March 22, 2004

Underðeodendlic gemet (Be he live or be he dead...)

Another cross-over between my Old English class and my English writing class.

There’s a line in The Wife’s Lament that has a particular use of the subjunctive forms of the verb ‘to be’: “Sy æt him sylfum gelong / eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah / feorres folclondes” which can be very literally translated ‘be all his joy in the world dependant on himself, (or) be he very distantly outcast from his far country’ or perhaps more smoothly though freely translated as ‘whether all his joy in the world is dependant on himself, or whether he is very distantly outcast from his far country’.

This use of the two subjunctive forms to form a correlative construction with the sense ‘whether … or’ survives into Modern English (though somewhat archaic) in Jack and the Beanstock: “Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that some of my English writing students have a tendency to use this construction. I wonder if they do so in an attempt to sound more formal. I generally suggest they change it to ‘whether … or’, which I feel is more common in Modern English, but perhaps the construction is fine in current usage. Does anyone else use this construction in their writing (or speech, I suppose)?

Posted by Mark at March 22, 2004 10:35 PM

The two phrases I can think of are “Come what may” and “Be that as it may”, which I think are both the same construction — but they’re both slightly fixed phrases, so I don’t know if that means it’s a common usage. The construction in more general use makes me think of Jane Austen — something like: “Be he ever so handsome, I should never like him!”. But maybe that’s just me.

Posted by: Aven at March 23, 2004 08:59 AM