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The status of hwæt in Old English1



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.



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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.



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The status of hwæt in Old English1



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