Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-5959bf8d4d-2rjgt Total loading time: 0.259 Render date: 2022-12-08T03:38:08.576Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

The status of hwæt in Old English1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2013

Department of Linguistics & English Language, University of Manchester, Samuel Alexander Building, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL,


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 hwā ‘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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Thanks to Theresa Biberauer, James Clackson, Richard Dance, Sheila Watts and in particular David Willis for data, discussion and advice, and to audiences in Berlin, Cambridge, Manchester, Philadelphia and Osaka where some of this material was presented, as well as the 2011 Richard M. Hogg Prize Committee, Wim van der Wurff and two anonymous reviewers for English Language & Linguistics, for their helpful comments. This work was funded by AHRC doctoral award AH/H026924/1.


Abels, Klaus. 2010. Factivity in exclamatives is a presupposition. Studia Linguistica 64, 141–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alexander, Michael. 1973. Beowulf: A verse translation. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
Bammesberger, Alfred. 2006. The syntactic analysis of the opening verses in Beowulf. American Notes and Queries 19 (4), 37.Google Scholar
Behaghel, Otto. 1923–32. Deutsche Syntax: Eine geschichtliche Darstellung, 4 vols. Heidelberg: Winter.Google Scholar
Behaghel, Otto & Taeger, Burkhard. 1984. Heliand und Genesis, 9th edn.Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bethurum, Dorothy. 1932. The form of Ælfric's Lives of Saints. Studies in Philology 29, 515–33.Google Scholar
Bolinger, Dwight. 1972. Degree words. Paris: Mouton.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bosworth, Joseph & Toller, T. Northcote. 1898. An Anglo-Saxon dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
Brinton, Laurel J. 1996. Pragmatic markers in English: Grammaticalization and discourse functions. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cardinaletti, Anna & Starke, Michal. 1999. The typology of structural deficiency: A case study of the three classes of pronouns. In van Riemsdijk, Henk (ed.), Clitics in the languages of Europe, 145233. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Cleasby, Richard & Vigfusson, Gudbrand. 1874. An Icelandic–English dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
Corver, Norbert. 1990. The syntax of left-branch extractions. PhD dissertation, Katholieke Universiteit Brabant.Google Scholar
D'Avis, Franz-Josef. 2002. On the interpretation of wh-clauses in exclamative environments. Theoretical Linguistics 28, 531.Google Scholar
Dayal, Veneeta. 1996. Locality in wh-quantification: Questions and relative clauses in Hindi. Dordrecht: Kluwer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Devine, Andrew & Stephens, Laurence. 1999. Discontinuous syntax: Hyperbaton in Greek. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Donaldson, E. Talbot. 1966. Beowulf: A new prose translation. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
Earle, John. 1892. The deeds of Beowulf. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
Erickson, Jon. 1997. Some observations on word order in Old Saxon. In Dürscheid, Christa, Ramers, Karl Heinz & Schwarz, Monika (eds.), Sprache im Fokus: Festschrift für Heinz Vater zum 65. Geburtstag, 95105. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.Google Scholar
Felser, Claudia. 2001. Wh-expletives and secondary predication: German partial wh-movement reconsidered. Journal of Germanic Linguistics 13, 538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Felser, Claudia. 2004. Wh-copying, phases, and successive cyclicity. Lingua 114, 543–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fischer, Olga, van Kemenade, Ans, Koopman, Willem & van der Wurff, Wim. 2000. The syntax of early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Fries, Charles. 1940. On the development of the structural use of word-order in Modern English. Language 16, 199208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fulk, Robert D. 2010. The Beowulf manuscript: complete texts and the Fight at Finnsburg. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Garley, Matthew, Slade, Benjamin & Terkourafi, Marina. 2010. A text in speech's clothing: Discovering specific functions of formulaic expressions in Beowulf and blogs. In Wood, David (ed.), Perspectives on formulaic language: Acquisition and communication, 213–33. London: Continuum.Google Scholar
Grein, Christian W. M., Holthausen, Ferdinand & Köhler, Johann J. (eds.). 1912 [1864]. Sprachschatz der angelsächsischen Dichter. Heidelberg: Winter.Google Scholar
Grimm, Jakob. 1837. Deutsche Grammatik, vol. IV: Syntax. Göttingen: Dieterichsche Buchhandlung.Google Scholar
Haeberli, Eric. 1999. Features, categories and the syntax of A-positions. PhD dissertation, University of Geneva.Google Scholar
Harrison, James & Sharp, Robert (eds.). 1893. Beówulf: An Anglo-Saxon poem, 4th edn.Boston and New York: Ginn.Google Scholar
Heaney, Seamus. 1999. Beowulf: A new verse translation. London: Faber & Faber.Google Scholar
Holler, Anke. 2009. Towards an analysis of the adverbial use of German was (‘what’). In Müller, Stefan (ed.), Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, 131–49. Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
Hopper, Paul J. 1977. Hildebrandslied 35b: Dat ih dir it nu bi huldi gibu. In Hopper, Paul J. (ed.), Studies in descriptive and historical linguistics: Festschrift for Winfred P. Lehmann, 481–5. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hopper, Paul J. & Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. 2003. Grammaticalization, 2nd edn.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Horvath, Julia. 1997. The status of ‘wh-expletives’ and the partial wh-movement construction of Hungarian. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 15, 509–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Jack, George B. 1994. Beowulf: A student edition. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
Jäger, Agnes. 2000. Unterspezifikation am Beispiel des Pronomens was: Zur Grammatik eines w-Elements. MA dissertation, University of Jena.Google Scholar
Kemble, John (ed.). 1835. The Anglo-Saxon poems of Beowulf, 2nd edn.London: Pickering.Google Scholar
Kemble, John. 1837. A translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem of Beowulf. London: Pickering.Google Scholar
Kemenade, Ans van. 1987. Syntactic case and morphological case in the history of English. Dordrecht: Foris.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kiparsky, Paul. 1995. Indo-European origins of Germanic syntax. In Battye, Allan & Roberts, Ian (eds.), Clause structure and language change, 140–69. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Klaeber, Friedrich (ed.). 1922. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. Boston and New York: Heath.Google Scholar
Koopman, Willem. 1995. Verb-final main clauses in Old English prose. Studia Neophilologica 67, 129–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Law, Vivien. 1987. Anglo-Saxon England: Ælfric's Exceptiones de arte grammatica anglice. Histoire Épistémologie Langage 9, 4771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lewis, Charlton T. & Short, Charles. 1879. A Latin dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
Lewis, Henry & Pedersen, Holger. 1937. A concise comparative Celtic grammar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Google Scholar
Liuzza, Roy. 2000. Beowulf: A new verse translation. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press.Google Scholar
Longobardi, Giuseppe. 2001. Formal syntax, diachronic minimalism, and etymology: The history of French chez. Linguistic Inquiry 32, 275302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Matthews, Peter H. 1981. Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Menzer, Melissa. 2004. Ælfric's English grammar. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 103, 106–24.Google Scholar
Mitchell, Bruce. 1985. Old English syntax. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mitchell, Bruce & Irvine, Susan (eds.). 2000. Beowulf repunctuated. Old English Newsletter Subsidia 29.Google Scholar
Mitchell, Bruce & Robinson, Fred (eds.). 1998. Beowulf: An edition with relevant shorter texts. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Morgan, Edwin. 1952. Beowulf: A verse translation into Modern English. Aldington: Hand and Flower Press.Google Scholar
Munaro, Nicola & Obenauer, Hans-Georg. 1999. On underspecified wh-elements in pseudo-interrogatives. University of Venice Working Papers in Linguistics 9, 181253.Google Scholar
Nielsen, Hans Frede. 2000. Ingwäonisch. In Hoops, Johannes, Beck, Heinrich, Geuenich, Dieter & Steuer, Heiko (eds.), Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde, 2nd edn, vol. 15, 432–8. Berlin: de Gruyter.Google Scholar
Nye, Rachel. 2009. How pseudo questions and the interpretation of wh-clauses in English. MA dissertation, University of Essex.Google Scholar
Östman, Jan-Ola. 1982. The symbiotic relationship between pragmatic particles and impromptu speech. In Enkvist, Nils Erik (ed.), Impromptu speech: A symposium, 147–77. Åbo: Åbo Akademi.Google Scholar
Pintzuk, Susan. 1993. Verb seconding in Old English: Verb movement to Infl. The Linguistic Review 10, 535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pintzuk, Susan. 1999. Phrase structures in competition: Variation and change in Old English word order. New York: Garland.Google Scholar
Pintzuk, Susan & Haeberli, Eric. 2008. Structural variation in Old English root clauses. Language Variation and Change 20, 367407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Raffel, Burton. 1963. Beowulf. New York: New American Library.Google Scholar
Rett, Jessica. 2008. Degree modification in natural language. PhD dissertation, Rutgers University.Google Scholar
Rett, Jessica. 2009. A degree account of exclamatives. In Friedman, Tova & Ito, Satoshi (eds.), Proceedings of SALT XVIII. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.Google Scholar
Roberts, Ian & Roussou, Anna. 2003. Syntactic change: A Minimalist approach to grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sæbø, Kjell Johan. 2005. Explaining clausal exclamatives. Paper presented at the 3rd Journée de Sémantique et Modélisation, ENS, Paris.Google Scholar
Sievers, Eduard. 1878. Heliand. Halle: Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses.Google Scholar
Stanley, Eric. 2000. Hwæt. In Roberts, Jane & Nelson, Janet (eds.), Essays on Anglo-Saxon and related themes in memory of Lynne Grundy, 525–56. London: King's College Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies.Google Scholar
Taylor, Ann, Warner, Anthony, Pintzuk, Susan & Beths, Frank. 2003. York–Toronto–Helsinki Parsed Corpus of Old English Prose.Google Scholar
Vangsnes, Øystein. 2008. Decomposing manner how in colloquial Scandinavian. Studia Linguistica 62, 119–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Visser, Frederik Theodoor. 1969. An historical syntax of the English language, vol. 3, part 1. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
Walkden, George. 2012. Syntactic reconstruction and Proto-Germanic. PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge.Google Scholar
Zanuttini, Raffaella & Portner, Paul. 2003. Exclamative clauses: At the syntax–semantics interface. Language 79, 3981.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Zupitza, Julius (ed.). 1880. Ælfrics Grammatik und Glossar. Berlin: Weidmann.Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The status of hwæt in Old English1
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

The status of hwæt in Old English1
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

The status of hwæt in Old English1
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *