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Origins of Some Groups of Modern Non-Standard Verbs

§ 484. As shown above, the proportion of strong and weak verbs in the language has considerably altered in the course of history. The OE strong verbs, reduced by over two thirds, constitute a small group of verbs in present-day English: they belong to non-standard verbs, which include nowadays many more verbs coming from various sources.

Sixty-seven non-standard verbs, which can be traced to the classes of strong verbs are listed in Table 8. The changes of their root-vowels, since OE reflect the regular phonetic modifications of stressed vowels, or else were brought about by analogy, under the influence of verbs with resembling forms. Their modern forms are so varied that the OE division into classes is inapplicable. The verbs are grouped under OE classes merely to indicate their origins.

Table 8

Modern Non-Standard Verbs Originating from Old English Strong Verbs

OE Classes
Class 1 Class 2 Class 3
abide strike choose begin sling spin wring run
bite slide freeze drink slink sting bind fight
drive smile cleave shrink spring stink find
ride stride fly sing swim swing grind  
rise shine write shoot sink ding win wind  


OE Classes
Class 4 Class 5 Class 6 Class 7
bear bid see draw fall
break eat sit forsake hold
steal give speak shake hang
tear get tread slay blow
come lie weave stand grow
      swear know
      take throw

§ 485. Several groups of modern non-standard verbs have developed from the weak verbs of Class I. Nowadays they employ various form- building devices: the dental suffix, vowel and consonant interchanges.

A number of verbs displayed certain irregularities as early as in OE (see § 205), others acquired their peculiarities in ME.

(1) Verbs like OE sellan and tǣcan (Cl. I e, f) had an interchange in the root caused by palatal mutation in the Present tense stem and its absence in the other stems (Past tense salde/sealde, tāhte). In ME and NE they preserved the root-vowel interchange, though some of the vowels were altered due to regular quantitative and qualitative vowel changes: ME sellen — solde (OE salde > Early ME ['sa:lde] > Late ME ['sɔ:ldə] > NE sold [sould]), techen — taughte; NE sellsold, teach — taught.

(2) Another group of weak verbs became irregular in Early ME as a result of quantitative vowel changes. In verbs like OE cēpan, fēdan, metan (§ 205, Table 14, type Ic) the long vowel in the root was shortened before two consonants in the Past and Participle II; OE cēpte > ME kepte ['keptə]. The long vowel in the Present tense stem was preserved and was altered during the Great Vowel Shift, hence the interchange [i:~e], NE keepkept, feed fed.

This group of verbs attracted several verbs from other classes — NE sleep, weep, read, which formerly belonged to Class 7 of strong verbs. Some verbs of this group — NE mean, feel — have a voiceless [t] in the Past tense and Participle II, though this devoicing cannot be ac­counted for by phonetic conditions: the preceding sound is a sonorant.

(3) Verbs like OE settan, with the root ending in a dental consonant, added the dental suffix without the intervening vowel [e] — OE sette. When the inflections were reduced and dropped, the three stems of the verbs — Present, Past and Participle II fell together: NE setsetset; putputput; castcastcast, etc. The final -t of the root had absorbed the dental suffix. (Wherever possible the dis­tinctions were preserved or even introduced: thus OE sendan, restan, which had the same forms — sende, reste — for the Past and Present — appear in ME as sendensente, restenrested(e).)

§ 486. It must be noted that although the number of non-standard verbs in Mod E is not large — about 200 items — they constitute an important feature of the language. Most of them belong to the basic layer of the vocabulary, have a high frequency of occurrence and are widely used in word-formation and phraseological units. Their significance for the grammatical system lies in the fact that many of these verbs have preserved the distinction between three principal forms, which makes modern grammarians recognise three stems in all English verbs despite the formal identity of the Past and Participle II.

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.


Preliminary Remarks

§ 495. The evolution of the verb system in the course of history was not confined to the simplification of the conjugation and to growing regularity in building the forms of the verb. In ME and NE the verb paradigm expanded, owing to the addition of new grammatical forms and to the formation of new grammatical categories. The extent of these changes can be seen from a simple comparison of the number of categories and categorial forms in Early OE with their number-today. Leaving out of consideration Number and Person — as categories of concord with the Subject — we can say that OE finite verbs had two verbal grammatical categories proper: Mood and Tense. According to Mod E grammars the finite verb has five categories — Mood, Tense, Aspect, Time-Correlation and Voice. All the new forms which have been included in the verb paradigm are analytical forms; all the synthetic forms are direct descendants of OE forms, for no new synthetic categor­ial forms have developed since the OE period.

The growth of analytical forms of the verb is a common Germanic tendency, though it manifested itself a long time after PG split into separate languages. The beginnings of these changes are dated in Late OE and in ME. The growth of compound forms from free verb phrases was a long and complicated process which extended over many hundred years and included several kinds of changes.

§ 496. A genuine analytical verb form must have a stable structural pattern different from the patterns of verb phrases; it must consist of several component parts: an auxiliary verb, sometimes two or three auxiliary verbs, e.g. NE would have been taken — which serve as a grammatical marker, and a non-finite form — Inf. or Part., — which serves as a grammatical marker and expresses the lexical meaning of the form. The analytical form should be idiomatic: its meaning is not equivalent to the sum of meanings of the component parts (see also §421 for the analytical way of Form-building).

The development of these properties is known as the process of “grammatisation”. Some verb phrases have been completely grammatised e.g. the Perfect forms. Some of them have not been fully grammatised to this day and are not regarded as ideal analytical forms in modern grammars (for instance, the Future tense).

In order to become a member of a grammatical category and a part of the verb paradigm the new form had to acquire another important quality: a specific meaning of its own which would be contrasted to the meaning of its opposite member within the grammatical category (in the same way as e. g. Past is opposed to Pres. or pl is opposed to sg). It was only at the later stages of development that such semantic oppo­sitions were formed. Originally the verb phrases and the new compound forms were used as synonyms (or “near synonyms”) of the old synthetic forms; gradually the semantic differences between the forms grew; the new forms acquired a specif­ic meaning white the application of the old forms was narrowed. It was also essential that the new analytical forms should be used unrestrictedly in different varieties of the language and should embrace verbs of different lexical meanings.

The establishment of an analytical form in the verb system is confirmed by the spread of its formal pattern in the verb paradigm. Compound forms did not spring up simultaneously in all the parts of the verb system: an analytical form appeared in some part of the system and from there its pattern extended to other parts. Thus the perfect forms first arose in the Past and Pres. tense of the Ind. Mood in the Active Voice and from there spread to the Subj. Mood, the Passive Voice, the non-finite verb.

Those were the main kinds of changes which constitute the growth of new grammatical forms and new verbal categories. They are to be found in the history of all the forms, with certain deviations and individual peculiarities. The dating of these developments is uncertain; therefore the order of their description below does not claim to be chronological.

Growth of New Forms within the Existing
Grammatical Categories
The Future Tense

§ 497. In the OE language there was no form of the Future tense. The category of Tense consisted of two members: Past and Present. The Pres. tense could indicate both present and future actions, depending on the context (see § 192). Alongside this form there existed other ways of presenting future happenings: modal phrases, consisting of the verbs sculan, willan, maʒan, cannan and others (NE shall, will, may, can)and the Infinitive of the notional verb. In these phrases the meaning of futurity was combined with strong modal meanings of volition, ob­ligation, possibility.

§ 498. In ME the use of modal phrases, especially with the verb shall, became increasingly common. Shall plus Inf. was now the prin­cipal means of indicating future actions in any context. (We may recall that the Pres. tense had to be accompanied by special time indicators in order to refer an action to the future.) Shall could retain its modal meaning of necessity, but often weakened it to such an extent that the phrase denoted “pure” futurity. (The meaning of futurity is often com­bined with that of modality, as a future action is a planned, potential action, which has not yet taken place.) One of the early instances of shall with a weakened modal meaning is found in the Early ME poem ORMULUM (c. 1200); the phrase is also interesting as it contains willen as a notional verb:

Annd whase wilenn shall piss boc

efft operrsipe written,.. (see § 292 for translation),

In Late ME texts shall was used both as a modal verb and as a Fu­ture tense auxiliary, though discrimination between them is not always possible. Cf.:

Me from the feend and fro bis clawes kepe,

That day that I shal drenchen in the depe. (Chaucer)

(‘Save me from the fiend and his claws the day when I am drowned (or am doomed to get drowned) in the deep (sea).’

She shal have nede to wasshe away the rede. (Chaucer)

(‘She will have to wash away the red (blood).’)

Future happenings were also commonly expressed by ME willen with an Inf., but the meaning of volition in will must have been more obvious than the modal meaning of shall:

A tale wol I telle (Chaucer)

(‘I intend to tell a story’)

But lordes, wol ye maken assurance,

As I shal seyn, assentynge to my loore,

And I shal make us sauf for everemore (Chaucer)

(‘But, lordes, will you (be so kind as or agree to) make assurance (and take this course) as I shall say and I shall make it safe for us for ever. ’)

The future event is shown here as depending upon the will or consent of the doer. Instances of will with a weakened modal meaning are rare:

But natheless she ferde as she wolde deye. (Chaucer)

(‘But nevertheless she feared that she would die.’)

It has been noticed that the verb will was more frequent in popular ballads and in colloquial speech, which testifies to certain stylistic restrictions in the use of will in ME.

§499. In the age of Shakespeare the phrases with shall and will, as well as the Pres. tense of notional verbs, occurred in free variation; they can express “pure” futurity and add different shades of modal meanings. Phrases with shall and will outnumbered all the other ways of indicating futurity, cf. their meanings in the following passages from Shakespeare’s sonnets:

Then hate me when thou wilt (desire)

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,

And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,

Thy youth’s proud livery, so gaz'd on now,

Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held. ("pure" future)

That thou art blam’d — shall not be thy defect. (future with the meaning of certainty, prediction)

In the 17th c. will was sometimes used in a shortened form -'ll, (-ll can also stand for shall, though historically it is traced to will): against myself I'll fight; against myself I’ll vow debate. (Shakespeare)

§ 500. Another confirmation of the change of shall and will into form-words is to be found in the rules of usage in the grammars of the 17th-18th c. In 1653 John Wallis for the first time formulated the rule about the regular interchange of shall and will depending on person. Although the data collected by 20th c. scholars show that no such reg­ularity really existed at the time of Wallis, his observations prove that the semantic difference between the two auxiliary verbs must have been very slight, or, perhaps, there was no difference at all. The em­ployment of shall and will as Future tense auxiliaries was supported by the use of their Past tense forms — should and would — Ind. and Subj. in similar functions. In phrases with the Inf. they indicated future happenings viewed from the past or served as equivalents of the Past tense of the Subj. Mood (see § 502 below).

The rules concerning shall and will, introduced by J. Wallis, were repeated in many grammar books in the 18th and 19th c. and were taught at school as obligatory. Probably, that was the reason why in Br E they were observed throughout the 19th c.; the complementary distri­bution of the two auxiliaries — shall for the 1st p., will for the 2nd and 3rd — became a mark of the British Standard. With other persons shall was used in more official forms of discourse: in religious writings, in high poetry and in documents. Will has ousted shall completely in Am E, and together with -'ll, is now ousting the auxiliary shall from Br E.

§ 501. Though the ME modal phrases with shall, and the Early NE analytical forms of the Future with shall, will and -'ll were the main means of indicating futurity, the Pres. tense continued to be employed in this meaning. As compared with OE, the frequency of the Pres. tense with a future meaning was low. (In the age of Shakespeare the ratio of Future to Present in expressing futurity is c. 10:1). The forms were used in free variation, which is contrary to modern usage, e. g.

As fast as thou shall wane, so fast thou grow'st;

If thou will leave me, do not leave me last.

When other petty griefs have done their spite;..

The earth can yield me but a common grave,

When you entombed in men's eyes shall lie.


Eventually the Future tense went out of use in some syntactical structures, namely clauses of time, condition and concession, and prevailed in other positions, But later the proportion of the Future tense among other means of indicating future actions has fallen again, for, in addition to the Pres. Ind. the last three centuries saw the growth of other means of indicating futurity: the construction to be going to, which was first recorded in the 17th c., and the Cont. forms. Neverthe­less the inclusion of the Future tense in the verb paradigm has narrowed the meaning of the Pres. tense and has transformed the category of Tense: nowadays it consists of three members: Present, Past, and Future (some grammarians add one more member to the category — Future in the Past).

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