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Argument Structure in Flux

The Development of Impersonal Constructions in Middle and Early Modern English, with Special Reference to Verbs of Desire


Noelia Castro-Chao

The class of verbs of Desire comprises verbs whose syntax and semantics have undergone important changes in the course of their histories. Their argument structure involves a Desirer and a Desired, and in earlier English they could be used impersonally in constructions lacking a subject marked for the nominative case. The book presents three case studies based on a comprehensive survey of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Middle English Dictionary and on corpus data retrieved from EEBOCorp 1.0 (1470s–1690s). The results obtained unveil the loss of impersonal uses and their gradual replacement by personal patterns, in particular a pattern where the verb governs a prepositional complement representing the Desired as a metaphorical goal.

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1 Introduction


1.1Aims of the study

The present research explores the historical development of verbs of Desire in earlier English, based on a comprehensive survey of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; and the Middle English Dictionary (MED; Kurath, Kuhn & Lewis 1952–2001) and on corpus data from the Early Modern English period (1500–1700; henceforth EModE). In Present-day English (henceforth PDE), the class of verbs of Desire includes items such as ache, crave, hope or yearn which, as defined in Levin (1993: 194–195), form a syntactically coherent class insofar as they express the first argument, i.e. “the person that desires something”, as the subject of the clause, whereas the second argument, i.e. “the thing desired”, is expressed either as a direct object, in (1), or as the object of a preposition, in (2) (Levin 1993: 194; examples from Levin 1993: 194–195).

(1)Dorothy needs new shoes

(2)Dana longs for a sunny day

Several verbs of Desire (e.g. hunger, long, lust, need or thirst) have been found to alternate between impersonal and personal use in Old English (c500–1100) and/or Middle English (1100–1500; henceforth OE and ME, respectively), as illustrated in examples (3) and (4) below.

(3)Mi leoue swete lefdi, to þe me longeð swuðe.

‘My beloved sweet lady, I feel a great desire for you’

[OED, a1250 in C. Brown Eng. Lyrics 13th Cent....

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