The syntax of Old Norse: With a survey of the inflectional morphology and a complete bibliography

The syntax of Old Norse: With a survey of the inflectional morphology and a complete bibliography. By Jan Terje Faarlund. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. xvii, 300. ISBN 0199271100. $91.66 (Hb).

Reviewed by Peter Tunstall, Grantham, UK

Intended as a successor to Marius Nygaard’s Norrøn syntax of 1906, this work offers a comprehensive synchronic description of Old Norse syntax, the first in English, based on principles–and-parameters theory (PPT).

Ch. 1, ‘Introduction’ (1–6), presents some technical background and sets the scope of the study. As defined here, ‘Old Norse is another term for Medieval West Nordic’ (1), that is, the language of Norway and its colonies c. 800–1400. All examples are taken from manuscripts written in Iceland or Norway between 1200 and 1400.

Prior knowledge of PPT is not assumed, and ‘theoretical argumentation’ and ‘technical details have been kept to a minimum’ (xii). Thus, Faarlund’s rejection of oblique subjects in Old Norse receives only a brief justificatory note along with references to the debate (194–95), while the innovation of a reference phrase between the noun phrase and determiner phrase is introduced without fuss (56–57). Just over four pages of Ch. 1 are spent on the basics of X-bar theory, movement, and adjunction, with further terms explained later as they come up. This is not to say that the problems inherent in such a study are skirted over; more than once, F supplies competing interpretations, whether for want of native speakers to decide the matter (216), or because no one hypothesis has been found preferable (196–97).

Some 17 percent of the book is devoted explicitly to nonsyntactic features: Ch. 2, ‘Phonology’ (7–15), and Ch. 3, ‘Inflectional morphology’ (16–54). While these areas are covered by existing textbooks, their treatment here is particularly well structured. The main topic is addressed in Ch. 4, ‘The noun phrase’ (55–80); Ch. 5, ‘Determiner phrases’ (81–93); Ch. 6, ‘The adjective phrase’ (94–106); Ch. 7, ‘The prepositional phrase’ (107–20); Ch. 8, ‘The verb phrase’ (121–88); Ch. 9, ‘The finite sentence’ (189–243); Ch. 10, ‘Subordinate clauses’ (244–79); and Ch. 11, ‘Reflexive binding’ (280–84). A ‘Bibliography of Old Norse syntax’ (285–94), subject index (295–98), and selective word index (299–300) complete the volume.

Points are amply illustrated with data from a range of sources, including sagas, homilies, diplomas, and laws. F’s ‘standardized Old Norse orthography’ (xv) is for the most part consistent, though a few irregularities have crept in: byskup (100) : biskup (206); ón (263) : ván (162); man : mun (162); best (228) : bezt (96); dvaldist (101) : lamdisk (104), and so on.  In a few instances, an acute accent has been omitted, for example, hrið (195), or, less often, added on a short vowel: hínum (145). Otherwise, typos are rare: pví for því (157), hjlópu for hljópu (167). None of this mars the quality of the syntactic discussion. Glosses are as a rule accurate and idiomatic; I noticed only one misprint: ‘on Bolli’ (65), example 32a, should read ‘for Bolli’.

The book is clearly written and accessible to nonspecialists, in keeping with the broadness of F’s envisaged audience: ‘students and scholars working on historical Germanic linguistics, diachronic syntax, or Scandinavian languages’, and ‘philologists and others interested in Nordic languages, civilizations and history’ (xi).  It should prove a valuable resource.