Genitive Variation in Old English Verse with Special Attention to Beowulf

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Proper noun genitives and possessive pronouns occur more frequently in postnominal position than common noun genitives in Beowulf and in many Old English (OE) verse texts. This is the opposite of patterns seen in most OE prose texts; however, the word order variation in this text correlates with such linguistic factors as animacy and morphosyntactic weight. Postnominal position is most common for proper noun genitives and possessive pronouns when both the possessive element and the head noun are animate. With inanimate heads, prenominal proper noun genitives and possessive pronouns are preferred. These findings are consistent with predictions made by the animacy hierarchy that more animate nouns should precede less animate nouns, with more variation possible in the case that both nouns are animate. For noun phrases (NPs) with common noun genitives, both animate genitives and compound head nouns result in higher frequencies of postnominal genitive position. Metrical and alliterative considerations are further shown to have an impact on possessive position within NPs; however, these poetic factors alone do not account for all of the word order variation. Language change related to the role of animacy in adnominal genitive position is argued as a contributing factor in this variation, given the elevated levels of postnominal proper noun genitives and possessive pronouns relative to postnominal common noun genitives across OE verse, as well as higher levels of postnominal proper noun genitives in certain early OE prose texts, and finally similarities in adnominal genitive position in Beowulf and historical Germanic languages other than OE. As animacy of the possessor is widely held to correlate with prenominal genitive position from the OE period onward, these findings complicate that picture for the earliest OE.