Growth of the future tense forms
In OE there was no form of the Future tense. The category of tense consisted of two members: past and present. The present tense could indicate both present and future actions, depending on the context. Alongside this form there existed other ways of presenting future happenings: modal phrases consisting of the verbs sculan ‘shall’, willan ‘will’, ma¥an ‘may’, cunnan ‘can’ and others, and the infinitive of the notional verb. In these phrases the meaning of futurity was combined with strong modal meanings of volition, obligation, possibility.
In ME future actions could still be expressed with the help of the present tense, particularly with verbs of motion, but the use of modal phrases, especially with the verb shall, became increasingly common. Shall + infinitive was now the principal means of indicating future actions in any context. The meaning of the modal verb shall changed, and though it could retain its modal meaning of necessity, but often weakened it to denote futurity. In Late ME texts shall was used both as a modal verb and as a Future tense auxiliary. Cf.: Me from the feend and fro his clawes kepe, That day that I shal drenchen in the depe. (Chaucer) ‘Save me from the fiend and his claws the day when I am drowned (or am doomed to get drowned) in the deep (sea)’.
Future happenings were also commonly expressed by ME willen + infinitive, but the meaning of volition in will must have been more obvious than the modal meaning of shall: A tale wol I telle (Chaucer) ‘I intend to tell a story’. The future event is shown here as depending upon the will or consent of the doer. The verb will was more frequent in popular ballads and in colloquial speech, which testifies to certain stylistic restrictions in the use of will in ME.
The modal meaning of the verb shall disappears much earlier than that of will. During ME the combination shall + infinitive undergoes complete grammatisation, with the auxiliary shall used for all the persons. Thus, in Late ME the analytical form of the future tense with the auxuiliary shall emerges. The verb will turns into an auxiliary of the future form in Early NE. In NE the two analytical forms denoting futurity exist side by side. At the beginning of this period the forms were used indiscriminately for all the three persons in the singular and plural, e.g. I will sooner have a beard grow in the palm of my hand, than he shall get one on his cheek. However, in the 17th c. the auxiliary will comes to oust shall in the 2nd and 3rd persons singular and plural. In the 18th c. the use of shall and will was normalized by grammatists and came to be the same as in Modern English. Development of the future forms in colloquial speech led to further spread of will to all the persons andthe appearance of the contracted forms –‘ll, allegedly ascending to will.
2.2. New forms of the subjunctive mood
In OE the forms of the subjunctive mood, like other forms of the verb, were synthetic. In the course of ME and Early NE there sprang up several new analytical forms of the subjunctive mood.
In ME the formal distinctions between the subjunctive and indicative moods were to a large extent neutralized. The increased homonymy of the forms stimulated the more extensive use of modal phrases, indicating imaginary and probable actions.
As stated above in OE modal phrases consisting of sculan, willan, ma¥an + infinitive were commonly used to indicate future actions; if the modal verb had the form of the subjunctive – present or past – the meanings of the phrase approached that of the subjunctive mood of the notional verb, with some additional shades of modality, belonging to the modal verbs, e.g. swā þæt hē mehte æ¥þerne ¥eræ can, ¥if hīe ænigne feld sēcan wolden ‘so that he might reach either (army), if they (those armies) wanted to get to the battlefield’.
In ME many more modal phrases of similar meaning came into use, with biden ‘bid’, deignen ‘deign’, granten ‘grant’, leten ‘let’, neden ‘need’ as their first components; but sholde and wolde outnumbered the other verbs. In ME modal phrases expressing problematic and imaginary actions occur along with the old synthetic forms. At that time sholde and wolde could weaken and even lose their lexical meanings and turn into auxiliaries. By the age of Shakespeare the change was complete and the forms should/would – originally past subjunctive of shall and will – had become formal markers of the new, analytical forms of the subjunctive mood. The following quotation shows that they did not differ in meaning:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And three score year would make the world away. (Shakespeare)
The use of should and would as mood auxiliaries was supported by the parallel development of shall and will as the auxiliaries of the future tense. The rules prescribing the distribution of shall and will according to person applied also to should and would. Consequently, in the course of the 18th and 19th c. should became the dominant auxiliary for the 1st person, would – for the 2nd and 3rd; those were the rules of correct usage in Standard British English. At the same time, similarly with will and shall, would and ‘d tended to replace should. The replacement has been copmpleted in the American English and is still going on in the British English, perhaps, under American influence.
2.3. Interrogative and negative forms with do
The Early NE period witnessed the development of a new set of analytical forms in the present and past tense of the indicative mood: interrogative and negative forms with the auxiliary verb do known in English grammars as the “periphrasis with do” or “do-periphrasis”.
In ME the verb don was commonly used together with an infinitive to express a causative meaning, e.g. And dide him grete oþes swere ‘And made him swear great oaths’.
In Early NE the causative meaning passed to a similar verb phrase with make, while the periphrasis with do began to be employed instead of simple, synthetic forms. Its meaning did not differ from that of simple forms.
At first the do-periphrasis was more frequent in poetry, which may be attributed to the requirements of the rhythm: the use of do enabled the author to have an extra syllable in the line, if needed. Then it spread to all kinds of texts. In the 16th and 17th c. the periphrasis with do was used in all types of sentences – negative, affirmative and interrogative; it freely interchanged with the simple forms, without do. Cf. the following instances from Shakespeare: ‘We do not know how he may soften at the sight o’the child…’ ‘Who told me that the pour soul did forsake the mighty Warwick, and did fight for me?’ ‘Heard you all this?’ ‘I know not why, nor wherefor to say live, boy…’.
Towards the end of the 17th c. the use of simple forms and the do-periphrasis became more differentiated: do was found mainly in negative statements and questions, while the simple forms were preferred in affirmative statements. Thus the do-periphrasis turned into analytical negative and interrogative forms of simple forms: present and past.
2.4. Perfect forms. The category of time-correlation
Like other analytical forms of the verb, the Perfect forms have developed from OE verb phrases.
1) The main source of the perfect form was the OE “possessive” construction, consisting of the verb habban ‘have’, a direct object and participle II of a transitive verb, which served as an attribute to the object, e.g.
Hæfdesē ¥oda cempan¥ecorene(Beowulf) (‘had that brave (man) warriors chosen’).
The meaning of the construction, which served as a compound nominal predicate in the sentence, was: a person (the subject) possessed a thing (the object), which was characterized by a certain state resulting from a previous action (the participle). The participle, like other attributes, agreed with the noun-object in number, gender and case.
Originally the verb habban was used only with participles of transitive verbs; then it came to be used with verbs taking genitival, datival and prepositional objects and even with intransitive verbs, which shows that it was developing into a kind of auxiliary, e.g.
For sefenn winnterr hafde he ben in Egypte (Ormulum) (‘for seven winters he had been in Egypt’).
2) The other source of the perfect forms was the OE phrase consisting of the link-verb bēon and participle II of intransitive verbs:
Nū is sē dæ¥ cumen (Breowulf) (‘Now the day has (lit. “is”) come’)
Hwænne mīne da¥as ā¥āne bēoþ(‘When my days are gone (when I die..)’.)
In these phrases the participle usually agreed with the subject.
In ME the two verb phrases turned into analytical forms and made up a single set of forms termed “perfect”. The participles had lost their forms of agreement with the noun (the subject – in the construction with ben, the object – in the construction with haven); the places of the object and the participle in the construction with haven changed: the participle usually stood close to the verb have and was followed by the object which referred now to the analytical form as a whole – instead of being governed by have. Compare the OE possessive construction quoted above with ME examples:
The holy blisful martyr for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. (Chaucer)
(‘To seek the holy blissful martyr who has helped them when they were ill.’)
In this example the structure hath holpen is a simple verbal predicate. In the perfect form the auxiliary have had lost the meaning of possession and was used with all kinds of verbs, without restriction. Have was becoming a universalauxiliary, whereas the use of be grew more restricted.
By the age of the Literary Renaissance the perfect forms had spread to all the parts of the verb system.
In the beginning the main function of the perfect forms was to indicate a completed action, to express “perfectivity” rather than priority of one action to another and relevance for the subsequent situation (the meanings ascribed to the perfect forms today). For a long time the perfect forms were used as synonyms of the simple past. Towards the age of Shakespeare the contrast between the perfect and non-perfect forms became more obvious. In the main Shakespeare and his contemporaries employed the perfect forms in the same way as they are employed in present-day English.
Thus in the 17th c. the meaning of “priority and relevance for the subsequent situation” became the domain of the perfect forms and the meaning of the non-perfect forms, particularly the past indefinite, was accordingly narrowed. It may be concluded that the category of time-correlation was established in the 17th c.
2.5. Continuous forms. The category of aspect
In the OE verbal system there was no category of aspect. The growth of continuous forms was slow and uneven.
Verb phrases consisting of bēon + participle I often occur in OE prose. They denoted a quality, or a lasting state, characterizing the person or thing indicated by the subject of the sentence, e.g. seō… is irnende þurh middewearde Babylonia bur¥ “that (river) runs through the middle of Babylon”. This construction functioned as a compound nominal predicate at that period.
In Early ME the structure ben + participle I fell into disuse, in Late ME its frequency grew again, e.g. Syngynge he was or floytyngeal the day (Chaucer) ‘He was singing and playing the flute all day long’. At that stage the meaning of the construction changed, it was used for emphasis and vividness of description, e.g. We holden on to the Cristen feyth and are byleving in Jhesu Cryste. (Caxton) ‘We hold to the Christian faith and believe (lit. “are believing”) in Jesus Christ’.
In Early NE (15th -16th c.) be plus participle I was often confused with a synonymous phrase – be plus the preposition on (or its reduced form a) plus a verbal noun. By that time the present participle and the verbal noun had lost their formal differences: the participle I was built with the help of –ing and the verbal noun had the word-building suffix –ing, which had ousted the equivalent OE suffix –un¥:
She wyst not… whether she was a-waking or a-slepe. (Caxton) ‘She did not know whether she was awake (was on waking) or asleep.’
The prepositional phrase indicated a process, taking place at a certain period of time. It is believed that the meaning of process or an action of limited duration – which the continuous forms acquired in Early NE – may have come from the prepositional phrase. Yet even in the 17th c. the semantic difference between the continuous and non-continuous forms is not always apparent, e.g.:
The Earl of Wesmoreland, seven thousands strong, is marching hitherwards. (Shakespeare).
What, my dear lady Disdain! Are you yet living? (Shakespeare).
Here the continuous makes the statement more emotional, forceful.
The non-continuous, simple form can indicate an action in progress which takes place before the eyes of the speaker (nowadays this use is typical of the continuous form):
Enter Hamlet reading… P o l o n i u s. What do you read, my lord?
It was not until the 18th c. that the continuous forms acquired a specific meaning of their own, that of incomplete concrete process of limited duration. Only at that stage the continuous and non-continuous made up a new grammatical category – aspect. The meaning of non-continuous = indefinite forms became more restricted, though the contrast was never as sharp as in the other categories: in some contexts the forms have remained synonymous and are even interchangeable to this day (e.g. after while). By that time the formal pattern of the continuous as an analytical form was firmly established. The continuous forms were used in all genres and dialects and could be built both from non-terminative verbs, as in OE, and from terminative verbs.
In the 19th c. continuous forms were used more widely. But in the early 19th c. they were considered a feature of colloquial style and were not admitted in to poetry.
William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) was the first to use continuous forms in poetry, where their use seemed very bold and even vulgar. Later, however, continuous forms penetrated far deeper into all styles of the language.