Talk Before Formal Hall

Luisa García García,

University of Seville - Nerthus Project, Clare Hall Visiting Fellow

Syntax interacting with morphology in early English

Present-day English has few inflectional endings. If we take the conjugation of verbs and use paint as an example, three forms, paint, paints and painted, suffice to express an array of categories (person, number, mood, tense) for which other languages possess a much larger catalogue of forms. Neighbouring languages such as German, French or Spanish have five or six different forms for the present tense alone. Present-day English also has a rather fixed SVO (subject-verb-object) order, which means that in a standard sentence such as The ball hit the post, the subject precedes the verb and the verb precedes the object. This wasn’t always the case. In the Old English period (7th-11th centuries) the language used to have more endings and a more flexible word order. A lot of research has been carried out about the relation between the loss of case endings in nouns, determiners and adjectives, and the fixation of word order in early English. I would like to introduce another factor: verb morphology. Present-day English has a large number of so-called labile verbs. These are verbs like melt or burn which can be construed both with an agent and a patient, as in The sun melted the ice, or with only a patient, as in The ice melted. In my present research, which I will present in this talk, I explore the ways in which the abundance of labile verbs might have influenced word order patterns in early Middle English (12th-13th centuries).