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The Transmission of "Beowulf"Language, Culture, and Scribal Behavior$
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Leonard Neidorf

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781501705113

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501705113.001.0001

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Language History

Language History

(p.31) 2 Language History
The Transmission of "Beowulf"

Leonard Neidorf

Cornell University Press

This chapter assesses the particular language quirks of Beowulf’s transmission. The failure of the scribes to comprehend the language of Beowulf would not be relevant to the transmission of the text if the task of the scribe were to reproduce the letters encountered in the exemplar without modification. However, for the Anglo-Saxon scribe, the task of the mechanical reproduction of the text was complicated by the imperative to modify its superficial, nonstructural features. Language change frequently induced the scribes to make minor alterations to the text that inadvertently deprived it of sense, grammar, alliteration, or meter. These alterations offer valuable insights into the history of the English language—particularly, into some specific ways that the language had changed between the period when Beowulf was composed and the period when its extant manuscript was produced.

Keywords:   language history, English language, language change, diachronic variation, dialectal variation, syntactic misconstruction, trivialization, interpolation, linguistic change

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