Learning Verbs and Continuing Translation

Last week, I spent most of my time learning about Old English verbs. As I wrote about last week, I’m interested in comparing Old English’s grammar to that of Latin/Greek (which are quite similar to each other) and Modern English. Thankfully, verbs are much simpler in Old English than in Latin and Greek. For starters, there are only about 16 forms of each verb, compared to the hundreds in those languages. Latin and Greek verbs also have a series of “principal parts” — the forms of the verb one needs to memorize to even be able to conjugate it — whereas you can basically rely on just one form to find the rest in Old English. Another interesting difference is that Old English does not conjugate verbs for person in the plural. Thus, there are different verb forms for first, second, and third person singular (“I,” “you,” and “he/she/it”), but all persons share the same form in the plural. This is one example of Old English’s tendency not to use as many distinct forms as Latin and Greek, instead relying more heavily on demonstrative and personal pronouns to free up the word order. For example, because Old English does not conjugate plural verbs for person, an author or speaker may need to use a plural personal pronoun to clarify an ambiguous subject. Even more importantly, Old English often uses demonstratives to show case where noun endings and context are not sufficient. The other interesting feature of Old English verbs is that they only conjugate in two tenses, present and past. Similar to Modern English, Old English often uses auxiliary verbs to express other timeframes, such as the verb sculan to mean “will.” Last week, I also read another text, “Wulfstan’s Translation of the Apostle’s Creed,” which was fascinating. Two things I noticed from the reading were the prevalence of Object-Subject-Verb word order, especially in subordinate clauses, and the frequent use of synonyms for emphasis. As I keep reading, I will continue to track patterns and features like these and think about how they may affect translation into and from Old English.

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