The Simple Sentence
§ 535. In the course of history the structure of the simple sentence in many respects became more orderly and more uniform. Yet, at the same time it grew complicated as the sentence came to include more extended and complex parts: longer attributive groups, diverse subjects and predicates and numerous predicative constructions (syntactic complexes).
§ 536. In OE the ties between the words in the sentence were shown mainly by means of government and agreement, with the help of numerous inflections. In ME and Early NE, with most of the inflectional endings levelled or dropped, the relationships between the parts of the sentence were shown by their relative position, environment, semantic ties, prepositions, and by a more rigid syntactic structure.
Every place in the sentence came to be associated with a certain syntactic function: in the new structure of the sentence syntactic functions were determined by position, and no position could remain vacant. This is evidenced by the obligatory use of the subject. For instance, in OE the formal subject, expressed by the pronoun hit, was used only in some types of impersonal sentences, namely those indicating weather phenomena. In ME the subject it occurs in all types of impersonal sentences, e. g.
For it reynyd almoste euery othir day. (Brut)
(‘For it rained almost every other day.’)
Of his falshede it dulleth me to ryme. (Chaucer)
(‘Of his falsehood it annoys me to speak.’)
The use of the verb-substitute do, as well as the use of auxiliary and modal verbs without the notional verb proves that the position of the predicate could not be vacant either. This is evident in short answers and other statements with the notional verb left out, e. g.:
Helpeth me now, as I dyde yow whileer. (Chaucer)
(‘Help me now as I did (help) you formerly.’)
Standi So I do, against my will... Is Guilliams with the packet gone? He is, my lord, an hour ago. (Shakespeare)
§ 537. As compared with OE the subject of the sentence became more varied in meaning, as well as in the forms of expression. We have already mentioned the increased use of the formal subject it, Due to the growth of new verb forms the subject could now denote not only the agent or a thing characterised by a certain property, but also the recipient of an action or the “passive” subject of a state and feeling.
The predicate had likewise become more varied in form and meaning. The simple predicate could be expressed by compound forms which indicated multiple new meanings and subtle semantic distinctions, lacking in OE verb forms or expressed formerly by contextual means.
Though some types of compound predicates had turned into simple — as the verb phrases developed into analytical forms — the compound predicate could express a variety of meanings with the help of numerous new link-verbs and more extended and complex predicatives. ME witnessed a remarkable growth of link-verbs: about 80 verbs occur as copulas in texts between the 15th and 18th c. In a way the new link- verbs made up for the loss of some OE prefixes and compound verbs which denoted the growth of a quality or the transition into a state, e. g.:
And tho it drewe nere Cristenesse. (Brut)
(‘And though it drew near Christmas’, ‘Christmas was coming’)
Cecilie cam, whan it was woxen night...
(‘Cecily came when it was night...’)
as me best thinketh (Chaucer)
(‘as it seems best to me’)
It fallep profyte to summe men to be bounde to a stake. (Wyklif)
(‘It appears good for some men to be bound to a stake.’)
A murd'rous guilt shows not itself more soon
Than love that would seem hid...
The rose looks fair ... (Shakespeare).
The structure of the predicative became more complex: it could include various prepositional phrases and diverse attributes, e. g.:
Of twenty yeer of age he was, I gesse. (Chaucer)
(‘He was twenty years old, I guess.’)
That’s a deep story of a deeper love;
For he was more than over shoes in love. (Shakespeare)
The compound verbal predicate in ME was characterised by a wider use of modal phrases and verbs of aspective meaning, e. g.:
No, though I seye, I nam nat lief to gabbe. (Chaucer)
(‘No, though I say I am not inclined to gabble.’)
Most frequent in Chaucer’s works was a verb phrase of aspective meaning gan plus Inf. (NE begin):
He stired the coles til relente gan the wex.
(‘He stirred the coals till the wax began to melt.’)
§ 538. One of the peculiar features of the OE sentence was multiple negation. The use of several negative particles and forms continued throughout the ME period, e. g.:
Ne bryng nat every man into thyn hous. (Chaucer)
(‘Don’t bring every man into your house.’)
(-ne- is a negative particle used with verbs, nat — another negative particle, for its origin see §219.)
No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have. (Chaucer)
(‘He had no beard, and never would have one.’)
See also the example: No, though I seye, I nam nat lief to gabbe above where nam is made up of the negative particle ne and am. In Shakespeare’s time the use of negations is variable: the sentence could contain one or more means of expressing negation. Cf.:
So is it not with me as with that Muse ...
Good madam, hear me speak,
And let no quarrel, nor no brawl to come,
Taint the condition of this present hour... (Shakespeare)
Gradually double negation went out of use. In the age of Correctness — the normalising 18th c. — when the scholars tried to improve and perfect the language, multiple negation was banned as illogical: it was believed that one negation eliminated the other like two minuses in mathematics and the resulting meaning would be affirmative. These logical restrictions on the use of negations became a strict rule of English grammar.
§ 539. In ME and Early NE the order of words in the sentence underwent noticeable changes: it has become fixed and direct: subject plus predicate plus object (S+P+O) or subject plus the notional part of the predicate (the latter type was used mainly in questions).
Stabilisation of the word order was a slow process, which took many hundreds of years: from Early ME until the 16th or 17th c. The fixation of the word order proceeded together with reduction and loss of inflectional endings, the two developments being intertwined; though syntactic changes were less intensive and less rapid. They may have been delayed by the break in the written tradition after the Norman conquest and by the general unsettling of the grammatical system during the Early ME dialectal divergence, whereas morphological changes may have been intensified for these very reasons.
Though the word order in Late ME may appear relatively free, several facts testify to its growing stability. The practice of placing the
verb-predicate at the end of a subordinate clause had been abandoned, so was the type of word order with the object placed between the Subject and the Predicate (see OE examples in § 224). The place before the Predicate belonged to the Subject, which is confirmed by the prevalence of this word order in prosaic texts and also, indirectly, by the transition of the “impersonal” constructions into “personal”: as shown above, in the pattern the mann(e) liketh the noun was understood as the Subject, though originally it was an Object in the Dat. case (cf. him liketh, see § 533).
§ 540. In the 17th and 18th c. the order of words in the sentence was generally determined by the same rules as operate in English today. The fixed, direct word order prevailed in statements, unless inversion was required for communicative purposes or for emphasis, e. g.:
Now comes in the sweetest morsel in the night... These numbers will I tear and write in prose. (Shakespeare)
The order of the Subject and Predicate remained direct in sentences beginning with an adverbial modifier:
then the two bears will not bite one another when they meet. (In OE an initial adverbial modifier required an inverted word order — P+S — see § 225.)
In questions the word order was partially inverted — unless the question referred to the subject group. The analytical forms of the verb and the use of the do-periphrasis instead of simple forms made it possible to place the notional part of the Predicate after the Subject even with simple Predicate. Cf.:
Are they good?... Can you make no use of your discontent? ... Who comes here? ... Lady, will you walk about with your friend? ... Did he never make you laugh? (Shakespeare)
Occasionally we find simple verb forms in questions placed before the Subject: Which way looks he? ... How came you to this? Full inversion in questions is more common with Shakespeare than with later authors (see also § 508 for the history of forms with do).
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