Morphological classification of verbs in Middle English

The historical changes in the ways of building the principal forms of the verb transformed the morphological classification of the verbs. The OE division into classes of weak and strong verbs was completely rearranged 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.

Changes that occurred in the system of strong verbs led to its simplification in the following ways:

1) Alternation of consonants due to Verners law in the 3rd and 4th stems was abandoned, with the exception of the following verbs:

bēn was wēre wēren

forlēsen forlēs forloren and some others.

2) Changes in vowel alternations in certain classes of strong verbs brought about the reduction in the number of stems from four to three, by removing the distinction between the two past tense stems. This development was very active in the Northern dialects, and already in the 13th 14th c. most strong verbs had only three stems.

3) Many strong verbs began to develop the forms of the past tense or past participle in accordance with weak verbs, and ultimately changed into weak. Thus, from the total number of strong verbs (about 170 verbs) over 40 verbs turned into weak ones. This process extended over a long period and in many cases continues in Mod E, which is testified by the presence of parallel past forms, e.g. blew blowed, lit lighted, learnt learned etc. In ME these parallel forms were quite numerous, e.g. stope stepped, sat sitted, crope crept etc. Some strong verbs left their traces in Mod E in the form of adjectives like cloven, laden, shaven, swollen etc.

4) The number of strong verbs in ME decreased considerably due to two reasons: a) the fact that many of them went out of use, like OE liþan go, tēōn draw, stī¥an rise, þēōtan roar, niman take, fōn catch etc., and b) displacement of strong verbs by the weak ones, often having the same root with the strong verbs, e.g. OE dreopan (strong), dropian (weak) > ME dropien, droppen > NE drop; OE smēōcan (strong), smocian (weak) > ME smoken > NE smoke, etc.

Out of the total number of strong verbs in OE (about 300) only about a half (140) were retained in ME. In the 12th 15th c. a number of verbs of Scandinavian and French origin joined strong verbs.

The seven classes of strong verbs changed in ME and NE in the following way:

Class I

OE writan wrāt writon writen

ME wrīten wrōt writen writen

NE write wrote written

Class II

OE cēōsan cēās curon coren

ME chēsen chēs chosen chosen

NE choose chose chosen

Class III

OE drincan dranc druncon drunken

ME drinken drank drunken drunken

NE drink drank drunk

Class IV

OE stelan stæl stælon stolen

ME stēlen stal stēlen stolen

NE steal stole stolen

Class V

OE sittan sæt sæton seten

ME sitten sat seten seten

NE sit sat sat

Class VI

OE scacan scōc scōcon scacen

ME shāken shōk shōken shāken

NE shake shook shaken

Class VII

OE cnāwan cnēōw cnēōwon cnāwen

ME knowen knew knewen knowen

NE know knew known

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

Weak verbs

The evolution of the weak verbs in ME and in Early NE reveals a strong tendency towards greater regularity and order.

The following changes occurred in the past-tense forms and past participles of the weak verbs: d > t

a) in the clusters rd, ld, nd:

¥irden girte girt to bind round

bilden bilte bilt to build

wenden wente went to turn, go

b) after l, ll, n, nn:

fēlen felte felt to feel

dwellen dwelte dwelt to dwell

mēnen mente ment to mean

brennen brente brent to burn

c) after s[z], f[v]:

lōsen loste lost to lose

lēven lefte left to leave

Gradually changing, three classes of OE weak verbs rearranged into two at the expense of merging of Class I and Class II:

OE Class I -ede

ME -ede

Class II -odeNE -ed, -d

Class III -de -de

The verbs of Class II, which were marked by ode, -od in OE, had weakened their endings to ede, -edin ME. Since a few verbs of OE Class I had ede, -ed, they were included in ME Class II. Consequently, the only difference between the two classes of weak verbs in ME was the presence or absence of the element e- before the dental suffix in the past tense stem.

In Late ME the vowel [e] in unstressed medial and final syllables became very unstable and was lost. This change eliminated the differences between the two classes and also the distinctions between the 2nd and 3d principal forms, thus reducing the number of stems in the weak verbs from three to two.

Late ME weak verbs are the immediate source of modern standard (regular) verbs.The marker of the past tense and participle II employed by the weak verbs the dental suffix d/-t was very productive in all historical periods. This simple and regular way of form-building, employed by the majority of OE verbs, attracted hundreds of new verbs in ME and NE.

Weak verbs were becoming more and more numerous, as they not only preserved in ME and NE almost all the verbs that were typical of the group in OE, but also added to their group the majority of borrowed verbs and about seventy verbs originally strong , and also such verbs as:

to call

to want Scandinavian borrowings

to guess


to pierce

to punish French borrowings

to finish


to contribute

to create Latin borrowings

to distribute

Alike strong verbs many weak verbs became irregular in the course of history, especially weak verbs of Class 1. For instance:

OE cēpan cēpte cēpt

ME kēpen kepte kept

NE keep kept kept

As we see the OE weak verb of the first class became irregular due to shortening of the vowel in the 2nd and 3d forms in ME (before two consonants).

Minor group of verbs

The verbs included in the minor groups underwent multiple changes in ME and Early NE: phonetic and analogical changes, which affected their forms, and semantic changes which affected their functions.

All the OE preterite-present verbs were preserved in ME except the verb ¥eneah to suffice, which was lost, though the meaning of some of them changed:

1. OE cunnan to know ME cunnen can past couthe, coude

2. ma¥an to be able mowen be allowed mighte

3. sculan should shu(l)len sholde

4. mōtan (?) can mōtan (?) be obliged to mōste

5. durran (?)dare durren dorste, durste

6. þurfan to demand thurfen (?) thurfte

7. witan to know witen wiste

8. du¥an to fit dowen doughte

9. ā¥an to possess owen (?) oughte

10. munan to remember munen (?)

11. unnan have an affection unen (?) outhe


In NE the number of preterite-present verbs was reduced to seven: can could; may might; moste > must; dar, durren > dare; owe > ought; wit, wot; shall should. Five of those verbs can, may, must, dare and ought have been preserved in Mod E, having formed the group of the so-called defective, or modal verbs.

ME can (from OE cann, Pres. Ind. sg 1st and 3rd p.) was used not only in the singular but also in the plural along with cunnen, the descendant of OE pl. cunnon; the latter, as well as the Subj. Forms cunnen, cunne died out by the end of the ME period. The past tense Ind. and Subj. appears in ME in two variants: couth(e) and coud(e). Couth became obsolete in NE, but coud was preserved. The insertion of l in spelling (could) may be due to the analogy of should and would where l was etymologically justified. In ME the verb can, and especially its past participle is still used in the original meaning know, however, can, couth/coude is much more common as a modal verb indicating physical or mental ability; gradually it replaced OE mæ¥, ME may and OE mōt in these meanings.

ME may (from OE mæ¥,) was used as the main form of the present tense, alongside mowen/mowe, and as the only form of the present in Early NE.Its infinitive and participle I went out of use; its past tense might (from OE meahte, mihte, ME mighte) was retained as the past form, indicative and subjunctive. As compared with OE, may has narrowed its meaning, for some of its functions, namely indication of physical and mental ability, have passed to the verb can.

ME shall (OE sceal) has lost many of its old forms: the plural forms, the forms of Pres. Subj., the Inf., and has retained only two forms shall and should (ME sholde, sholde(n) Past Ind. and Subj. In ME it was no longer used as a notional verb of full predication but was widely used, in both forms, as a modal verb, to express necessity, obligation and order.

The form sholde also occured in Pres. tense contexts as the Subj. of shall; eventually it lost its ties with shall and became a separate modal verb with its own sphere of meanings. We may say that in Early NE should repeated the original history of preterite-present verbs: the Past tense form of shall, should has acquired the meaning of the present and has turned into a new modal verb, should.

A similar shift of time-reference is observed in the history of must and ought. Mōste, mōstest, mōsten were past forms of the OE preterite-present mōt can. The present tense forms have been lost while must has acquired the meaning of obligation and is now treated as a present tense form. OE ā¥te, ā¥ton, ā¥ten were past tense forms of OE ā¥an, which have acquired the meaning of the present and developed into a new modal verb, ME ought(e) (the original meaning possess is preserved in the other descendant of the OE verb, NE owe, and also in own related to the same root).

One more modern verb, dare, is a preterite-present by origin; unlike other verbs it has lost most of its peculiarities characteristic of preterite-presents and of modern modal verbs: it usually takes s in the 3rd p. and has a standard past form dared. The only traces of its origin are the negative and interrogative forms, which can be built without the auxiliary do.

The OE verb willan, though not a preterite-present by origin, has acquired many features typical of the group, probably due to semantic and functional affinities. In ME it was commonly used as a modal verb expressing volition. In the course of time it formed a system with shall, as both verbs, shall and will (and also should and would), began to weaken their lexical meanings and change into auxiliaries.

OE ¥ān has had a most unusual history. In OE its past form was built from a different root and had a weak ending: ēode; its participle II ended in n,similarly with strong verbs (¥e)¥ ān. In ME the verb acquired a new past tense wente, which came from an entirely different verb, OE wendan (ME wenden, NE wend). Its OE past form wente had entered the paradigm of goon (NE go, went), while wend acquired a new past form wended. Thus the verb go remained a suppletive verb, though its OE its past form was replaced by a new form.

ME ben (NE be) inherited its suppletive forms from the OE and more remote periods of history. It owes its variety of forms not only to suppletion but also to the dialectal divergence in OE and ME and to the inclusion of various dialectal traits in literary English (see Table 9.1). The past tense forms were fairly homogeneous in all the dialects. The forms of the Pres. tense were derived from different roots and displayed considerable dialectal differences. ME am and are(n) came from the Midland (Anglian) dialects and replaced the West Saxon eom, sint/sindon. In OE the forms with the initial b-(from bēon)were synonymous and interchangeable with the other forms but in Late ME and NE they acquired a new function: they were used as forms of the Subj. and the Imper. Moods or in reference to the future and were thus opposed to the forms of the Pres. Ind. Cf.:

Table 9.1

Conjugation of OE bēon, ME ben, NE be

Infinitive Pres. Indicative 1st p. sg 2nd p. sg 3rd p. sg Plural Pres. Subjunctive Singular Plural Imperative Singular Plural Participle I Past Indicative 1st p. sg 2nd p. sg 3rd p. sg Plural Past Subjunctive Singular Plural Participle II   *wesan bēon   eom/am bēo/biom eart bist/bis is biþ sint/sindon bēoþ earon/aron sīe, sy bēo sīen, sy bēon wes bēo wesaþ bēoþ wesende bēonde wæs wæ:re wæs wæ:ron wæ:re wæ:ren been am art is been/ are(n) be been bee beeth beyng(e) beande was were was weren were weren been   be am - is are be be being was was were were been


The redistribution of suppletive forms in the paradigm of be made it possible to preserve some of the grammatical distinctions which were practically lost in other verbs, namely the distinction of number, person and mood.


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