Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Reconsidering the History of the English Verbal System (1)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Reconsidering the History of the English Verbal System (1)

Article excerpt

Synchronic variation and diachronic change are two manifestations of the same, underlying force that makes language such a successful and essential part of human existence. Any attempt at controlling, delaying, or preventing its operation is doomed to failure, as generations after generations of language purists and reformers have learnt at their own expense. Historical linguistics, the part of intellectual endeavour devoted to analysing and understanding the forces of language change, is not exempt from its influence, either. With the development of linguistic knowledge its major principles should be and are questioned, as new theories, textual advances, and interdisciplinary studies open new vistas on old problems. Assuming that any current paradigm, however intricate and attractive, accurately represents the linguistic reality it purports to model, is an act of enormous hubris and should raise immediate suspicions.

One such area is historical morphology of Old English. The organisation of inflectional paradigms as presented in scholarly publications of today virtually has not changed for the last two hundred years. Since its formulation in the nineteenth century, it has been accepted as accurately reflecting the internal organisation of Old English morphology. Only recently, have some scholars begun to question the premises on which much of the perception of the Old English inflectional system is based (cf. Kastovsky 1995; Lass 1997; Krygier 1998). In this paper one particular aspect of this problem, namely that of the categorisation of Old English strong verbs, will be discussed.

If one looks at the standard textbooks of Old English, the strong verb system as presented there looks so neat and logical that it hardly seems in need of any refinement. In its most classical rendition, taken from Campbell's Old English Grammar (1959), the standard division into seven ablaut classes is presented as follows:

(1) Old English strong verb classes


Class 1:   ridan : rad : ridon : riden 'ride'
Class 2:   beodan : bead : budon : boden 'command'
Class 3a:  singan : sang : sungon : sungen 'sing'
Class 3b:  helpan : healp : hulpon : holpen 'help'
Class 4:   teran : tcer : taeron : toren 'tear'
Class 5:   metan : mcet : maeton : meten 'mete'
Class 6:   faran : for : foron : faren 'fare'
Class 7a:  hatan : het : heton : haten 'command'
Class 7b:  beatan : beot : beoton : beaten 'beat'
Class 7c:  feallan : feoll: feollon : feallen 'fall'
Class 7d:  blandan : blend : blendon : blanden 'mix'
Class 7e:  laetan : let : leton : laeten 'let'
Class 7f:  growan : greow : greowon : growen 'grow'
                               (Campbell 1959: 3047-320)

Every class is characterised by a specific ablaut or vowel gradation pattern, distinguishing separate forms for the present, past singular and plural, and the past participle. Class 7 is problematic, as in the Proto-Germanic period its members used reduplication as well as ablaut to construct past tense forms, and there are a number of subcategories to take into consideration here.

The problem with this categorisation is that it is not based on Old English, but on an earlier stage in the history of the language, namely Proto-Germanic. This is due to a number of reasons such as a general diachronic bias in historical linguistic studies or the need for a common framework for all older Germanic languages to facilitate comparative studies. However, it remains to be seen whether this model is at all applicable to Old English.

For in their search for God-given truths historical linguists tend to lose from their sight one basic premise, on which their research should be based -- that the object of their study was once a living language, spoken in a real linguistic community. Therefore, rather than reflecting their assumptions about abstract properties of the language structure, any well-formed theory should attempt to re-create the synchronic competence of the native speaker. …

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