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The development of Old English conjunct clauses: How syntactic changes interact

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Scholars of Old English commonly postulate two distinct types of root clauses: ordinary main clauses and so-called conjunct clauses, i.e. main clauses that are introduced by a coordinating conjunction, like and ‘and’, ac ‘but’, oþþe ‘or’ and ne ‘nor.’ These two clause types are distinct in terms of several word order patterns. The distributional word order differences are, however, merely statistical in nature.

Firstly, main clauses are far more likely to show the finite verb in medial position similar to Modern English, (1a), than conjunct clauses, which retain a conservative verb-final pattern more frequently, (1b, note the initial “&”) (e.g. Mitchell 1985: §1685, §1731, Bech 2001).

(1) a.

Se engel gehyrte hi mid his wordum

the angel encouraged them with his words

(cocathom1,_CHom I, 13:284.110.2451)[1]


& þæt folc nugyt þæt tacn Iosepes gesetnesse æfterfylgeað

and that people now-yet that token Joseph’s law after-follows

‘And the people still follow that aspect of Joseph’s law’

(coorosiu,Or 1:

Secondly, topicalization, constituent fronting to clause-initial position, occurs frequently in main clauses (2), whereas such structures are uncommon in conjunct clauses (Kohonen 1978).


þone suðran steorran we ne geseoð næfre

the southern star we not see never

‘We don’t ever see the southern star’ (cotempo,_Temp:9.8.299)

These facts can be formalized as follows: A structurally high phrase, CP, places a complementizer in its head position, C°, leading to frequent verb-final subordinate clauses as in (1) (Besten 1983), and optionally projects a fronted constituent in its specifier, leading to topicalization structures as in (2). One can then assume that Old English has a very special class of conjunctions, which can occur under C°. I call those items ‘C-head conjunctions’. This captures the higher rates of verb-final headedness and the lower rates of topicalization in conjunct clauses at the same time.

This theory leads to expected violations of the Constant Rate Effect (Kroch 1989). These violations are among the first theoretically predicted interactions between syntactic changes, and are therefore the focus of this presentation.

First, verb final orders are in the process of disappearing (Pintzuk 1999). The loss of C-head conjunctions should open up the C° position for the finite verb, thereby speeding up this change in conjunct clauses. Second, topicalization becomes less common (Speyer 2010). The loss of C-head conjunctions should compensate for this reduction to some degree, thus slowing down the change in conjunct clauses. Both of these predictions are born out.

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