Minor Groups of Verbs

§ 487. The verbs included in the minor groups underwent multiple changes in ME and Early NE: phonetic and analogical changes, which affected their forms, and semantic changes which affected their functions.

Several preterite-present verbs died out. The surviving verbs lost some of their old forms and grammatical distinctions but retained many specific peculiarities. They lost the forms of the verbals which had sprung up in OE and the distinctions between the forms of number and mood in the Present tense. In NE their paradigms have been re­duced to two forms or even to one.

§ 488. ME can (from OE cann, Pres. Ind. sg 1st and 3rd p.) was used not only in the sg but also in the pl by the side of cunnen, the de­scendant of OE pl cannon; the latter, as well as the Subj. forms cunnen, cunne died out by the end of the ME period. The Past tense Ind. and Subj. appears in ME in two variants: couth(e) and coud(e). Couth be­came obsolete in NE, but coud was preserved. The insertion of l in spell­ing (could) may be due to the analogy of should and would where l was etymologically justified. In ME the verb can, and especially its Past Participle is still used in the original meaning ‘know’, e.g.:

To feme halves couthe in sundry londes (Chaucer)

(‘To old saints, known in various lands’)

However, can, couth/coude is much more common as a modal verb indicating physical or mental ability; gradually it replaced OE mӕʒ, ME may and OE mōt in these meanings:

I grant thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me

What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren. (Chaucer)

(‘I grant you life, if you can tell me what thing it is that women desire most.’)

§ 489. ME may (from OE mæʒ) was used as the main form of th Present tense, alongside mowen/mowe, and as the only form of the Present in Early NE. Its Infinitive and Participle I went out of use; its Past tense might (from OE meahte, mihte, ME mighte) was retained as the Past form. Indicative and Subjunctive. As compared with OE, may has narrowed its meaning, for some of its functions, namely indication of physical and mental ability, have passed to the verb can.

§ 490. ME shall (OE sceal) has lost many of its old forms: the pl forms, the forms of Pres. Subj., the Inf., and has retained only two forms shall and should (ME sholde, sholde(n) — Past Ind. and Subj. In ME it was no longer used as a notional verb of full predication but was widely used, in both forms, as a modal verb, to express necessity, obligation and order, e.g.:

“Nay, by my fader soule, that he schall nat!”

Seyde the Shipman, “heer schall he nat preche” (Chaucer)

(“No, by my father’s soul, that he shall not (do),” said the shipman, “he must not preech here.”)

The form sholde also occurred in Pres. tense contexts as the Subj. of shall; eventually it lost its ties with shall and became a separate modal verb with its own sphere of meanings. We may say that in Early NE should repeated the original history of preterite-present verbs: the past tense form of shall, should has acquired the meaning of the present and has turned into a new modal verb, e.g, should.[57]

The king commandeth his constable mon ...

But in the same ship as he hire fond,

Hire, and hir yonge sone, and al hir geere,

He sholde putte, and croude hire fro the lond. (Chaucer)

(‘The king commands his constable that he should put her

and her young son in the ship where he found her with all

her gear, and drive her out from the land.’)

§ 491. A similar shift of time-reference is observed in the history of must and ought. Mōste, mōstest, mōsten were Past forms of the OE preterite-present mōt ‘can’. The Pres. tense forms have been lost while must has acquired the meaning of obligation and is now treated as a Pres. tense form.[58] OE āʒte, āʒton, āʒten were Past tense forms of OE āʒan, which have acquired the meaning of the present and developed into a new modal verb, ME ought(e) (the original meaning ‘possess’ is preserved in the other descendant of the OE verb, NE owe, and also in own, related to the same root).

One more modern verb, dare, is a preterite-present by origin; unlike other verbs it has lost most of the peculiarities, characteristic of pret­erite-presents and of modern modal verbs: it usually takes -s in the 3rd p. and has a standard Past form dared. The only traces of its origin are the negative and interrogative forms, which can be built without the auxiliary do.

§ 492. The OE verb willan, though not a preterite-present by origin, has acquired many features typical of the group, probably due to se­mantic and functional affinities (see § 209). In ME it was commonly used as a modal verb expressing volition. In the course of time it formed a system with shall, as both verbs, shall and will (and also should, would), began to weaken their lexical meanings and change into au­xiliaries, see § 498 ff.).

§ 493. OE ʒān has had a most unusual history. In OE its Past form was built from a different root and had a weak ending: ēode; its Part. II ended in -n, similarly with strong verbs (ʒe)ʒān. In ME the verb ac­quired a new Past tense wente, which came from an entirely different verb, OE wendan (ME wenden, NE wend). Its OE Past form wente had entered the paradigm of goon (NE go, went), while wend acquired a new past form wended. Thus the verb go remained a suppletive verb, though its OE Past was replaced by a new form (this is a rare instance of suppletion appearing at a relatively recent period of history).

§ 494. ME ben (NE be) inherited its suppletive forms from the OE and more remote periods of history. It owes its variety of forms not only to suppletion but also to the dialectal divergence in OE and ME and to the inclusion of various dialectal traits in literary English (see Table 9). The Past tense forms were fairly homogeneous in all the dia­lects. The forms of the Pres. tense were derived from different roots and displayed considerable dialectal differences. ME am and are(n)came from the Midland (Anglian) dialects and replaced the West Saxon eom, sint/sindon. In OE the forms with the initial b- — from bēon — were synonymous and interchangeable with the other forms but in Late ME and NE they acquired a new function: they were used as forms of the Subj. and the Imper. moods or in reference to the future and were thus opposed to the forms of the Pres. Ind. Cf.:

O myghty God, if that it be thy wille,

Sith thou art rightful juge, how may it be... (Chaucer)

(‘Oh, mighty God, if it be thy will, since you are (thou art) the right­ful judge, how can it be...’)

Table 9

Conjugation of OE bēon, ME ben, NE be

Infinitive *wesan bēon been be
Pres. Indicative        
1st p. sg eom/am bēo/biom am am
2nd p. sg eart bist/bis art
3rd p. sg is bip is is
Pl sint/sindon bēop been/ are
  earon/aron bēon are(n)  
Pres. Subjunctive        
Sg sie, sӯ bēo be be
Pl sien, sӯn bēon been
Sg wes bēo   be
Pl wesap bēop beeth  
Part. I wesende bēonde beyng(e) being
Past Indicative        
1st p. sg wӕs   was was
2nd p. sg wǣre   were
3rd p. sg wæs   was was
Pl wǣron weren were
Past Subjunctive        
Sg wǣre   were were
Pl wǣren   were
Part. II   been been

Hang be the heavens with black, yield day to night! (Shakespeare) Forms with the initial b- were also retained or built in ME as the forms of verbals: ME being/beande — Part. I. ben, y-ben — the newly formed Part. II (in OE the verb had no Past Part.); the Inf. ben (NE being, been, be).

The redistribution of suppletive forms in the paradigm of be made it possible to preserve some of the grammatical distinctions which were practically lost in other verbs, namely the distinction of number, person and mood.


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