Degrees of Comparison

§ 187.Like adjectives in other languages, most OE adjectives dis­tinguished between three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative and superlative. The regular means used to form the comparative and the superlative from the positive were the suffixes -ra and -est/ost. Sometimes suffixation was accompanied by an Interchange of the root-vowel (see Table 8).

Table 8

Comparison of Adjectives in Old English

Means of form-build­ing Positive Comparative Superlative NE
Suffixation soft softra softost soft
  wēriʒ wēriʒra wēriʒost weary
Suffixation plus vowel interchange ʒlæd ʒlædra ʒladost glad
lonʒ lenʒra lenʒest long
eald ieldra ieldest old
(also: ealdra ealdost, ealdest)  
Suppletion ʒōd bettra bet(e)st good
  lӯtel lǣssa lǣst little
  micel māra mǣst much

The root-vowel interchanges in long, eald, ʒlæd go back to different sources. The variation [a ~ æ] is a purely phonetic phenomenon; retrac­tion of [æ] before the back vowel in the suffix -ost is not peculiar to the adjective (see § 163 for similar interchanges in nouns and § 117 for pertinent phonetic changes). The interchange in long and eald is of an entirely different nature: the narrowed or fronted root-vowel is regularly employed as a marker of the comparative and the superlative degrees, together with the suffixes. The mutation of the root-vowel was caused by i-umlaut in Early OE. At that stage the suffixes were either -ira, -ist or -ora, -ost. In the forms with -i- the root vowel was fronted and/or made narrower (see palatal mutation § 125 ff); later -i- was lost or weak­ened to -e- — but the mutated root-vowel survived as an additional for­mal marker of the comparative and superlative degrees.

Some adjectives had parallel sets of forms: with and without a vow­el interchange. These sets could arise if the adjective had originally employed both kinds of suffixes; or else the non-mutated vowel was re­stored on the analogy of the positive degree and other adjectives without sound interchanges.

§ 188. The adjective ʒōd had suppletive forms. Suppletion was a very old way of building the degrees of comparison (it can be illustrat­ed by the forms of adjectives in other IE languages: G gut, besser, beste, Fr mal, pire, R хороший, лучше).


§ 189.The OE verb was characterised by many peculiar features. Though the verb had few grammatical categories, its paradigm had a

very complicated structure: verbs fell into numerous morphological classes and employed a variety of form-building means. All the forms of the verb were synthetic, as analytical forms were only beginning to appear. The non-finite forms had little in common with the finite forms but shared many features with the nominal parts of speech.

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