The morphology of Middle English verbs

Largely due to the circumstances described in middle english section, during the Middle English period some dramatic changes in the structure of all morpho-syntactic categories took place, making the English from one thousand years ago show increasingly more resemblance to the English of today. As far as the verb is concerned, the two key changes which affected it when passing from Old English to Middle English were:
The explanation of the notions and a presentation of the inflectional system of this category will be provided in the following sections.

1. The inflection of verbs in Middle English

The Middle English verb in different syntactic contexts could take a finite (inflected) or a non-finite (uninflected) form. The finite forms were inflected by means of suffixation, ie. the addition of inflectional morphemes to the end of the stem of a word, for the following verbal subcategories: The non-finite forms, ie. the forms unmarked for tense, number and person, were: infinitive, past participle, present participle and gerund. From around Chaucer's time the last two obtained more or less regularly the same ending -ing and so started to be formally indistinguishable though functionally still different (Lass 1992: 144). Syntactically, the infinitive and gerund functioned as nouns and the participles as adjectives. On the basis of their inflections ME verbs are commonly classified into three groups: two major ones, traditionally referred to as strong and weak, and a third one comprising a number of highly irregular verbs (here referred to as MAD verbs, see below). The basic difference between the first two groups lies in the way they form their past tense and past participle. Strong verbs build them by means of a root vowel alternation (the so-called ablaut) and the past marker of weak verbs is a dental suffix (usually -t, -d or -ed) attached to the root, after which the inflectional endings marking the number/person are added. Tables 1. and 2. present the paradigms of inflections for these two kinds of verbs.

Table 1. The paradigm of (S)trong and (W)eak verbs in the finite form for the Midlands dialect (Fisiak 1968: 96-99)

 Infinitive   Indicative   Subjunctive   Imperative 
 Present   Past   Present   Past   Singular   Plural 
 Singular   Plural   Singular   Plural   Singular   Plural   Singular   Plural 
 1st   2nd   3rd   1st   2nd   3rd 
S -e -es(t) -eþ/-es -e(n) - -(e) - -e(n) -e -e(n) -e -e(n) -
W -e -es(t) -eþ/-es -e(n) -(e) -est -(e) -(e) -e -(en) -(e) -(en) -/-e -eþ

Table 2. Non-finite forms of (S)trong and (W)eak verbs (Fisiak 1968: 97-99)

     Infinitive   Past Participle   Present participle/Gerund 
 W  -e(n) -e(n) -ing(e)
 S  -e(n) - -ing(e)

The third of the aforementioned groups consists of verbs that display a high degree of irregularity and, according to Fisiak (1968: 99), may be further subdivided as follows:

One of the alternative subdivisions of this set of verbs, proposed in many ME grammars (cf. Lass 1992: 139-144; Welna 1996: 144-146), is made on diachronic rather than synchronic grounds, which means that the ME verbs are classified according to the formal properties they had in OE (none of these verbs is a borrowing). Thus, the subclassification continues the Old English one and goes as follows: preterite-presents, eg. can/con, dar, and anomalous verbs: gn, bn, will.

Finally, as this group of verbs is rather complicated morphologically and problematic when it comes to their detailed description and classification, they will be labeled in this paper as MAD, 'MAD' being an acronym formed from the initial letters of the names of the three subgroups. Thus, a convenient term is coined, which makes it easy to refer to the set of discussed verbs as a whole.

2. The classification of Middle English verbs

English verbs have undergone a significant restructuring from the time when Old English was spoken: most of the OE strong verbs, ie. those forming the past (participle) through the process of ablaut, went into the weak category (Welna 1991: 131, after Krygier 1994: 17). The examples of such verbs can be mainly found in ME, therefore the shift can be said to have happened throughout the Middle English period although some instances of shifted verbs occurred already in OE texts (Kahlas-Tarkka 2000: 218). The explanation for this process should be looked for in the following factors: phonological, due to the extensive sound changes; a blurred distinction between strong and weak verbs with respect to their inflectional endings; systemic, ie. the irregularities within the strong verb system; and extra-linguistic such as the misinterpretations of English grammatical rules made by the French acquiring the English tongue (Krygier 1994: 252).

The shift of a verb from one category to another was accompanied by the growth of the number of irregularities within the strong verb system, which in turn accelerated the process itself. The disintegration of the ablaut system and attempts at fitting most strong verbs into the weak paradigm must have changed the perception of ablaut from systemic feature to an irregularity. (Krygier 1994: 194). Consequently, in the 14th century any productivity of the strong category is lost and therefore the distinction should rather be made between regular (productive) and irregular (unproductive) verbs with some additional group from which other categorial sets, eg. modals, will later emerge (Kastovsky 1996: 43). Owing to the fact that this paper concerns the language of the text from the end of the 14th century, the following classification will be adopted:

In the database one more group is isolated that is not treated in this paper separately. It includes a small number of verbs (five) which do not occur in the text in any form that would allow their classification and external sources of information (Krygier 1994; Davis 1979; Sandved 1985) indicate that they were conjugated by Chaucer in his different works either as regular or irregular. Such a distinction of the group makes it quick and easy to trace and retrieve these verbs from the database.


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