Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Learn Old English with the Wordhoard: MnE Grammar

If you've studied foreign and dead languages before (beyond learning phrases, or how to say, "I'd like to order a hard-boiled egg" in high school French), this study of Modern English grammar was probably boring review for you. If not, you probably found it a little confusing and frightening. Don't panic!

First off, all you really need to know as a beginner is the basic parts of speech (nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, etc.). Why Baker throws in all that scary stuff about hypotaxis and parataxis is a mystery to me, since beginners who are still learning basic paradigms are light years away from having to learn all that nonsense. Heck, I'm a specialist, and not even I care about that debate!

Once we get into the stuff about the cases of nouns, we're into important things you can't really glide over. You must know the difference between a subject, direct object, and indirect object in Modern English. You'll never be able to progress until you know that. Fortunately, Peter Baker has provided some exercises for those of us who've grown rusty since middle school sentence diagraming days. Go here to the exercise "What Case Should It Be?" and work on that a while. Also, Drout has some nice exercises as well, and I'd do those too if I were you.

Now, once you're feeling you've got this subject, direct object, indirect object thing down pat, you need to know that we don't talk about them in that way. We use the terms nominative, genitive, accusative, and dative. Baker and Drout both explain in detail what these mean, and you're going to want to understand these in a more nuanced way, for the moment, here's how to understand them:
nominative = subject
genitive = possessive
accusative = direct object
dative = indirect object

Yes, that's a gross simplification. Right now, there are historical linguists spewing gingersnap tea all over their monitors, sputtering, "What about the instrumental?! And dative can be used to show possessive, too! And what about...?" To these people I say, "screw you and the Hengst and Horsa you rode in on." For now, as a beginner, you only need to understand the simple version. Later, when you become more advanced, you'll want to re-visit these chapters and soothe the souls of our straw-man gingersnap linguists.

By the way, we still use these cases in some places in MnE, particularly in personal pronouns. Here is the way it works for the word I:
nominative singular: I
genitive singular: my
accusative singular: me
dative singular: me
nominative plural: we
genitive plural: our
accusative plural: us
dative plural: us

Let's see it working in context. Notice how the form of I changes as it changes case in these various sentences:
I gave the monkey a knife.
My robot shot the monkey.
The robot missed and hit me.
The monkey gave me a wedgie.

I, my, and me are all the same idea, but change forms depending on case. In Old English, every noun does this, so to handle nouns, you're going to have to really understand all this nom, gen, acc, dat stuff.

On to verbs. The only thing that confused a few students was the infinitive. The simple way to understand this (and it will become clearer when we get to the chapter on verbs) is that the infinitive is the basic form of the verb before we conjugate it. The confusing part is that in most languages (at least, all those I know) the infinitive is expressed in one word, but in MnE, it's expressed in a phrase by putting the word to first, as in to do, to go, to have, to poop, to skydive, to arm monkeys and robots, etc. Go to any dictionary and look up a verb, and the first word of the definition will be to. Go ahead, try it out.

For the moment, what you really have to understand about infinitives is that they are the basic forms of verbs, are the forms you'll learn your verb vocabulary in, and are translated as "to [something]", so gan is "to go," fremman is "to do," helpan is "to help," and so on. Once we get to study verbs, you'll see how these are combined with words meaning "to want to" or "to be able to," etc.

As for vocabulary, wasn't it easy this time? Here's a test with your new words and some review words. As always, highlight the selection to see the answers:

stan ... stone
scip ... ship
þing ... thing
giefu ... gift
sorg ... sorrow
nama ... name
eage ... eye
tunge ... tongue
mann ... man
hnutu ... nut
boc ... book
Ic ... I
þu ... you
hit ... it
heo ... she
hie ... they
se ... the, that
hwa ... who, anyone
hwelc ... any, anyone
hwæþer ... either, both

For next time, we're sticking with Baker chapters 3 &4, and Drout chapters 4, 5 and 6. Do those exercises I linked to above, and for vocabulary learn Nouns II:

engel ... angel
heafod ... head
sawol ... soul
dæg ... day
æsc ... ash tree
geat ... gate
here ... hostile army
searu ... skill
beadu ... battle
hand ... hand

If you're already a master of cases from studying other languages, spend your time practicing reading out loud for pronunciation. In my class, we've been reading Alfred the Great's translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, starting on line 65 with the speech Wisdom gives. Even though you don't actually understand what it means yet, why not pick out the few words you do already know? Like that Ic in line 67, or the words suð, east, and west in line 69? Just looking at all the Old English words you can sort-of intuit or already know will remind you that you can do this!


  1. 6PM tonight at GAB 305 the nascent Medieval Club will be meeting to watch "A Knight's Tale" and talk about organizing. I'll be giving out my "Easter Egg" there for anyone who wants the chance for an automatic A on the next daily quiz.

  2. Erin M.10:54 PM

    You have no idea how much joy the monkey/gun/robot theme gives me.

    I couldn't make it to the meeting because of sorority commitments! Arggg!

  3. Even when I was a kid, I wondered why Dick and Jane never did anything cool. I knew they were trying to teach us to read, and I wondered who would want to read anything so boring. Then I read the book "Flat Stanley," about a boy who was flattened when a bulletin board fell on him and had subsequent adventures made possible by his near 2-dimensionhood. I realized there were fun and cool and bizarre things to read.

    The way I figure it, if you've got to deal with sample sentences as sentences, they may as well be interesting. Flat Stanley taught me that.