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Aspects of Medieval English Language and Literature

Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference of the Society of Historical English Language and Linguistics


Edited By Michiko Ogura and Hans Sauer

This volume is a collection of papers read at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds in 2017, in two sessions organized by the Institute of English Studies at the University of London and four sessions organized by the Society of Historical English Language and Linguistics. Contributions consist of poetry, prose, interlinear glosses, syntax, semantics, lexicology, and medievalism. The contributors employ a wealth of different approaches. The general theme of the IMC 2017 was ‘otherness’, and some papers fit this theme very well. Even when two researchers deal with a similar topic and arrive at different conclusions, the editors do not try to harmonize them but present them as they are for further discussion.

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12 Old English Magan: An Expression of Adhortative Wish

1 Introduction


Abstract: This study proposes that Old English magan ‘can’ (> Modern English may) in the structure ‘magan + we + infinitive’ has an adhortative meaning, ‘let us’. This construction, sporadically attested in Old English homiletic texts, denotes the ability and the wish of the homilist to perform some action together with the audience addressed.

The term ‘adhortative’ is “used when an addresser proposes to the addressee to do something together” (Kaita 2016: 244). A typical adhortative sentence in Modern English (shortened as ModE) is Let’s go. This expresses the speaker’s proposal to the hearer to go together, and the sentence can be paraphrased as ‘I wish to go together with you, and I propose we do so’. The adhortative, or simply hortative, is somewhat difficult to pinpoint morphologically. Bauer’s (2004, s.v. mood) glossary of morphology lists “[s]‌ome typical moods” in language. According to Bauer, the hortative “shows exhortation”, the imperative “expresses a direct command”, the indicative “shows a normal statement”, and the subjunctive “shows subordination, unreality, or desire.” While the grammar of Old English (OE) has distinct conjugations for the indicative, imperative, and subjunctive moods (see Campbell 1959: Chapter XVI for details), there are no particular morphological sets for the adhortative. Thus, any discussion on the adhortative expression requires referring to the conjugation that the verb takes. Let’s in ModE is the contracted form of Let us, and many studies1 define Let here as the 1st person plural imperative form.

Historically, Mustanoja’s (1960:...

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