Degrees of Comparison
§ 459. The degrees of comparison is the only set of forms which the adjective has preserved through all historical periods. However, the means employed to build up the forms of the degrees of comparison have considerably altered.
In OE the forms of the comparative and the superlative degree, like all the grammatical forms, were synthetic: they were built by adding the suffixes -ra and -est/ost, to the form of the positive degree. Sometimes suffixation was accompanied by an interchange of the root-vowel; a few adjectives had suppletive forms (see § 187).
In ME the degrees of comparison could be built in the same way, only the suffixes had been weakened to -er, -est and the interchange of the root-vowel was less common than before. Since most adjectives with the sound alternation had parallel forms without it, the forms with an interchange soon fell into disuse. Cf. — ME long, lenger, lengest and long, longer, longest (the latter set replaced the former).
The alternation of root-vowels in Early NE survived in the adjective old, elder, eldest, where the difference in meaning from older, oldest, made the formal distinction essential. Other traces of the old alternation are found in the pairs farther and further and also in the modern words nigh, near and next, which go back to the old degrees of comparison of the OE adjective nēah ‘near’, but have split into separate words.
§ 460. The most important innovation in the adjective system in the ME period was the growth of analytical forms of the degrees of comparison.
The new system of comparisons emerged in ME, but the ground for it had already been prepared by the use of the OE adverbs mā, bet, betst, swipor — ‘more’, ‘better’, ‘to a greater degree’ with adjectives and participles. It is noteworthy that in ME, when the phrases with ME more and most became more and more common, they were used with all kinds of adjective, regardless of the number of syllables and were even preferred with mono- and disyllabic words.
Thus Chaucer has more swete, better worthy, Gower — more hard for ‘sweeter’, ‘worthier’ and ‘harder’. The two sets of forms, synthetic and analytical, were used in free variation until the 17th and 18th c., when the modern standard usage was established.
§ 461. Another curious peculiarity observed in Early NE texts is the use of the so-called “double comparatives” and “double superlatives”:
By thenne Syr Trystram waxed more fressher than Syr Marhaus. (Malory) (‘By that time Sir Tristram grew more angry than Sir Marhaus’.)
Shakespeare uses the form worser which is a double comparative. A “double superlative” is seen in:
This was the most unkindest cut of all. (Shakespeare)
The wide range of variation acceptable in Shakespeare’s day was condemned in the “Age of Correctness” — the 18th c. Double comparatives were banned as illogical and incorrect by the prescriptive grammars of the normalising period.
It appears that in the course of history the adjective has lost all the dependent grammatical categories but has preserved the only specifically adjectival category — the comparison. The adjective is the only nominal part of speech which makes use of the new, analytical, way of form-building.
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