Appendix:Middle English verbs
This page covers the morphological and syntactic properties of Middle English verbs. For information on how to organise verb entries, see Wiktionary:About Middle English#The verb.
Because Middle English is not a single, homogenous language, there was plenty of variation and change in the verbal system across time and space. Unless otherwise noted, the verbal system covered here and given in entries represents the language of Chaucer: London Middle English of the late 1300s and the early 1400s.
The Middle English verbal system displays a transition from the synthetic nature of Old English (already simplified compared to more archaic Germanic languages such as Old High German and Gothic) to the more analytic nature of the Modern English system.
As with other Germanic languages, the verbs of Middle English are conventionally grouped into four broad classes (though any given verb may belong to more than one class due to variation in its conjugation):
- Weak verbs, which can be identified by their past in -d- or -t-. Most Middle English verbs are weak.
- Strong verbs, which form their past through modification of their stem vowel.
- Preterite-present verbs, which use past endings to form their present (hence their name).
- Anomalous verbs, which don't fit in any other category.
Weak verbs are the "regular" verb type in Middle English (though there are irregular weak verbs). The vast majority of verbs, including almost all formations from nouns and borrowings, are weak, and most of those are of one type (verbs ending in -ed). Unlike with strong verbs, the three weak verb classes inherited from Old English have become confused and are no longer recognisable. As a result, weak verbs are better classified into five principal types, though many verbs vary between two types. What type a verb belongs to is determined by its past suffix:
- Verbs ending in -ed, as the name suggests, have a past with a -ed suffix. They continue Old English class 2 weak verbs (though there has been much change in the membership of the class); as the default weak verb type, they contain the majority of weak verbs.
- Verbs ending in -de have a past that ends in -d(e), often with shortening of the stem vowel. They continue Old English class 1 weak verbs, and are relatively rare in Middle English.
- Verbs ending in -te originally consisted of Old English class 1 weak verbs where the past suffix has assimilated to a preceding voiceless consonant, resulting in -t(e). However, the ending has spread to other verbs, often displacing verbs in -de.
- Suffixless weak verbs are mainly verbs formed from Latin past participles. As the Latin past participle was already felt to contain a past suffix, the addition of a suffix was deemed redundant.
- Irregular weak verbs are verbs that for whatever reason do not fit into one of the above classes.
Comparison of classesEdit
|type||infinitive||1st-person past||plural past||past participle|
|-ed||gamen||gamed||gameden, gamede||gamed, ygamed|
|pounen||pouned||pouneden, pounede||pouned, ypouned|
|-de||feden||fedde||fedden, fedde||fed, yfed|
|-te||senden||sente||senten, sente||sent, ysent|
|wenden||wente||wenten, wente||went, ywent|
|irregular||bryngen||broghte||broghten, broghte||broght, ybroght|
|maken||made||maden, made||mad, ymad|
Strong verbs form their past through modification of a verb's stem vowel. Some weak verbs also undergo changes in the stem vowel, but in strong verbs, this change reflects Indo-European ablaut. Middle English retains the seven classes that comprised the strong verb system in earlier Germanic languages, each with their own stem vowel alternations. Verbs influencing verbs of different classes, phonetic changes, and levelling within paradigms, each of which may or may not occur within any given member of a class, have led to the classes starting to lose their coherence (a process that continues in modern English). However, as a whole, strong verbs have remained a coherent category, with unique features like their characteristic vowel alternations, past participles in -en, and lack of the second-person suffix -est in the past.
While a few weak verbs have become strong, the general tendency is for lesser-used strong verbs to become weak. Similarly, the tendency is to borrow verbs as weak; the only borrowed strong verbs are those which bear a strong resemblance to extant strong verbs (e.g. striven) or which are strong in the (Germanic) source language (e.g. taken). This means strong verbs tend to form a more archaic layer of vocabulary than their weak counterparts.
Comparison of classesEdit
|class||infinitive||1st-person past||plural past||past participle|
|writen||wrot||writen, write, wroten, wrote||writen, wreten|
|2||chesen, chosen||chees||chosen, chose, chesen, chese||chosen, coren|
|fresen||frees||frosen, frose, fresen, frese||frosen, froren|
|3||binden||band, bond||bounden, bounde||bounden, ybounde|
|helpen||halp||holpen, holpe||holpen, holpe|
|4||beren||bar, ber||beren, bare||boren, ybore|
|breken||brak, brek||breken, brake||broken, ybroke|
|5||eten||at, et||eten, ate||eten, yete|
|seen||saugh, seigh||sawen, seyen||seen, ysee|
|6||standen||stod||stoden, stode||standen, ystande|
|taken||tok||token, toke||taken, ytake|
|7||holden||held||helden, helde||holden, yholde|
|knowen||knew||knewen, knewe||knowen, yknowe|
Preterite-present verbs form their present from endings that other verbs use to form their past (hence their name); this means that unlike strong or weak verbs, they usually have a different vowel in the present singular than they do in the infinitive. Their past forms are formed like a weak verb's, though they may sometimes have an ablaut vowel that is distinct from the infinitive and the present. In Middle English, the preterite-presents are subject to increasing influence from strong and weak verbs; the alternations between the present singular and infinitive vowels tend to be leveled, and most acquire weak past participles on the model of their weak past. The class only retains its coherence due to the conspicuous lack of the third-person ending -th (or -s in some dialects), but even that is occasionally lost.
As well as their inflectional distinctiveness, preterite-presents are also syntactically unusual; most of them are modal verbs or auxiliary verbs (those that aren't tend to become weak verbs), and they often lack certain forms (i.e. they are "defective verbs").
There are less than 20 preterite present verbs; the principal ones are cunnen, douen, durren, moten, mowen, schulen, tharen and witen. At an early stage unnen was lost, while owen became a weak verb later in the Middle English period. There is one borrowed preterite-present: mone, from Old Norse (its native cognate monen is a weak verb in Middle English, despite having a preterite-present origin).
Also known as "irregular verbs", these verbs play important grammatical roles (for instance, all of them function as either modal verbs or auxiliary verbs) and do not easily fit into one of the other conjugational classes. All of them except for don and willen are suppletive, meaning that they historically come from a conflation of multiple distinct verbs. willen is not easily distinguishable from a preterite-present in Middle English, but is placed in this class as it has a different historical origin.
In Middle English, there are just four anomalous verbs: been, don, gon and willen.
Middle English saw little change from Old English with respect to verb conjugations; it continued to display a system typical of the Germanic languages. Some of the major differences are the merger of vowels in unstressed syllables, the levelling of many ablaut alternants, and the gradual weakening of final -(e)n to -(e) in the infinitive, plural, and past participle. Verbs inflect for the following parameters:
- Two tenses: present and past (the future is usually denoted with auxiliaries; sometimes the plain present is used).
- Three moods: indicative (the default), subjunctive (denotes hypothetical or counterfactual situations) and imperative (denotes commands; there is no past imperative).
- Person and number, agreeing with the subject of the verb phrase.
Additionally, there is an infinitive, a present participle, and a past participle (see below).
However, there is a high degree of syncretism; not all possible combinations of parameters have a unique form. In particular, plurals, subjunctives, or imperatives are unmarked for grammatical person, and with a few exceptions, first-person singulars and plurals lack a distinction between the indicative and subjunctive. These rules do not apply for all dialects; but the general trend towards syncretism remains valid.
It should also be noted that the plural form, in conjunction with ye/you, can be used as a formal second-person singular, especially in Late Middle English. Specifically, it is used when one wishes to display politeness and respect, including towards superiors and other individuals which one is societally obligated to show deference to.
The paradigm of the strong verb singen, singe is shown below.
The first-person indicative singular is usually formed with -e; later on, this may be elided, while the second-person is formed with -est and the third-person takes -eth. In Old English, some verbs just took -st and -th, but the majority of these were regularised to -est and -eth in Middle English. In the later language, there is a tendency to syncopate the vowel in the ending, resulting in the return of -st and -th. Old English also sometimes had i-umlaut in the second- and third-person singular. This is only retained in irregular verbs, if at all. Late in the period, -es tends to replace -eth as the third-person ending, spreading south from the North (eventually becoming Modern English -s).
The indicative plural is formed with -en; replacing expected -eth, most likely because of levelling from the past indicative, subjunctive, and preterite-present verbs like cunnen, schulen, etc. Especially in Late Middle English, the final -en is reduced to -e or dropped entirely. In a few irregular verbs (mostly preterite-present verbs), the plural has a different stem from the singular.
As with the 1st-person indicative, the subjunctive singular is formed with -e; this tends to drop off later on, just as with the indicative. As mentioned above, the subjunctive plural is identical to the indicative plural (except for the verb been; its plural aren/are is only an indicative).
The imperative singular was historically just the bare verbal stem, but was increasingly levelled to the form of the subjunctive. The imperative plural, which originally had an ending -eth, also tended to have its ending replaced by that of the subjunctive in later Middle English.
The formation of the past is dependent on the conjugation type, as mentioned above. However, a few general observations can be made:
- The first and third-person indicative singular are always identical. For weak verbs, they consist of the bare stem + the ending, while for strong verbs, they are just the bare stem (with modification of the ablaut vowel)
- The second-person indicative singular usually takes the ending -est for weak verbs. In strong verbs, it originally took the ablaut form of the past plural suffixed with -e, but there was a tendency for it to assimilate in form to the first and third person plurals in later Middle English. However, it was sometimes kept distinct by adding the weak ending -est to it.
- The subjunctive singular is identical to the first-/third-person indicative for weak verbs, but to the second-person indicative for strong verbs. The assimilation of strong second-person indicatives to the first-/third-person led to it becoming indistinct from the indicative, except for in the irregular verb been.
- The past plural is formed with the ending -en attached to the past stem. In strong verbs, this is often a distinct ablaut form from that used for the singular, though over the course of the Middle English period, many of these alternations were levelled to one of the forms (in Modern English, the levelling is almost compete; only be retains a distinct past plural ablaut grade). This ending may be reduced to -e or even a null ending.
The Middle English infinitive ending was usually either -en (inherited from Old English -an, -ian), -e (from apocope of -en), or a zero ending (further apocope). Certain verbs ending with a vowel had or could have a contracted ending in -n; verbs ending in l or ralso sometimes received such an ending. The frequency of infinitival endings without -n steadily increased during the Middle English period; by the end of the period, infinitives with -n were almost nonexistent.
Several endings were utilised to mark the present participles of verbs; they varied according to location and date. Early on, the most common were -ende (Midlands), -and (Northern), and -inde (Southern). These later developed into -inge/-ynge in the Midlands and South, giving rise to our Modern English present participle in -ing (Northern -and survives in altered form in a few words like blatant, flippant, and wanion). Consequently, -inge is the default used by the
Like the finite past forms, the past participle form depends on the verb's conjugational pattern. Weak verbs form the past participle with a dental ending -d or t. This is historically distinct from the finite past ending, but comes to be associated with it. However, strong verbs form the past participle with a nasal ending -en. This may be reduced to -e or zero, but this reduction occurs less often than in the infinitive or plural forms. Preterite-present and anomalous verbs may form their past participle either like a weak verb or a strong verb. Verbs can also optionally take a prefix y- (akin to Old English ġe-), though a minority of verbs, including those which are already prefixed, do not permit it.
Verbal morphology varies to some degree between the various dialects of Middle English; here, the unique morphological features of the Northern and Southern dialects are discussed (the Midlands is treated as a baseline).
Southern Middle EnglishEdit
Southern Middle English retains the -aþ present plural ending of Old English as -eþ, and tends to retain the y- prefix of the past participle to a greater degree. The -ian ending of Old English class 2 weak verbs is retained as -ie and extended freely to loanwords. However, because y- serves as a marker of the past participle, the final -n of past participles is often lost. The usual present-participle ending is -ende, but -ynge penetrates the South later, as it did the Midlands.
Northern Middle EnglishEdit
In Northern Middle English, the influence of Old Norse is easily discernible. For instance, the infinitive alternatively employs the use of the particle at (e.g. "at sing") similar to Old Norse (cf. að syngva). Additionally, the tendency to maintain a strong final -en of the past participle (cf. Old Norse -inn), use of the present participle -and (cf. Old Norse -andi), and the second-/third-person present indicative ending -es can all be traced to Scandinavian origin.
Unlike in the past participle, the final -n of plurals and infinitives was lost at a relatively early stage (cf. the lack of -n in the equivalent Old Norse forms); -e was then elided as well, meaning that the past plural, the indicative, the (both present and past) first-person singular, and the subjunctive have a zero ending. The usual Northern present plural is not the -en/-e of the Midlands or the -eth of the south, though; instead, -es is often extended from the second-/third-person singular. This -es plural ending is not present in the subjunctive or the past as -es is absent from the corresponding singular forms.
Another prominent characteristic of the Northern verbal system is the levelling of irregular forms, no doubt due to the spread of -es and loss of final -en and -e resulting in there being less distinct inflectional categories to spread over. For instance, can, levelled from the present, is found instead of the infinitive cunnen, and (I/Ik) is sometimes replaces (I/Ich) am.
Middle English continued to distinguish between the use of be and have in perfect tense formations, with be (Middle English been) being used when movement or change in state is concerned, and have (Middle English haven) for all other cases. For instance, "Summer has arrived" is rendered Somer is ycomen, while "I have eaten" is Ich have eten.
The subjunctive is used much more extensively than in Modern English; for instance, in hypothetical phrases with yif/if, subjunctive, not indicative, forms are usually used (if sche ete "if she eats").
- Appendix:Old English verbs
- Germanic verb on Wikipedia.Wikipedia