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The origin of modern irregular verbs

In OE most verbs were regular, i.e. they built up their forms in accordance with patterns established in the language. In ME not only the few OE irregular – preterite-presents or anomalous verbs were preserved, but also new irregular verbs appeared. This was due, first of all, to the disappearance of the division of verbs into strong and weak, most strong verbs losing their regular pattern of conjugation and thus becoming irregular.

Another source of irregular verbs was the 1st class of weak verbs. Three groups of verbs originally belonging to the 1st class of weak verbs later became irregular:

a) verbs with a long root vowel, the root ending in -t or-d:

OE mētan mētte mētt

ME meten mette mett

NE meet met met

In ME the root vowel of the 2nd and 3rd forms was shortened due to the rhythmic tendency of the language requiring the shortening of all vowels if followed by two consonants. In NE the long root vowel in the first form was changed due to the Great Vowel Shift.

b) verbs with a long root vowel, the root ending in a consonant other than -t or-d:

OE cēpan cēpte cēpt

ME kepen kepte kept

NE keep kept kept

In ME the dental suffixation of the 2nd and 3rd forms is supplemented with a quantitative vowel interchange similar to that explained above, and in NE both vowel interchange (quantitative and qualitative) and suffixation serve as form-building means.

c) verbs with a short root vowel, the root ending in -t or-d:

OE settan sette sett

ME setten sette sett

NE set set set

No changes took placein the root vowel, the ending disappeared due to the final reduction of unstressed vowels, and now the verb builds up its forms without any material manifestation.

Even in the 2nd class of weak verbs examples of irregularity can be found. One of them is the verbto make.

OE macian macode macod

ME maken makede maked

NE make made made

The middle syllable of the 2nd and 3rd forms was lost, making the verb irregular.

Still another source of irregular verbs may be found in some loan words borrowed into the language in ME and NE. Although most borrowed verbs made their forms in accordance with the weak verbs of the 2nd class, some of them were irregular, e.g. Scandinavian strong verb borrowings which preserved their original vowel interchange and thus are nowadays irregular, as:

give gave given

take took taken

get got gotten.

Another irregular loan word is the French borrowingto catch(caught, caught) which is irregular, building up its forms on analogy with the verb to teach (taught, taught).

Thus, among NE regularverbs either native words – almost all OE weak verbs of the 2nd class and some OE strong verbs having lost their irregularity and forming their forms on analogy with the weak verbs of the 2nd class, such as to help, to bake, etc., or borrowings – almost all loan verbs may be encountered.



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

The growth of analytical forms of the verb is a common Germanic tendency. The beginning of these changes is dated in Late OE and in ME. The growth of compound forms from free verb phrases was a long and complicated process which extended over many hundred years.

A genuine analytical verb form must have a stable structural pattern different from the patterns of verb phrases; it must consist of several component parts: an auxiliary verb, sometimes two or three auxiliary verbs, e.g. NE would have been taken – which serve as a grammatical marker, and a non-finite form – infinitive or participle, which serves as a grammatical marker and expresses the lexical meaning of the form. The analytical form should be idiomatic: its meaning is not equivalent to the sum of meanings of the component parts.

Thus, analytical forms have the following six features:

1) an analytical form consists of two or more separate components: have come, was being done;

2) there is no syntactic bond between the components of an analytical form;

3) an auxiliary verb has maximum combinability, i.e. it combines with all or nearly all the verbs;

4) an auxiliary verb is completely devoid of any lexical meaning, it conveys only the grammatical meaning of person or number;

5) the second part of an analytical form (the Infinitive or Participle I, II) is a bearer of lexical meaning pertaining to this form;

6) the two parts together convey the grammatical meaning of tense and aspect.

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