Speech, Texts, and Choices from the Modal System: Mood Distribution in Old English Sermons

Tanja Rütten


The present paper investigates the alternation between the imperative and the subjunctive mood in speech representations in Old English. Both imperative and subjunctive mood form relatively fully inflected and robust modal categories in Old English, and a systematic alternation is assumed between both in speech and writing in the period.

The imperative is formally restricted to the second person. Thus, it seems plausible to assume a functional restriction as well, that is, a restriction in usage as a deictic (modal) element with direct reference to a particular addressee. As such, its most natural habitat may be speech and speech representations in writing. By contrast, the subjunctive, with a full formal inventory for person and number, seems much less restricted in terms of functions, and may therefore occur in both speech and writing,—or even preferably in writing, considering the various levels of abstraction and detachment that writing allows.

To my knowledge, there are no previous studies devoted to the topic. Sermons lend themselves to such an investigation for two important reasons: they frequently report speech, e.g. when preachers relate to the congregation Jesus’ words to his disciples from the Bible, and as speech-based texts, they provide frequent instances of direct speech to the congregation. This forms another level of speech representation, which may be contrasted very fruitfully to the speech reported (almost exclusively) from the Bible. The study is corpus-based with a selection from the extant Old English sermon material. The aims of this exploratory study are mainly qualitative. However, in quantitative terms, I will show that the distribution of imperative and subjunctive in Old English sermons follows the various levels of speech representation in texts.

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