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The verbal system in Old English (grammatical categories)

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Grammatical categories of the Finite Verb

The verb-predicate agreed with the subject of the sentence in two grammatical categories: number and person. Its specifically verbal categories were mood and tense. Finite forms regularly distinguished between two numbers: sg and pl. The category of Person was made up of three forms: th 1st, the 2nd and the 3rd. The category of Mood was constituted by the Indicative, Imperative and Subjunctive. The category of Tense in OE consisted of two categorical forms, Present and Past. The use of Subj. forms conveyed a very general meaning of unreality or supposition. In addition to its use in conditional sentences and other volitional, conjectural and hypothetical contexts Subj. was common in other types of construction: in clauses of time, clauses of result and in clauses presenting reported speech. The meanings of the tense forms were also very general, as compared with later ages and with present-day English. The forms of the Present tense were used to indicate present and future actions. The Past tense was used in a most general sense to indicate various events in the past. In addition to Mood and Tense we must mention Aspect and Voice.

Until recently it was believed that in OE the category of aspect was expressed by the regular contrast of verbs with and without the prefix зe-; verbs with the prefix had a perfective meaning while the same verbs without the prefix indicated a non-completed action, e.g. feohtanзefeohtan ‘fight’ – ‘gain by fighting’. In some recent explorations, however, it has been shown that the prefix зe- in OE can hardly be regarded as a marker of aspect, it could change the aspective meaning of the verb by making it perfective, but it could also change its lexical meaning, e.g. beranзeberan ‘carry’ – ‘bear a child’. It follows that the prefix зe- should rather be regarded as an element of word-building, a derivational prefix of vague general meaning, though its ties with certain shades of aspective meaning are obvious. It is important to note that in OE texts there were also other means of expressing aspective meanings: the Past or Present Participle. The phrases with Participle I were used to describe a prolonged state or action, the phrases with Participle II indicated a state resulting from a previous, completed action. The category of voice in OE is another debatable issue. The passive meaning was frequently indicated with the help of Participle II of transitive verbs used as predicatives with the verbs beōn ‘be’ and weorðan ‘become’.

Grammatical categories of the Verbals

In OE there were two non-finite forms of the verb: the Infinitive and the Participle. The Infinitive had no verbal grammatical categories. Being a verbal noun by origin, it had a sort of reduced case-system: two forms which roughly corresponded to the Nom. and the Dat. cases of nouns –

beran – uninflected Infinitive (“Nom.” case)

tō berenne or tō beranne – inflected Infinitive (“Dat.” case)

Like the Dat. case of nouns the inflected Infinitive with the preposition could be used to indicate the direction or purpose of an action. The uninflected Infinitive was used in verb phrases with modal verbs or other verbs of incomplete predication.

The Participle was a kind of verbal adjective which was characterized not only by nominal but also by certain verbal features. Participle I (Present Participle) was opposed to Participle II (Past Participle) through voice and tense distinctions: it was active and expressed present or simultaneous processes and qualities, while Participle II expressed states and qualities resulting from past action and was contrasted to Participle I as passive to active, if the verb was transitive. Participle II of intransitive verbs had an active meaning; it indicated a past action and was opposed to Participle I only through tense. Participles were employed predicatively and attributively like adjectives and shared their grammatical categories: they were declined as weak and strong and agreed with nouns in number, gender and case.


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