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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 five: *Þurfan


5.1 Preliminary remarks

This chapter discusses the verb *þurfan, which seems to have been lost by the end of Middle English. The verb has aroused some interest due to its frequent use in impersonal constructions and quite a limited application as well as the fact that its forms are sometimes identical to variants of *durran, another preterite-present. Thus, *þurfan is not only included in historical grammars but is also the main topic of some publications (cf. Molencki 2002 and 2005, Porto 2005, Nykiel 2009, etc.). In the description of the verb, the prominence is given to those factors which seem to have been of major importance, i.e. morphological and syntactic.

5.2 *Þurfan: an introduction

Judging from the number of examples of its use in dictionaries, *þurfan seems to have enjoyed quite a high frequency in mediaeval English. Historical grammars typically list all forms with the exception of two non-finite ones, i.e. the inflected infinitive and the past participle, as well as the imperative. The verb has an extremely high number of spelling variants (MED lists more than 80 variants).

The elimination of *þurfan from English is dated to the second half of the 15th century (cf. Denison 1993: 296, Molencki 2002: 379). Yet, similarly to *dugan, although *þurfan disappeared from Standard English, it was preserved for some time in Scottish English as thar (OED †tharf|thar v.). Two reasons have been postulated in historical grammars to explain the disappearance of...

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