Linguistic changes of strong and weak verbs, noun plurals and personal pronouns from the Old English to the Middle English period

Seminar Paper 2005 10 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


List of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Main Part
a) From Old English to Middle English
b) Strong and weak verbs
c) Noun plurals
d) Personal Pronouns

III. Conclusion

IV. Works cited

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Passage of time is a contributory factor to linguistic change (Pyles 78). Language change cannot be considered without its context in time. Developments take place daily but can best be recognized by categorizing the changes into the existing period classifications and comparing them to the changes in a different period in the evolution of the English language.

The following essay will examine linguistic features of the Old English period, which can be dated from 450 to 1150 and compare and contrast them to the Middle English period, which can typically be dated from 1150 to 1500.

These two periods have been chosen because they follow successively and therefore show direct linguistic changes. The most important one to be scrutinized will be the fact that Old English has been a synthetic language, "one that indicates the relation of words in a sentence largely by means of inflections" (Baugh and Cable 54). Especially endings of the noun and pronoun, the adjective and the verb are concerned. In the course of the Middle English period, English changed to an analytic language that did not depend on inflectional endings, but rather on prepositions, auxiliary verbs and word order to show relationships.

In a first step essentials of the Old English and the Middle English period and a short historical categorisation shall be outlined.

Subsequently by analysing strong and weak verbs, noun plurals and personal pronouns it shall be shown how Old English changed from a highly inflected language to an extremely analytic one in Middle English.

II. Main Part

a) From Old English to Middle English

At first glance Old English seems very alien to us. Its distinctive spelling, the unfamiliar vocabulary and the grammatical differences make it difficult to understand a text. The Saxons, Angles and Jutes, who invaded Britain in 449 brought their own language with them, that became with its mixture of some Celtic words and borrowings from Latin a Germanic language with a highly inflected structure.

The Middle English period is often denoted as a period of great changes. Some of them were the results of the Norman Conquest in 1066 with its Norman-French influence on the language. Other changes are due to continual modifications that had already begun in the Old English period. "During this period the inflections, which had begun to break down toward the end of the Old English period, became greatly reduced, and it is consequently known as the period of levelled inflections" (Baugh and Cable 50). It is thus that the Modern English reader is able to understand a Middle English text much better than an Old English one.

b) Strong and weak verbs

One of the key characteristics of Old English verbs was their distinction into weak and strong verbs. From Proto-Indo-European, the parent language that Old English descended from[1], Old English had inherited many strong verbs. They formed their preterite and past participle by changing their stem vowel, called gradation or Grimm's Law[2]. Alongside these large numbers of strong verbs, Proto-Germanic invented a new type, called weak verbs. These formed their preterite and past participle by adding a dental suffix containing [–d] or immediately after voiceless consonants [– t].[3]

Despite this difference, strong and weak verbs in Old English had several features in common: Both distinguished two numbers (singular and plural); three persons; two tenses (present and preterite); indicative, subjunctive and imperative and only one voice (active). The Old English present indicative singular of verbs typically had the personal endings [- e], [- st] and [- d]. All persons of the present indicative plural ended in [- a d].

In Old English the 300 strong verbs were grouped into seven general classes with a different gradation series. "Each type can be recognized by its 'uniform' or recognition symbol. This is the distinctive vowel-consonant combination apparent in the infinitive" (Mitchell and Robinson 37). Within these classes the verbs were conjugated regularly.

Another peculiarity with strong verbs can be observed in the use of two different stems in the past tense, one for the singular (e.g.: ic healp – I helped) and one for the plural form (e.g.: we hulpon – we helped), because the vowel of the past tenses often differed in the singular and the plural.

The great majority of Old English verbs belonged to weak verbs. There were originally three classes of weak verbs that had a regular conjugation within their class, as with the strong verbs.

During the Middle English period verbs continued to conform to the division into strong and weak verbs. Nevertheless several changes especially in the category of strong verbs took place:


[1] Compare: Lyons, J. (1981). Language and Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 184 ff.

[2] e.g. findan (to find): fand – fundon - funden

[3] e.g.: lufian (to love): lufode - gelufod


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University of Sunderland – English Department
Linguistic English Middle Past Present



Title: Linguistic changes of strong and weak verbs, noun plurals and personal pronouns from the Old English to the Middle English period