HWÆT.

A decade ago we briefly discussed the famous first word of Beowulf, “Hwaet,” and the various ways translators have dealt with it. Now it seems all previous discussions may have been rendered obsolete by a paper (pdf) by George Walkden, “The status of hwæt in Old English” (English Language and Linguistics 17.3: 465–488); Dave Wilton at Wordorigins.org has a good discussion in which he says:

Walkden makes a compelling, but by no means ironclad, case that hwæt is not an interjection or an adverb, rather it has no independent meaning from the clause it appears in. It combines with the remainder of the clause to produce an exclamatory effect. In this way it is similar to the modern English how, as in “how you’ve changed!” According to Walkden’s conclusion, the opening line of Beowulf would read:

How we have heard of the glory…

[…]The core of Walkden’s argument is a syntactic analysis of the use of hwæt and its Old Saxon cognate huat. He finds that in clauses beginning with hwæt/huat, the verb tends to appear in a later position than would normally be the case for a root clause. Instead, hwæt-clauses follow the pattern expected of a dependent clause. If hwæt were an interjection independent of the clause, it should not influence word order.

As I said in the Wordorigins thread, on a first reading it’s pretty convincing.

Comments

  1. I’m comfortable with Walkden’s conclusion, intuitively, but I don’t understand the reasoning. Why would hwaet influence subordinate order in an exclamation which is not itself subordinate? Why wouldn’t an introductory word which is not part part of the following clause not influence the order of words in the clause?

  2. Ah, too bad we can’t edit posts. Above, I meant: why would an introductory word fail to influence word order in the following separate clause (as Walkden claims)?

  3. Then there was that post — where did I read it? — about the Jamaican interjection that might also be spelled “hwaet!” Something about finding a parking space.

  4. I don’t see why its influencing word order means that it can’t be an interjection. Someone on another site gave the example of modern English “boy”, as in “Boy am I tired!”

  5. Seamus Heaney translated it as “So”, based on traditional Northern Irish usage. But So also fits with what Walkden is saying, except instead of So period like Heaney, it would be So comma, as is common today. “So, the spear-Danes …”

  6. So, ‘so’ reappears. I was about to make a crack about ‘So’ and ‘a previous thread’, but thought better of it.
    PS. can the massed brains of Hatland come up with a better line that ‘lah, a note to follow soh’? That always ruined the song for me, although it didn’t need much help.

  7. lah, a note for ooh lah lah

  8. David, it has to rhyme with do to fit the song, and I can’t find anything that rhymes with do that sounds like la, even in the non-rhotic accent of the song (“fa(r), a long long way to go”).
    Otherwise, I’d go with “La, a penas’s [sic] best friend”. Yup, the singular of lares et penates is lar et penas, with a side reference to Tarzan’s other significant other.

  9. lah, a note to precede ma

  10. “La,” quoth Edgar Allan Poe.
    La, the sound made by a crow.
    Lhasa Apso, best in show.
    La pluie makes flowers grow.
    La and Order, legal show.
    La, in school zones we drive slow.
    La, don’t get arrested, bro.
    Lackawanna’s getting snow.
    Just a few suggestions. (Andrew Lloyd Webber, call me!)

  11. The argument that hwæt is a subordinator looks cogent, but the resulting exclamative reading strikes me as weird. “How we have heard of the might of the kings in the days of the Spear-Danes!” is a strange thing to exclaim, don’t you think?

  12. Greg Lee:
    Why would hwaet influence subordinate order in an exclamation which is not itself subordinate?
    The claim in Walkden’s paper is that exclamatives pattern cross-linguistically like indirect questions — so although they’re not actually subordinate to anything, they look like subordinate clauses.
    why would an introductory word fail to influence word order in the following separate clause (as Walkden claims)?
    Because if it’s an interjection and hence separate from the clause, then it isn’t a subordinator, so shouldn’t cause subordinate-like word order.
    (I don’t think lazar’s Boy am I tired is an example of an interjection influencing word order: exclamative boy often occurs without inversion and exclamative inversion often occurs without boy, so there’s no reason to ascribe the inversion to the interjection.)

  13. David, it has to rhyme with do to fit the song
    “La, the feminine of lo” (referring to Provencal)
    or (even more desperate)
    “LA (Confidential), a film with Russell Crowe”

  14. La is French for “the” as you probably already know

  15. La, a French word that we know.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    How about:
    Was wir nicht alles über die […] gehört haben!
    Difficult to translate. “We’ve heard so much about them!” “Oh, what haven’t we heard about them!” “We’ve heard things without number…”

  17. @TR, How have we heard … seems weak as an opening (to my modern Br Eng ears) because the we and heard put too much focus on the audience, rather than the mightiness.
    Perhaps: How famous is the might of the Kings …!

  18. Possibly tangential, but I’m bemused by Walkden’s comment Section 3 Old English philologists often expressed the opinion that constituent order was ‘free’. (And more recent work countering that view dating from the 1980’s on.)
    Those O.E. philologists were perhaps coming from Latin (and other highly inflected classical languages), also alleged to have ‘free’ word order. But I thought that Chomsky (and others) scotched the ‘free’ order idea back in the 1960’s?
    Of course if you think that order is ‘free’, you’ll tend to view a sentence-initial (esp. poem-initial) ‘awkward’ word as an interjection/exclamation.

  19. But I thought that Chomsky (and others) scotched the ‘free’ order idea back in the 1960’s?
    Many of us pay no attention to what Chomsky and his acolytes have said over the years.

  20. To be fair, I think Chomsky’s point was mostly methodological: if you assume that order follows no rule, you never will find any that it might follow, whereas if you default to the assumption of total intelligibility (a Fryean phrase, not a Chomskyan one), you might find an underlying order of some sort. Empirically, it does not seem to be the case that there are languages in which no word-order rules exist; for example, in which adpositions may be indifferently prepositions or postpositions. Similarly, in Italian there is no syntactic rule about whether adjectives come before or after their nouns, but there is a definite semantic rule: postposed adjectives are generally restrictive, whereas preposed adjectives are decorations. To speak of La Commedia Divina would implicitly compare it to some commedia humana.

  21. ‘Free’ word order, if it means anything, means word order that’s not constrained by syntactic rules. That’s not the same as saying it’s not constrained by any rules, only that the determining factors are semantic or pragmatic (as in John’s Italian example*). People who work on such languages tend to prefer the term ‘discourse-configurational language’ to ‘free word order language’, for that reason. Latin is discourse-configurational to a large extent; Ancient Greek even more so.
    *Which reminds me of an anecdote told by my college French teacher, about an American who wrote a letter to his French friend regretting that he could not attend the wedding de votre fille charmante, not realizing that this implied there was another daughter who was less than charmante.

  22. Thank you John, TR — that’s just the sort of thinking I had in mind.
    LH I think your remark was a ‘cheap shot’ which does not become you. I can agree with you in disputing much of Chomsky’s work, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bath-water. You’re doing what (in the cricket-playing lands) we call playing the man, not the ball.
    To the issue: perhaps (sounds doubtful) it is the case with highly inflected languages that you can scramble word/constituent order, but recover the sense by looking for agreements of case/number/gender/etc. How did philologists fail to notice that extant texts _don’t_ in fact exhibit ‘random’ order? Even in high-flown poetry!
    When it comes to O.E., O.S., and other older Germanic languages, there simply isn’t enough inflection to unscramble ‘random’ order. The importance of constituent order has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ for a thousand years. Philologists could at least have taken their heads out of classical languages and looked to modern Germanic languages to see it. It’s the same blinkered thinking that leads to peevery against split infinitives because Latin shows the infinitive by inflection.
    So Chomsky (and not forgetting the others) have done us a service by paying attention to constituent order. My bemusement is that it is (we hope!) leading to a more felicitous reading of an ancient epic about the which you would have thought that everything would already have been said.

  23. perhaps (sounds doubtful) it is the case with highly inflected languages that you can scramble word/constituent order, but recover the sense by looking for agreements of case/number/gender/etc.
    Nothing doubtful about it – you can hardly read a line of Latin poetry, or Greek prose for that matter, without doing exactly that.

  24. You’re doing what (in the cricket-playing lands) we call playing the man, not the ball.
    I thought that was a football (aka soccer) metaphor, not a cricket metaphor. Here in the US I remember that we were taught in high school basketball that on defense good players play the man, not the ball – i.e. in the US it’s a positive metaphor for taking a consistent strategic view over time. Or at least I would understand it that way.

  25. Thanks Vanya, yes it’s (also) a soccer metaphor.
    But I wasn’t specifically claiming it as a cricket metaphor; I was claiming to use the metaphor in the sense applying in cricket-playing lands.
    I did that deliberately because (exactly as you point out) in the U.S. the metaphor would have different force.
    So to put the point without metaphor: LH should pay attention to the issue under discussion, and not ignore it on the sole grounds that I referred to Chomsky.
    The observation is not particular to Chomsky. @JohnC also mentions Frye. Or is Frye another who LH “pays no attention to” tout court?

  26. J. W. Brewer says:

    Habitually ignoring what Chomsky may have had to say is not playing the man rather than the ball; it’s more like refusing to play soccer in the first place against an opponent believed (rightly or wrongly) to have an extensive record of unsportsmanlike conduct.

  27. LH should pay attention to the issue under discussion, and not ignore it on the sole grounds that I referred to Chomsky.
    No, I have excellent reason to assume that an idea attributed to Chomsky is an idea I can safely ignore. His thoughts about languages and linguistics are overwhelmingly (to my mind) worthless. Life is short and you have to play the percentages. If you urged on me a book I’d never heard of by, say, Ayn Rand, there is zero chance I’d take the trouble to read it and find out whether it might be a work of genius from someone who otherwise wrote semiliterate tripe.

  28. Whoaw! Okay. In that case I’m surprised you didn’t apply the Lang.Log policy of refunding my subscription 😉
    In future, I’ll just raise an idea without attribution.
    Is it a long list of the pundits that you feel you can safely ignore? Perhaps I’d better restrict that question to pundits on language/linguistics/literature.
    (By the way: where do you think Walkden got the idea of looking at constituent order to help understanding the role of hwaet? Not, apparently, from O.E./O.S. philologists prior 1980.)

  29. I have strong feelings about Chomsky because 1) he sent the field of linguistics (a field dear to my heart) into a tailspin of conformity to untenable ideas that it has only recently started recovering from, and 2) his acolytes made my grad-school career even more hellish than it was already by forcing me to take and pass a class in their gibberish before I could go on to sweating over my dissertation full-time—it was very much like the required diamat course in Soviet institutions of higher learning, and inspired a comparable resentment in me. But don’t worry, I’m perfectly civil with believers, as long as they don’t try and convert me!
    By the way: where do you think Walkden got the idea of looking at constituent order to help understanding the role of hwaet?
    I’m not saying Chomsky & Co. had no good ideas whatever and didn’t inspire any good work; obviously syntax needed some serious reexamination. But instead of saying “Here are some interesting ideas, what do you guys think?” (the kind of attitude that had hitherto reigned in American linguistics), they said “Here is the Truth: accept it or get out of the way,” and went about trying to take over as many departments as they could. I went to one of the few top-notch schools that hadn’t yet been taken over, and even there (as mentioned above) they managed to get a requirement in place before I could make my escape. Fie, I say, fie.

  30. J. W. Brewer says:

    During my time in New Haven (the decade after hat was there) I got a rather spectacularly bad grade in my required undergraduate syntax class (which was pretty doctrinaire Chomskyan, as best as I recall, although I don’t think the teacher was necessarily a cultist as opposed to someone who plausibly felt it was his obligation to instruct students in the then-accepted conventional wisdom of the discipline). So bad a grade that it’s a bit odd in hindsight that no one took me aside and suggested I ought to consider pursuing a different major. I’d like to think that it was a principled rejection of “gibberish” as opposed to a side-effect of being even more distracted than usual from my studies that semester by the other pleasures of undergraduate life, but that might be too self-serving.

  31. I really don’t think it was the syntax that set the cat among the pigeons: pre-Chomsky linguistics simply had no good story for syntax. It was the phonology, where on the strength of four examples the young Turks were prepared to entirely discard the phoneme, the sacred chao of Bloomfieldian linguistics on the one hand and Jakobsonian linguistics on the other — who, by the way, did exactly the same thing to Saussure’s generation that Chomsky did to theirs.

  32. J. W. Brewer says:

    Mr. Cowan’s reference made me curious as to whether the phrase “sacred chao” can be antedated back beyond what is I believe traditionally assumed to be its coinage in the Principia Discordia (1st ed. 1965, 8 years after Syntactic Structures). But nothing earlier is turning up in google books. So it’s one of those perhaps unusual instances in which corpus linguistics seems to confirm rather than upset the conventional-wisdom account of word/phrase origin.

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