Towards an Analytic Language

Synchronic and Diachronic Reflections on the Tense System of English

Hausarbeit, 2010
23 Seiten, Note: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Tense, Aspect and Modality

3. The Dichotomy of Synthetic and Analytic
3.1 General Considerations
3.2 The Origin

4. A Note on Diachrony and the Periodization of English

5. The Development of Tenses
5.1 Present Tense - Synchronic Aspects
5.1.1 Present Tense in Old English
5.1.2 Present Tense in Middle English
5.1.3 Present Tense in Early Modern English
5.2 Past Tense - Synchronic Aspects
5.2.1 Past Tense in Old English
5.2.2 Past Tense in Middle English
5.2.3 Past Tense in Early Modern English
5.3 Future Tense - Synchronic Aspects
5.3.1 Future Tense in Old English
5.3.2 Future Tense in Middle English
5.3.3 Future Tense in Early Modern English

6. The Development of Aspects
6.1 Synchronic Presentation of the Perfective Aspect
6.2 Diachronic Presentation of the Perfective Aspect
6.3 Synchronic Presentation of the Progressive Aspect
6.4 Diachronic Presentation of the Progressive Aspect

7. Conclusion

8. References

1. Introduction

The terms ‘synthetic language’ and ‘analytic language’ in connection with linguistic typo- logy1 have become commonplaces in contemporary lingusitics. They refer to morphological or rather morpho-syntactic characteristics of languages. “Whereas analytic languages have very few affixes (for example, Modern English), synthetic languages have many (for example, Latin, Old English).” (O’Grady et al. 1997: 334) Using the quantifiers ‘very few’ and ‘many’, this defi- nition by O’Grady et al. shows that it might be problematic to speak about synthetic and analytic languages as ‘fixed’ or ‘closed categories’ in a structuralist way2. They rather denote prototypical categories or general tendencies, as there is hardly any language which entirely belongs to one or the other category. Even a prototypically analytic language like Present-Day English (PDE) has both grammaticalized synthetic elements and tendencies towards new syntheticity, as O’Grady et al. or Danchev have shown. (O’Grady et al. 1997: 335; Danchev 1992: 31 - 35)

In a synthetic language, four grammatical categories are usually concerned with inflection: verbs, nouns, pronouns and adjectives. Since Old English, the earliest stage of the English lan- guage, the inflectional system has continuously been reduced, and in PDE most grammatical relations are expressed through analytic constructions. The tense system of Old English con- sisted of two morphologically marked tenses, the present and the preterite. Futurity could be expressed through ‘futurate’3 constructions employing present tense or, rarely, be supported by a certain set of lexical verbs functioning as auxiliaries without losing their lexical meaning, e.g. willan = to want, or sculan = must. These verbs were, unlike today, fully inflected. Moda- lity was usually expressed by the subjunctive in present tense constructions and by means of modal verbs, primarily in past time constructions. (Quirk and Wrenn 1955: 81-83) Perfective and progressive aspects could be expressed by both inflected and periphrastic verb forms. However, the predominant verb form being employed was the non-periphrastic. Within this tense system the ‘slots’ for all possible grammatical relationships were ‘filled’.

This changed in the Middle English period. A neutralization of vowel qualities in inflectio- nal endings (Fischer 1992: 207) led to a weakening of their distinctiveness. Purely non-peri- phrastic constructions could now ‘create’ ambiguities, new ‘vacant slots’ that had to be filled with ‘productive means’ (Fischer and van der Wurff 2006: 137). The result was an increase of periphrastic verb forms in the Middle English period, which at the beginning were of- ten interchangeable with non-periphrastic ones. This process gave way to the strengthening (cf. Leisi/Mair 1999: 126) of the category aspect by grammaticalizing periphrastic verb forms in the Early Modern period.

This paper will show that the decline of the inflectional system made it quasi necessary to create and strengthen analytic verb forms and finally grammaticalize them. The outcome of this process is the great variety of ways to express temporal relationships and aspects, as we find them in Present-Day English. The fundament of the English language may remain syn- thetic, however, the ‘construction above’ is clearly analytic.

2. Tense and Aspect

As the terms ‘tense’ and ‘aspect’ in Present-Day English are not used uniformly among grammarians, a brief clarification might be helpful. Quirk et al. define ‘tense’ and ‘aspect’ purely grammatically, i.e. according to their morphological properties. (Quirk et al. 1985: 176) There- fore, according to Quirk et al., the simple present and the simple past are the only tenses in PDE, whereas the perfective and progressive verb forms are considered to be part of the category aspect. (ibid.:188) Huddleston and Pullum have a similar view, they refer to the present and the past as ‘primary tenses’. (Huddleston and Pullum 2005: 44)

Other grammarians like Fischer and van der Wurff argue in favour of the future as a third tense. (Fischer and van der Wurff 2006: 131) Indeed, the notion of a semantic category future is hardly deniable. Various constructions denoting futurity have been grammaticalized through- out the development of the English language; they form today an inherent constituent of the tense system. This paper follows the argumentation of Fischer and van der Wurff. The focus of scrutiny will be put on the development of the so-called primary tenses, present and past, and on futurate and modal constructions designating the future.

3. The Dichotomy of Synthetic and Analytic

3.1 General Considerations

Beside the classifications ‘analytic language’ and ‘synthetic language’ further typologi- cal distinctions can be made. O’Grady et al. differentiate between isolating (or analytic), poly- snthetic, agglutinating and fusional languages. (O’Grady et al. 1997: 380-81) The isolating type, in its purest form, would contain no words with inflectional affixes at all. Every word consists of one single morpheme, and all grammatical relations within a phrase or clause are expressed through independent function words. An example of a highly isolating language is Mandarin Chinese. In contrast to the isolating languages, the polysynthetic languages con tain words comprising long strings of both roots and affixes. A single word can form a whole clause. Examples of the polysynthetic type are North and Central American native languages such as Cree or Nahuatl. Words in an agglutinating language usually consist of one or several root morphemes and functional affixes which are added to the root, one after another, each of them carrying only one grammatical function. Turkish and Hungarian belong to this type. In the fusional type, finally, words can consist of several morphemes, however, only one functional affix is added marking several grammatical categories, e.g. case, gender and number (nouns) or tense, person and mood (verbs). Languages like Russian or Latin belong to this type.

Some scholars use the term ‘inflecting language’ instead of ‘fusional language’ (cf. Görlach 2002: 47) but this is rather a matter of terminology. The main distinction remains the same, namely the analytic language type on the one hand, and the synthetic type with its subcate- gories on the other hand. Most scholars agree that no language exclusively belongs to one or the other type: “Es muss wahrscheinlich nicht gesondert darauf hingewiesen werden, dass die absolute Verwendung dieser Termini - von Extremfällen abgesehen - äußerst problematisch ist (Sprache X/Y ist synthetisch/analytisch) und besser auf relative Verwendungen (Sprache X ist synthetischer/analytischer als Sprache Y) beschränkt werden sollte, wenn die globale Cha- rakterisierung des morphologischen Typs einer Sprache relativ zu einer anderen überhaupt realistisch ist.” (Siemund 2004: 170) As this paper is about the development of the English tense system, the general terms ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ shall be appropriate. They represent the two poles between which this development has taken place over the past thousand years.

3.2 The Origins

The terms ‘synthetic language’ and ‘analytic language’ go back to the early nineteenth century when philology and linguistics became systematic and recognized realms of scholarship. In 1818 August Wilhelm Schlegel4 wrote his book Observations sur la langue et la littérature provençales in which he proposed the following definition: “The languages with inflections can be subdivided into two categories which I will call the synthetic languages and the analytic languages. By analytic languages I understand the ones which are forced to use articles in front of nouns, personel pronouns in front of verbs, which manage the conjugation with auxiliary verbs, which substitute the case endings they are missing by prepositions, which express the degrees of comparison of adjectives by adverbs, and so forth. The synthetic languages are the ones lacking all these means of circumscription.”5

By many linguists this definition is considered to be the birth of the notion of synthetic and analytic languages. And indeed, A. W. Schlegel was the first scholar to propose this termino- logy as it has been used until today. However, the idea of a typological classification of langua- ges according to their morpho-syntactic characteristics is older. In the year 1761 the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith6 published his essay “Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages, and the Genius of Original and Compounded Languages” as an appendix to the second edition of his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (cf. Narr 1970: 10)

This essay consists of two parts. In the first part Smith proposes a theory about the origin of language; in the second he investigates contemporary languages like English, French or Italian and compares them with earlier forms of these languages, Old English and Latin. He describes the contemporary languages as ‘compounded’ and the ancient ones as ‘uncompoun- ded’: “The French and Italian languages are each of them compounded, the one of the Latin, and the language of the ancient Franks, the other of the same Latin7, and the language of the ancient Lombards.“ (Smith 1761: 533) Typical characteristics of a compounded language are, according to Smith, periphrastic verb forms, personal pronouns and prepositions in connection with case marking, whereas uncompounded languages use an inflectional system in order to mark grammatical properties. “In general, it may be laid down for a maxim, that the more simple a language is in its composition, the more complex it must be in its declensions and conjugations; and, on the contrary, the more simple it is in its declensions and conjugations, the more complex it must be in its composition.” (Smith 1761: 532)

Smith used the terms ‘compounded’ and ‘uncompounded’ for both describing the struc- tural characteristics of languages and explaining the way how they originated: according to Smith, French is ‘compounded’ (= a mixture) of Classical Latin and Frankish, Italian of Classical Latin and Lombardic, and Modern English of Old English and French. Due to the fact that the invading peoples or tribes were unable to cope with the complex inflectional system of the conquered peoples’ languages, they came up with simplifying periphrastic forms, which finally prevailed: “A Lombard who wanted to say, I am loved, but could not recollect the word amor, naturally endeavoured to supply his ignorance by saying, ego sum amatus. Io sono amato, is at this day the Italian expression, which corresponds to the English phrase above mentioned.“ (ibid.) This assumption would appear too simple to a modern scholar. But one should keep in mind that at the time when Smith wrote his essay, the major part of research on European personnels devant les verbes, qui ont recours aux verbes auxiliaires dans la conjugaison, qui suppléent par des prépositions aux désinences des cas qui leur manquent, qui expriment les degrés de comparaison des adjectifs par des adverbes, et ainsi du reste. Les langues synthéthiques sont celles qui se passent de tous ces moyens de circonlocution. ” (Schlegel 1818: 16) The quotation was translated by myself. language history was still to be done.

The influence of Smith’s essay on his contemporaries must have been considerable. More than half a century later Schlegel takes up Smith’s main typological assumptions in his Ob- servations sur la langue et la littérature provençales and develops them further. He uses a different terminology and he introduces another language, Sanskrit, as an example for the highly synthetic language type. Schlegel refers to Smith’s assumptions twice without naming the essay, but this suggests that he must have been familiar with it. (cf. Coseriu 1971: 24) For him also, the dichotomy of synthetic and analytic manifests in the comparison of ancient and contemporary languages. In adition to that, he gives an aesthetic evaluation of the two types: “Let us say this much about synthetic languages in general. They belong to a different phase of human intelligence manifesting a more simultaneous action, a more immediate impulse of all faculties of the soul than in our analytic languages.”8 According to Schlegel, the ancient (synthetic) languages have a higher poetic ‘value’, a value that has been lost in contemporary (analytic) languages.

Schlegel wrote his Observations as a review on a book by the French philologist François Raynouard, Grammaire de la langue romane, which had been published in 1816. (cf. Narr 1970: III-IV) The title of his book indicates that it was not primarily meant to be a book about language typology in general. “Daher zielt auch die Unterscheidung von synthetischen und analytischen Sprachen nicht eigentlich auf eine allgemeine Sprachtypologie (wenn er eine sol- che entworfen hat, dann allenfalls als ‘Nebenprodukt’, das dann allerdings wissenschaftsge- schichtlich gesehen ein Eigenleben entwickelt hat), sondern auf eine bewertende Charakteri- sierung.” (Bär 2002: 88) Schlegel’s aesthetic evaluations must be seen against the background of Romanticism. Comparing ancient languages like Greek and Latin (and their literature) with contemporary languages, and creating an awareness for the typological differences, he aimed to ‘improve’ the contemporary languages. (ibid.) However, his typological assumptions became significant--and they met with opposition among contemporary scholars. Wilhelm von Hum- boldt argued “Der Name der synthetischen [Sprachen] soll […] bezeichnen, dass die Synthese die einzelnen Theile in Eins verschmelzt, aber jede Synthese setzt immer ein zu verbindendes Mehreres voraus, und wo ist dies, wenn z. B. aus binden ich band wird?” (Humboldt 1827-29: 260)9 Humboldt points to the ablaut, a phenomenon in Indo-European--and especially Ger- manic--languages which may only indirectly be explained through syntheticity.

Schlegel did obviously not intend to create a terminology for linguistic typology claiming universal validity. He introduced the terms for his comparison of ancient languages to their con- temporary descendants. The fact that the terms ‘synthetic language’ and ‘analytic language’ could become commonplaces among linguists might be due to their neatness. However, they remain problematic.

4. A Note on Diachrony and the Periodization of English

The history of the English language is generally divided into four major periods: The Old English period (OE; c. 500-1100), the Middle English period (ME; c. 1100-1500), the Early Modern period (EModE; c. 1500-1700) and the period of Modern English (ModE). (cf. Görlach 2002: 13) This periodization is a construct of nineteenth century’s linguists mainly serving the classification of the different stages of the English language according to their predominant morphological, lexical and syntactic features. The transition from one period to another was gradual, and it can be assumed that in e.g. the Old English period, a time span of more than 500 years, a considerable language change took place within.

All we know today about earlier stages of the English language has come down to us in documents--manuscripts, books, charters or inscriptions. However, these documents, espe- cially from the Middle and Old English period, usually do not represent a whatsoever ‘stand- ard’ language of the whole country10. They are rather ‘snapshots’ of the written language of the place and time they stem from. Especially in the Middle English period dialects played an eminent role. The diachronic samples given in this paper are all taken from edited books and should be seen as prototypical. The verb forms may vary in orthography in different texts of the same period.

5. The Development of Tenses

The entire inflectional morphology of the tense system in Present-Day English comprises only three different affixes, which are, moreover, polysemous: -s, -ed and -ing. Finite verbs have the third person singular -s in the present tense indicative11, and finite regular verbs form the past tense (or preterite) with the suffix -ed. The former is also emloyed in the noun phrase to mark the plural and, in connection with an apostrophe, the genitive case, whereas the lat- ter is also employed to form the past participle of regular finite verbs. Old English, in contrast, had up to 15 different affixes within its tense system. (Siemund 2004: 178) The reduction of the inflectional inventory to one fifth of its original volume was accompanied by an increase of periphrastic verb forms.


1 Linguistic typology is “the classification of languages according to their structural characteristics” (O’Grady et al. 1997: 374)

2 The notion of fixed categories traces back to the ideas of Aristotle, who proposed a theory in which the ‘essence’ of a category is defined by necessary and sufficient features. These features need to fulfil certain requirements in order to be- come relevant for categorization: they must be binary and they must define clear category boundaries. This so-called classical theory has become fundamental for almost every realm of science and scholarship until present time; and it still plays an eminent role in contemporary linguistics. (cf. Taylor 1990: 20 - 24)

3 cf. Huddleston and Pullum 2005: 45

4 August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767-1845), commonly being celebrated for his brilliant translations of the Shakespearean dramas into German, spoke numerous languages including Latin, Ancient Greek, French, Italian, Provençal, some Oriental languages and Sanskrit. Together with his brother Friedrich, he is today regarded as one of the fathers of German Romanticism.

5 The book Observations sur la langue et la littérature provençales was originally published in French. The original quota- tion is: “Les langues à inflexions se subdivisent en deux genres, que j’appellerai les langues synthétiques et les langues analy- tiques. J’entends par langues analytiques celles qui sont astreintes à l’emploi de l’article devant les substantifs, des pronoms

6 Adam Smith (1723-1790) is renowned for his philosophical works and especially his theories on economics. His works on linguistics and language typology are hardly mentioned today. Smith’s influence on scholars like A. W. Schlegel is demonstra- ted by Eugenio Coseriu in his essay “Adam Smith und die Anfänge der Sprachtypologie” (Coseriu 1970: 15-25)

7 In the 18th century the basic assumption was unknown that the Romance languages have emerged from regional variants of Vulgar Latin and not from Classical Latin. A. W. Schlegel was the first scholar to propose this theory in his Observations. (Narr 1971: IV)

8 The original quotation is: “Disons-en autant des langues synthétiques en général. Elles appartiennent à une autre phase de l’intelligence humaine: il s’y manifeste une action plus simultanée, une impulsion plus immédiate de toutes les facultés de l’ame que dans nos langues analytiques.” (Schlegel 1818: 27) The quotation was translated by myself.

9 Quoted according to Bär 2002: 71

10 An exception is the Late West Saxon dialect, which became a standard written language (Schriftsprache) in the ninth and tenth century due to the political supremacy of the West Saxon kings.

11 The subjunctive is identical with the plain form in PDE. In main clauses it is only used in a few fixed expressions (e.g. God bless you!), and in subordinate clauses in very formal speech (e.g. It is essential that he keep us informed.).

Ende der Leseprobe aus 23 Seiten


Towards an Analytic Language
Synchronic and Diachronic Reflections on the Tense System of English
Universität zu Köln
English Grammar: Synchronic and Diachronic Aspects
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Michael Pieck (Autor), 2010, Towards an Analytic Language, München, GRIN Verlag,


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