Passive forms. The category of voice

In OE the finite verb had no category of voice. Only in the system of verbals the participles of transitive verbs present and past were contrasted as having an active and passive meaning.

The analytical passive forms developed from OE free combinations of weorþan become and bēon be + past participle of transitive verbs, e.g.OE wēarþ ofslæ¥en he was slain. In OE the former construction indicated the transition into the state expressed by the participle, while the latter denoted a state resulting from a previous action. The participle, which served as predicative to these verbs, in OE agreed with the subject in number and gender.

In ME the sphere of the passive voice grew as compared with OE. ME ben >OE bēon as a link verb became more widely used than ME werthen < OE weorþan, and its combination with past participle developed into an analytical form. Now it could express not only a state but also an action, e.g. ME engendered is the flour the flower is generated [born]. The formal pattern of the passive voice extended to many parts of the verb paradigm: it is found in the future tense, in the perfect forms, in the subjunctive mood and in the non-finite forms of the verb, e.g. Chaucer has:

the conseil that was accorded by youre neighebores

(The advice that was given by your neighbours)

But certes, wikkidnesse shal be warisshed by goodnesse.

(But, certainly, wickedness shall be cured by goodness.)

With many a tempest hadde his berde been shake.

(His beard had been shaken with many tempests.)

The passive voice was very widely developed in ME.

In Early NE the passive voice continued to grow and to extend its application. Late ME saw the appearance of new types of passive constructions. In addition to passive constructions with the subject corresponding to the direct object of the respective active construction, i.e. built from transitive verbs (see the above examples), there arose passive constructions whose subject corresponded to other types of objects: indirect and prepositional. Passive forms began to be built from intransitive verbs associated with different kinds of objects, e.g.::

The angel ys tolde the words. The angel is told the words (indirect object)

I wylle that my moder be sente for (Malory) I wish that my mother were sent for(prepositional object).

From an early date the passive voice was common in impersonal sentences with it introducing direct or indirect speech:

Hit was accorded, granted and swore, bytwene þe King of Fraunce and þe King of Engelond þat he shulde haue agen al his lands (Brut, 13th c.) It was agreed, granted and sworn between the King of France and the King of England that he should have again all his lands.

The wide use of various passive constructions in the 18th and 19th c. testifies to the high productivity of the passive voice. At the same time the passive voice continued to spread to new parts of the verb paradigm: the gerund and the continuous forms.


2.7. Development of the verbals

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 and 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 resulted in the loss of case distinctions in the infinitive and of forms of agreement in the participles.

The infinitive lost its inflected form (the so-called "Dative case) in Early ME. OE wrītan and tō wrītanne appear in ME as (to) writen, and in NE as (to) write. The endings an,-annewere reduced to en, -enne(due to levelling of endings). The preposition tō, which was placed in OE before the inflected infinitive to show direction or purpose, lost its meaning 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, wassometimes placed before the to-infinitive.

In ME the infinitive develops analytical forms. Compound forms of the infinitive appeared at a very early date: the passive infinitive, consisting of bēon plus participle II, is found in OE texts, though its semantic contrast to the simple form is not consistent, since the OE active infinitive, despite its form, could sometimes have a passive meaning. In ME texts we find passive and perfect infinitive in the active and passive forms, e.g.

He moste han knowen love and his servyse

And been a feestlych man as fressh as May. (Chaucer)

('He must have known love and its service and (must have) been a jolly man, as fresh as May.')

In NE (the 16th and 17th c.) continuous and perfect continuous forms of the infinitive appear, e.g. first to correct him for grave Cicero, and not for scurril Plautus whom he confesses to have been reading not long before.(J. Milton).

Evidently in the 17th c. the infinitive had the same set of forms as it has in present-day English.

The participle. The distinctions between the two participles were preserved in ME and NE: participle I had an active meaning and expressed a process or quality simultaneous with the events described by the predicate of the sentence. Participle II had an active or passive meaning depending on the transitivity of the verb, and expressed a preceding action or its results in the subsequent situation.

The form of participle I in Early ME is of special interest, as it displayed considerable dialectal differences: the Southern and Midland forms were derived from the present tense stem with the help of ing(e),while other dialects had forms in inde, -endeandande. The first of these variants finding(e), looking(e) became the dominant form in the literary language. Participle I coincided with the verbal noun, which was formed in OE with the help of the suffixes ungand ing, but had preserved only one suffix, -ingin ME.

The analytical forms of participle I began to develop later than the forms of the infinitive. It was not until the 15th c. that the first compound forms are found in the records: The seid Duke of Suffolk being most trostid with you (The said Duke of Suffolk being most trusted by you) In the 17th c. participle I is already used in all the four forms which it can build today: perfect and non-perfect, passive and active, e.g. Now I must take leave of our common mother, the earth, so worthily called in respect of her great merits of us; for she receiveth us being born, she feeds and clotheth us brought forth, and lastly, as forsaken wholly of nature, she receiveth us into her lap and covers us. Julius Caesar, having spent the whole day in the field about his military affairs, divided the night also for three several uses

The forms of participle I made a balanced system: passive versus active, perfect versus non-perfect. Participle II remained outside this system, correlated to the forms of participle I through formal differences and certain semantic affinities and oppositions (cf. forsaken and brought in the examples above).

The gerund.The Late MEperiod witnessed the growth of a new verbal known in modern grammars as the gerund. The gerund can be traced to three sources: 1) the OE verbal noun in -un¥and -in¥,2) the present participle and 3) the infinitive. In OE the verbal noun derived from transitive verbs took an object in the genitive case, which corresponded to the direct object of the finite verb: cf. OE sēo fēdin¥ ¥āra scēapa equivalent to the feeding of the sheep with hīe fēdaþ þā scēap they feed the sheep. The syntactic functions of the verbal noun, the infinitive and the participle partly overlapped. 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 wellhad not a body int

Which might be felt (Shakespeare).

Drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one,

doth empty the other. (Shakespeare).

Those were the verbal features of the gerund. The nominal features, retained from the verbak=l noun, were its syntactic functions and the ability to be modified by a possessive pronoun or a noun in the genitive case:

And why should we proclaim it an hour before his entering?(Shakespeare).

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 he fainted and cried, in fainting,upon Rosalind.

Shall we clap intot roundly without hawking,or spitting, or saying we are hoarse (Shakespeare)

Compound forms of the gerund appeared much later than those of the infinitive and the participle. The earliest instances of analytical forms of the gerund are found in the age of the literary Renaissance, when the infinitive and participle I possessed already a complete set of compound forms. The formal pattern set by the participle was repeated in the new forms of the gerund. These quotations illustrate compound forms of the gerund in the texts of the 17th and 18th c.:

To let him spend his time no more at home,

Which would be great impeachement to his age

In having known no travel in his youth. (Shakespeare)

Yet afraid they were, it seemed: for presently the doors had their wooden ribs crushed in pieces by being beaten together. (Th. Dekker, early 17th c.)

This man, after having been long buffeted by adversity, went abroad. (Smollett, 18th c.)

She begged the favour of being shown to her room. (Dickens)

The formal distinctions which had developed in the system of the verbals toward the 17th and 18th c. are practically the same as in Mod E. The forms of the infinitive and the ing-form (participle I and gerund) make up grammatical categories similar to those of the finite verb: voice, time-correlation and aspect.


The changes in the verbal system in Middle English and Early New English can be reduced to the following:

1. Strong verbs reduced the number of their principal forms from four (the infinitive past singular past plural past participle) to three (the infinitive past past participle) with the exception of the verb bēon which preserved four forms.

2. The number of stems in the weak verbs was reduced from three to two.

3. New, analytical forms (subjunctive mood, interrogative and negative forms with do, perfect, passive, continuous) expressing the category of order, voice and aspect came into being.

4. Future tense was formed.

5. Subjunctive I and II was formed on the basis of OE subjunctive forms.

6. The infinitive changed its form and meaning.

7. A new part of speech the gerund developed.


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