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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XX. The Language from Chaucer to Shakespeare

§ 8. Results of loss of inflections

While these changes, due, largely, to external influences, were taking place in the vocabulary, the language was also undergoing further changes in its grammatical structure, its syntax and its pronunciation, such modifications being due to those internal influences continually at work upon a living language.

In the first place, it is only natural to find that, while Old English inflections had, for the most part, been levelled, traces of earlier constructions still remained, and in larger quantity than at a later date. Disregarding archaic forms such as “perishen” (they perish) and “killen” (they kill), which appear in Pericles as oosolete expressions, we find other constructions, which, while they preserve something of the archaic, are still legitimate survivals. For instance, the adverbial form “moe” is distinguished from the adjectival “more,” the one indicating “more in number,” the other, “greater in size.” “Can” and “may” are still capable of being used in their earlier senses. As in Old English, a verb of motion is sometimes omitted after “will” and “shall,” “must” and “be,” while the old imperative is still in use in the expressions “go we,” “praise ye the Lord,” though peri-phrastic forms like “let us go” are far more general. The subjunctive is still used in principal sentences to express a wish, also in conditional and concessive clauses, and in temporal clauses introduced by “ere,” or “before.” But already this use is obsolete in the spoken language, and, as a result, its appearance in literary English is somewhat irregular.

The pronominal inflections, as in modern English, are, for the most part, retained, owing to the monosyllabic character of the words. The [char] of the old genitive, of course, survived, though the modern apostrophe was not employed as yet. With this inflection is found, occasionally, the older word-order, as in “Yorick’s skull the king’s jester.” This construction, owing to the uninflected character of the word in apposition, in this case “jester,” involved a certain ambiguity, which had been wanting in Old English, and the idiom, consequently, was not destined to survive. Of still greater interest, however, is the use of “his,” instead of the genitive [char], in phrases like “Sejanus his Fall,” “Purchas his Pilgrimage,” “Christ His sake” and “Pompey his preparation.” This construction, which appears, at first sight, to be a popular adaptation of the regular suffix [char], represents, in point of fact, the survival of an idiom found in Old English and other Germanic languages, and which can be traced in Middle English, in such phrases as “Bevis is hed.” It was, doubtless, a form which had come down in colloquial speech, for its early use in literature is only occasional, and it still occurs in modern dialectal and colloquial expressions. Its more extended use in Elizabethan English points to the close connection which then existed between the spoken and literary languages. Another survival of an Old English form was that of participles in -ed, adjectival in their force and derived from nouns. In Old English, there had occurred occasional words such as “hoferede” (hunch-backed), and, in Elizabethan times, the manufacture of such forms as “high-minded” and “barefaced” proceeded apace and added considerably to the power of expression.

The earlier loss of inflections had begun by this date, however, to produce certain marked effects. What had once been a synthetic language had now become analytic, and it was in process of developing its expression under the new conditions. The immediate result was a vast number of experiments which often led to confused expressions, more especially as the brevity and conciseness formerly obtained with inflectional aids was still sought. Thus, ellipses were frequent, and almost any word that could be supplied from the context might be omitted. Intransitive verbs were used as transitive, ordinary verbs as causal, and the infinitive was used with the utmost freedom, for it had to represent active, passive and gerundial constructions.

But if the loss of native inflections resulted in a certain freedom of expression, together with a corresponding amout of vagueness and confusion, it also led to some new and permanent usages. In consequence of the fact that final -e had now become mute, many of the distinctions formerly effected by that suffix were levelled, and the various parts of speech became interchangeable, as in modern English. Thus, adjectives could be used as adverbs, or, again, as nouns, and nouns could be used as verbs.

The old grammatical gender had, moreover, been lost, together with the noun-suffixes upon which it was based, and, therefore, in addition to the modern gender based upon sex, poetic gender became possible, which meant, from the literary point of view, a more lively presentment of various phenomena. Flectionless words permitted any gender to be assigned to them, according to the imagination of the writer; thus, words which suggested strength, as, for instance, “sun,” “death,” “war” and “winter,” could be treated as masculine, while words like “patience,” “beauty,” “church,” “ship” and “nightingale,” with more gentle associations, could be regarded as feminine. Although the basis of this personification was mainly psychological in character, it was sometimes influenced by other considerations. In some cases, old mythological notions directed the choice, as when “Love” is treated as masculine, “Fortune” as feminine. Ben Jonson, on the other hand, was wont to consider the etymology of the word. But, whatever the method of assigning poetic gender, it was a literary device that only became possible in consequence of levelled inflections.

Further changes, due, very largely, to the same cause, were the development of the passive forms characteristic of modern English, and of personal constructions in preference to impersonal. In older English, the passive had been rare, the usual form having been the active with the indefinite nominative “man” (Mid. Eng. “me”). But, with the loss of inflections in the oblique cases of nouns, an earlier object was easily taken as the new subject; and, since the indefinite “man” had become obsolete, and was not yet replaced by the modern form “one,” the verb naturally assumed a passive form. The result of this change was to render the interest personal throughout; the psychological and the grammatical subjects fell together and the expression gained in directness.

Similarly, the number of impersonal verbs, which had figured largely in earlier constructions, became, during this period, considerably reduced. This was due, in part, to the levelling of case-forms in nouns; for an impersonal construction with an uninflected dative would thus readily pass into a personal construction with a direct nominative. Other causes, no doubt, contributed to this change, one being the influence of analogy exercised by the numerous personal constructions upon the much rarer forms of an impersonal kind; and this influence would be inevitable in a sentence such as “This aunswer Alexander both lyked and rewarded,” where the impersonal form “lyked” is linked with a verb of the personal type.