Preliminary Remarks: Parts of Speech, Means of Form-building, Main Trends of Development
§ 418. In the course of ME and Early NE the grammatical system of the language underwent profound alteration. Since the OE period the very grammatical type of the language has changed; from what can be defined as a synthetic or inflected language, with a well developed morphology English has been transformed into a language of the "analytical type", with analytical forms and ways of word connection prevailing over synthetic ones. This does not mean, however, that the grammatical changes were rapid or sudden; nor does it imply that all grammatical features were in a state of perpetual change. Like the development of other linguistic levels, the history of English grammar was a complex evolutionary process made up of stable and changeable constituents. Some grammatical characteristics remained absolutely or relatively stable; others were subjected to more or less extensive modification.
§ 419. The division of words into parts of speech has proved to be one of the most permanent characteristics of the language. Through all the periods of history English preserved the distinctions between the following parts of speech: the noun, the adjective, the pronoun, the numeral, the verb, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection. The only new part of speech was the article which split from the pronouns in Early ME (provided that the article is treated as an independent part of speech).
§ 420. Between the 10th and the 16th c., that is from Late OE to Early NE the ways of building up grammatical forms underwent considerable changes. In OE all the forms which can be included into morphological paradigms were synthetic. In ME and Early NE, grammatical forms could also be built in the analytical way, with the help of auxiliary words. The proportion of synthetic forms in the language has become very small, for in the meantime many of the old synthetic forms have been lost and no new synthetic forms have developed.
In the synthetic forms of the ME and Early NE periods, few as those forms were, the means of form-building were the same as before: inflections, sound interchanges and suppletion; only prefixation, namely the prefix ʒe-, which was commonly used in OE to mark Participle II, went out of use in Late ME (instances of Participle II with the prefix y- (from OE ʒe-) are still found in Chaucer's time (see §361, Line 8 of the extract from the CANTERBURY TALES).
Suppletive form-building, as before, was confined to a few words, mostly surviving from OE and even earlier periods.
Sound interchanges were not productive, though they did not die out: they still occurred in many verbs, some adjectives and nouns; moreover, anumber of new interchanges arose in Early ME in some groups of weak verbs (see § 485). Nevertheless, their application in the language, and their weight among other means was generally reduced.
Inflections — or grammatical suffixes and endings — continued tobe used in all the inflected ("changeable") parts of speech. It is notable, however, that as compared with the OE period they became less varied. As mentioned before the OE period of history has been described as a period of "full endings", ME — as a period of "levelled endings" and NE — as a period of "lost endings" (H. Sweet). In OE there existed a variety of distinct endings differing in consonants as well as in vowels. In ME all the vowels in the endings were reduced to the neutral [ə] and many consonants were levelled under -n or dropped. The process of levelling — besides phonetic weakening — implies replacement of inflections by analogy, e.g. -(e)s as a marker of pl forms of nouns displaced the endings -(e)n and -e (see § 428 below). In the transition to NE most of the grammatical endings were dropped.
Nevertheless, these definitions of the state of inflections in the three main historical periods are not quite precise. It is known that the weakening and dropping of endings began a long time before — in Early OE and even in Proto-Germanic; on the other hand, some of the old grammatical endings have survived to this day.
§ 421. The analytical way of form-building was a new device, which developed in Late OE and ME and came to occupy a most important place in the grammatical system. Analytical forms developed from free word groups (phrases, syntactical constructions). The first component of these phrases gradually weakened or even lost its lexical meaning and turned into a grammatical marker, while the second component retained its lexical meaning and acquired a new grammatical value in the compound form. Cf., e. g. the meaning and function of the verb to have in OE hē hæfde pā ‘he had them (the prisoners)’, Hie hine ofslæʒene hæfdon ‘they had him killed’ or, perhaps, ‘they had killed him’, Hie hæfdon oferʒān Ēastenʒle ‘they had overspread East Anglian territory’. In the first sentence have denotes possession, in the second, the meaning of possession is weakened, in the third, it is probably lost and does not differ from the meaning of have in the translation of the sentence into Mod E. The auxiliary verb have and the form of Part. II are the grammatical markers of the Perfect; the lexical meaning is conveyed by the root-morpheme of the participle.
The growth of analytical grammatical forms from free word phrases belongs partly to historical morphology and partly to syntax, for they are instances of transition from the syntactical to the morphological level.
Analytical form-building was not equally productive in all the parts of speech: it has transformed the morphology of the verb but has not affected the noun.
§ 422. The main direction of development for the nominal parts of speech in all the periods of history can be defined as morphological simplification. Simplifying changes began in prehistoric, PG times. They continued at a slow rate during the OE period and were intensified in
Early ME. The period between c. 1000 and 1300 has been called an "age of great changes" (A. Baugh), for it witnessed one of the greatest events in the history of English grammar: the decline and transformation of the nominal morphological system. Some nominal categories were lost — Gender and Case in adjectives, Gender in nouns; the number of forms distinguished in the surviving categories was reduced — cases in nouns and noun-pronouns, numbers in personal pronouns. Morphological division into types of declension practically disappeared. In Late ME the adjective lost the last vestiges of the old paradigm: the distinction of number and the distinction of weak and strong forms.
Already at the time of Chaucer, and certainly by the age of Caxton the English nominal system was very much like modern, not only in its general pattern but also in minor details.
The evolution of the verb system was a far more complicated process; it cannot be described in terms of one general trend. On the one hand, the decay of inflectional endings affected the verb system, though to a lesser extent than the nominal system. The simplification and levelling of forms made the verb conjugation more regular and uniform; the OE morphological classification of verbs was practically broken up. On the other hand, the paradigm of the verb grew, as new grammatical forms and distinctions came into being. The number of verbal grammatical categories increased, as did the number of forms within the categories. The verb acquired the categories of Voice, Time Correlation (or Phase) and Aspect. Within the category of Tense there developed a new form — the Future Tense; in the category of Mood there arose new forms of the Subjunctive. These changes involved the non-finite forms too, for the infinitive and the participle, having lost many nominal features, developed verbal features: they acquired new analytical forms and new categories like the finite verb. It is noteworthy that, unlike the changes in the nominal system, the new developments in the verb system were not limited to a short span of two or three hundred years. They extended over a long period: from Late OE till Late NE. Even in the age of Shakespeare the verb system was in some respects different from that of Mod E and many changes were still underway.
§ 423. Other important events in the history of English grammar were the changes in syntax, which were associated with the transformation of English morphology but at the same time displayed their own specific tendencies and directions. The main changes at the syntactical level were: the rise of new syntactic patterns of the word phrase and the sentence; the growth of predicative constructions; the development of the complex sentences and of diverse means of connecting clauses. Syntactic changes are mostly observable in Late ME and in NE, in periods of literary efflorescence.
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