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Minor groups of Verbs

The most important group of these verbs were the so-called “preterite-presents” or “past-present” verbs. Originally the Present tense forms of these verbs were Past tense forms. Later these forms acquired a present meaning but preserved many formal features of the Past tense. Most of these verbs had new Past Tense forms built with the help of the dental suffix. Some of them also acquired the forms of the verbals: Participles and Infinitives. In OE there were twelve preterite-present verbs. Six of them have survived in Mod E: OE āз; cunnan; cann; dear(r), sculan, sceal; maзan, mæз; mōt (NE owe, ought; can; dare; shall; may; must). Most preterite-presents did not indicate actions, but expressed a kind of attitude to an action denoted by another verb, an Infinitive which followed the preterite-present. In other words they were used like modal verbs, and eventually developed into modern modal verbs.

Largely due to the circumstances described in middle english section, during the Middle English period some dramatic changes in the structure of all morpho-syntactic categories took place, making the English from one thousand years ago show increasingly more resemblance to the English of today. As far as the verb is concerned, the two key changes which affected it when passing from Old English to Middle English were:

1) the reduction of inflectional endings, and
2) the shift of strong verbs to the weak paradigm.

The explanation of the notions and a presentation of the inflectional system of this category will be provided in the following sections.

1. The inflection of verbs in Middle English

The Middle English verb in different syntactic contexts could take a finite (inflected) or a non-finite (uninflected) form. The finite forms were inflected by means of suffixation, ie. the addition of inflectional morphemes to the end of the stem of a word, for the following verbal subcategories:

· mood: indicative, subjunctive, imperative;

· tense: present, past;

· number: singular, present;

· person: first, second, third.

The non-finite forms, ie. the forms unmarked for tense, number and person, were: infinitive, past participle, present participle and gerund. From around Chaucer's time the last two obtained more or less regularly the same ending -ing and so started to be formally indistinguishable though functionally still different (Lass 1992: 144). Syntactically, the infinitive and gerund functioned as nouns and the participles as adjectives. On the basis of their inflections ME verbs are commonly classified into three groups: two major ones, traditionally referred to as strong and weak, and a third one comprising a number of highly irregular verbs (here referred to as MAD verbs, see below). The basic difference between the first two groups lies in the way they form their past tense and past participle. Strong verbs build them by means of a root vowel alternation (the so-called ablaut) and the past marker of weak verbs is a dental suffix (usually -t, -d or -ed) attached to the root, after which the inflectional endings marking the number/person are added. Tables 1. and 2. present the paradigms of inflections for these two kinds of verbs.


The third of the aforementioned groups consists of verbs that display a high degree of irregularity and, according to Fisiak (1968: 99), may be further subdivided as follows:

· Mixed, whose past inflections are partly strong and partly weak, represented by only one verb: d n 'do'.

· Anomalous, undergoing suppletion, that is the replacement of one stem with another one, when forming the past and, in some cases, the present tense forms, eg. g n 'go', b n 'be'.

· Defective, whose chosen principal categories are lacking or extremely rare. None of them, for instance, has the present participle and many lack the infinitive. All of them, except for will, are the continuation of Old English preterite-presents. Can/con 'I can', dar 'I dare' can be quoted as the examples of such verbs.

One of the alternative subdivisions of this set of verbs, proposed in many ME grammars (cf. Lass 1992: 139-144; Welna 1996: 144-146), is made on diachronic rather than synchronic grounds, which means that the ME verbs are classified according to the formal properties they had in OE (none of these verbs is a borrowing). Thus, the subclassification continues the Old English one and goes as follows: preterite-presents, eg. can/con, dar, and anomalous verbs: g n, b n, will.

Finally, as this group of verbs is rather complicated morphologically and problematic when it comes to their detailed description and classification, they will be labeled in this paper as MAD, 'MAD' being an acronym formed from the initial letters of the names of the three subgroups. Thus, a convenient term is coined, which makes it easy to refer to the set of discussed verbs as a whole.

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