LINGUIST List 26.3012

Wed Jun 24 2015

Review: Computational Ling; Historical Ling; Morphology; Syntax; Text/Corpus Ling: Cole (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 09-Feb-2015
From: Mark Faulkner <>
Subject: Old Northumbrian Verbal Morphosyntax and the (Northern) Subject Rule
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Marcelle Cole
TITLE: Old Northumbrian Verbal Morphosyntax and the (Northern) Subject Rule
SERIES TITLE: NOWELE Supplement Series 25
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Mark Faulkner, University of Sheffield

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This monograph, adapted from Cole’s PhD thesis (Universidad de Sevilla, 2012), offers evidence that the Northern Subject Rule was not an innovation in late medieval English, but that a related subject rule operates in the Old Northumbrian of the gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels, copied in the second half of the tenth century.

Chapter 1, the introduction, begins by defining the grammatical constraint which is at the heart of the book. In Northern Middle English, under a system most commonly referred to as the Northern Subject Rule (NSR), verbal agreement was conditioned not by the traditional categories of number and person, but by subject type and adjacency, so that ‘the plural marker was –s unless the verb had an immediately adjacent personal pronoun subject in which case the marker was the reduced –e or the zero morpheme –ø’ (p. 1). Anticipating an argument developed at more length in Chapter 3, Cole notes the presence of similar agreement patterns in non-Northern dialects, and proposes dropping the word ‘Northern’. It is the purpose of the book to investigate whether a similar Subject Rule motivates two kinds of variation in the gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels: (1) between –ð and –s as present tense markers; (2) between reduced (–e or –ø) and full morphology in several parts of the verb.

Chapter 2, ‘Old Northumbrian’, outlines the evidence that survives for this dialect, and surveys previous work on the date, authorship and scribe(s) of the gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels. Cole then discusses the language of the gloss, pointing out that it contains numerous innovative morphological features, before giving a description of the sociolinguistic situation in Northumbria, emphasising contact with Celtic and Old Norse. Details are then given of Old Northumbrian present tense morphology, particularly the co-existence of historical <-ð> and innovative <-s> and the various explanations offered in the literature for the emergence of the latter.

Chapter 3, ‘A Diachronic Overview of the (Northern) Subject Rule’, reports the findings of past studies regarding the operation of a subject rule in different varieties of English, including Northern English and Scots, Early Modern London English, Southwestern Englishes, Irish English, North American Englishes and African American Vernacular English. After a brief discussion of the operation of subject rules with the verb ‘to be’, evidence for levelling and subject effects in other Germanic languages is offered. These case studies enable Cole to argue that the NSR can ‘plausibly be viewed as the categorical demonstration of a tendency prevalent in English as a whole for subject type to govern the selection of morphological variants’ (p. 85).

Along with the following chapter, Chapter 4, ‘A Variationist Study of –s/-ð Present-Tense Markings in Late Old Northumbrian’ is the book’s most original contribution to understanding the NSR. It is based on an exhaustive quantitative analysis of 3053 present-tense instances of 313 verb types in the gloss (full lists of these types and tokens appear in Appendices B and D). After explaining her protocols for data collection, coding and analysis, Cole presents her findings. Broadly, these are that the following environments favour –s over -ð: (1) an adjacent pronomial subject; (2) the preceding occurrence of an –s ending; (3) a preceding dental or affricate; (4) certain verbs. From (1), Cole is able to conclude that a Subject Rule operated in Old Northumbrian.

Chapter 5, ‘Reduced Verbal Morphology in late Old Northumbrian’, looks at around 35 present-tense verb forms from the Lindisfarne Gloss that show reduced morphology, challenging the generalisation that such forms are not found in Northumbrian. Unlike in West-Saxon, where such forms are found solely with first- and second-person plural pronoun subjects in contexts of subject-verb inversion, in Lindisfarne they occur in all plural environments, provided there is an adjacent personal pronoun – another manifestation of the Subject Rule. Cole offers various possible sources for this reduced morphology, emphasising the influence of the present subjunctive, and preterite and preterite-present verbs.

Chapter 6, ‘Explaining Subject and Adjacency Effects’, provides a review of past explanations for the development of the Subject Rule type constraints, distinguishing between internal factors and analyses based on language contact. Taking ideas from both approaches, Cole suggests that language contact and adult second language acquisition triggered morphological simplification, destabilising the inherited system based on number and person, leaving the distinction between pronomial and non-pronomial subjects cognitively more salient to children acquiring English.

The concluding chapter offers a brief summary of the argument, suggesting the need for further work on other Old Northumbrian texts to see whether Subject Rule effects are found in these also. A list of references, seven appendices and an index follow.


Cole demonstrates beyond any doubt that a Subject Rule guides the selection of <-s> and <-ð> in present tense verbs in the English of the gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels. She also raises the possibility that NP/Pro constraints may also govern its use of reduced endings. She offers a plausible explanation for the emergence of these effects, and a rich collection of evidence for the operation of similar rules throughout the history of English.

The broader significance of these findings remains in doubt, however. Cole treats the data she collects as evidence for the operation of a Subject Rule in Old Northumbrian, yet it is questionable whether one text can be taken as representative of a variety. Other Old Northumbrian texts exist, indeed more than Cole suggests. In addition to canonical texts like the Durham Ritual Gloss and Rushworth 2, there survive a number of eleventh-century legal documents, including Gospatric’s Writ from Cumbria (which contains several Celtic loanwords, so speaks to Celtic-English contact in the North) and vernacular writs issued by Walcher and Ranulf Flambard, successive post-Conquest bishops of Durham. The latter document, at least, seems to follow the Subject Rule as articulated by Cole: the greeting ‘R. bisceop greteð’ (Bishop Ranulf greets) with its heavy NP subject has full morphology, but the first verb of the anathema, ‘And hua sua braues ðisses, braue Crist hine þisses liues hele’ (And whoever violates this, may Christ deprive him of his health in this life), with an indefinite pronomial subject, has –s.

While Cole shows an impressive awareness of the paleographical and textual issues that the Lindisfarne Gloss raises, she never quite solves the issue of whether Aldred was the only scribe responsible for the Lindisfarne Gloss, and how far he (and any collaborators he had) made use of pre-existing sources, and may have been influenced by their language. These issues have a direct bearing on any variation found within in the gloss (since variation in a copied text might represent not the variation of a spoken idiolect, but the variation created by inconsistent dialect translation during copying) and the claim that the Gloss can represent Old Northumbrian as a whole (since Aldred may have adopted non-Northumbrian forms from an exemplar). Cole’s main attempt to control for these issues comes in §4.2.4 where she partitions her data for present-tense morphology into 23 sections, and compares them. Her linguistic findings here are compatible with previous philological and palaeographical studies that suggested breaks at the beginning of Mark and John, and she duly conducts her statistical tests on two datasets, one comprising all four gospels, the other just Mark, Luke and John. However, the questions remain of whose language she is analysing and whether it can represent Old Northumbrian. Comparison with Aldred’s language in the Durham Ritual Gloss would have helped address these.

Despite these issues, this is an important contribution to the study of the Northern Subject Rule. It is methodologically exceptionally rigorous, lavish in its presentation of the data and careful and fair in its summaries of past scholarship. By demonstrating the operation of a Subject Rule in the Lindisfarne Gloss, it opens the way to considering whether such a rule was characteristic of Old Northumbrian more broadly, and what the perceptual saliency of this feature was in the late Old English and early Middle English period. Writing in the 1120s, William of Malmesbury described Northern English as ‘inharmonious and uncouth’. One wonders if its different patterns of verbal agreement, ones at odds with the person and number system of Latin (which was, at that time, the language on which grammar itself was modelled), were among the things that made it grate on his ears. The answer to that question is not to be found in Cole’s book, but she does get us a step closer.


Mark Faulkner is Lecturer in Medieval English at the University of Sheffield.

Page Updated: 24-Jun-2015