Seventh Annual ASSC Graduate Student Conference – “Crisis of Categorization”

SESSION 1: Transhistorical Anglo-Saxon England

“Where They Please: The Punctuation of Old English Poetry”

Eric Weiskott (Yale University)

This paper examined the use of the exclamation mark in Old English grammar. The use of the exclamation mark began in late 14th century Italy but its use was erratic. Exclamation marks were also known as “screamers”. In 1922, Beowulf was published with 56 exclamation marks. The 1998 edition of Beowulf contained only 7 exclamation points across the whole poem signalling a trend towards a ‘less excitable’ Beowulf. Each editor’s use of Beowulf exclamation marks is inconsistent. Only Mitchell defended his use of exclamation points. In 1795, the recommended correct use of the exclamation points function was made official.

Much of Beowulf was written in Germany; the German grammar system is different from English in that they use exclamation marks more frequently. German punctuation in an American edition of an Old English poem is rather jarring. In German, one puts exclamation points after imperatives. To date, there have been four case studies of exclamation points in Beowulf.

The trend in the last 200 years has been very much away from exclamation points; we want the narrator omniscient, not part of the action. It has taken two centuries to punctuate Beowulf, however, the punctuation question still opens an editorial can of worms. While the use of modern punctuation clears up things that aren’t clear, it also creates ambiguities. Exclamation marks diliniate tonal information and Weiskott argued that something could be gained rather than lost, by doing away with all the punctuation. The exclamation point controls affect, it tells the reader what to think which might be why readers find it so irritating when it is overused.

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