The Preterite and Perfect in Middle English

by Morgan Macleod (University of Ulster)

The Proto-Germanic tense system, consisting only of a present and a preterite, was augmented in Old English by the addition of a periphrastic perfect. This perfect had already been grammaticalized to the point where it could be used even with intransitive verbs, e.g. þin folc hæfð gesyngod ‘your people have sinned’ (Mitchell 1985: I, 289). However, it was still possible to use the preterite to express similar temporal content, e.g. Ic heold nu nigon gear[…] þines fæder gestreon ‘I (have) now held your father’s property nine years’ (ÆLS I.21.42). For many Old English authors the preterite was in fact the preferred mode of expression; previous research on a sample of Old English texts found that the new periphrastic perfect was used only in 26% (95/360) of the cases where it would have been possible semantically (see Macleod 2014). However, little previous quantitative work exists on the subsequent development of the perfect and preterite towards the modern system, in which the two categories are paradigmatically opposed and can seldom be interchanged without altering the meaning of an utterance.

A preliminary investigation of the preterite and perfect in Middle English was performed using the Helsinki Corpus (Rissanen et al. 1996). Such a corpus, small in size yet selected for balanced content, was ideal for a form of analysis involving manual review of entire textual passages. The methodology was based on that of Macleod (2014): texts from the earliest Middle English period, 1150–1250, were analysed to identify all situations for which a present perfect would be an appropriate representation, and the relevant verbs were identified either as preterites or as perfects. This research revealed an abrupt transition between Old English and Middle English; in Middle English, not including texts that represent late copies of Old English works, the periphrastic perfect was used in 94% (258/274) of cases. It is possible that the earlier stages of this transition took place within OE, where they were obscured by the relatively homogeneous nature of the textual record. In addition, some ME authors seem to show awareness of a new opposition between the preterite and the perfect, e.g. Orm 197 Þe þridde god uss hafeþþ don / Þe Laferrd Crist onn erþe, / Þurrh þatt he ȝaff hiss aȝhenn lif ‘The Lord Christ has done us the third good on earth in that He gave His own life’. Here the same situation is described with a preterite to position it within a historical narrative and with a perfect to highlight its continuing relevance, showing a clearer contrast than seems to have existed in Old English.

Although the majority of Middle English examples seem to conform to the modern pattern, a small number of exceptions remain, a fact noted by previous authors such as Mustanoja (1960) and Fischer (1992). One factor involved in these exceptions may lie in the variation observed (e.g. Elsness 1997) among varieties of English in their tense preferences: constructions such as American English I already ate can be paralleled in Middle English examples such as Ich ne seh him neauer ‘I never saw Him’ (St Juliana 100.15), while examples such as mare wunder ilomp ‘greater wonders (have) happened’ (Ancrene Wisse 32.9) may show an even greater tolerance for the preterite than would be possible in present-day American English. This variation may best be interpreted as a difference not in the temporal meaning of the forms involved, but in the pragmatic presuppositions created by their use, in keeping with the approach of Portner (2003).

Some Middle English examples also involve the use of a past tense under a present-tense verb in a way that would be of marginal acceptability in Modern English. This can be seen in examples such as Brut I.384.7424, Ich þonkie mine Drihte[…] þet he swulche mildce; sent to moncunne ‘I thank my Lord that He sent such mercy to mankind’. Although much research on the sequence of tenses (e.g. Abusch 1997; Gennari 2003) has tended to focus on cases in which the matrix verb is in the past tense, it is known that sequence-of-tense phenomena are subject to cross-linguistic variation in their construction and interpretation. Examples such as the above may reflect an underlying difference between Middle English and Modern English in their sequence-of-tense rules.

This preliminary investigation has found a high degree of similarity between Middle English and Modern English in their use of the perfect even at a very early date, in sharp contrast to the patterns found in Old English texts. While the explanations proposed here may help to explain the small number of apparent counterexamples, more work is needed to substantiate these proposals. In particular, a larger data sample might provide further examples to clarify the factors influencing speakers’ choice between the perfect and the preterite, while a more general examination of the sequence of tenses found in Middle English would be essential to establish the details of the system obtaining at this period and the ways in which it might differ from Modern English. Further research in this area has the potential to illuminate many currently obscure details of the Middle English verbal system.


References

Abusch, Dorit, 1997. ‘Sequence of tense and temporal de re’, Linguistics and Philosophy 20, 1–40.

Elsness, Johan, 1997. The Perfect and Preterite in Contemporary and Earlier English, Berlin: de Gruyter

Fischer, Olga, 1992. ‘Syntax’, in Norman Blake (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 207–408.

Gennari, Silvia P., 2003. ‘Tense meanings and temporal interpretation’, Journal of Semantics 20 35–71.

Macleod, Morgan, 2014. ‘Synchronic variation in the Old English perfect’, Transactions of the Philological Society 112, 319–343.

Mitchell, Bruce, 1985. Old English Syntax, 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon.

Mustanoja, Tauno F., 1960. A Middle English Syntax, Helsinki: Societé Néophilologique.

Portner, Paul, 2003. ‘The (temporal) semantics and (modal) pragmatics of the perfect’, Linguistics and Philosophy 26, 459–510.

Rissanen, Matti, et al. (eds.) 1996. The Helsinki Corpus of English Texts, Helsinki: University of Finland, electronic.

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 4

Of Lambkins and Piglets in Old English and Beyond

by Patrick V. Stiles (University College London)

It is suggested that the Old English adjectives geēan and gecealf, each attested once in the same passage, could refer not only to pregnant livestock but also to mothers with their newborn young (as proposed by Osthoff in 1895). The twice occurring sequence gefearh sugu, which is usually taken to be a compound, is here analysed as consisting of a third such adjective used attributively before the noun; as the feminine nominative singular of a heavy‐syllabled adjective, it is endingless. This appears to be a return to an earlier view. A fourth example, gefol, recorded once, is also discussed. The formation of these adjectives is briefly treated, as is the PGmc noun *auna- “lamb” presupposed by the first adjective, together with its presumed relationship to Latin agnus and further cognates. Evidence for the derived class II weak verb *aunôn (reflected in OE *ēanian) in the Germanic languages is presented.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12121

TPS 116(2) – Abstract 3

Syntactic Echoes of Pronominal Cliticization and Grammaticalization: The Case of Old High German First‐Person Plural ‐mes

by Katerina Somers (Queen Mary University of London), Mary Allison, Matthew Boutilier, Robert Howell (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

The origin of first person plural (1PL) ‘long’ forms of the type faramês/‐mes ‘(we) go’ in Old High German (OHG) is one of the most intractable problems in the history of the Germanic languages. Because these forms are confined only to OHG and have no obvious parallel elsewhere in Germanic or Indo‐European, most of the tools of the comparative method are of little use, with the result that the many accounts put forward over the past two centuries rely on a series of unlikely and ad hoc assumptions. What is more, previous work has focused on the one aspect of the problem that scholars are least likely to solve given the array of texts we presently have at our disposal, while paying little attention to what we argue is the more promising line of inquiry. That is, existing studies discuss in detail the possible morphological sources of ‐mes and their phonological development and focus little on the syntactic environments in which verbs inflected with ‐mes occur. We intend to reverse this trend through a comprehensive examination of ‐mes across the OHG corpus, with a particular focus on two of its major monuments, the OHG Tatian and Otfrid’s Evangelienbuch; this analysis shows that the syntactic distribution of ‐mes‐inflected verbs point to the suffix being diachronically and synchronically pronominal. Thus, we conclude that ‐mes must have arisen as the result of pronominal cliticization, a suggestion first put forth by Kuhn (1869) and Paul (1877).

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12117

TPS 116(1) – Abstract 1

Contrastive Feature Hierarchies in Old English Diachronic Phonology

by Elan Dresher (University of Toronto)

This article looks at the origins and uses of contrastive hierarchies in Old English diachronic phonology, with a focus on the development of West Germanic vowel systems. I begin with a rather enigmatic remark in Richard Hogg’s A grammar of Old English (1992), and attempt to trace its provenance. We will find that the trail leads back to analyses by some prominent scholars that make use of contrastive feature hierarchies. However, these analyses often appear without context or supporting framework. I will attempt to provide the missing framework and historical context for these analyses, while showing their value for understanding the development of phonological systems. I will show that behind these apparently isolated analyses there is a substantial theoretical edifice that once held a central role in synchronic as well as diachronic phonological theory, and which is still capable of providing insights into the workings of phonology.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12105

TPS 115(2) – Abstract 4

The ‘fiver’: Germanic ‘finger’, Balto-Slavic de-numeral adjectives in *-ero- and their Indo-European background

by Marek Majer (Harvard University)

Proto-Germanic *fingraz ‘finger’ – long connected to PIE *penkʷe ‘5’, but without a convincing derivational scenario – can be interpreted as *pēnkʷ‑ró‑, a genitival R(V̄)‑ó‑ vr̥ddhi derivative to *penkʷerom ‘set of 5’. This latter form is the substantivization of *penkʷero‑ ‘5‑fold, counting 5’ – a form belonging to a series of de-numeral adjectives which, it is argued, is the single type underlying the Baltic pluralia tantum numerals (Lith. penkerì ‘5.pl.tant’) and the Slavic collectives and distributives (PSl. *pętero ‘group of 5’, *pęterъ ‘5‑fold’).
It is further hypothesized that (Post-)PIE forms like *penkʷero‑, *sweḱsero‑, *septm̥mero‑ need not rest upon false segmentation of a thematic derivative of ‘4’ (*kʷetwer‑o-), as is most commonly assumed; rather, they can be explained as simple thematic derivatives of an *‑er locative of the type *penkʷer ‘in/on/at 5’ = ‘in a group of 5’ (a close parallel of this semantic relationship is provided by Lith. trisè ‘3.loc’ = ‘in a group of 3’, or even by French à trois). The posited type *penkʷer also yields a back-formed substantive *penkʷōr ‘set of 5‑s’, a possible source of the Tocharian B distributive numerals in ‑ār (piśār ‘by 5‑s’ << *penkʷōr‑en, *penkʷōr‑i or similar), which – being athematic, cannot be explained via the standard theory starting from *kʷetwer‑o-.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12099

TPS 115(2) – Abstract 2

Accented Clitics in Hittite?

by Andrei Sideltsev (Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences)

Hittite attests two distinct second positions, occupied by (a) Wackernagel enclitics; (b) non-Wackernagel enclitics -(m)a, -(y)a as well as stressed indefinite and correlative pronouns. I argue that Hittite provides novel data on the syntax-prosody interface as reflected in the operation of the second position constraint: the words belonging to group (b) combine properties which are typically ascribed to stressed and unstressed second position constituents. These findings show that the boundary between the stressed, syntactically conditioned second position exemplified by Germanic verb-second and the unstressed, phonologically conditioned second position of Wackernagel enclitics is much more blurred than is commonly acknowledged.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12097

Faces of PhilSoc: George Walkden


Name:
George Walkden
Position: Lecturer in English Linguistics
Institution: University of Manchester
Role in PhilSoc: Council member; member of the Publications Committee

 


About You

How did you become a linguist – was there a decisive event, or was it a gradual development?

My favourite subjects at school were languages and maths, and I was always torn between them. During my first degree I gradually realized I could combine the two! I think my desire to continue in academia was born during my year abroad, during which I was clocking in and out every day to translate documents for a pharmaceutical company. I wanted to do a job that rewarded results, not a 9-to-5, and a job that allowed me to keep on learning (and studying language) until I keeled over. After that I was more or less hooked!

What was the topic of your doctoral thesis? Do you still believe in your conclusions?

My doctoral thesis was about reconstructing the syntax of Proto-Germanic. The general conclusions – in particular that syntactic reconstruction is feasible and interesting – I would stand by. I did make at least one major mistake in interpreting results for Old English verb-late clauses, though, and I gave a talk about this at PhilSoc in 2015, retracting my earlier claim.

On what project / topic are you currently working?

Lots of different things! Negation in Middle English, preposition stranding in early Germanic, how to derive and understand Constant Rate Effects in syntactic change… I’m an obsessive collaborator and tangent-taker. I’m also looking to expand my parsed corpus of Old Saxon.

What directions in the future do you see your research taking?

I’m keen to expand my knowledge of computational and mathematical approaches to language change, and am aggressively reading up in this area. Combining this with corpus-based research and predictive theories of acquisition and use is what I’d aim to achieve. One of the things I love about historical syntax is how many different skills you need to develop: philology, syntactic theory, corpus methodology, the general theory of language change, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

How did you get involved with the Philological Society?

Two events aimed specifically at postgrads and early career researchers: one in Cambridge in 2010, and another in Oxford in 2012.


‘Personal’ Questions

Do you have a favourite language – and if so, why?

Old Saxon! It’s the underappreciated sibling of Old High German, and has been unjustifiably ignored, especially within Germany.

Minimalism or LFG?

Minimalism. But I wish we had something like XLE.

 


Looking to the Future

Is there something that you would like to change in academia / HE?

Gold Open Access should be the norm, not the exception. Academic publishing should be scholar-led.

(How) Do you manage to have a reasonable work-life balance?

Honestly, I find it hard to distinguish between the two.

What is your prime tip for younger colleagues?

Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there! Senior academics are (mostly) not out to get you.