Historical Influences on the Development of the English Progressive Forms

Seminar Paper, 2012

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. General information on the Progressive

3. Conditions in West-Germanic

4. The Progressive in Old English

5. Occurrence in Middle English

6. Further development of the progressive forms

7. Influences of other languages on the development of the English progressive forms
7.1 Latin influence
7.2 Celtic influence
7.3 The influence of Old Norse
7.4 The influence of Norman French

8. Conclusion

9. Literature Cited

1. Introduction

The Progressive Form is a feature that distinguishes the English language from all other Germanic languages, which have no parallel construction to offer. But not only is it rare, it is also special in a way that over the development of English its frequency has been in increase. It is for these reasons that this paper tries to determine to what extent the development of the English Progressive Form was influenced by other languages.

For this purpose the different stages of the development of the Progressive Form will be illustrated along with the evolution of the English language as such, after providing basic information on the grammatical concept of aspect. Subsequently the four contact situations between the English and the Celts, Romans, Danes and Normans will be described and information on their languages as well as their influence on the English Progressive Form will be gathered. In a final step the findings of the previous chapters will be brought together in order to answer the question at hand.

I would like to point out that the History of the English language by Baugh and Cable has been very helpful in conducting the historic knowledge required in this context. The works of Niehues, Lamont and Wischer have proven to be useful sources for examples from the developing stages of English and the languages it was in contact with. In Filpulla’s paper a very clear line of argumentation concerning the importance of the various contact situations can be found.

Seldom, however, did I find works that combined findings on all those aspects, which is the aim of this paper.

2. General information on the Progressive

The progressive is based on the structure of to be plus the –ing form of the next verb in the verb phrase. By having developed this verb form English has facilitated the ability to differentiate between stationary and ongoing actions in a way that is comparatively unambiguous. Where languages as French or German need adverbial clues to express that an action is in progress, English relies on the regulated distinction of perfective and imperfective aspect (cf. Lamont 2005). Both can be contrasted as follows: The perfective aspect refers to a situation in its entirety, without regard to its internal temporal structure, whereas the imperfective aspect refers explicitly to this structure of the situation and there is no implication of the situation being completed. As Elsness (1994: 6) further clarifies this leads to a great difference in understanding the two seemingly not so different sentences I crossed the street when I noticed her. (perfective aspect) and I was cross ing the street when I noticed her. (imperfective aspect). The clear difference here is that the second sentence does not imply that the action of crossing the street has been completed.

Even though there have been variations in the past concerning the terms used to refer to the construction, the term ‘progressive’ is now commonly used. Still, it is important to note that “considered as a description of meaning the term ‘progressive’ may be less apt in references to earlier English” (Elsness 1994: 5-6).

3. Conditions in West-Germanic

Since English is a West-Germanic language it seems adequate to examine the conditions of tense and aspect in the languages that English originated from. The Proto-Germanic tense system used indicative and subjunctive forms which both had the potential to differentiate between present and past actions. While tense was indicated by means of inflection, aspect was expressed with the prefix ga-, as Lehmann observes in an analysis of Beowulf[1]. He concludes that verbs carrying the prefix indicate completed action whereas “unprefixed forms (…) express continued action” (ibid.).

Understanding that Proto-Germanic is the common source for all Germanic languages and seeing that none of the literature studied in this matter offered information on an aspectual system in West-Germanic, I conclude that at this stage no progressive forms were used and that, if at all, finite verbal forms used to be either progressive or non-progressive.

4. The Progressive in Old English

In comparison to the analytic nature of Present-Day English, Old English can be described as a more synthetic language. While Present-Day English uses element order and function words to express relationships between lexemes, Old English employed inflectional endings for this purpose (cf. Smith 2009: 76-77). Nevertheless Old English already used constructions quite similar to those in Present-Day English to distinguish perfective and imperfective aspect. According to Smith two constructions were available in Old English:

(1) beon / wesan ‘be’ + present participle (V- ende) and
(2) habban, wesan, weorÞan + past participle.

Both differ in their function to express progressive (1) and perfect aspect (2). While the structure of the example “ic eom singende” (ibid.: 84) is already comparable to its Present-Day English equivalent ‘I am singing’ it has to be considered that it was more common to use the non-progressive form in combination with adverbs that would carry similar information on aspect, e.g. “oft ic singe ‘I sing often’” (ibid.). Construction (2) is said to be much more common and was used to express perfect aspect (cf. ibid.: 84-85). Furthermore the progressive form was not only found in present and past tense but also “in compound-formations with ‘shall’, ‘will’ and ‘may’ with forms of ‘be’” (Lamont 2005).

With reference to other researchers Johan Elsness points out that the durative meaning of the Old English progressive forms was indeed more general than that of Present-Day English.

(3) [Orosius 8.14] of Danai ære ie, seo is irnende of nor dæle

‘from Danai that river which is running (=which runs) from northern-part’

(4) [Orosius 12.35] æt seo ea bi D flowende ofer eal Ægypta land

‘that this river is flowing (=floods) all Egyptians’land’


[1] Since Beowulf is an Old English epic poem its use in a Proto-Germanic context is not all together clear to the author. For a lack of other sources, however, Lehmann’s analysis shall be acknowledged.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Historical Influences on the Development of the English Progressive Forms
University of Potsdam  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
History of English Morphology
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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English Progressive Forms, Morphology
Quote paper
Janine Börstler (Author), 2012, Historical Influences on the Development of the English Progressive Forms, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/208377


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