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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 four: Unnan


4.1 Preliminary remarks

This chapter focuses on the verb unnan (ME unnen) ‘to grant’, which is one of those preterite-presents that “died out early” (Mincoff 1972: 292). The verb has not aroused much attention of the linguists since it showed no inclination towards modality. Thus, it is typically found in the lists of Old English preterite-presents without any comment about its later fate.

First, an effort will be made at establishing the distribution of the verb in Old English to make it comparable to the uses attested in Middle English and then various factors that might have contributed to the loss of the verb are examined. In the case of unnan, much space occupies the discussion of the context in which it was used, especially the genres, as it seems that the drop in the frequency of unnan and its subsequent elimination was mainly determined by the shortage of English legal texts in later periods.

4.2 Unnan: an introduction

The descriptions of unnan offered in historical grammars are limited to the information about its origin, forms and meaning. In the classification of preterite-presents into (pre)-modals and full verbs, unnan undisputedly belongs to the latter group. Mitchell (1985: 415) labels it as one of those preterite-presents which are “not generally considered ‘modal’”. One of the reasons for such a treatment is provided by Denison (1993: 296), who claims that unnan “despite having meanings close to certain modals, had never been...

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