Opponent: Prof. Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde

All interested are welcome.


A unified account of the Old English metrical line

This study describes the verse design of Old English poetry in terms of modern phonological theory, developing an analysi which allows all OE verses line to be described in terms of single metrical design.

Old English poetry is typifed by a single type of line characterised by four metrical peaks, or prominent syllables, within a verse line of different lengths. The main finding is that OE metrical lines can be described, and the variation with them limited, using a model based on metrical phonology (e.g. Hayes, 1995). Optimality theory (Prince & Smolensky, 1993) is used to highlight some aspects of the relationship between syntax and metrics in determining how sentences and phrases interact with the verse structure to produce the large inventory of acceptable verse forms.

A corpus was analysed centred on the OE poems Genesis and Andreas, complemented by selected shorter poems. This analysis was used to induce the verse design of Old English poetry (in the terms of Jakobson, 1960). The metrical model developed as a result of this analysis is supported by three smaller focused studies. The variation evident in the lengths of OE metrical units has caused previous models to overgenerate acceptable verse forms or develop complex and detailed typologies of dozens of acceptable forms. An analysis of a prototypical line is described based on a verse foot which contains three vocalic moras. The verse feet can vary between 2 and 4 vocalic moras distributed across 1 to 4 syllables. Each standard line is shown to consist of four of these verse feet, leading to a line length which can vary between 8 and 16 vocalic moras (as shown by Golston & Riad, 2002). It shown that it is the limited variation within the phonological weight of the verse foot that causes the greater variation in the length of OE verse lines. The rare, longer ‘hypermetric’ line is also accounted for with the same analysis.

The study disentangles the verse foot, which is an abstract metrical structure, from the prosodic word, which is a phonological object upon which the verse foot is based and with which it is often congruent. Separate sets of constraints are elaborated for creating prosodic words in OE, and for fitting them into verse feet.

The constraints for creating prosodic words are defended with reference to compounds and derivational nouns, and are supported by a smaller study focused on the metrical realisation of non-Germanic personal names in OE verse. Names of biblical origin are often longer than the OE prosodic word, and by extension the verse foot, can accommodate. The supporting study on non-Germanic names focuses on demonstrating how long words with no obvious internal morphology in OE are adapted first to OE prosody and then to the verse structure.

The supporting study on compound numerals describes how phrases longer than a verse are accommodated by the verse design. It is shown that compound numerals, which consist of two or more numeral words (e.g. 777 – seofonhund and seofon and hundseofontig) are habitually rearranged across verse boundaries to meet the requirements of verse length and alliteration.

A further supporting study discusses the difference between the line length constraints controlling OE verse design and those for Old Norse and Old Saxon verse. While previous studies have often conflated these three closely related traditions. It is shown that despite their common characteristics, the verse design described in this study applies to all OE verse, but not to ON or OS.


Golston, C., & Riad, T. (2003). Scansion and alliteration in Beowulf. Jahrbuch Für Internationale Germanistik, 35(1), 77–105.

Hayes, B. (1995). Metrical Stress Theory: Principles and Case Studies. University of Chicago Press.

Jakobson, R. (1960). Linguistics and poetics. In Style in language (pp. 350–377). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Prince, A., & Smolensky, P. (1993). Optimality Theory: Constraint Interaction in Generative Grammar. Retrieved from http://roa.rutgers.edu/files/537-0802/537-0802-PRINCE-0-0.PDF