Cynthia Allen. The Typology of Old English Possessives and
DIATYPE Symposium on diachrony, dialectology and typological linguistics, Helsinki, October 16-18 2003
There has been considerable interest lately in the development of adnominal possessives in English and the other Germanic languages and also much interest in the typology of adnominal possessives, specifically in the interaction of determiners and possessives. Systematic studies of the behaviour of possessives and determiners in individual languages are needed to inform the debate concerning how determiner systems evolve, even in such well-studied languages as English.
This paper presents the results of an investigation into determiners and possessives in OE and shows how these results cast light on the structure of the NP at the OE stage which will be of use not only to linguists tracking changes to the NP in the history of English but also to typologists interested in the possibilities for determiner and possessive systems and for their evolution from one stage to another. The paper focuses on how a little-studied construction which I refer to as ‘Poss Det’ (his se halga) can be reconciled with the much better-studied ‘Det Poss’ construction (se his halga). The Poss Det construction has been virtually ignored by linguists but in fact more widely found in earlier OE texts than the Det Poss construction. This is a particularly interesting fact in that the construction seems to be typologically unusual, in contrast with the Det Poss construction. I show that the Poss Det construction cannot be analysed as a mere variant of the Det Poss construction caused by the relative freedom of word order in OE and propose an analysis of the OE NP accommodating both constructions. I speculate as to why the Poss Det construction diminished in later OE and disappeared completely by early Middle English and conclude with some observations on the use of typology in historical syntax and vice-versa.