The status of hwæt in Old English
By George Walkden
English Language and Linguistics, Vol. 17.3 (2013)
Abstract: It is commonly held that Old English hwæt, well known within Anglo-Saxon studies as the ﬁrst word of the epic poem Beowulf, can be ‘used as an adv[erb]. or interj[ection]. Why, what! ah!’ (Bosworth & Toller 1898, s.v. hwæt, 1) as well as the neuter singular of the interrogative pronoun hwa¯ ‘what’. In this article I challenge the view that hwæt can have the status of an interjection (i.e. be outside the clause that it precedes). I present evidence from Old English and Old Saxon constituent order which suggests that hwæt is unlikely to be extra-clausal. Data is drawn from the Old English Bede, Ælfric’s Lives of Saints and the Old Saxon Heliand. In all three texts the verb appears later in clauses preceded by hwæt than is normal in root clauses (Fisher’s exact test, p < 0.0001 in both cases). If hwæt affects the constituent order of the clause it precedes, then it cannot be truly clause-external. I argue that it is hwæt combined with the clause that follows it that delivers the interpretive effect of exclamation, not hwæt alone. The structure of hwæt-clauses is sketched following Rett’s (2008) analysis of exclamatives. I conclude that Old English hwæt (as well as its Old Saxon cognate) was not an interjection but an underspeciﬁed wh-pronoun introducing an exclamative clause.
Introduction: The Old English word hwæt is well known within Anglo-Saxon studies as the ﬁrst word of the epic poem Beowulf. In editions of Beowulf this hwæt is often followed by a comma (e.g. Klaeber 1922; Fulk 2010) or an exclamation mark (Kemble 1935; Harrison & Sharp 1893). It is commonly held that the word can be ‘used as an adv[erb]. or interj[ection]. Why, what! ah!’ (Bosworth & Toller 1898, s.v. hwæt; emphasis original) as well as in its normal sense, familiar from Modern English, as the neuter singular of the interrogative pronoun hwa ‘what’.
In this article I present evidence from Old English and Old Saxon constituent order which suggests that the additional punctuation after ‘interjective’ hwæt and its Old Saxon cognate huat is inappropriate: not only are hwæt and huat not extra-metrical, they are also unlikely to be extra-clausal in the vast majority of cases of their occurrence. I argue that ‘interjective’ hwæt is not an interjection or an adverb but rather is parallel to Modern English how as used in exclamative clauses such as How you’ve changed!. In other words, it is hwæt combined with the clause that follows it that delivers the interpretive effect of exclamation, not hwæt alone.
Section 2 introduces hwæt, outlining the contexts in which it may be used and reviewing the previous scholarship on the subject as well as ﬂagging up a number of defects of the traditional view. Section 3 presents the constituent order data from Old English and Old Saxon, demonstrating that clauses following hwæt are signiﬁcantly more likely to deviate from the common verb-initial/verb-second patterns of these languages. Section 4 presents a syntactic–semantic analysis of this construction and makes a proposal regarding its diachronic origin. Section 5 recapitulates and concludes with some implications of these results for editors and translators of Old English and Old Saxon.