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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer

§ 3. Changes in Grammar

The most striking characteristic of Old English, as compared with later stages of the language, is that it retained without essential change the inflectional system which it possessed at the beginning of its history. So far as regards the verbs, this system was very imperfect in comparison with that of Greek, or even of Latin. There was no inflected passive, the need of which was supplied by the use of auxiliaries; and there were only two inflected tenses: the present, which often had to serve for a future, and the past. The use of auxiliaries for forming compound tenses was comparatively rare. The three persons of the plural had only one form, which, prehistorically, had been that of the third person; and, in the past tense, the first and third person singular were alike. On the other hand, the system of declension was nearly as elaborate as in any of the languages of the Indogermanic family. Substantives had four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive and dative. The adjective had two sets of inflections for gender, number and case—the one used when the substantive was “definite” (as when preceded by the article or some equivalent), and the other when it was “indefinite.” So far as this description goes, it might appear that the Old English machinery for expressing the grammatical relations of substantives, adjectives and pronouns was as adequate for its purpose as even that of Greek. But, owing to the effect of prehistoric changes of pronunciation, which had assimilated many terminations that were originally distinct, the Old English declension of these parts of speech was, in fact, full of inconvenient ambiguities. This will be evident if we place side by side the paradigms of the word guma, a man, in Gothic (which, in this instance, agrees very nearly with primitive Germanic) and in Old English.

Gothic.Old English.
Sing. Nom.gumaguma
Plur. Nom.gumansguman

The Gothic declension of this noun, it will be seen, has only one weak point, namely, that the accusative plural had assumed the form of the nominative. But, in Old English, the one form guman had five different functions. There were in Old English many other declensions of nouns besides that of which the word guma is an example; and all of them were, more or less, faulty. The accusative had nearly always the same form as the nominative. In some nouns the genitive singular, and in others the nominative plural, did not differ from the nominative singular.

These observations apply to the West Saxon or southern dialect of Old English, in which most of the extant literature is written. But, while the West Saxon system of noun-inflection was thus seriously defective, that of the Northumbrian dialect was far worse, because, in that dialect, the final -n had come to be regularly dropped in nearly all grammatical endings; and, further, the unaccented final vowels were pronounced obscurely, so that we often find them confused in our texts. It was quite an exceptional thing for the case and number of a substantive to be unambiguously indicated by its form. The ambiguities were, to some extent, obviated by the inflection of the accompanying article or adjective; but the declension even of these parts of speech, though better preserved than that of the substantive, had, itself, suffered from wear and tear, so that there were only a few of the endings that had not a multiplicity of functions.

The imperfection of the Old English system of inflections must sometimes have caused practical inconvenience, and some of the changes which it underwent were due to instinctive efforts to remedy its defects. These changes naturally began where the evil was greatest, in the northern dialect. It used to be believed—and the notion is not altogether extinct—that the almost universal substitution of -es for the many Old English endings of the genitive singular and the nominative and accusative plural was a result of the Norman conquest. But, in fact, the beginning of this alteration in the language can be traced to a far earlier time. In the Northumbrian writings of the tenth century we find that, very often, when the traditional ending of a noun failed to indicate properly its case and number, the required clearness was gained by assimilating its declension to that of those nouns which made their genitives in -es and their plurals in -as. As -es was the only ending of nouns that never marked anything but a genitive singular, and -as the only ending that never marked anything but a nominative or accusative plural, the improvement in lucidity was very considerable. We lack definite evidence as to the rapidity with which these two endings came, in the northern dialect, to be applied to nearly all substantives, but the process probably occupied no very long time. The change of declension synchronised with a tendency, which prevailed in all dialects, to obscure the pronunciation of the vowels in all unstressed final syllables, so that -as became -es. The practice of forming genitives and plurals, as a general rule, with this ending spread from the northern to the midland dialect; perhaps this dialect may, in part, have developed it independently. In the Peterborough Chronicle (about 1154), and in the north midland Ormulum (about 1200), we find it fully established. The English of educated Londoners had, in the fourteenth century, lost most of its original southern peculiarities, and had become essentially a midland dialect. Hence, the writings of Chaucer show, as a general rule, only the -es plurals and the -es genitives; the “irregular plurals,” as we may now call them, being hardly more numerous than in modern standard English. Words adopted from French often retained their original plurals in -s. The dative case disappeared from midland English in the twelfth century, so that Chaucer’s declension of substantives is as simple as that of our own day.

In purely southern dialects, the history of the noun-inflections was quite different. The case-endings of Old English—West Saxon and Kentish—were to a great extent retained, with the alterations that resulted from the general reduction of their vowels to an obscure e. One consequence of this “levelling” of vowels was that there was a large number of nouns of which the nominative singular ended in e– and the nominative plural in -en, as name, namen, tunge (tongue), tungen (in Old English name, naman, tunge, tungan); and, as the -n was, in these words, felt as a formative of the plural, it was dropped in the oblique cases of the singular. Hence, in these words all the cases of the singular ended in -e, and the nominative and accusative plural in -en. To the extensive declensions thus arising all nouns ending in -e came to be assimilated, including feminine nouns in which this ending had been extended from the oblique cases to the nominative singular, such as honde hand (Old English hond, dative honda), sunne sin (Old English synn, dative synne). We observe here the same instinctive struggle against the ambiguities induced by the progress of phonetic change that we have seen in the noun- declension of the northern and midland dialects, although the remedial devices adopted were different. In the period with which we are here concerned, southern English did not greatly extend the -es genitives beyond their original range, while -es, as a plural ending, was nearly confined to those nouns that had -as in Old English, and to neuters (like word) in which the singular and plural nominatives had had the same form. The Old English termination -um, which marked the dative plural in all declensions, survived as -en. The genitive plural had two forms, -e and -ene (Old English -a, -ena); the latter as the more distinct, encroached on the domain of the former, so that “King of Kings” was kingene king instead of kinge king (Old English cyninga cyning).