Bodily Injuries and Dative Experiencers in Old Frisian

In: Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik
Laura Bruno Ghent University

Search for other papers by Laura Bruno in
Current site
Google Scholar
Peter Alexander Kerkhof Leiden University

Search for other papers by Peter Alexander Kerkhof in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access


This article offers a descriptive account of body part constructions in Old East Frisian texts and analyzes the occurrence of dative experiencers in such clauses. This includes a comparison between Old Frisian body part grammar and its Middle Dutch counterpart, revisiting issues such as the antiquity of dative external possessors and oblique subject constructions in West Germanic. In presenting the data from a theory-neutral perspective, this investigation contributes to the study of body part grammar in Medieval Germanic in particular and to the growing body of literature on Old Frisian syntax in general.

1 Introduction

Old Germanic languages have multiple grammatical constructions to recount bodily harm; by selecting different constructions, different relations between the verbal event, the body part and the possessor of the body part can be expressed (Neumann 1987, 1996; Lamiroy & Delbecque 1998). In this article, we focus on one of these Germanic constructions, exemplified by Old English in (1), where the possessor of the body part (and simultaneously the experiencer of bodily harm) is marked by the dative case.

The purpose of the dative case in such clauses seems to have been to signal affected possessors, that is, animate referents who have an involved relationship with their possession. This noun-phrase external possessive construction is nowadays known as “dative external possessor” or “dative of inalienable possession” (Fox 1981: 324; Burridge 1996: 694; Van de Velde & Lamiroy 2017; Rooryck & Schoorlemmer 2017). In the more conservative scholarly traditions of Germanic and Indo-European linguistics, this use of the dative case has traditionally been classified as a sympathetic dative, or, alternatively, as a dative of belonging (the so-called Pertinenzdativ. cf. Havers 1911, Isačenko 1965, von Polenz 1969; Schmid 2006; see also Allen 2019: 1–23).

Here we may note that Old Frisian exhibits the same “he cut him the head off” construction as Old English. Just as in (1) above, the following Old Frisian example in (2) concerns a case of decapitation.

In both Old English and Old Frisian, this way of expressing bodily harm is competing with other constructions where the experiencer is marked with a possessive pronoun, that is, clauses of the type “he cut his head off”. In the development from Old to Modern English, the former construction receded under pressure of the latter, whereas in Modern Frisian the dative construction has persisted and is still commonly used to recount injury (Van Bree 1987). However, much about the diachrony of the construction in Old Frisian is still unclear and the Old Frisian body part constructions have never been studied in detail.

The aim of this article is thus to explore how Old Frisian deals with dative marking in body part constructions in order to catalogue the different construction types and investigate the semantic contexts in which these operated. For this purpose, we have drawn on the vast range of examples of bodily harm that can be found in Old East Frisian legal texts. We believe that surveying and studying these constructions in a relatively theory-neutral framework represents a valuable addition to our understanding of Old Frisian grammar in general.

This article is structured as follows: in Section 2, we first give an overview of the earlier research that has been done on Old Frisian body part constructions. In Section 3, we outline the model that constitutes our basis of description and the theoretical presuppositions that support it, which will allow us to compare the Old Frisian data with Middle Dutch. In Sections 4 and 5, we introduce the corpus which provided the Old Frisian data, comment on the philological limitations of the text types, and discuss the criteria we adopted for the data collection. In Section 6, we present and analyze the relevant Old Frisian clause types, following the description definitions and model that we defined before. In Section 7, we give an overview of the quantitative results of our corpus study of the Old Frisian body part constructions. Finally, in Section 8, we cast a careful glance at the neighboring Germanic languages and make some remarks on the diachrony of the system. We conclude this paper with a summary of our findings on the topic of dative experiencers in Old Frisian.

2 Earlier Research

Old Frisian syntax has thus far been a rather understudied field; the pioneering groundwork was laid by Hanschke (1929) and later scholars such as Szadrowsky (1959; 1962), Costello (1968) and Bor (1971) followed suit. In more recent decades, additional studies were published by Van der Wal (1990), Van der Meer (1990), Lühr (2007), Bremmer (2009), De Haan & Hoekstra (2010), Grant (2014) and Brennan (2019).

There are, however, only a few publications on Old Frisian syntax whose research focus is adjacent to ours. Bremmer (1986) deals with Old Frisian impersonal verbs of the type methinks, but limits himself to listing the different verbs and describing the environments in which they occur. Dative experiencers in sentences denoting bodily harm are not mentioned by Bremmer. Cor van Bree’s 1987 study of Modern Frisian possessive constructions also included a discussion of the construction type in Old Frisian; he relates the Old Frisian dative construction of the type “he cut him the head off” to the Modern Frisian and dialectal Dutch ik heb de band lek constructions. Here, however, the Old Frisian data serves to contextualize the diachrony of the Modern Frisian phenomenon and is not investigated in further detail. Moreover, Van Bree only addresses a limited part of the Old Frisian corpus, first and foremost drawing his examples from the Fivelgo and Riustring manuscripts (Van Bree 1987: 100–102). It therefore seems worthwhile to examine the Old Frisian data more thoroughly and thereby highlight a syntactic phenomenon that occurs remarkably frequently in the Old Frisian texts.

There is another reason to focus attention on the dative experiencer constructions. Recent discussions in the literature on dative experiencers in the Old Germanic languages justify revisiting the question of their antiquity, that is, how old these constructions were in the prehistory of Germanic. On this subject, Eythórsson and Barðdal (2005) have shown that some dative experiencers actually behave like syntactic subjects and go back to the grammar of the Proto-Germanic ancestral language (see also Barðdal & Eythórsson 2012). Recently, Allen (2019) has conducted a thorough analysis of body part constructions in the diachrony of English, in which she corroborates the antiquity of the dative experiencer construction and provides new answers to how it competed with regular possessive constructions. It is our contention that such an analysis would also benefit Old Frisian and help define how the Frisian language continued the inherited construction types.

3 Involvedness and Dative Experiencers

Given the extensive literature on dative constructions and the variation in terminology therein employed, we here provide our definitions and specify which dative constructions are within the scope of our investigation. In this article, the term “dative” will be used in the tradition of Germanic historical linguistics; we define the dative as a morphologically marked case form that signals goal semantics such as receiving, experiencing and belonging. A dative case coding a recipient or a beneficiary is also known as the “dative proper” (cf. Van Belle & Van Langendonck 1996: x). We have chosen to subsume sympathetic datives, datives of interest (ethical datives) and datives of belonging (for discussion, see Allen 2019: 1–23) under the term “involved dative”, because they all mark a relationship of close involvement between an animate argument and the predicate.

As discussed above, in the Old Germanic languages an involved dative can be used for expressing bodily harm. For the diachrony of English, this construction type has been catalogued by scholars such as Mitchell (1985) and Allen (2019) and for the diachrony of German by Krohn (1980) and Hole (2014). The construction persists in different guises in the modern Germanic languages. In Modern German, for example, it is still compulsory with affected possessors of possessed objects (Vennemann 2002: 151–152):

In present-day spoken Dutch, the construction is mainly found in set clauses that have become proverbial (see also Van Bree 1996: 191):

A genuine Dutch counterpart to the German “he cut him the head off” example can occasionally be found in nineteenth-century prose and grammars (e.g. Ik sla u den arm stuk ‘I break your arm’, Cosijn 1869: 66), but it is difficult to gauge how common this construction actually was in the spoken language.

In Modern Frisian, constructions with dative body part possessors are much more common than in Modern Dutch. In his grammar of Modern Frisian, Popkema (2006: 267) considers them to be a variant of the possessive dative:

As mentioned before, in all of these languages, both medieval and modern, this construction can be used alongside other ways of marking the relationship between body part and body part owner, primarily by using a possessive pronoun such as his or her. This raises the question for how long involved dative constructions were used alongside regular possessive constructions and how one can define the relationship between them.

Burridge (1996) has investigated these issues in her study on Middle Dutch body part grammar. She argues that Middle Dutch clauses of the type “he cut him the head off” cannot only be interpreted as a dative of inalienability, but also as a single construction belonging to a larger semantic system that signals the degree of involvement between person and body part. According to Burridge (1996: 699), several body part constructions were available in Middle Dutch to encode different degrees to which the person who suffered bodily harm was involved in the verbal action; the dative of inalienability would simply be one of them. She proposes a hierarchical scale with no. 1 being the least involved and no. 5 the most involved:2

  1. Mention of body part without possessing person;

  2. Person expressed in a locative phrase and independent of the body part constituent;

  3. Person coded as a possessive pronoun or genitive modifier of the body part constituent;

  4. Person doubly coded as a dative pronoun and as a possessive pronoun modifier of the body part;

  5. Person coded as dative argument independent of the body part constituent.

Burridge’s system closely resembles that of Fox (1981), who argued that promoting body part owners in clauses on bodily harm from personal pronouns to dative arguments is a universal syntactic phenomenon, citing examples from languages such as French, Spanish, Igbo and Blackfoot.

Burridge continues her argument by noting that in intransitive clauses which concern bodily processes or states, also the body part could be coded with a dative case, thereby signaling that the body itself was an experiencer of the ongoing verbal event. Here the dative experiencer seems to fulfill the role of the grammatical subject and no other verbal argument is to be found in the sentence.

Another example of such an argument structure is the case of Middle Dutch hem walght ‘he vomits’ in (7), in which the experiencer is likewise marked by the dative case. Here it is important to note that the same Middle Dutch verb walghen has the stative meaning ‘to be disgusted’ when it takes a nominative subject.

According to Burridge, the dative experiencer constructions in (6) and (7) cannot be separated from sentences of the type methinks and me hungers, which also have experiencer subjects coded with oblique cases. She remarks that what the transitive clauses of the type “he cut him the head off” have in common with the intransitive ones of the type “him vomits” is that the use of the dative case marks the involitionality of the experiencer in relation to the verbal action. These peculiar constructions and their verb frames were described as early as 1907 by Pedersen but their origin remains disputed (see van der Horst 2008: 456–459; Bremmer 1986: 80; Barðdal & Eythórsson 2009, Barðdal et al. 2018). Twenty years ago, Burridge still had to justify the analysis of Middle Dutch clauses such as “him vomits” as oblique subjects in the face of alternative explanations for the unexpected case form, e.g. the decay of the Middle Dutch case system. Now the evidence for this analysis seems solid, especially since other Germanic languages like Gothic, Old Icelandic and Old High German, where the decay of the case system is not an issue, exhibit the same case frames and constructions (cf. Van der Horst 2008; Barðdal & Eythórsson 2012).

4 The Corpus

The Old Frisian corpus from which we have drawn our data consists of medieval legal manuscripts that were written in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, originating from the Ems and Weser areas.4 Below we present an overview of the manuscripts and the relevant texts from which we have extracted the data in alphabetical order (for a more extensive survey of the dating and redactions, see Nijdam 2008: 87, Bremmer 2009: 13–14).

  • First Emsingo Codex [E1] (ca. 1400)

    • General Register of Compensations

    • Emsingo Book of Compensations

    • Miscellaneous

  • Second Emsingo Codex [E2] (ca. 1450)

    • Chattle Oath

    • Emsingo Register of Compensations

    • Emsingo Book of Compensations

  • Third Emsingo Codex [E3] (ca. 1450)

    • Emsingo Register of Compensations

    • Additions to the Land Laws and the General Register of Compensations

    • Emsingo Book of Compensations

  • Fivelgo Codex [F] (ca. 1500)

    • Seventeen Statutes

    • Twenty-four Landlaws

    • Magnus Statutes

    • Eight Dooms

    • About a thief

    • General Register of Compensations

    • Miscellaneous rules

    • Asega Law

    • Succession Law

    • Fivelgo and Oldamt Statutes

  • First Hunsingo Codex [H1] (ca. 1325–1350)

    • Seventeen Statutes

    • Hunsingo Register of Compensations (part I)

    • Hunsingo Register of Compensations (part II)

    • General Register of Compensations

  • Second Hunsingo Codex [H2] (ca. 1325–1350)

    • Seventeen Statutes

    • Twenty-four Landlaws

    • Hunsingo Register of Compensations

    • Seven Statutes

    • Exceptions to the Seventeenth Statute

    • General Register of Compensations

    • Hunsingo Statutes of 1252

  • First Riustring Codex [R1] (ca. 1300)

  • Second Riustring Codex [R2] (ca. 1327)

    • iustring Register of Compensations

    • Miscellaneous Legal Rules

The reason why we have selected these manuscripts is that they were all produced east of the River Lauwers and are therefore considered East Frisian (Bremmer 2009: 16). Hence, it is to be expected that the dialectal variation within these texts is rather limited, at least more so than when comparing East Frisian and West Frisian manuscripts. Furthermore, the manuscripts represent a significant part of the surviving Old Frisian text tradition (eight out of the eighteen surviving manuscripts) and contain an abundance of body part terms; these body parts are mentioned in the context of legal fees that had to be paid as a compensation for bodily injury. For every single body part a specific compensation was prescribed that was commensurate to the extent of the injury, the victim’s social status and the importance of that body part to the victim’s future life (Nijdam 2008: 18).

Although the Old Frisian legal stipulations concerning bodily harm are a true treasure trove for body part terminology and constructions, they also have some important limitations. The legal texts use a phraseology that does not allow for much syntactic variation; furthermore, the laws recorded in these manuscripts depend heavily on set formulae, some of which might reflect oral traditions (Bor 1982: 14; Bremmer 2014). Consequently, these legal clauses very often repeat the same structure over and over again. A large number of stipulations were even truncated to their core information, as exemplified by (8):

However, despite their terse language and utilitarian style, the Old Frisian law texts offer a unique perspective on the different types of injury that might occur in a late medieval society. Hence, they constitute an ideal text genre to explore for language material containing information on bodily harm.

5 Criteria for the Data Collection

For our investigation, we have scrutinized the aforementioned texts for all the Old Frisian sentences in which body parts are mentioned. We have done this by manually reading through the text editions by Buma & Ebel (1963, 1967, 1972) and Hoekstra (1950) to ensure that we would not miss any possible mentions of body parts due to spelling variation or sentence truncation. We have collected all the instances in which body parts occur as topical elements of the information structure of a full sentence, thereby excluding the following sentence types:

  • severely truncated sentences, such as (8)

  • sentences in which body parts are dependent parts of noun phrases, e.g. neiles ofslech ‘the striking off of a nail’

  • sentences in which body part terms are used metaphorically, e.g. thet sibbesta blod ‘the closest blood relative’

We have considered items to be body parts when they belong to the physical body or are intimately associated with the body such that their removal from the bodily sphere can be seen as harming the integrity of the body as a whole (see also Section 6.5). We have therefore also included the following bodily entities:

  • blood

  • hair

  • nails

  • the five senses

We have divided the collected tokens according to Burridge’s classification system (1996: 699), which distinguishes five types:

  • 1) body part without reference to body part owner

  • 2) body part owner encoded as a location

  • 3) body part with a possessive pronoun or genitive phrase

  • 4) body part with the animate referent doubly coded as possessive pronoun and dative experiencer

  • 5) body part with the animate referent coded independently from the body part constituent as a dative experiencer

We have collected these types in order to provide an overview of the ratio of body part mentions containing dative experiencers to just general body part mentions (examples are provided in Sections 6.2–4). For the collection of Types 1 and 3, we have included mentions of body parts that occur in the compensation registers or similar list-like contexts; in Types 4 and 5, we are dealing with more complete sentences. When collecting them, we decided to include “slightly truncated” sentences, where the subordinate particle “if” introducing the conditional clause is absent and the passive construction is given without the auxiliary:

We have included them because, despite their elliptical format, the evidence for the dative experiencer construction in these sentences is recognizably present.

In some cases, we had to consider the possibility that what looks like a dative experiencer may actually be part of the verbal argument structure, a problem also mentioned by Van Bree (1987: 88–89). As a consequence, we have excluded sentences in which the dative pronoun may be dependent on the verbal argument structure, as is the case in the following example where Old Frisian den ‘done’ is used ditransitively with hir as indirect object and kale ‘baldness’ as direct object:

An additional point that needs to be addressed is that in later stages of Old Frisian the personal pronoun him could both be used for the accusative and the dative case, with the older accusative pronoun hine slipping into disuse (Howe 2014: 223). However, in all the manuscripts that we have studied traces of hine are found as a separate accusative case form. Furthermore, the interpretation of him as exclusively dative in these contexts is supported by analogous clauses where the injured party is represented by ene monne or enre frouwa, instances that are unambiguously marked as datives. This is our motivation for generally regarding Old Frisian him as a dative, although we recognize that occasionally accusatives may occur in these positions as well:

A final remark concerns the problem of textual repetition, that is, the possibility that several manuscripts preserve the same legal stipulations or even one manuscript repeats the same legal clause in different texts. We have thus counted each mention that fits our criteria separately, even when a highly similar stipulation is found in another manuscript. Our reason for doing so is that we regard the inclusion of a legal stipulation into the manuscript not as a slavish copy from a prototype, but rather as a conscious moment in which the scribe engages both the text of his exemplar and his personal knowledge of the legal tradition. This supposition is supported by the fact that there is ample variation between various phrasings of the same legal stipulation.

In (12) and (13) the possessive sin is present in E1 but not in E2, while the diminutive word nosterlen ‘nostrils’ in E1 is represented by nostrin in E2. In our opinion, such variation in phrasing justifies treating similar versions of the same legal clause as separate expressions of scribal agency and therefore separate linguistic expressions.

6 The Data Analysis

In the following sections, we present several Old Frisian examples that illustrate how the semantic relationship between body part and body part owner is expressed. We also elaborate on the extent to which Burridge’s proposal of an involvement hierarchy for Middle Dutch can be applied to the Old Frisian body part constructions.

6.1 Body Part as Location

We start our presentation of the data by noting that events which involve body parts can be highlighted both from the perspective of the body part and from that of the body part owner. When considering the perspective of the body part, we follow Burridge (1996: 680) in distinguishing between, on the one hand, body parts as a core grammatical argument in the clause and, on the other, body parts as a peripheral argument in the clause, with the body part occurring in a prepositional phrase. Burridge cites the following example from the Middle Dutch Boeck van surgien, a fourteenth-century handbook on medical knowledge, in which a man’s head is injured by a falling beam.

In (14), the body part owner is marked both as an experiencer (expressed by the dative case) and as a possessor (by use of a possessive pronoun). But what is more striking is that the body part occurs in a prepositional phrase, thereby highlighting the location of the injury rather than its effect on the body part. In the Old East Frisian texts that we have investigated, no example of this clause type was found. However, beyond the scope of our investigation, a surprisingly similar clause is present in the Old West Frisian Aysma Codex. Here we are not dealing with a falling beam, but rather with a stone falling from a church:

In (15), like its Middle Dutch counterpart (14), the animate referent is also marked both as an experiencer and as a body part possessor, while the body part itself occurs in the prepositional phrase op syn haud. The almost complete parallelism of the construction in the two neighboring languages makes it likely that Old Frisian and Middle Dutch expressed the same semantic nuance in the same way; in clauses such as these the location of the injury is highlighted, rather than the victim or the body part.

Sometimes the perspective shifts from body part to body part possessor within a single sentence; occasionally we find legal stipulations that contain a main clause in which the body part is marked as a location and a dependent clause in which the body part is marked as a core argument. Example (16) represents such a complicated case where body part and body part owner are expressed differently in main and dependent clauses.

This stipulation concerns a plaintiff who is wounded in his lung, so that fluid is seeping from the wound.14 In the main clause, the body part is marked as a peripheral argument, while the body part owner is expressed by a possessive pronoun. In the subsequent dependent clause, the lung, expressed by the co-referent enclitic pronoun -s(e), is marked in the nominative, while the wounded plaintiff is coded as a dative experiencer.

6.2 Burridge Types 1, 2 and 3

In Section 6.1, we have considered bodily harm from the perspective of the body part. Viewed from the perspective of the body part owner, however, Burridge’s hierarchy scale of involvement comes into play. According to this scale, the lowest degree of involvement between the body part owner and the injury is represented by cases in which the animate referent is left unexpressed and the body part itself is highlighted (Type 1).

Burridge illustrates this type with a clause from the Boeck van surgien; in example (17), the body part “cranium” is the direct object that is being acted upon by an external actor, while the owner of the “cranium” is not mentioned at all.

Old Frisian has similar constructions in which a body part is acted upon by an external force while the body part owner remains unmentioned. The Emsingo Book of Compensations contains a legal clause concerning the eventuality that someone’s upper body is pierced by a sharp object (presumably a sword, a knife or a spear).

According to Burridge’s hierarchy, in (18) the body part lif ‘trunk, upper body’ is emphasized as the core argument of the transitive verb thruchsteta ‘to pierce through’.

Another example of a Type 1 construction is the following legal stipulation, in which the body part erm ‘arm’ is the subject of a conditional clause and the injury is expressed with the predicative adjective lom ‘lame’.

In examples (17) to (19), the possessor of the body part remains unmentioned. We may therefore follow Burridge in her assertion that the relationship between the body part and its owner is not in focus in such cases.

The following step in Burridge’s involvement hierarchy between body part and possessor consists of constructions in which the animate argument is marked as a location (Type 2). In these cases, the body part owner is only indirectly involved and it is still the body part that has most of the focus. Burridge illustrates this type with an example concerning the cleaning of the womb in vrouwen “in women”, taken from the Boec van Medicinen in Dietsche.

In our Old Frisian corpus we have not encountered any similar constructions in which the body part owner is marked as a location rather than as a possessor or an experiencer. The ideal construction would have looked something like “if someone cuts off an ear from a man” (**hwersa ma fon ene monne en ar ofsnith), but here stylistic reasons might be to blame for the absence of this construction from our corpus; it makes sense that in law texts that have a strong “if X happens to Y, then Z” structure, the focus should be on either the body part or the victim. There is no specific need to use general statements that specify the location of the body part on a person, as in (20).

The next level in Burridge’s hierarchy consists of constructions in which the body part owner is marked by either a possessive pronoun or a noun phrase in a genitive construction (Type 3). Since these two are the default ways of marking any kind of possession, we can limit ourselves to a single example:

In (21), the body part is the core argument of the verb aga ‘to have to, must’ and the body part owner is expressed with the nominative pronoun hi and the possessive pronoun sine.

6.3 Burridge Type 4: Dative Experiencer + Possessive Pronoun + Body Part

Burridge Type 4 concerns constructions in which the body part owner is marked with a dative case and the body part by a possessive pronoun.

In example (22), a foot injury is described. In this instance, the third-person pronoun hwasa ‘whoever’ is in the dative and a possessive pronoun sin precedes the body part. The relation between the body part “foot” and the body part owner who experiences the bodily harm is thus doubly marked.