In this paper I consider the choice of Theme (as identified in systemic functional grammar) in clauses in the Old English poem Exodus. To do this I examine the initial element of each clause, and establish that the Subject is most typically the initial element, as in prose, and that therefore the occurrence of another clause element in this position is syntactically marked, and so grammatically meaningful. The interpretative (literary) possibilities in a brief passage are discussed. Of more general significance, the language of the whole text suggests choices of cohesion and syntax (the clause complex) more characteristic of spoken language than written, features which I characterise as those of ‘persistent orality’.
This paper tracks the intersection of three disciplinary areas: J. T. Fraser’s theory of time as nested temporalities, M. A. K. Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics, and English literary history. Narrative theorists claim that narrative is a use of language that organizes the human understanding of time. However, narrative is not limited to only one temporality but can include the multiple temporalities that appear in Fraser’s model. This approach repudiates studies of narrative, such as those in the structuralist tradition of dual discourse and story, which assume “time” has a singular meaning equivalent to Fraser’s “biotemporality.” Each temporality can be associated with a different type of coherent story, and thus the one narrative can weave together stories with different temporalities, its “temporal texture.” Fraser and Halliday both recognize Gerald Edelman’s dual model of the brain and the emergence of language through the evolution of the human brain from “primary consciousness” to “higher-order consciousness.” Language evolves in the “human umwelt” of everyday experience of material, mental and social worlds in the gravitational context of this earth. Thus pre-twentieth century narratives, with various textures, tell stories of Fraser’s temporalities of human earthly experience. Fraser’s model also describes the “unearthly temporalities” that, from the twentieth century, modern science and technology have added to human understanding, producing what he calls the “extended human umwelt.” The twentieth century narratives of modernism and postmodernism may include these temporalities in their texture. However, the digital culture of the twenty-first century already reshapes the human umwelt; the paper ends with some speculation on changes in organization of temporal meaning in the evolving context.
Time is a singular noun, but includes a multiplicity of temporalities, including what J. T. Fraser has termed sociotemporality. In this paper, I discuss facing the urgency of time in a narrative dominated by sociotemporality, that of the Old English poem Beowulf, and suggest how criticism of the narrative structure of Beowulf has derived from a monovalent understanding of narrative time. Moreover, in recognizing sociotemporality as dominant in the organization of the poem, the modern reader can gain greater access to what was valued in the social context of its response to “the urgency of time.”