Minor Groups of Verbs

§ 208. Several minor groups of verbs can be referred neither to strong nor to weak verbs.

The most important group of these verbs were the so-called "pret­erite-presents" or "past-present" verbs. Originally the Present tense forms of these verbs were Past tense forms (or, more precisely, IE per­fect forms, denoting past actions relevant for the present). Later these forms acquired a present meaning but preserved many formal features of the Past tense. Most of these verbs had new Past Tense forms built with the help of the dental suffix. Some of them also acquired the forms of the verbals: Participles and Infinitives; most verbs did not have a full paradigm and were in this sense "defective".

The conjugation of OE preterite-presents is shown in Table 15.

The verbs were inflected in the Present like the Past tense of strong verbs: the forms of the 1st and 3rd p. sg were identical and had no end­ing — yet, unlike strong verbs, they had the same root-vowel in all the persons; the pl had a different grade of ablaut similarly with strong verbs (which had two distinct steins for the Past: sg and pl, see § 200 ff). In the Past the preterite-presents were inflected like weak verbs: the dental suffix plus the endings -e, -est, -e. The new Infinitives sculan, cunnan were derived from the pl form. The interchanges of root-vowels in the sg and pl of the Present tense of preterite-present verbs can be traced to the same gradation series as were used in the strong verbs. Before the shift of meaning and time-reference the would-be preterite-presents were strong verbs. The prototype of can may be referred to Class 3 (with the grades [a ~ u] in the two Past tense stems); the proto­type of sculan — to Class 4, maʒan — to Class 5, witan, wāt ‘know’ — to Class 1, etc.

In OE there were twelve preterite-present verbs. Six of them have survived in Mod E: OE āʒ; cunnan, cann; dear(r), sculan, sceal; maʒan, mæʒ; mōt (NE owe, ought; can; dare; shall; may; must). Most of the pret­erite-presents did not indicate actions, but expressed a kind of attitude to an action denoted by another verb, an Infinitive which followed the preterite-present. In other words, they were used like modal verbs, and eventually developed into modern modal verbs. (In OE some of them could also be used as notional verbs, e.g.:

pe him āht sceoldon ‘what they owed him’.)

Table 15

Conjugation of Preterite-Presents in Old English

Infinitive cunnan (NE can) sculan (NE shall, should)
Present tense    
Indicative   sceal(l)
Singular 1st cann  
2nd canst scealt
3rd cann sceal(l)
Plural cunnon sculon
Subjunctive    
Singular cunne scule, scyle
Plural cunnen sculen, scylen
Participle I —[23]
Past tense    
Indicative    
Singular 1st cūðe sceolde
2nd cūðest sceoldest
3rd cūðe sceolde
Plural cūðon sceoldon
Subjunctive    
Singular cūðe sceolde
Plural cūðen sceolden
Participle II cunnen, cūð  

§ 209. Among the verbs of the minor groups there were several anomalous verbs with irregular forms.

OE willan was an irregular verb with the meaning of volition and desire; it resembled the preterite-presents in meaning and function, as it indicated an attitude to an action and was often followed by an Infinitive. Cf.:

pā ðe willað mines forsiðes fæʒnian ‘those who wish to rejoice in my death’ and

hyt mōten habban eall ‘all could have it’.

Willan had a Past tense form wolde, built like sceolde, the Past tense of the preterite-present sculan, sceal. Eventually willan became a modal verb, like the surviving preterite-presents, and, together with sculan developed into an auxiliary (NE shall, will, should, would).

Some verbs combined the features of weak and strong verbs. OE don formed a weak Past tense with a vowel interchange: and a Parti­ciple in -n; dōn — dyde — ʒe-dōn (NE do). OE būan ‘live’ had a weak Past — būde and Participle II, ending in -n, ʒe-būn like a strong verb.

§210. Two OE verbs were suppletive. OE ʒān, whose Past tense was built from a different root: ʒāneōde ʒe-ʒān (NE go); and bēon (NE be).

Bēon is an ancient (IE) suppletive verb. In many languages — Ger­manic and non-Germanic — its paradigm is made up of several roots. (Recall R быть, есть, Fr etre, suis, fut.)In OE the Present tense forms were different modifications of the roots *wes- and *bhū-, 1st p. sg — eom, bēo, 2nd p. eart, bist, etc. The Past tense was built from the root *weson the pattern of strong verbs of Class 5. Though the Infinitive and Par­ticiple II do not occur in the texts, the set of forms can be reconstructed as: *wesan — wæs — wǣron — *weren (for the interchange of conso­nants in strong verbs see § 203; the full conjugation of bēon is given in § 494 together with its ME and NE forms).

SYNTAX

§ 211. The syntactic structure of OE was determined by two major conditions: the nature of OE morphology and the relations between the spoken and the written forms of the language.

OE was largely a synthetic language; it possessed a system of gram­matical forms which could indicate the connection between words; consequently, the functional load of syntactic ways of word connec­tion was relatively small. It was primarily a spoken language, therefore the written forms of the language resembled oral speech — unless the texts were literal translations from Latin or poems with stereotyped constructions. Consequently, the syntax of the sentence was relatively simple; coordination of clauses prevailed over subordination; complicated syntactical constructions were rare.






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