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Simplifying changes in the verb conjugation


1. Changes in the verbal system in Middle English and Early New English

1.1. Simplifying changes in the verb conjugation

1.2. Changes in the morphological classes of verbs

1.2.1. Strong verbs

1.2.2. Weak verbs

1.2.3. Minor groups of verbs

1.2.4. The origin of modern irregular verbs

2. Development of new grammatical forms and categories of the English verb

2.1. Growth of the future tense forms

2.2. New forms of the subjunctive mood

2.3. Interrogative and negative forms with do

2.4. Perfect forms. The category of time-correlation

2.5. Continuous forms. The category of aspect

2.6. Passive forms. The category of voice

2.7. Development of the verbals

3. Conclusions

Changes in the verbal system in Middle English and Early New English

The evolution of the verb system was a complicated process. On the one hand, the simplification and levelling of forms made the verb conjugation more regular and uniform; the OE morphological classification of verbs was practically broken up. On the other hand, the paradigm of the verb grew, as new grammatical forms and distinctions came into being. The verb acquired the new forms to denote the future, analytical forms of perfect and continuous; new forms of the subjunctive arose in the category of mood. These changes involved the non-finite forms too, for the infinitive and the participle, having lost many nominal features, developed verbal features: they acquired new analytical forms and new categories like the finite verb. Unlike the changes in the nominal system, the new developments in the verb system were not limited to a short span of two or three hundred years. They extended over a long period: from Late OE till Late NE. Even in the age of Shakespeare the verb system was in some respects different from that of Mod E and many changes were still underway.

Thus, 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.


Simplifying changes in the verb conjugation

The decay of OE inflections, which transformed the nominal system, is also apparent in the conjugation of the verb. Many markers of the grammatical forms of the verb were reduced, levelled and lost in ME and Early NE.

However, all types of verbs existing in OE – strong, weak, preterite-present and anomalous were preserved in ME. In each of these types we find changes due to phonetic phenomena of the ME period, and changes due to analogy. Besides, some verbs change from the strong conjugation to the weak, and some others from the weak to the strong.

Simplification of the verb paradigm in ME was promoted by the following changes:

1) The OE infinitive ending –anwas reduced to –enin ME, e.g. OE bindan > ME binden, binde(n).

2) The endings in verbal conjugation were levelled:

OE 1st p. sg. –e > ME -e

2nd p. sg. -(e)st, -ast > -est

3rd p. sg. -(a)þ > -eþ

pl. -aþ > -en

past -on > -en

-don > -den

After levelling the endings of the 3rd p. singular and plural (OE –aþ> ME –eþ) the forms of plural and 3rd p. singular became the same.

3) The forms of the dative and nominative cases of the infinitive merged into one, e.g.

OE bindan > bīnden

to binden

OE tō bindenne > to bīnden(e)

4) The prefix ¥e- was reduced to y (i)and later disappeared: OE ¥ebunden > ME (i)būnden.

The system of personal endings in the verb conjugation was further simplified in the 15th – 16th centuries.

The only inflections that were preserved in that period were –(e)stfor the 2nd p. sg. in the present tense and –th(Southern –es) for the 3rd p. sg. in the present tense. Later the form of the 2nd p. pl. came to be used instead of the form for the 2nd p. sg., and the latter has survived in Mod E being used only in poetic or lofty style.

The ending of the 3rd p. sg. in the present tense –th was replaced by –sin the 17th c.

In Chaucer's works we still find the old ending –(e)th. 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. (Shakespeare) but also: But beauty's waste hath in the world an end. (Shakespeare).

Later –sbecame the only ending for the 3rd p. sg. in the present tense.

Below is given the paradigm of verbal conjugation in the 15th – 16th c.

to see to call

Present Indicative

I see call

(thou seest) (callest)

he seeth, sees calleth, calls

we see call

Past Indicative

I saw called

(thou sawest) (calledst)

he saw called

we saw called

Present Participle

seeing calling

Past Pasticiple

seen called

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 cumin – cuom – cōmon, 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 – ¥e-set(ed), ME seten – sette – set, NE set – set – set.

In the 15th -16th c. the verb was characterized by three stems: the infinitive and present tense, the past tense and past participle:

infinitive and present past past participle

see saw seen (strong verb)

call called called (weak verb)

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 plural, when -en became the dominant inflection of the indicative plural 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 singular could be shown by means of a root-vowel interchange, for subjunctive mood was derived from the third principal form of the verb — past plural — while the singular forms of the indicative mood were derived from the second principal form — past singular. When, in the 15th c. the twopast 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 ben (to be), whichretained a distinct form of the subjunctive in the past singular – were as opposed to was.

This obscurity of expressing the subjunctive mood had two consequences: 1) the subjunctive mood merged with the indicative and began to be ousted by the latter; 2) the forms of modal compound predicate expressing the same shades of meaning came to compete with the subjunctive mood.

During the Middle English period the subjunctive mood was still represented by the synthetic forms which were rather rarely used except the forms of the verb ben.

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