Theories on the origin of the english progressive

Seminar Paper 2007 11 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theories on the Origin of the Progressive
2.1. Contact between Celtic and English
2.2. Contact between Latin and English
2.3. The “Independent Growth Hypothesis”

3. The Phenomenon of Language Contact

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The progressive form[1] is a phenomenon frequently to be observed in Present Day English. But where does it actually come from? Has it always been part of English, or did it enter the language through another one? And if that is the case, which other language was involved?

Different theories offer different explanations on questions like the above. This paper attempts to give a brief illustration of the major ideas on the origin of the progressive as we know it today. A final conclusion will sum up central findings and try to articulate an opinion of its own based on the inspected data.

2. Theories on the Origin of the Progressive

Denison remarks that in Old English times constructions were used that consisted of two elements: a form of the verb beon/wesan and a present participle (V(i)ende).[2] Such syntagms strongly resemble the progressive in its modern appearance.[3]

There are several opinions circulating, as far as the question is concerned where the progressive comes from and how it turned out to be what it is now. Some scholars assume that the progressive developed as a result of a contact between English and the Celtic languages, others consider it more probable that an encounter with Latin was responsible, and finally, a third group believes no other language’s influence played a role in the development of the progressive, but that it evolved instead within Old English independently. Relevant aspects of these positions will be shortly outlined hereafter.[4]

2.1. Contact between Celtic and English

Isaac points out “that there has been an undeniable contact between English and the Celtic languages”[5] but remains sceptical with regard to the issue of this contact’s significance for the development of linguistic features in English. Meid appears to be more confident in this matter, especially in connection with a possible Celtic influence on the English aspectual system.[6]

And, indeed, several reasons suggest the possibility of a Celtic origin concerning the progressive form as it appears in Present Day English. The first is a very general one: Celtic has been among the languages that had some impact on the development of English at a certain point. Why shouldn’t it be possible, therefore, that it was responsible for the progressive as well?

A number of linguistic investigations have been dealing with the question of a Celtic influence on the development of the progressive. Supporters of the “Celtic hypothesis”[7] stress the formal and functional similarities between Celtic and English constructions and the fact that the Celtic variant clearly precedes its English counterpart.[8] Keller has noted a similarity of the Old English forms *es- and *bheu of the verb ‘be’ to the Celtic ones and see it likely that these forms have entered Old English through Celtic.[9] He believes:

„[D]ie altenglischen Dialekte und Funktionen der Wurzel *bheu, die den anderen germanischen

Dialekten fremd sind, entstanden im Munde und im Denken von englisch sprechenden Briten.“[10]

Tolkien for instance finds it most plausible to explain the appearance of Old English 3rd sg. bið with the Welsh form bydd.[11] Molyneux also hints at the appearance of the “parallel forms, bið and is, from the Indo-European * bheu, and * es roots respectively.”[12] He believes that elements of Celtic syntax entered Old English through speakers that learned the language and “were later assimilated in such numbers as to influence mainstream English speech.”[13] Keller sees a process of change in the former use of the English verbal noun from predicate of the verb ‘be’ to the ‘progressive form’. He draws a parallel here to Cymric constructions as in mae in dysgu ‘he is learning’.[14] As far as the process of transfer is concerned, Keller suggests a transfer of substratal features by Celtic speakers who shifted to Old English, thus stressing the transfer of grammatical rather than lexical characteristics. Dal finds a reason for the rare evidence of verbal-noun constructions in OE and early ME texts in the dominance of West-Saxon literary tradition, which considered the use of such forms vulgar and kept them out of literature:

„Das Hauptargument für unsere Auffassung der Sache ist aber, daß wir wegen der historischen und

sozialen Verhältnisse keine reiche Verwendung von syntaktischen Keltizismen in der altengl. Literatur

erwarten können. Die Kelten waren das unterdrückte Volk, ihre Syntax, soweit sie in englischer

Sprache zum Ausdruck kam, trug das Gepräge von Vulgarismus, der von der gepflegten

Literatursprache vermieden werden mußte. Es ist gewiß keine Seltenheit, daß Konstruktionen der

vulgären und alltäglichen Sprache Jahrhunderte lang leben können, ohne in der Schriftsprache zu


She goes on by supporting Keller’s point of a transfer of syntactical features from Celtic to Old English, rather than a massive change in the lexicon. As a reason she also underlines that such evidence is to be expected when the language of a suppressed people influences that of a dominant one. Wagner mentions the existence of an Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and a related written language which were to his mind responsible for the preservation of Germanic components in the language over a considerable period of time.[16] He also points out that English came into being in Britain[17] and that the typological change of Anglo-Saxon also took place on the British island, furthermore, that this process ran parallel to the development of the Celtic languages and finally led to a verbal type, embracing Celtic and English elements.[18]

Filppula sums up the points supporting the “Celtic case” by concluding that amongst the parallels to the English progressive form the Celtic are clearly the closest, that the chronological precedence of the Celtic constructions lies beyond any reasonable doubt, and that the language shift situation in Britain during the centuries after the settlement of Germanic tribes makes substratum influences of Celtic on English highly plausible.[19]

2.2. Contact between Latin and English

Baugh & Cable refuse to believe in a strong Celtic impact on Old English. They much rather consider its significance “the least of the early influences that affected the English language” as the Celts were part of “a submerged culture […] not in a position to make notable contributions to Anglo-Saxon civilization.”[20] This was to the authors’ minds an entirely different matter with the Latin language, for its prestige was in Anglo-Saxon eyes very much higher and consequently the motivation to have elements of Latin integrated into Old English as well. They add that contact between the Germanic languages and Latin stretched for centuries, covering a considerable span of the Old English period.[21]


[1] Nickel uses the term “expanded form” (cf. Nickel, Gerhard (1966): Die Expanded Form im Altengli-

schen. Vorkommen, Funktion und Herkunft der Umschreibung beon/wesan + Partizip Präsens. Neu-

münster. Here: 9. See also: Denison, David (1993): English Historical Syntax.Verbal Constructions.

London [e.a.]: 371 and Poppe, Erich (2003): Progress on the Progressive? A Report. In: Tristram,

Hildegard L.C. (ed.): Celtic Englishes III. Heidelberg. 65/84. Here: 67.

[2] Denison 1993: 371.

[3] Cf. Nickel 1966: 10.

[4] There are other theories as well (for an overview cf. Filppula, Markku (2003): More on the English

Progressive and the Celtic Connection. In: Tristram, Hildegard L.C. (ed.): Celtic Englishes III.

Heidelberg. 150/168. Here: 151). This paper, however, focuses on the ones mentioned.

[5] Isaac, Graham R. (2003): Diagnosing the Symptoms of Contact: Some Celtic-English Case Histories.

In: Tristram, Hildegard L.C. (ed.): Celtic Englishes III. Heidelberg. 46/64. Here: 63.

[6] Meid, Wolfgang (1990): Englisch und sein Britischer Hintergrund. In: Bammesberger, Alfred /

Wollmann, Alfred (eds.) Britain 400 – 600: Language and History. Heidelberg. 97/119. Here: 114.

On the use of the term “aspect” see Nickel 1966: 213f.

[7] Filppula 2003: 151.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid: 152.

[10] Ibid: 155.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Molyneux, Cyril (1987): Some Ideas on English – British Celtic Language Contact. In: Grazer

Linguistische Studien 28. 81/89.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Filppula 2003: 156.

[15] Ibid: 157.

[16] Wagner, Heinrich (1959): Das Verbum in den Sprachen der Britischen Inseln. Ein Beitrag zur

Geographischen Typologie des Verbums. Tübingen. Here: 151.

[17] Ibid: 143.

[18] Ibid: 150.

[19] Filppula 2003: 168.

[20] Baugh, Albert C. / Cable, Thomas (52002): A History of the English Language. London. Here: 77.

[21] Ibid.


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Title: Theories on the origin of the english progressive