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The Non-Surviving Preterite-Present Verbs in English

The Demise of *dugan, munan, *-nugan, *þurfan, and unnan


Anna Wojtyś

Based on four historical corpora, the book is a comprehensive study of the demise of five preterite-present verbs in English. It offers a detailed description of their distribution in Old and Middle English. The subsequent comparison of the forms and uses of the preterite-presents in the two periods allows the author to suggest the reasons for their elimination from the language. The discussion focuses on phonological and morphological changes the verbs underwent as well as on the syntactic structures they appeared in. Yet, the study does not ignore factors of extra-linguistic nature such as genres in which the verbs were frequently found and the potential rivalry with other items of native and foreign origin.

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Chapter one: Introduction: preterite-present verbs


1.1 Preliminary remarks

The study aims at suggesting reasons for the demise of the preterite-present verbs which were eliminated from English in the mediaeval period. Of the group of 12 verbs in Old English, six disappeared: *dugan ‘avail’, munan ‘remember’, *-nugan ‘suffice’, *þurfan ‘need’, unnan ‘grant’, and witan ‘know’, while the remaining verbs developed into modal auxiliaries. Thus, one of the main questions is whether it is possible to establish a single cause underlying the elimination of these verbs, or whether the loss of each requires a separate explanation.

1.2 Preterite-present verbs

The term “preterite-present” verbs is used with reference to the group of verbs in Germanic languages that originated from unreduplicated IE perfects1 (Prokosch 1939: 187–188) and were stative in meaning (Ringe 2006: 153). The plausible development is typically illustrated with PGmc wait ‘to know’, which comes from the PIE root *wid-, also attested in the Latin verb vidēre ‘to see’. The past action of seeing, ‘I have seen’, was presumably reanalyzed as the present state, ‘I know’ (Hogg — Fulk 2011: 299). Thus, the present tense forms of preterite-presents are analogous to the preterite forms of strong verbs. The supposedly originally missing preterite forms are a secondary development caused by the need to correct the paradigm of the verbs perceived as defective (Guchman et al. 1966: 409). The new forms were formed following the productive pattern used by weak verbs, i.e. via the attachment of the dental suffix in...

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