Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer > Conjugation in Middle English
  Old English Grammar; Changes in Declension Influence of the Norman Conquest  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer.

§ 5. Conjugation in Middle English.


Among the most easily recognisable characteristics of Middle English dialects are certain differences in the conjugation of the verb. In Old English, the third person singular, and all the persons of the plural, of the present indicative ended in -th, with a difference in the preceding vowel: thus, lufian to love, l[char]ran to teach, give (in West Saxon) h[char] lufath, h[char] l[char]reth, and w[char] lufiath, w[char] [char]rath. In the northern dialect, this -th had, in the tenth century, already begun to give way to -s; and northern writings of about 1300 show -es both in the third singular and in the plural as the universal ending. The midland dialect, from 1200 onwards, had in the plural -en perhaps taken over from the present subjunctive or the past indicative; this ending, often reduced to -e, remains in the language of Chaucer. The third singular ended in -eth in midland English (so also in Chaucer); but the northern -s, which has now been adopted almost everywhere, even in rustic speech, is found in many midland writings of the fourteenth century, especially in those of the west. The southern dialect preserved the West Saxon forms with little change: we find he luveth, we luvieth in the fourteenth century. The plural indicative present of the verb to be had several quite unconnected forms in Old English sindon and b[char]oth in all dialects, earon, aron in Northumbrian and Mercian. In the thirteenth century, sinden occurs in the north midland Ormulum and some southern writings. In the fourteenth century, northern writings have are (monosyllabic), midland varies between aren or are and been, ben, while the southern form is beoth or buth.   15
  The Northumbrian dialect had, in the tenth century, already reduced the -an of the infinitive to -a, and, in the northern English of the fourteenth century, the infinitive and the first person singular present were destitute of endings (the final -e, though often written, being shown by the metre to be silent). In other dialects, the infinitive ended in -en, for which -e occurs with increasing frequency from the thirteenth century onwards. Chaucer and Gower have both forms; their metre requires the final -e to be sounded in this as in most of the other instances, but it is probable that, in ordinary speech, it was generally silent before A.D. 1400.   16
  The forms of the present participle, which, in Old English, ended in -ende, afford a well-marked criterion of dialect in Middle English. The northern dialect had falland, the southern fallinde; in the midland dialect, fallande or fallende gradually gave place to fallinge, which is the form used by Chaucer.   17

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Old English Grammar; Changes in Declension Influence of the Norman Conquest  
 
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