Verbs in Early Modern English

(Picture: Marking of tense, mood, number and person in Early Modern English Source: Lass 1999: 161)

From Middle English to Early Modern English, inflection decayed further: Plural endings became zero-marked and therefore were not distinct any longer. The meaning of a verb form has now to be suggested by the context in which it appears. Therefore, a rigid word order is important. In Early Modern English, four distinct singular endings remained: -st and -s/-th for the 2nd and 3rd person in the present tense as well as -d and -dst for the 1st/3rd and 2nd person in the past tense. The –s-marking in 3rd person singular indicative was basically used in everyday spoken language, while -th was more common in written language and the language of the court. The morphology of verbs from Early Modern English does not vary much from the Modern Standard English which we have nowadays. The markings for 2nd person singular in past and present got lost so that today inflection concerning verbs actually only indicates tense and 3rd person singular present tense.

(Picture: Marking of tense, mood, number and person in Modern Standard English Source: Lass 1999: 161)

The main changes that were common for both strong and weak verbs obviously occurred in marking of person and number. From Old English to Modern English, the number of person endings shrunk from nine over seven in Middle English and four in Early Modern English to the 3rd person singular marking today. In the fifteenth century, two basic patterns existed in the London standard language: the East Midland type and the Southern type.

	East Midland type	Southern type
	1   -ø	                1   -ø
	2   -st	                2   -st
	3   -th/-s	        3   -th
	pl. -n/-s	        pl.	(Source: Lass 1999:162)

It was also possible that in certain texts both types appeared in parallel. In the Southern type, -th also existed for plural. Normally, 3rd person singular was indicated with –th, but in the East Midland, also -s occurred. This marking was also normal in the Northern dialect, which actually did not have much influence on the language of London and the South. Therefore it might be surprising that later -s replaced -th completely. It seems as if -th still has been written long after it was not said any more. “In Shakespeare, {-th} occurs mainly in verse, and {-s} nearly invariably in prose – except for doth, hath which are common to both” (Lass 1999: 163).

An examined prose sample from Queen Elizabeth’s translation of Boethius (dated 1590) contained 200 3rd person singular verb forms from which almost 70 % were -s. It is conspicuous that of 27 occurrences of the 3rd person singular of have and do only one is marked with -s and all the others with -th. As the newer -s seems predominant, it is apparent that have and do trail.

“In the earlier sixteenth century {-s} was probably informal, and {-th} neutral and/or elevated; by the 1580s {-s} was most likely the spoken norm, with {-eth} a metrical variant” (Lass 1999:164).

Around 1500, present plural markings are still in use. Due to the developments in the fifteenth century, plural was either zero-marked or with a suffix (-th, -s, or -n). The zero-plural has not always existed, but developed from the Midland -n (see above: East Midland type). Since the fourteenth century, also -e plurals were known and that caused a loss on the phoneme /n/ in weak syllables. Weak syllables are unstressed whereas strong syllables are stressed. “The Midland {-n} survives until the 1550s, but increasingly becomes an archaism” (Lass 1999:165). Both -th, and -s still existed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but are less common than zero.

Tense-marking developed differently for strong and weak verbs. “The major developments in the strong verb are implicit in these examples: (a) stabilisation of unique or near-unique vowel-grade patterns for individual verbs, and (b) the final decision as to whether a verb will be strong or weak” (Lass 1999: 167).

In Middle English, nearly one third of the strong verbs that existed during the Old English period seem to have vanished. It is not the case that all those verbs did not exist any longer: In fact, most of them became weak verbs.

Reason for that was the consistent pattern of weak verb conjugation for the past tense which was easier than the conjugation of the different classes of the strong verb. By the beginning of Early Modern English, the pattern of distinct vowel grades for the past of strong words that had existed in Old and partly in Middle English was lost. Apart from becoming weak, there were different ways for strong verbs to form the past. The most dominant pattern is presented as follows:

Present: OE drincan > drink
Past Sg: OE dranc > drank
Past Pl + Past pple: OE druncon/druncen > drunk
(Dominant pattern of strong verb conjugation Source: Lass 1999: 168)

In this case, the Early Modern past grade derived from past singular of Old English and the past participle developed from both old past plural and past participle. Other patterns existed as well, but they were less frequent. In some cases the original survived as well, as for example in written form. There, regularities can be recognised:

- -n remains after a stem with vowel-ending
- -n is kept after the phoneme /l/ like in fallen
- -n is lost after the phoneme /ŋk/; it only survived in independent adjectives: I got drunk but the drunken sailor.
- -n is always lost in after stems with nasal-ending. (Source: Lass 1999: 171)

Tense marking for weak verbs seems easier. In Early Modern English, two endings existed: -dst for 2nd person singular and –d for all the others. Later, there was only the -d-form left. This ending has three allomorphs that occur in certain circumstances: After voiceless consonants, the allomorph /-t/ is used whereas after voiced consonants /-d/ is used. This does not count for the consonants /t/ and /d/ themselves. As a cluster /tt/ is not allowed, the third allomorph is /-Vd/. V derives from the schwa which has been deleted. Besides the ‘regular’ weak verbs, also some ‘irregular’ weak pasts exist as taught, caught or besought. Until the eighteenth century, those verbs had ‘regular’ past alternatives, too, but then the regular alternatives got lost. The past participle for weak verbs has not been discussed yet because the past finite and the participle are normally identical.