Past Tense in English

From OE to PDE

Term Paper, 2008

27 Pages, Grade: 13 Punkte



1 Introduction

2 Periods of the English Language
2.1 Old English
2.2 Middle English
2.3 Early Modern English
2.4 Present-Day English

3 Past Tense in PDE
3.1 Time and Tense
3.2 Ways to express Past Tense
3.3 The Role of Adverbials
3.4 The Formation of Past Tense

4 Changes in the Verbal System
4.1 Previous Periods – {-ed} vs. Ablaut
4.1.1 Strong Verbs
4.1.2 Weak Verbs
4.1.3 Other Verbs
4.2 The Tense System: An Overview

5 Conclusion

6 References

1 Introduction

Why do we say walked to express the past tense of walk ? And what is the reason for saying brought as past tense of ‘ to bring ’ instead of *bring ed ? Where is the origin of what we know as irregular and regular verbs in Present-Day English? And how do we decide which tense is needed in certain situations? Which role do adverbials play in combination with past tense formation and usage? These are the questions which lead us through our term paper.

The first part of our term paper will be dealing with the different periods in the English language. The main focus will be on external events as well as internal events contributing to the numerous phonological and morphological changes. We give a general overview on the main aspects important for the subdivision of the English language from its roots up to the present. We, however, have to be clear about the fact that the division into periods is purely arbitrary.

The second part provides a description of the actual state of past tense formation including plenty of examples to clarify our observations. We also give a short outline on the verbal category of tense. Furthermore, we want to explain the role of adverbials and give a summary of how to express past tense in English.

The remaining chapter deals with the historical issues of our topic. We show the differences between OE strong and weak verbs and analyse their development up to the present categorization into regular and irregular.

2 Periods of the English Language

Before focusing on the history of the English language and its development, we must be clear about the fact that the division into what we consider the four main periods of English language is arbitrary (Baugh and Cable 1997:50). By giving a general overview of the different periods in the English language, Old English (OE), Middle English (ME), Early Modern English (EMnE), and Present-Day English (PDE), we will mainly concentrate on the historical events as reasons for the way the English language developed during the last 1,500 years up to its present form.

2.1 Old English

Old English belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family and is regarded as a descendant of an Anglo-Frisian dialect (Barber 1993:85). OE is considered to be the earliest period in the history of the English language lasting from 450 to 1150 (Fischer 2003:17). Its roots are marked by the series of invasions of Germanic speaking peoples in the middle of the fifth century (Millward 1989:66). Before the Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, settled Britain, the Romans had made several attempts to invade Britain. During the Roman occupation between AD 45 and AD 410, the Celtic dialects of the native Britons were still spoken. And although most Latin words only came to the island by the Germanic invaders following the Roman withdrawal, Latin became the official language.

In the sixth century the term Saxons, that was mostly used by the Celts, was replaced by Angles, which comes from the Old English word Engle, and was applied to all invading tribes (Fischer 2003:31). Furthermore, the corresponding adjective Englisc was used for the language of all Germanic invaders (Baugh and Cable 1997:49). OE was used in roughly the same area of what is today England [INT1]. Together with Christianization, beginning in the sixth century, the English people came in contact with the “intellectual community of Europe” (Millward 1989:68). Literacy was introduced, Latin manuscripts were produced and writers started recording OE.

Although political union could not easily be achieved, the Germanic settlement developed from a vast majority of small kingdoms into the so-called Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy[1] (Fischer 2003:29). The West Saxon kings unified the country in the ninth century and their late the West Saxon dialect became the literary standard (Barber 1993:104). Besides the West Saxon dialect, Kentish and Anglian, which included Mercian and Northumbrian, existed as the four main dialect of OE. They differed in grammar and vocabulary only to a small extent [INT2].

In addition to the Celtic and Latin languages, Scandinavian, or Old Norse, had a great influence on Old English. Scandinavian words could easily be taken over into OE because these two languages were reasonably similar and, as a result, mingled (Barber 1993:130). The majority of records are in the West Saxon dialect which serves as a basis for the study of OE today [INT2].

From the third century onwards OE writing began with carving on wood or stone for which the runic alphabet or Futhark, named after its first six letters, was used [INT1]. After the Christianization writing increased and the Latin alphabet was adopted and mixed with runic symbol for the English writing system. Spelling and pronunciation in OE were much closer than in today’s English (Baugh and Cable 1997:53). The phonemic difference of voiced and voiceless phonemes, such as /ð/ and /θ/ in PDE, was realized by allophones and existed in three cases in Old English (Barber 193:110).

In contrast to Present-Day English, OE was a synthetic language (Baugh and Cable 1997:54) which had a less fixed word order than the English of today. It inherited morphological aspects like the two-tense system from its ancestor language Germanic (Barber 1993:116) and developed it further through the usage of auxiliaries (Barber 1993:117). It was, however, simplified in terms of cases (5) and declensions because the number of commonly used inflections as well as the number of distinctive case endings were reduced (Barber 1993:116).

2.2 Middle English

The victory of William I., Duke of Normandy, in AD 1066 and the following recognition of French as official language marks the beginning of the period of Middle English, although the Old English period is said to have continued until the end of the eleventh century (Millward 1989:120). Although the Normans were superior in architecture and war technologies, the Anglo-Saxons had had a sophisticated civilization revealed by art, literature and Latin scholarships which got disrupted through the Viking occupations in the tenth century (Barber 1993:135). French, however, was the language of the aristocracy, and regarded as highly prestigious. Although still spoken by the majority of the English people, English did not have a standard form and the ME dialects, in contrast to those of OE, differed from each other in spelling and pronunciation as well as in grammar and vocabulary enormously (Barber 1993:138).

The formation and establishing of new dialects was the result of politics and different language contacts such as the separation of Northumbrian into Scottish and Northern English, or the descendants of Mercian, East Midland and West Midland (Barber 1993:138). The two remaining ME dialects are Southern, descending from West-Saxon, and South Eastern, descendant of OE Kentish.

From being the language of the nobility Norman French, which had developed into Anglo-Norman, and later into Central French, under the influence of the OE dialects lost his prestigious character and in the thirteenth century English eventually turned over to be the language of the upper classes again (Barber 1933:141). Although English was re-established slowly, it regained its position in education, literature, and administration and became official language in AD 1362 (Barber 1993:142). The new literary standard language in England was based on forms of the East Midland dialect which were spoken in London and the economically as well as socially important south (Barber 1993:144).

In the second half of the fifteenth century the invention of printing marked the beginning of a consolidation of English orthography and by this the introduction of new spelling conventions (Millward 1988:124). Suddenly, the availability of English literature expanded and a national written standard English based on London dialect spread al over the country. The end of the Middle English period is marked by the ascendancy of Henry VIII to the throne in AD 1509.

Numerous sound changes which affected vowels as well as consonants contributed to the main phonological differences between OE and ME and a complete reorganization of the vowel system. Most importantly, there are the introduction of phonemic voiced fricatives, the addition of new diphthongs as a result of French influence or of consonantal changes, and the monophthongization of most OE diphthongs (Barber 1993:154). The weakening of vowels in unstressed syllables in addition to their eventual loss was a further change which had already begun in the late OE period (Barber 1993:154). Furthermore, some quantitative changes such as the lengthening of short vowels before certain consonantal groups and in open syllables in disyllabic words took place together with the shortening of long vowels (Barber 1993:155).

With regard to grammar, English changed from a more synthetic to a more analytic language during the ME period. Word order became more important because distinctive inflectional endings, indicators for the different syntactic relations within a sentence, had been reduced and word endings were often identical now (Barber 1993:161). In addition, other grammatical devices such as prepositions were used to indicate the different functions (Millward 1989:152).

2.3 Early Modern English

From the fifteenth century onwards the English language is called Modern English. The great author of this time was William Shakespeare (1564-1616). His works are the most important sources which represent the Early Modern English language with its grammatical features.

The beginning of the Early Modern English period is marked with the introduction of printing by William Caxton in 1476, which was an important step towards the standardization of the English orthography (Workbook Introduction to Linguistics:118). The period implied the era of the English Renaissance, which was connected with a new interest into the classical languages Latin and Greek (Barber 1993:177). Latin had an immense influence on the English language as it was the language of education in schools and universities and the medium of literature. The bible and important scientific works such as Newton´s Principia (1689) were written in Latin (Barber 1993:175). In the course of the period, English became the literal medium. On the one hand, because of the growing national feeling and on the other hand, because of the increasing literacy among the English population, this was a consequence of the introduction of printing (Barber 1993:176). As a result of the Protestant Reformation, the bible was translated by King James in 1611 and church services began to be in English (Barber 1993:176). Moreover, many classical works were translated into English; hence they were available for the rising middle class (Fennell 2001:157). As a consequence of these translations, many Latin loan words entered the English language (Millward 1989:194). It is assumed that nearly 27,000 new words enriched the English language between 1500 and 1660 (van Gelderen 2006:176). Besides French, Greek, Italian, and Dutch, Latin was the main source for loan words. On the one hand, there was a necessity for new words because of many developments and inventions in science (Workbook: Introduction to Linguistics:118). On the other hand, Latin words were used for stylistic reasons and to demonstrate education. In this particular case the Latin word was cynically called “inkhorn term” (Barber 1993:179), when it was used as a substitute for an already existing English expression such as furibund ‘furious’ (Barber 1993:180).

The language spoken during the Early Modern Period showed variation. Rules were not fixed but speakers and writers had a choice between certain forms or constructions (Barber 1993:183). The English language became more analytically: Inflections got reduced and the number of prepositions and auxiliaries enlarged (van Gelderen 2006:166). Two second person singular pronouns existed in Early Modern English. You and ye were used for expressing politeness, especially in order to address people of the upper class, whereas the pronouns thou and thee conveyed intimacy between friends, relatives or members of the same social class.

Additionally, there existed a third-person singular { -eth } morpheme, i.e. teacheth. This morpheme was replaced by {- es} during the sixteenth century. Beneath the normal subject-verb structure, the Early Modern English syntax moreover allowed the verb-subject(-object) order (Barber 1993:188). The most significant phonological change was the Great Vowel Shift (GVS) with it‘s main changes in the fifteenth and sixteenth century (Workbook: Introduction to Linguistics:121). Five of the ME long vowels were raised and two, that were already in the highest position, were diphthongized (Millward 1989:219). Moreover, the two new consonantal phoneme /ŋ/ and /Ʒ/ developed (Barber 1993:195). The EMnE period ended with the beginning of the scientific age [INT3].

2.4 Present-Day English

The period of Present-Day English, which began with the eighteenth century, can be subdivided further into Late Modern English (1700-1900) and Present-Day-English (1900-today) (Fischer 2006:73).

In the eighteenth century, “the language differed only slightly from Present-Day English” (Barber 1993:199). The Great Vowel Shift was completed and the pronouns thou and thee were no longer used. In addition to that, the { -eth } morpheme had disappeared (Barber 1993:199). By the end of the seventeenth century the standardization of spelling was completed. Conventions were accepted and not only used in books, but also in private writing. The standard spelling system sticks to the pronunciation of English before the Great Vowel Shift (Barber 1993:201). This fact explains why often there is a difference between pronunciation and spelling, for instance in knight[2]. Celia Millward observes:

“Unfortunately, this was at a stage just before a major sound change was completed; hence in the twentieth century we are still spelling a language that has not been spoken since the fifteenth century.” (Millward 1989:194)

At the beginning of the eighteenth century there were attempts to “regulate the language” (Barber 1993:203). The first grammars and dictionaries were published in order to lay down rules for correct usage. These grammars are labeled as ‘Prescriptive Grammars’ as they do not describe the actual use of the language but lay down rules of correct and, especially, polite use of the English language (Workbook: Introduction to Linguistics:72-73).

Today, English is “one of the major world-languages” (Barber 1993:234) with 300 million native speakers and 1.5 billion official users (Workbook: Introduction to Linguistics:119). The distribution of the English language began in the Late Modern English with the Industrial Revolution (Barber 1993:234). The English-speaking population in Great Britain expanded from six million in the year 1700 to nine million in 1800 (Barber 1993:234). Because of trade, global exploration and colonization the English language began to “spread around the globe” (Millward 1989:196). English settlements in North America and in the West Indies in the seventeenth and eighteenth century were the starting point of colonization (Barber 1993:235). By the early nineteenth century Britain had colonies in the Caribbean, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Africa (Millward 1989:195/6). The British colonisation resulted in numerous varieties of English which can be subdivided further into rhotic and non-rhotic accents[3]. Examples for the rhotic accent are Scottish, Canadian and American English whereas Australian, British and African English represent the non-rhotic accent (Workbook: Introduction to Linguistics:46). The main variety of British English is called Received Pronunciation (RP) which was originally an accent associated with the South of England. Nowadays it serves as a guideline for an accepted standard form of English. Today, English is classified as a synthetic language with 1.68 morphemes per word (Workbook: Introduction to Linguistics:58). Nevertheless, the English language is still involved in the process of linguistic change as Barber recognizes: “In fact all living languages change […]” (Barber 1993:32).


[1] The Heptarchy consisted of the seven major kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Wessex (Fischer 2003:29).

[2] The initial /k-/ was pronounced in words like knee and knight until 1600 (Barber, 1993:196).

[3] rhotic accent: the /r/ is realized in different phonetic contexts including post-vocalic environments

non-rhotic accent: the /r/ is not realized in post-vocalic environments

(Workbook: Introduction to Linguistics: 46)

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Past Tense in English
From OE to PDE
University of Marburg
Morphology and Syntax
13 Punkte
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
515 KB
Past, Tense, English, Morphology, Syntax, Old Englisch, PDE, ME, past tense formation
Quote paper
Lisa Sangmeister (Author), 2008, Past Tense in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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