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The adjective. Decay of Declensions and Grammatical Categories

In the course of the ME period the adjective underwent greater simplifying changes than any other part o speech. It lost all its grammatical categories with the exception of the-degrees of comparison. In OE the adjective was declined to show the gender, case and number of the noun it modified; it had a five-case paradigm and two types of declension, weak and strong.

By the end of the OE period the agreement of the adjective with the noun had become looser and in the course of Early ME it was practically lost. Though the grammatical categories of the adjective reflected those of the noun, most of them disappeared even before the noun lost the respective distinctions. The geographical: direction of the changes was generally the same as in the noun declensions. The process began in the North and North-East Midlands and spread south. The poem Ormulum, written in 1200 in the North-East Midland dialect reveals roughly the same state of adjective morphology as the poems of G.Chaucer and J.Gower written in the London dialect almost two hundred years later.

The decay of the grammatical categories of the adjective proceeded in the following order. The first category to disappear was Gender, which ceased to be distinguished by the adjective in the 11th c. The number of cases shown in the adjective paradigm was reduced: the Instr. case had fused with the Dat. by the end of OE; distinction of other cases in Early ME was unsteady, as many variant forms of different cases, which arose in Early ME, coincided. Cf. some variant endings of the Dat. case sg in the late 11th c.: mid miclum here, mid miclan here, 'with a big army' mid eallora his here 'with all his army'.

In the 13th c. case could be shown only by some variable adjective endings in the strong declension (but not by the weak forms); towards the end of the century all case distinctions were lost. The strong and weak forms of adjectives were often confused in Early ME texts. The use of a strong form after a demonstrative pronoun was not uncommon, though according to the existing rules, this position belonged to the weak form, e. g.: in þere wildere sæ 'in that wild sea' instead of wilden see. In the 14th c. the difference between the strong and weak form is sometimes shown in the sg. with the help of the ending -e.

The general tendency towards an uninflected form affected also the distinction of Number, though Number was certainly the most stable nominal category in all the periods. In the 14th c. pl forms were sometimes contrasted to the sg forms with the help of the ending -e in the strong declension. Probably this marker was regarded as insufficient; for in the 13th and particularly 14th c. there appeared a new pl ending -s. The use of-s is attributed either to the influence of French adjectives, which take -s in the pi or to the influence of the ending -s of nouns, e. g.:

In other places delitables. ('In other delightful places.')

In the age of Chaucer the paradigm of the adjective consisted of four forms distinguished by a single vocalic ending -e.

sg pl
Strong Weak blind blinde blinde blinde


This paradigm can be postulated only for monosyllabic adjectives ending in a consonant, such as ME bad, good. long. Adjectives ending in vowels and polysyllabic adjectives took no endings and could not show the difference between sg and pl forms or strong and weak forms: ME able, swete, bisy, thredbare and the like were uninflected. Nevertheless certain distinctions between weak and strong forms, and also between sg and pl are found in the works of careful 14th c. writers like Chaucer and Gower. Weak forms are often used attributively after the possessive and demonstrative pronouns and after the definite article. Thus Chaucer has: this like worthy knight 'this same worthy knight'; my deere herte 'my dear heart', which are weak forms, the strong forms in the sg having no ending. But the following examples show that strong and weak forms could be used indiscriminately: A trewe swynkere and a good was he ('A true labourer and a good (one) was he.') Similarly, the pl. and sg forms were often confused in the strong declension, e. g.: A sheet of pecok-arves, bright and kene. Under his belt he bar ful thriftily ('A sheaf of peacock-arrows, bright and keen. Under his belt he carried very thriftily.')

The distinctions between the sg and pl forms, and the weak and strong forms, could not be preserved for long, as they were not shown by all the adjectives; besides, the reduced ending -e [a] was very unstable even in 14th c. English. In Chaucer's poems, for instance, it is always missed out in accordance with the requirements of the rhythm. The loss of final -e in the transition to NE made the adjective an entirely uninflected part of speech.

The degrees of comparison is the only set of forms which the adjective has preserved through all historical periods. However, the means employed to build up the forms of the degrees of comparison have considerably altered.

In OE the forms of the comparative and the superlative degree, like all the grammatical forms, were synthetic:

they were built by adding the suffixes -ra and –est/-ost, to the form of the positive degree. Sometimes suffixation was accompanied by an interchange of the root-vowel; a few adjectives had suppletive forms.

In ME the degrees of comparison could be built in the same way, only the suffixes had been weakened to -er, -est and the interchange of the root-vowel was less common than before. Since most adjectives with the sound alternation had parallel forms without it, the forms with an interchange soon fell into disuse. ME long, lenger, longer and long, longer, longest.

The alternation of root-vowels in Early NE survived in the adjectival old, elder, eldest, where the difference in meaning from older, oldest made the formal distinction essential. Other traces of the old alternations are found in the pairs farther and further and also in the modern words nigh, near and next, which go back to the old degrees of comparison of the OE adjective neah 'near', but have split into separate words.

The most important innovation in the adjective system in. the ME period was the growth of analytical forms of the degrees of comparison. The new system of comparisons emerged in ME, but the ground for it had already been prepared by the use of the OE adverbs ma, bet, betst, swiþor 'more', 'better', 'to a greater degree' with adjectives and participles. It is noteworthy that in ME, when the phrases with ME more and most became more and more common, they were used with all kinds of adjective, regardless of the number of syllables and were even preferred with mono- and disyllabic words. Thus Chaucer has more swete, better worthy, Gower more hard for 'sweeter', 'worthier' and 'harder'. The two sets of forms, synthetic and analytical, were used in free variation until the 17th and 18th c., when the modern standard usage was established.

Another curious peculiarity observed in Early NE texts is the use of the so-called "double comparatives" and "double superlatives": By thenne Syr Trystram waxed more fressher than Syr Marhaus. ('By that time Sir Tristram grew more angry than Sir Marhaus'.)

Shakespeare uses the form worser which is a double comparative: A "double superlative" is seen in: This was the most unkindest cut of all. The wide range of variation acceptable in Shakespeare's day was condemned in the "Age of Correctness" the 18th c. Double comparatives were banned as illogical and incorrect by the prescriptive grammars of the normalising period.

It appears that in the course of history the adjective has lost all the dependent grammatical categories but has preserved the only specifically adjectival category the comparison. The adjective is the only nominal part of speech which makes use of the new, analytical, way of form-building.


Unlike the morphology of the noun and adjective, which has become much simpler in the course of history, the morphology of the verb displayed two distinct tendencies of development: it underwent considerable simplifying changes, which affected the synthetic forms and became far more complicated owing to the growth of new, analytical forms and new grammatical categories. The evolution of the finite and non-finite forms of the verb is described below under these two trends.

The decay of OE inflections, which transformed the nominal system, is also apparent in the conjugation of the verb though to a lesser extent. Many markers of the grammatical forms of the verb were reduced, levelled and lost in ME and Early NE; the reduction, levelling and loss of endings resulted in the increased neutralisation of formal oppositions and the growth of homonymy. ME forms of the verb are represented by numerous variants, which reflect dialectal differences and tendencies of potential changes. The intermixture of dialectal features in the speech of London and in the literary language of the Renaissance played an important role in the Conjugation of Verbs in ME and Early New English formation of the verb paradigm. The Early ME dialects supplied a store of parallel variant forms, some which entered literary English and with certain modifications were eventually accepted as standard. The simplifying changes the verb morphology affected the distinction of the grammatical categories to a varying degree.


  Strong Weak
  ME Early NE ME Early NE
Infinitive finde(n) find looke(n) look
Present tense Indicative
Sg 1st finde find looke look
2nd findest/findes findest lookest/lookes lookest
3rd findeth/findes finds/findeth looketh/lookes looks/looketh
Pl finde(n)/findeth/findes find looke(n)/looketh/lookes look
Sg finde     find looke     look
Pl finde(n) looke(n)
Imperative find(e) findeth/finde look(e) looketh/looke
Participle 1 finding(e)/-ende/ findind(e)/findand(e)   finding looking(e)/-ende/-ind(e)/-ande   looking
Past tense Indicative        
Sg 1st fand     found looked(e)     looked
2nd founde/fand/fandes lookedest
3rd fand looked(e)
Pl founde(n) looked(en)
Sg founde   found looked(e)   looked
Pl founde(n) looked(en)
Participle II founden found looked looked


Number distinctions were not only preserved in ME but even became more consistent and regular; towards the end of the period, however, in the 15th c. they were neutralised in most positions. In the 13th and 14th c. the ending -en turned into the main, almost universal, "marker of the pl forms of the verb: it was used in both tenses of the Indicative and Subjunctive moods (the variants in -eth and -es in the Present Indicative were used only in the Southern and Northern dialects). In most classes of strong verbs (except Class 6 and 7) there was an additional distinctive feature between the sg and pl forms in the Past tense of the Indicative mood: the two Past tense stems had different root-vowels (see fand, fanciest, fand and founden). But both ways of indicating pi turned out to be very unstable. The ending -en was frequently missed out in the late 14th c. and was dropped in the 15th; the Past tense stems of the strong verbs merged into one form (e. g. found, wrote). All number distinctions were thus lost with the exception of the 2nd and 3rd p., Pres. tense Indic. mood: the sg forms were marked by the endings -esl and -eth -es and were formally opposed to the forms of the pl. (Number distinctions in the 2nd p. existed as long as thou. the pronoun of the 2nd p. sg was used. For the verb to he which has retained number distinction in both tenses of the Indic. mood) Cf. the forms of the verb with the subject in the pi in the 14th and he 17th c.: Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. (Chaucer) (Then folks long to go on pilgrimages.') All men make faults. (Sh)

The differences in the forms of Person were maintained in ME, though they became more variable. The OE endings of the 3rd p. sg -þ, -eþ, -iaþ merged into a single ending -(e)th.

The variant ending of the 3rd p. -es was a new marker first recorded in the Northern dialects. It is believed that -s was borrowed from the pl forms which commonly ended in -es in the North; it spread to the sg and began to be used as a variant in the 2nd and 3rd p., but later was restricted to the 3rd. In Chaucer's works we still find the old ending -eth. Shakespeare uses both forms, but forms in -s begin to prevail. Cf:

He rideth out of halle. (Chaucer) (He rides out of the hall') My life ... sinks down to death. (Sh) but also: But beauty's waste hath in the world an end. (Sh)

In Shakespeare's sonnets the number of -s-forms by far exceeds that of -eth-forms, though some short verbs, especially auxiliaries, take -th: hath, doth. Variation of -s/-eth is found in poetry in the 17th and 18th c.: the choice between them being determined by the rhymes: But my late spring no buds or blossom shew'th. Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth.

In the early 18th c. -(e)s was more common in private letters than in official and literary texts, but by the end of the century it was the dominant inflection of the 3rd p. sg in all forms of speech. (The phonetic development of the verb ending -(e)s since the ME period is similar to the development of -(e)s as a noun ending. The use of—eth was stylistically restricted to high poetry and religious texts. The ending -(e)sl of the 2nd p. sg became obsolete together with the pronoun thou. The replacement of thou by you/ye eliminated the distinction of person in the verb paradigm with the exception of the 3rd p. of the Present tense.

Owing to the reduction of endings and levelling of forms the formal differences between the moods were also greatly obscured. In OE only a few forms of the Indicative and Subjunctive mood were homonymous: the 1st p. sg of the Present Tense and the 1st and 3rd p. sg of the Past In ME the homonymy of the mood forms grew.

The Indicative and Subjunctive moods could no longer be distinguished in the pl, when -en became the dominant flection of the Indicative pl in the Present and Past. The reduction and loss of this ending in Early NE took place in all the forms irrespective of mood. In the Past tense of strong verbs the difference between the moods in the sg could be shown by means of a root-vowel interchange, for the Subjunctive mood was derived from the third principal form of the verb Past pl. while the sg forms of the Indicative mood were derived from the second principal form Past sg. When, in the 15th c. the two Past tense stems of the strong verbs merged, all the forms of the moods in the Past tense fell together with the exception of the verb to be, which retained a distinct form of the Subjunctive in the Past sg. were as opposed to was.

Compare the forms of the verb in the following quotations from Shakespeare used in similar syntactic conditions; some forms are distinctly marked, others are ambiguous and can be understood either as Subjunctive or as Indicative: If there be truth in sight, you are my Rosalind... If thou survive my well contented day... Subj Against that time, if ever that time come... Subj. If truth holds true contents... Indic. If I lose thee, my loss is my love's gain... Indic., or Subj.

The distinction of tenses was preserved in the verb paradigm through all historical periods. As before, the Past tense was shown with the help of the dental suffix in the weak verbs, and with the help of the root-vowel interchange in the strong verbs (after the loss of the endings the functional load of the vowel interchange grew, cf. OE cuman cuom comon, differing in the root-vowels and endings, and NE come came). The only exception was a small group of verbs which came from OE weak verbs of Class I: in these verbs the dental suffix fused with the last consonant of the root [t] and after the loss of the endings the three principal forms coincided: cf. OE settan — sette - geset(en). ME seten — sette — set, NE set—setset.

Verbals. The Infinitive and the Participle

The system of verbals in OE consisted of the Infinitive and two Participles. Their nominal features were more pronounced than their verbal features, the Infinitive being a sort of verbal noun. Participles I and II, verbal adjectives. The main trends of their evolution in ME, NE can be defined as gradual loss of most nominal features (except syntactical functions) and growth of verbal features. The simplifying changes in the verb paradigm, and the decay of the OE inflectional system account for the first of these trends, loss of case distinctions in the infinitive and of forms of agreement in the Participles.

The Infinitive lost its inflected form (the so-called "Dat. case") in Early ME. OE writan and to writanne appear in ME as (to) writen, and in NE as (to) write. The preposition to, which was placed in OE before the inflected infinitive to show direction or purpose, lost its prepositional force and changed into a formal sign of the Infinitive. In ME the Infinitive with to does not necessarily express purpose. In order to reinforce the meaning of purpose another preposition, for, was sometimes placed before the to-infinitive: To lyven in delit was evere his wone. (Chaucer) (To live in delight was always his habit.')

In ME the Present Participle and the verbal noun became identical: they both ended in -ing. This led to the confusion of some of their features: verbal nouns began to take direct objects, like participles and infinitives. This verbal feature, a direct object, as well as the frequent absence of article before the -ing-form functioning as a noun transformed the verbal noun into a Gerund in the modern understanding of the term. The disappearance of the inflected infinitive contributed to the change, as some of its functions were taken over by the Gerund.

The earliest instances of a verbal noun resembling a Gerund date from the 12th c. Chaucer uses the -ing-form in substantival functions in both ways: with a prepositional object like a verbal noun and with a direct object, e.g. in getynge on your richesse and the usinge hem 'in getting your riches and using them'. In Early NE the -ing-form in the function of a noun is commonly used with an adverbial modifier and with a direct object — in case of transitive verbs, e.g.: Tis pity... That wishing well had not a body in't Which might be felt. (Sh) Drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one, doth empty the other.

Those were the verbal features of the Gerund. The nominal features, retained from the verbal noun, were its syntactic functions and the ability to be modified by a possessive pronoun or a noun in the Gen. case: And why should we proclaim it in an hour before his' entering?

In the course of time the sphere of the usage of the Gerund grew: it replaced the Infinitive and the Participle in many adverbial functions; its great advantage was that it could be used with various prepositions, e.g.: And now lie fainted and cried, in fainting, upon Rosalind. Shall we clap into 't roundly without hawking, or spitting, or saying we are hoarse…

The historical changes in the ways of building the principal forms of the verb ("stems") transformed the morphological classification of the verbs. The OE division into classes of weak and strong verbs was completely re-arranged and broken up. Most verbs have adopted the way of form-building employed by the weak verbs; the dental suffix. The strict classification of the strong verbs, with their regular system of form-building, degenerated. In the long run all these changes led to increased regularity and uniformity and to the development of a more consistent and simple system of building the principal forms of the verb.

Strong Verbs

The seven classes of OE strong verbs underwent multiple grammatical and phonetic changes. In ME the final syllables of the stems, like all final syllables, were weakened, in Early NE most of them were lost. Thus the OE endings -an, -on, and -en (of the 1st, 3rd and 4th principal forms) were all reduced to ME -en, consequently in Classes 6 and 7, where the infinitive and the participle had the same gradation vowel, these forms fell together; in Classes 1 and 3a it led to the coincidence of the 3rd and 4th principal forms. In the ensuing period, the final -n was lost in the infinitive and the past tense plural, but was sometimes preserved in Participle II. probably to distinguish the participle from other forms. Thus, despite phonetic reduction, -n was sometimes retained to show an essential grammatical distinction, cf. NE stole stolen, spoke spoken, but bound bound

In ME, Early NE the root-vowels in the principal forms of all the classes of strong verbs underwent the regular changes of stressed vowels.

Due to phonetic changes vowel gradation in Early ME was considerably modified. Lengthening of vowels before some consonant sequences split the verbs of Class 3 into two subgroups: verbs like findan had now long root-vowels in all the forms; while in verbs like drinken the root-vowel remained short. Thus ME writen and finden (Classes 1 and 3) had the same vowel in the infinitive but different vowels in the Past and Participle II. Participle II of Classes 2, 4 and 6 acquired long root-vowels [o:] and [a:] due to lengthening in open syllables, while in the Participle with Class 1 the vowel remained short. These phonetic changes made the interchange less consistent and justified than before, for instance, verbs with long [i:] in the first stem (writen, finden) would, for no apparent reason, use different interchanges to form the other stems. At the same time there was a strong tendency to make the system of forms more regular. The strong verbs were easily influenced by analogy. It was due to analogy that they lost practically all consonant interchanges in ME and Early NE. The interchange [z~r] in was were was retained. Classes which had many similar forms were often confused: OE sprecan Class 5 began to build the Past Participle spoken, like verbs of Class 4 (also NE weave and tread).

The most important change in the system of strong verbs was the reduction in the number of stems from four to three, by removing the distinction between the two past tense stems. In OE these stems had the same gradation vowels only in Classes 6 and 7, but we should recall that the vast majority of English verbs which were weak had a single stem for all the past forms. These circumstances facilitated analogical leveling, which occurred largely in Late ME. Its direction depended on the dialect, and on the class of the verb.

In the Northern dialects the vowel of the Past sg tended to replace that of the Past pi; in the South and in the Midlands the distinction between the stems was preserved longer than in the North In the South and South-West the vowel of the Past sg was often replaced by that of the Past pt or of the Past Participle, especially if the 3rd and 4th sterns had the same root-vowel. Some classes of verbs showed preference for one or another of these ways.

Different directions of leveling can be exemplified by forms which were standardised in literary English: wrote, rose, rode are Past sg forms by origin (Class 1); bound, found are Past pl (Class 3a), spoke, got, bore (Classes 5, 4) took their root-vowel from Participle II. Since the 15th c a single stem was used as a base for all the forms of the Past Tense of the Indicative and Subjunctive Moods. 479. The tendency to reduce the number of stems continued in Early NE. At this stage it affected the distinction between the new Past tense stem and Participle II. Identical forms of these stems are found not only in the literary texts and private letters but even M books on English grammar: thus B.Jonson (1640) recommends beat and broke as correct forms of Participle II; Shakespeare uses sang and spoke both as Past tense forms and Participle II.

One of the most important events in the history of the strong verbs was their transition into weak. In ME, Early NE many strong verbs began to form their Past and Participle II with the help of the dental suffix instead of vowel gradation. Therefore the number of strong verbs decreased. In OE there were about three hundred strong verbs. Some of them dropped out of use owing to changes in the vocabulary, while most of the remaining verbs became weak. Out of 195 OE strong verbs, preserved in the language, only 67 have retained strong forms with root-vowel interchange roughly corresponding to the OE gradation series. By that time the weak verbs had lost all distinctions between the forms of the Past tense. The model of weak verbs with two 'basic forms, may have influenced the strong verbs. The changes in the formation of principal parts of strong verbs extended over a long period.

Date: 2015-01-29; view: 1072

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