loth to irk in Horne's hall hat holding the seeker stood. On her stow he ere was living with dear wife and lovesome daughter that then over land and seafloor nine years had long outwandered. Once her in townhithe meeting he to her bow had not doffed. Her to forgive now he craved with good ground of her allowed that that of him swiftseen face, hers, so young then had looked. Light swift her eyes kindled, bloom of blushes his word winning.
As her eyes then ongot his weeds swart therefor sorrow she feared. Glad after she was that ere adread was. Her he asked if O'Hare Doctor tidings sent from far coast and she with grameful sigh him answered that O'Hare Doctor in heaven was. Sad was the man that word to hear that him so heavied in bowels ruthful. All she there told him, ruing death for friend so young, algate sore unwilling God's rightwiseness to withsay.
Then we move up a few centuries; I won't copy the whole Middle English / Early Modern English passage here, as it's easily found. But I can't resist the description of the tinned sardines:
And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing without they see it natheless they are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olivepress.

And speaking of attempts at alliterative verse in Modern English, one of my own favorite is John Myers Myers' retelling of the Battle of the Alamo in Silverlock:
Harsh that hearing for Houston the Raven: Fools had enfeebled the fortress at Bexar, Leaving it lacking and looted the while Hordes were sweeping swift on his land, Hell-bent to crush him. The cunning old prince Did not, though, despair at danger's onrushing; Hardy with peril, he held it, perused it, Reading each rune of it. Reaching the facts, he Thumbed through his thanes and thought of the one Whose guts and gray matter were grafted most neatly. "Riders!" he rasped, "to race after Bowie!" "Bowie," he barked when that bearcat of heroes Bowed to his loved prince, "Bexar must be ours Or no one must have it. So hightail, burn leather! Hold me that fortress or fire it and raze it. Do what you can or else do what you must."
It's not as technically proficient in its use of OE verse forms as is Tolkien's The Homecoming of Beohtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, indeed, it appears somewhat closer to Middle English alliterative verse patterns than Old English ones, but it's still a lot of fun.