The history of the English language – Old English syntax

Okay! We’ve done Old English morphology. We’ve done a bit of a syntactic primer.

Let’s get down to business and discuss Old English syntax!

Now, a word of warning: Old English syntax is rather complex. I won’t go into too much detail in my post, because this is not what this blog aims to do. However, I will, as always, provide you with my references and some further reading for those who are interested at the end of this post. I am also always open to questions, comments, queries and anything of the like – just give me a shout, either here on the blog, on Facebook, on Twitter @histlingchannel, or why not send me an email?

Right, that’s all I have to say on that topic, except… Enjoy!

Old English differs from the English that we are nowadays using in many ways. One of these things is in its syntax.

Being a significantly more morphologically inflected language than modern English, Old English syntax was more flexible than what we find today.

If we were to simplify matters, we could say that the general tendency in Old English main clauses is to show V2 order. As you might remember from last week, this means that the verb follows one constituent, regardless of what that constituent is. However, Old English word order appears quite free even from that restraint, which led some scholars to think that it was a free word order language1.

This may or may not be true – I won’t get into that debate here.

What I can say is that Old English often tended towards a V2 order in main clauses.

When I was reading up on things for this post, a lot of sources (usually in the framing of a class) from various universities ended up discussing Old English as an SVO-language. However, according to Kroch, while the subject-tensed.verb-object order was the most common word order in Old English, they were not SVO-sentences. They were merely V2-sentences, where the first element happened to be the subject.

At the same time, although this might have been a general tendency and the most common word order, it is not always consistent2, which of course leads to more discussion on the word order of main clauses in Old English.

Clearly, there are some things still to be worked out…
But, hey, what about subordinate clauses?

Well, here, the VF (Verb-Final) word order is the norm. This means that the finite verb comes at the very end of the sentence – like what you see in Dutch and German today.

Okay, great! We know something about Old English word order! Yay!


Yeah… except….

Old English consistently breaks these conventions. It allows, unlike modern German and Dutch, for V2 order in embedded clauses starting with a complementiser and, in the epic poem Beowulf, for example, subordinate clauses employing a V2 order can be found, as can main clauses with VF order. And, for that matter, V3 and V4 order!

So, what am I saying here? That we really know nothing about Old English word order?
Not quite.

We know that SVO is the most common order in Old English main clauses. We also know that subordinate clauses in Old English tend to be VF.

We also know that this topic requires more study before we can say anything “for sure” (or, at least, as sure as one ever is in studying historical linguistics).

But, for you, I hope that this little brief glance into Old English syntax was enlightening! I know I enjoyed reading through the accounts that I used for this post and I hope that you will too!

Join me again next week as we take a look at the continued development of English syntax in Middle English!



Anthony Kroch & Ann Taylor. 1996. Verb movement in Old and Middle English: Dialect variation and language contact. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Check it out here! (I’ve looked primarily at Chapter 3)

Benjamin Bruening. 2016. Old English Verb-Second-ish in a Typology of Verb-Second. Draft, Nov. 9. Check it out here.

Bettelou Los. 2015. A historical syntax of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Graeme Davis. 2006. Comparative syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic. Bern: Peter Lang.

Kristin Bech. 2012. Word Order, Information Structure, and Discourse Relations. In Anneli Meurman-Solin, Maria Jose Lopez-Couso, and Bettelou Los (eds.). Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of English. Oxford Scholarship Online. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199860210.003.0004, or check it out here.

Linda van Bergen. 2015. Pronouns and word order in Old English. 2nd ed. New York & London: Routledge.

Old English grammar

The history of the English language – A syntactic primer

Okay, so the plan was to continue with Old English syntax today. Then I started writing and realised that there were so many things that I should explain before looking closer at Old English syntax.

So, today, we’re doing a syntactic primer!

I’ll use this post to introduce you to the topic of syntax, which is basically the order of words and phrases used to create a well-formed sentence in any given language.

By doing so, I hope that you’ll be prepared for next week when we’ll look at Old English syntax!

Okay, let’s get started.

There are many kinds of word-order arrangements. In modern English, you use SVO-order in your sentences, meaning that you put your subject first, your verb next and last your object. So, for example, “I like you“. Simple enough. This is a very common structure (estimated to be used by approximately one-third of the world’s current languages).

Ever seen Star Wars? Even if you haven’t, you probably know that Yoda tends to use a different kind of order to structure his sentences. This order is usually showing a preference for OSV – meaning that the object comes first, then the subject, and lastly, the verb: You I like. Unlike SVO, this is a very uncommon structure and is actually the rarest of all word orders by a significant margin. In a recent study by Hammarström (2016), in which 5252 languages were studied, only 0,3% had OSV-order, while 40,3% had SVO.

There are others too :
 OrderExampleExample of language
Subject-object-verbI you likeJapanese
Verb-subject-objectLike I youClassic Arabic
Verb-object-subjectLike you IMalagasy
Object-verb-subjectYou like IHixkaryana

Alright, so we’ve done a very basic overview of different word orders. There are two more things that we have to talk about: V2 and VF.

That is, Verb second and Verb final.

V2 is quite common in Germanic languages and works like this: a finite verb of a clause or sentence is placed in second position, with one single constituent preceding it. This constituent functions as the clause topic.

Please note that this does not necessarily mean that there is only one word preceding the verb, but one constituent (that is, a word or a group of words that function as a unit in a hierarchical structure). Anyway, V2 is still alive and well in many Germanic languages, for example in my native Swedish:

  1. Jag vet inte. I do not know
  2. Inte vet jag. Do not know I

Yeah, I know, the second example becomes extremely awkward in English but works just fine in Swedish1 . The point is, the verb vet (know) here does not change position, even though everything else does. Clearly, as you can see, that doesn’t work very well in English.

But it used to!

I just won’t tell you about how until next week.

Because we still have one more thing to deal with: VF.

Honestly, this pretty much means what you would expect it to: the verbs in a verb-final language almost always fall in final position. In German, for example, we see this happening in embedded clauses that follow a complementiser:

dass du so klug bist
that you so smart are
“that you are so smart”

Again, awkward in English.

But, again, it didn’t use to be! But we’ll get back to that too.

So, you know that Yoda’s language might not be all that odd (though rare)2 , that modern English generally use SVO word order3 , and that this wasn’t always the case.

I think that that is enough for us to dig into Old English next week. And, so, I leave you to mull things over until then. As always, if you want to know more, check out my references!



Harald Hammarström. 2016. Linguistic diversity and language evolution. Journal of Language Evolution. 1: 1. pp. 19-29. DOI:

Adrienne Lafrance. 2015. An unusual way of speaking, Yoda has. Hmmm? The Atlantic. Find it here.

Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2018. Yoda’s syntax the Tribune analyzes; supply more details I will! Language Log. Find it here.

Beatrice Santorini & Anthony Kroch. 2007-. The syntax of natural language: An online introduction using the Trees program. Find it here. (I’ve primarily looked at Chapter 14 for this post).

Wikipedia. V2 word order. Find it here.

Wikipedia. Word order. Find it here.

If you’d like a more comprehensive primer to syntax, I personally like:

Andrew Carnie. 2013. Syntax: A generative introduction. 2nd ed. Malden; Oxford; Victoria: Blackwell Publishin Ltd.

Jim Miller. 2008. Introduction to English syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.