The verb phrase from OE to ME:

some examples to examine

(from Rigg’s English language: a historical reader)


ME (N) Foghlis of heuen and fischis of the see, that gas the wayes of the se.

ME (M): the briddis of the eir, and the fischis of the see; that passen bi the pathis of the see

OE fléogende fuglas and sæ:fiscas, þá farað geond þá sæ:wegas


ME (N) What is ... son of man for thou visites him?

ME (M) What is ... the sone of a virgyn, for thou visitist hym?

OE: hwæt is sé mannes sunu þe þú oft ræ:dlíce néosast?


ME (N) Of the mouth of noght spekand and sowkand thou has made louynge for thi enmys

ME (M) Of the mouth of 3onge children, not spekynge and soukynge mylk, thou madist perfitly heriyng, for thin enemyes

[PDE: on the lips of children and of babes you have found praise to foil your enemy]


ME (N) For I sal see thi heuens, werkis of thi fyngirs, the mone and the sternes...

ME (M) For Y schal se thin heuenes, the werkis of thi fyngris; the moone and sterris...

OE: Ic ongite nú þæt weorc þínra fingra, þæt synd heofonas and móna and sterorran...


ME verb morphology: overview of issues


“The story of the verb during Middle English is enormously involved, and nearly impossible to tell coherently. The noun was bad enough, with only case and number (and marginally gender) to worry about; here we have not only tense, person, number, and mood, but a plethora of distinct strong and weak classes with partially independent histories, and numerous odd but important verbs like be, do, can, must. These complications make a neat category-by-category narrative nearly impossible. Still, we have to start somewhere; and since the ‘victory of tense’ is the main theme of the story, this is a good place to begin.’ (Lass, p. 125)


OE verbal system already quite simple compared to IE and other Gmc languages

§       no inflected passive

§       no dual for verbs (Gothic still had it)

§       no distinction of person

o      in plural

o      anywhere in the subjunctive (-e sg., -en plural)


Sound changes in ME further blur distinctions:

§       early: levelling of vowels in unstressed final syllables

§       later: loss of some word-final sounds)

o      (e)(n)

§       e.g. infinitive: OE feallan -> fall(e)(n)


Distinctions blurring because of sound changes (levelling of vowels in final unstressed syllables)

§       Number in the present indicative, 3 sg.(-eþ) and 1-3 pl. (-aþ)

§       Mood in the past plural: indicative –on and subjunctive –en


What remains distinct?

§       present tense verb endings in some dialects

o      2 sg. –st (until whole category disappears!)

o      3 sg. –th (and its competitor –s)

§       tense marking

o      weak verb suffix

o      strong verb ablaut

§       English has a tendency for each part of speech to have one dominant parameter

·       verb: tense

·       noun: number



Analogical change


Weak verbs

o      characteristic of/productive in Germanc languages

o      “numerically preponderant even in OE”

o      “the natural analogical target for restructuring the verb system in ME”

o      conceptual base: marking past tense with a suffix containing /t/ or /d/


In ME, the category of weak verbs is augmented by (for instance)...

o      borrowed words

o      sometimes conjugated as irregular weak verbs

§       e.g. catch sounded like (now obsolete) OE læ:can (læhte)

o      so that’s why it’s not catched

o      some old strong verbs: common through OE, increase late 14th-early 15th

o      arbitrary:

§       OE bacan ‘bake’ cf. OE wacan ‘wake’

o      alternation between strong and weak forms seen during ME, EModE

§       OE helpan was strong, now it’s weak (helped)

§       in ME, you find halpe &  helpyd (OE healp)

o      sometimes the alternation persists in PDE

§       e.g. swell has weak past swelled but strong participle swollen

o      semantic distinction? (swelled head, swollen glands)

§       sometimes old strong past participle survives w/ adjectival meaning, e.g. graven images


Exceptions to this trend also often a result of analogy

o      OE stician was weak: sticode, but now it’s strong

o      OF estriver: infinitive sounded like strong class I (drive(n)

o      [ON taka was already strong in ON: tok -> take, took]


Other results of analogical change

o      strong verbs: some remained strong but switched categories

o      e.g. OE class 5 verbs take on class 4 participles

§       (ge)specen -> (y)spoke(n)

§       (ge)wefen -> (y)wove(n)


o      all OE strong verbs levelled their 2 past tenses under 1 form

o      but there were 2 forms to choose from: for instance, class I OE

§       OE wrát, writon -> wrote

§       OE bát, biton -> bit

·       took ages: look at OED!

·       e.g. writ a past tense for a long time

o      stages:

o      level past singular under the vowel of 1,3sg.

§       e.g. in OE, 2 sg. write (vs 1,3 sg wrát)

o      then eliminate number opposition

§       e.g. between wrote and writ(en)


o      all strong verbs: levelling of i-mutated 2,3 sg. present forms

o      OE helpe, hilpst, hilpð, helpað -> ME help-


Other changes


o      in the midlands, assumption that the reflex of OE –on meant ‘plural’, not ‘past plural’

o      OE helpað -> ME helpen

§       probably influenced by the ‘preterite-present verbs’, which had –on in the present (old past!)

·       OE we sculon ‘we must’

o      not relevant in PDE, since present tense verbs aren’t inflected for plural any more



o      in some verbs with irregular forms, analogical levelling through the paradigm

o      e.g. OE giefan, gæf /v/ and /f/ -> ME yive, yaf ->> eventually /v/


ME verb morphology: the fate of some non-finite forms



o      i.e. forms that are not inflected for tense, number, person

·       infinitives, present and past participles


Infinitive: OE –an -> ME –en -> ME –(e)(n)

o      by the late 14th century, about half are unmarked (i.e. without -en)

·       of the marked ones, most are be-n “be”

o      i.e. it’s often the most common words that most resist change


Strong past participle: OE ge- -en -> ME y- -en -> ME (y-) (-en)


·       ge- used to have ‘collectivising/perfective’ sense

o      e.g. wrítan ‘to write’, gewrit ‘something written’

·       often meaningless in OE (verbs with/out ge)


Later changes

·       began to drop off past participles as early as C10th in the north

o      more stable in the south

·       south often conservative

·       variation exploited in verse

o      e.g. Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond ...


Verbal noun


·       in PDE, a form in –ing with noun-like properties (e.g. can be subject/object of a sentence)

o      I love running. Running wrecked my knees.


OE -> ME

·       in OE, depending upon the verb class, either –ing or –ung

o      e.g., from rædan, ræ:ding ‘lesson’; from leornian, leornung ‘learning’

o      in ME, levelled as –ing


ME: Fro the voice of my sorowynge

ME: Of the vois of my weilyng

[OE: has a different rendering of the Latin with present participle, gnorniende ‘sorrowing’]


Present participle


o      in PDE, a form in –ing with adjective-like properties (e.g. can modify a noun)

o      My running nose

o      in PDE, used to form the progressive/continuous/durative (BE + PrP)

o      I am running.



o      in OE, -ende: Đær wæron sume of ðæm bócerum sittende

There were some of the scribes sitting

o      in OE, not grammaticalized: “durative aspect is inherent in the meaning of most verbs”

OE ðéos woruld .. néalæcð ðam ende

      this world is approaching the end...



o      dialect variation:

o      in the north, -and (from Scandinavian –andi)

o      in the midlands, -ende

o      in the south, -inde

§       interference from French: -a(u)nt

to be conuersaunt with wymmen


o      later: replaced by ing(e)

Jhesus witynge alle thingis



o      one explanation: interference from construction with the verbal noun


OE:        he wæs on huntinge [later a-hunting]

OE:        he wæs huntende

later:      he was hunting



ME dialect variation (Millward workbook 6.16)


Present third person singular

o      Germanic -iþi

o      OE –þ

o      ME dialects diverge

o      eth in most dialects

o      but –s  in the north

§       Why?

·       in Old Northumbrian, 3sg had sometimes fallen together under 2sg (which was historically –s – the –st is an innovation)


Present plural

·       OE –að

·       Northumbrian –as as well as –

·       ME dialects diverge

o      north has –s (or nothing at all)

o      south keeps –eth

o      midlands substitute –en

§       analogy with plural

·       past indicative: we haefdon ‘we had’

·       present of pret-present verbs: we sculon ‘we must’


The north generally:

·       language contact in Danelaw catalyst for grammatical innovation

o      new 3rd person plural pronouns

o      watch for prepositions: til, fra

·       more /s/

·       2sg, 3sg, 1-3 pl

·       nouns