Introduction to the History of English (HoE)

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Morphological change: Verbs

 

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Verbs

  • 1. The past tense formation
  • 2. Development of selected verb inflections

2.1 Infinitive -en & present plural -en
2.2 2nd Person present singular -st
2.3 3rd Person present singular -th vs -s

1. The past tense formation

1.1 Old English (cf. German)

Strong (Internal vowel change):

(1) ModHG reiten - ritt - geritten;
OE ridan - rad - ridon - riden;
ModE ride - rode - ridden
 
(2) ModHG helfen - half - geholfen;
OE helpan - healp - hulpon - holpen;
ModE help - helped

1.1 Old English (cf. German)

Weak 1

(Various dental suffixes; possible non-functional V and/or C changes):

(1) ModHG denken - dachte; OE šencan - šohte; ModE think - thought
(2) OE wyrcan - worhte; ModE work - worked

Weak 2

(Invariant dental suffix; no stem changes; productive):

OE lufian - lufode; ModE love - loved

1.2 Modern English

Regular (Dental suffix; no stem variation)

ModE live - lived

Irregular

ModE sing - sang - sung (orig. strong)
ModE think - thought - thought (orig. weak)

1.2 Modern English

"Weak" not the same as "regular"

  • Weak 1 has different suffixes - regular only one
  • Weak 1 may have vowel or consonant changes - regular must be invariant
  • Regular contains originally strong verbs, too (e.g. help)

"Strong" not the same as "irregular"

  • Strong means systematic vowel change - irregular contains originally strong & weak verbs (e.g. think - thought)

Systematic differences Old English - Modern English verb system

Old English (German)

Modern English

Bi-paradigmatic
2 Major patterns (strong : weak)
Mono-paradigmatic
(1 Regular pattern)
Widespread stem variation Stem-invariancy
Poly-categorial
(Inflections for tense, person, number)
Mono-categorial
(Verbs only inflect for tense)

2. Development of selected verb inflections

2.1 Infinitive -en & present plural -en

Geoffrey Chaucer:
The Canterbury Tales. General Prologue (ll.9-18)

And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wendeŲ,
The hooly blisful martir for to sekeŲ,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Cawley, A.C. (ed.) 1958. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. London, New York: Dent, Dutton. (p1.)

2.1 Infinitive -en & present plural -en contd.

 

-en

-e

3 Pres. pl. foweles maken, slepen
folk longen
they wende
Inf. for to seken for to seke
  • Chaucer apparently found it possible to alternate present plural and infinitive endings with and witout final -n
  • Ending on the way to being lost

2.2 2nd Person present singular -st

ANNE Foul devil, for God's sake hence and trouble us not,
For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Filled it with cursing cries and deep exclaims. […]

RICHARD Lady, you knowŲ no rules of charity,
Which renders good for bad, blessings for curses.

Honigmann, E. (ed.) 1968 [1981]. William Shakespeare. King Richard The Third. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (I, 2)

  • Loss of -st at the end of EModE
  • Not because of phonetic reduction!
  • Singular pronoun + verb thou -st replaced by plural you + plural form of verb with zero ending (cf. you knowŲ)

2.3 3rd Person present singular -th vs -s

Middle English: regional / dialectal distinction

  • -s Northern form
  • -th Southern form

Click for a map

2.3 3rd Person present singular -th vs -s contd.

Geoffrey Chaucer:
The Canterbury Tales. The Reeve's Tale (ll.4002-22)

Thanne were ther yonge povre scolers two, [...]
John highte that oon, and Aley highte that oother;
Of o toun were they born, that highte Strother,
Fer in the north, I kan nat telle where,
This Aleyn maketh redy al his gere, [...]
Aleyn spak first, 'Al hayl, Symond, y-fayth!
Hou fares thy faire dogher and thy wyf?'

Cawley, A.C. (ed.) 1958. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. London, New York: Dent, Dutton. (p.108-9)

  • Chaucer's dialect = London / East Midlands with 3 sg. -th; hence maketh
  • But in direct speech of Aleyn (from the north), -s ending is used; hence fares

2.3 3rd Person present singular -th vs -s contd.

Early Modern English

  • No longer dialectal distinction
  • Stylistic distinction
  • -s less formal (more frequent in drama!)
  • -th more formal (more frequent in prose; esp. later in elevated prose, e.g. Bible)