Syntactic feature or scribal convention?

Apr 18, 2012 by

In an earlier post, discussing the birch bark document 607/562 (see image on the left), I mentioned a peculiarity of word order in this brief crime report: the appositive phrase (=extra description) NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE appears not immediately following the proper name which it modifies (ŽIZNOBOUDE), but after the predicate (POGOUBLENE) and the passive agent (OU SYČEVIČЬ). One way to describe this pattern is thus: the most important part of the message comes first, with details coming later. Thus, in this example the core message is that Zhiznobud is murdered by the Sycheviches, and the fact that he is also a Novgorod freeman is a extra piece of information that is less important to the communicative goal of the letter. This relative freedom of word order does not challenge the understanding of the text since the structure of the sentence (who did what to whom and which words modify which ones) can be understood from the case endings: recall from our discussion above that NOVGORODSKE SMЬRDE bears the same nominative singular masculine ending -e (peculiar for the Old Novgorod dialect) as in ŽIZNOBOUDE. Despite the fact that Modern Russian preserves a rich case marking system, this word order is no longer found in the contemporary language, where appositives are adjacent to the phrases they modify.  The birch bark letter expert Andrey Zaliznjak described this pattern as a peculiarity of the Old Novgorod dialect (or perhaps Old Russian as a whole) but is this so?

The problem is that the same word order — appositives at the end rather than adjacent to their phrases — is found in other older texts. For example, consider the right side panel of the Kirkdale Sundial(see image on the left). The two bottom lines read:


As was then the case, letter V is used also for U, and CNG is an abbreviation for cyning or cyng for ‘king’. Notice the word order: “Edward days king” and “Tosti(g) days earl”. The titles — ‘king’ and ‘earl’ appear not adjacent to the names but at the end, after the possessed dagum ‘days’. This is the very same pattern that Zalizniak describes as peculiar to Old Russian!

Given the similarity between the late 11th century inscription in Old English and a much letter birch bark document from the Old Novgorod area, it is likely that postposing appositives was a scribal convention rather than a syntactic feature of both languages.



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