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I was reading the Romance of Tristan and I came across the passage:

"Therefore did Tristan claim justice and the right of battle and therefore was he careful to fail in nothing of the homage he owed King Mark, his lord."

I see these kinds of grammar reversals a lot in older English, like:

"Quickly did he go..." "Smart is he who..."

I'm not sure if those above examples are correct, but how does this kind of grammar work and does it denote something differently than if it was reversed? Also, if possible, does this kind of structure have a name that I can use to further research it (or specific materials to learn Middle English syntax in general), since I've been trying in vain so far to look it up.

  • One note. This is literature- some of these reversals occur in more modern poetry. So this may not be just a Middle English thing. – Karlomanio May 17 at 14:40
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    That looks like Modern English, not Middle English. – 200_success May 17 at 18:04
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    That's very definitely modern english you're talking about. Middle English looks pretty substantially different. – Hearth May 18 at 2:50
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First, a point of clarification. The "Therefore did Tristan claim justice..." passage that you quote seems to be from a translation made sometime around 1900 by Hilaire Belloc of an originally French text. That is well into the Modern English era; the period called "Middle English" is generally considered to have ended around 1500.

A Middle English text about Tristan looks like this:

I was at Erceldoune,
Wiþ Tomas spak y þare;
Þer herd y rede in roune
Who Tristrem gat & bare,

(Sir Tristrem, Auchinleck manuscript, National Library of Scotland)

That said, the grammar of your examples does have something in common with the grammar of Middle English. All of your examples use "V2 word order". This is a feature that still exists today in certain other Germanic languages, such as German and Dutch. With this word order, the finite verb (the simple verb form that is inflected for present or past tense) is placed right after the first element of the sentence (or clause). (Not after the first word; a phrase can also occupy the first spot in the sentence. Also, note that for the purposes of this rule, the coordinating conjunction "and" doesn't count as an element of the sentence/clause.)

"Therefore did Tristan claim justice..."

"therefore was he careful to fail in nothing..."

"Quickly did he go...

"Smart is he who..."

And in the Middle English sample that I quoted:

I was at Erceldoune,
Wiþ Tomas spak y þare = [With Thomas spoke I there]

The prepositional phrase "with Tomas" occupies the first slot of the second clause in the preceding sentence.

You can find more information about the use of this word order in different stages of English if you look at the linked Wikipedia article or Google the term. V2 word order had started falling out of use already by the end of the Middle English period. In the modern English era, this word order becomes so much less common that it starts making more sense to describe sentences in terms of "inversion" triggered by special elements or special meanings (as mentioned in geekahedron's answer), rather than in terms of the position of the verb relative to the first element (whatever that might be).

It is harder for me to describe how the meaning is changed by putting one part of the sentence first vs. another part. I'm sure this has been studied, but I don't know what the main patterns are.

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    In modern German, the first part of the sentence can be used to stress importance. In your example, we already know the narrator is talking about himself, so the important fact is who he was talking to. We can still kind of do this in modern English by using the passive voice (for example, "John was told off by the teacher today"), but it's not as elegant. – Graham May 17 at 14:20
  • I'm ashamed to admit I completely forgot the fact I was reading a modernized translation of a French text when originally writing this question, but thank you for answering my question regardless. This is very interesting and helpful. – manlyflower May 17 at 20:26
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These are examples of subject-auxiliary inversion, where the subject switches places with an auxiliary verb (which, here, includes forms of "to be").

Generally, you see inversions in questions, conditionals, negative statements, and elliptical sentences using "so," "such," "as," or "than." The examples you have cited do not fit any of those specific use cases, however, and such optional inversions are grammatical but only seen in archaic texts.

The meaning of the statements is not changed by the inversion, but the emphasis may be different, or used for anaphoric effect (as in the Beatitudes, for example).

If the verb is not an auxiliary verb, it is called subject-verb inversion, and the same rules of inversion (and optional inversion in older English) apply.

As someone (in a comment that has since been deleted) pointed out, this is a vestige of V2 word order, seen in other Germanic languages and common in Old English until a transition to SVO in Late-Middle English.

  • Thank you very much for the response. All of these terms are very helpful! – manlyflower May 17 at 20:28

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