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§ 475. The historical changes in the ways of building the principal forms of the verb (“stems”) transformed the morphological classifi­cation of the verbs. The OE division into classes of weak and strong verbs was completely re-arranged and broken up. Most verbs have adopt­ed the way of form-building employed by the weak verbs: the dental suf­fix. The strict classification of the strong verbs, with their regular system of form-building, degenerated. In the long run all these changes led to increased regularity and uniformity and to the development of a more consistent and simple system of building the principal forms of the verb.

Strong Verbs

§ 476. The seven classes of OE strong verbs underwent multiple grammatical and phonetic changes (see Table 6).

In ME the final syllables of the stems, like all final syllables, were weakened, in Early NE most of them were lost. Thus the OE endings -an, -on, and -en (of the 1st, 3rd and 4th principal forms) were all reduced to ME -en; consequently in Classes 6 and 7, where the infinitive and the participle had the same gradation vowel, these forms fell together; in Classes 1 and 3a it led to the coincidence of the 3rd and 4th principal forms. In the ensuing period, the final -n was lost in the infinitive and the past tense plural, but was sometimes preserved in Participle II, probably to distinguish the participle from other forms. Thus, despite phonetic reduction, -n was sometimes retained to show an essential grammatical distinction, cf. NE stole stolen, spoke — spoken, but boundbound (see also § 479).

§ 477. In ME and Early NE the root-vowels in the principal forms of all the classes of strong verbs underwent the regular changes of stressed vowels (the vowels in OE forms in Table 6 are seen from the spelling, the vowels in ME are given in brackets). The sound changes of stressed vowels were described in detail in Ch. XIV; they will be mentioned below only in as much as they have grammatical significance.

Due to phonetic changes vowel gradation in Early ME was consid­erably modified. Lengthening of vowels before some consonant sequences split the verbs of Class 3 into two subgroups: verbs like findan had now long root-vowels in all the forms; while in verbs like drinken the root-vowel remained short. Thus ME writen and finden (Classes 1 and 3) had the same vowel in the infinitive but different vowels in the Past and Participle II. Participle II of Classes 2, 4 and 6 acquired long root- vowels [o:] and [a:] due to lengthening in open syllables, while in the Participle with Class 1 — the vowel remained short. These phonetic changes made the interchange less consistent and justified than before, for instance, verbs with long [i:] in the first stem (writen, finden) would, for no apparent reason, use different interchanges to form the other stems.

At the same time there was a strong tendency to make the system of forms more regular. The strong verbs were easily influenced by anal­ogy. It was due to analogy that they lost practically all consonant interchanges in ME and Early NE (see OE cēosan, ME chesen in Table 6; however, the interchange [z~r] in was~were was retained). Classes which had many similar forms were often confused: OE sprecan — Class 5 — began to build the Past Participle spoken, like verbs of Class 4 (also NE weave and tread).

Table 6

Changes of the Principal Forms of Strong Verbs in Middle English and Early New English

Principal forms OE ME NE OE ME NE
Class 1 Class 2
Inf. writan writen [i:] write cēosan chesen [e:] choose
Past sg wrāt wrote [ɔ:]   cēas chees [ɛ:]  
Past pi writon writen [ɪ] wrote curon chosen [ɔ:] chose
Part. II writen writen [ɪ] written coren chosen [ɔ:] chosen
Class 3
Inf. findan finden [i: ] find drincan drinken [i:] drink
Past sg fand fand [a] or [a:]   drone drank [a]  
Past pl fundon founden [u:] found druncon drunken [u] drank
Part. II funden founden [u:] found druncen drunken [u] drunk
Class 4 Class 5
Inf. beran beren [ɛ:] bear sp(r)ecan speken [ɛ:] speak
Past sg bær bar [a]   sp(r)æc spak [a]  
Past pl bǣron beren [ɛ: ] bore spǣcon speken [ɛ:] spoke
Part. II boren boren [ɔ:] born specen speken [e:], spoken [ɔ:] spoken
Class 6 Class 7
Inf. scacan shaken [a:] shake cnāwan knowen [ou] know
Past sg scōc shook [o:]   cnēow knew [eu]  
Past pl scōcon shoken [o:] shook cnēowon knewen [eu] knew
Part. II scacen shaken [a:] shaken cnāwen knowen [ou] known
1 ME forms represent the London literary language of the late 14th c.; the final -n in the Infinitive and Past pl is unstable.

§ 478. The most important change in the system of strong verbs was the reduction in the number of stems from four to three, by removing the distinction between the two past tense stems. In OE these stems had the same gradation vowels only in Classes 6 and 7, but we should recall that the vast majority of English verbs — which were weak — had a single stem for all the past forms. These circumstances facilitated analogical levelling, which occurred largely in Late ME. Its direction depended on the dialect, and on the class of the verb.

In the Northern dialects the vowel of the Past sg tended to replace that of the Past pl; in the South and in the Midlands the distinction between the stems was preserved longer than in the North. In the South and South-West the vowel of the Past sg was often replaced by that of the Past pl or of the Past Participle, especially if the 3rd and 4th stems had the same root-vowel. Some classes of verbs showed preference for one or another of these ways.

Different directions of levelling can be exemplified by forms which were standardised in literary English: wrote, rose, rode are Past sg forms by origin (Class 1); bound, found are Past pl (Class 3a); spoke, got, bore (Classes 5, 4) took their root-vowel from Participle II. Since the 15th c. a single stem was used as a base for all the forms of the Past Tense of the Indicative and Subjunctive Moods.

§ 479. The tendency to reduce the number of stems continued in Early NE. At this stage it affected the distinction between the new Past tense stem and Participle II. Identical forms of these stems are found not only in the literary texts and private letters but even in books on English grammar: thus Ben Jonson (1640) recommends beat and broke as correct forms of Participle II; Shakespeare uses sang and spoke both as Past tense forms and Participle II.[56]

This tendency was severely criticised by the lexicographers and grammarians of the “age of correctness”. In RUDIMENTS OF ENG­LISH GRAMMAR (1769) J. Priestley lamented the inadequacies of English and condemned the confusion of these forms:

“As the paucity of inflections is the greatest defect of our language, we ought to take advantage of every variety that the practice of good authors will warrant; therefore, if possible, make a participle different from the preterite of a verb, as ‘a book is written’ not ‘wrote’, the ‘ships are taken’ not ‘took’.”

Nevertheless instances of such merging are found in the works of the best 18th c. authors, e. g. will have stole (Swift); some disaster has befell (Gay) — Participle II does not differ from the Past. It is probable that prescriptive grammars and dictionaries played a certain role in putting an end to this tendency, at least in some verbs.

§ 480. One of the most important events in the history of the strong verbs was their transition into weak. In ME and Early NE many strong verbs began to form their Past and Participle II with the help of the dental suffix instead of vowel gradation. Therefore the number of strong verbs decreased.

In OE there were about three hundred strong verbs. Some of them dropped out of use owing to changes in the vocabulary, while most Of the remaining verbs became weak. Out of 195 OE strong verbs, pre­served in the language, only 67 have retained strong forms with root- vowel interchanges roughly corresponding to the OE gradation series (see § 484). 128 verbs acquired weak forms; most of these verbs belong nowadays to “regular” or “standard” verbs, e. g. NE grip (former Class 1) seethe, bow, lock (Class 2), climb, help, swallow (Class 3), wash, fare (Class 6). The number of new verbs, which joined the classes of strong verbs, was very small — several former weak verbs, e. g. NE wear, dig, stick (see § 483) and three borrowings — take, thrive (from O Scand)’ strive (from O Fr).

The changes in the formation of principal parts of strong verbs ex­tended over a long period — from the 12th to 18th c. It is natural that during this period — especially in the 14th-17th c. many parallel forms were used in free variation: historical forms due to regular pho­netic changes, and analogical forms of diverse origin, which arose under the influence of other classes of strong verbs and of weak verbs (e. g. Chaucer has two parallel forms for the Past of slepen and wepen: sleep [sle:p], slepte; weep, wept; two forms of the Past Participle for farenfaren, ferd).

Weak Verbs

§ 481. The evolution of the weak verbs in ME and in Early NE reveals a strong tendency towards greater regularity and order. Table 7 shows the main changes in the classes of weak verbs (subclasses of OE Class I are described in § 485 as sources of modern non-standard verbs: Class III is not shown as it did not exist in ME). The OE verbs of Class III, either joined the other classes of weak verbs as, e. g. OE libban, ME Class I liven, NE live or became irregular, e. g. OE habban, ME haven, NE have; OE secʒam, ME seyen, NE say.

Table 7

Changes of the Principal Forms of Weak Verbs in Middle English and Early New English

  Class I Class I
Inf. dēm-an deem-en deem
Past dēm-de deem-de deemed
Part. It dēm-ed deem-ed deemed
    Class II
Inf. styr-ian stir-en stir
Past styr-ede stir-ede stirred
Part. II styr-ed stir-ed stirred
  Class II    
Inf. lōc-ian look-en look
Past lōc-ode look-ede looked
Part. II lōc-od look-ed looked

As seen from Table 7, in ME we can distinguish two classes of weak verbs with some rearrangement between the classes as compared with OE.

ME verbs of Class I took the ending -de in the past without an inter­mediate vowel before the dental suffix — and the ending -ed in the past Participle. They had descended from OE verbs of Class I with a long root syllable (containing a long vowel or a short vowel plus two consonants — OE dēman, temman — see § 204, Table 14, Cl. I (b), (c).

The verbs of Class II, which were marked by -ode, -od in OE, had weakened these endings to -ede, -ed in ME. Since a few verbs of OE Class I had -ede, -ed (the type la styrian), they are included in ME Class II. Consequently, the only difference between the two classes of weak verbs in ME was the presence or absence of the element -e- be­fore the dental suffix in the Past tense stem.

In Late ME the vowel [e] in unstressed medial and final syllables became very unstable and was lost. This change eliminated the differ­ences between the two classes and also the distinctions between the 2nd and 3rd principal forms, thus reducing the number of stems in the weak verbs from three to two. Late ME weak verbs are the immediate source of modern standard (regular) verbs.

§ 482. The development of the inflection -(e)de in Early NE shows the origins of the modern variants of the forms of the Past tense and Participle II in standard verbs:

Phonetic conditions ME NE
Alter a voiced consonant deemde ['de:mdə] > [di:md] deemed
or a vowel pleyede ['pleiədə] > [pleid] played
After a voiceless consonant lookede ['lo:kədə] > [lu:kəd] >[lukt ] looked
After [t] or [d] wantede ['wantədə] > [wɔntid] wanted

§ 483. The marker of the Past tense and Participle II employed by the weak verbs — the dental suffix -d/-t — proved to be very productive in all historical periods. This simple and regular way of form-building, employed by the majority of OE verbs, attracted hundreds of new verbs in ME and NE. As mentioned above, many former strong verbs began to build weak forms alongside strong ones, the strong forms ultimately falling into disuse. The productivity of this device is borne out by the fact that practically all the borrowed verbs and all the newly-formed verbs in ME and NE built their Past tense and Participle II on the mod­el of weak verbs, e. g. skate, die, call (from O Scand), assist, charm (from Fr), decorate, execute (from L).

The reverse process — weak verbs changing into strong ones — was of rare occurrence. And nevertheless a few weak verbs adopted strong forms. These changes account for the forms of NE wear (which was formerly a weak verb of Class I, but acquired new forms by analogy with bear or tear, Class 4 of strong verbs), NE hide (which fell under the influence of rise, ride — Class I), ring, fling and string which came to be associated with Class 3 (sing) due to the obvious phonetic resemblance, and also dig, chide and stave. (In some verbs we find a mixture of the two types, weak and strong, e.g. OE scēawian, weak verb of Class I) has adopted the suffix -n from the strong conjugation, though its Past tense has remained weak, NE show, showed, shown.)

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