When and Why Did English Stop Conjugating Verbs?

Uncreative Name

Member
English - United States
In lots of older English texts, verbs had verb conjugation based on the subject, just like in most Proto-Indo-European languages. Shakespear's writings still have some remnants of conjugation (using the -est ending in second-person verbs), but compare this to Beowulf, where verbs have separate conjugations for different subjects and tenses. Why did conjugations disappear from English, and why doesn't this happen with other languages?

Thanks in advance!
 
  • SevenDays

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    In lots of older English texts, verbs had verb conjugation based on the subject, just like in most Proto-Indo-European languages. Shakespear's writings still have some remnants of conjugation (using the -est ending in second-person verbs), but compare this to Beowulf, where verbs have separate conjugations for different subjects and tenses. Why did conjugations disappear from English, and why doesn't this happen with other languages?

    Thanks in advance!
    One answer could be that all written languages evolve toward simplicity, in their own ways. And so Old English is quite different (more complex) than Modern English, just like Old Spanish is quite different from Modern Spanish. And complexity may be the reason why Latin died out (well, not completely died out, because it's still taught in some places). The question then becomes, why do written languages evolve toward simplicity? Well, written language is a representation of spoken language, and simplicity is a better way of getting your words/message across than complexity.

    These are just general observations.
     
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    anthox

    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    why doesn't this happen with other languages?
    Why do you assume it doesn't? It's not uncommon for languages to shed certain features over time, which is usually a matter of shifting the semantic burden to some other feature of the language.

    English overall has developed into a more analytic language in which word order/syntax is more important for determining meaning than morphology. Look at the decline of "whom." Many people don't use it, or don't even know how to use it, in everyday speech, but it's simply the direct object form of "who", akin to "me, him, her, them" etc. But since in sentences like "Who should I give this to?" or "I don't know who this is intended for," both of which should use "whom", the word order is sufficient to convey the idea, and the superfluous little bilabial stop at the end there slips off into oblivion.

    [...]
     
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    Uncreative Name

    Member
    English - United States
    Why do you assume it doesn't? It's not uncommon for languages to shed certain features over time, which is usually a matter of shifting the semantic burden to some other feature of the language.
    I know languages do tend to simplify (compare noun inflection in Latin to that of other Romance languages), but not typically to such an extent, and so fast. Especially since most Indo-European languages find verb conjugation to be an important enough feature to preserve.
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Read about the Norman Conquest. French was introduced as the official language and that had a profound influence on the future development of English, which lost a lot of its previous features during the time French was dominant. When English re-emerged as the national language it was fundamentally different.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    It actually began before 1066, with the Danish conquest of half the country. The old Old Norse of the 900s (not the more familiar 'Old Norse' of the sagas, which is really 1300s-ish mediaeval Icelandic) could have been close enough to Old English to be mutually comprehensible, but all the noun and verb endings were slightly different. If you blurred them - reduced them to weak vowels - you could communicate with your Danish neighbours without being too fussy about endings. This was an impetus to simplify them; and I believe the simplification happened first in the North, only spreading South later. So the reduction was underway by the time French came in and possibly added more incentive.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Shakespear's writings still have some remnants of conjugation (using the -est ending in second-person verbs)
    The decay of inflectional endings happened mainly in the Middle English period and not much has happened since with respect to conjugational endings (except the replacement of 3rd singular present indicative -eth by -s). What has happened here since Shakespeare's days is that the second singular largely fell out of use and has been replaced by the second plural (you go instead of thou goest) in non-dialectal language. But if and when the second singular is used, it is still inflected as in his time.
     

    Dymn

    Senior Member
    But, one answer could be that all written languages evolve toward simplicity, in their own ways.
    I would say it's the exact opposite. Written languages barely evolve over time, they don't simplify or get more complex.

    In my opinion language changes the most with sufficient social change, geographical isolation, and widespread or total illiteracy.

    I know languages do tend to simplify
    Human languages have been going on for tens of thousands of years. At the rate we see them changing, they would have already converged at some optimum at which complexity is minimal, which hasn't happened. So the only plausible idea is they are consistently getting simpler and more complex, at various points in their history, sometimes at the same time. Since Proto-Indo-European was a pretty complex language, its daughters have evolved towards losing complexity in most aspects.
     

    Sobakus

    Senior Member
    • Morphological simplification happens in situations of dialect mixture. When different dialects use different morphology, it becomes not just not essential, but even an obstacle to communication.
    • The more diverse the dialects and the more intense the contact, the greater the simplification.
    • The rate of morphological simplification in English clearly stands out among other European languages which still haven't matched the state that English had reached by the 1400s.
    • England also had the unique situation of first being settled by speakers of mixed dialects of Anglo-Saxon, and half a millenium later by speakers of Old Norse dialects, very different but still somehow mutually intelligible with Anglo-Saxon, no doubt after some exposure.
    • The result was the creation of a koiné not just of the various Anglo-Saxon dialects, but a West-North Germanic one, a creole.
    • This is clearly signalled by such basic vocabulary as they, get, give, want, trust, law, skill, wing, bug, lad, husband coming from Old Norse.
    • English is the most creolised (in fact, de-creolised from the looks of it) standard European language, and its morphological simplicity is but one reflection of this.
     
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    S.V.

    Senior Member
    Español, México
    ...clearly signalled by such basic vocabulary as get, give, want, trust, law, skill, wing, bug, lad, husband coming from Old Norse.
    anger, wrong, knife, die, slaughter, skull, hit, rotten, ill... :p

    Then Uncreative has to imagine the longest list he can, after →865 Great Heathen Army, of all the words they shared (strangr, strang; baða, bathen; hnakki, nekke), next to some maps.

    Spatiotemporal-patterns-of-Viking-and-non-Viking-ancestry-in-Europe-during-the-IA-816.jpg
    (Margaryan 2019)
    With the mention of Spanish, for ex. as Spain integrated hundreds of thousands (Reconquista), the South merged amáis → aman, and now you (pl.) ~ they are conjugated the same in Latin America. You also relegate tu, in Brazil (as with old thou).
    (você canta, ela canta, vocês cantam, eles cantam
    cf. ᴇs. cantas, canta, cantáis, cantanʟᴀ).
     
    Why did conjugations disappear from English, and why doesn't this happen with other language
    Most verb endings also disappeared in Scandinavian Langugages (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish), except Icelandic. Scandinavian languages did not even retain the s for the third-person singular of the Present Simple. In my opinion, even German and especially Dutch have fewer verb endings when compared with other tongues (the Romance languages, for instance).

    (você canta, ela canta, vocês cantam, eles cantam
    cf. ᴇs. cantas, canta, cantáis, cantanʟᴀ).
    Even nós cantamos is oftentimes replaced by a gente canta in colloquial Brazilian Portuguese.
     
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    English hasn't completely stopped conjugating verbs, of course. We still have a separate ending (-s) for the third person singular of most verbs. Also, when using the old second person singular form "Thou", we end most verbs with -st. On top of that, the verb "to be" is still conjugated as perhaps the most irregular verb in the language.

    My understanding though is that most inflected ending in verbs as well as in nouns were gradually dropped in the 100 to 200 years before the Norman Conquest, as a result of the blending of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse languages. Many word roots were common to or similar in both languages, and it was only the endings that changed. The habit was formed of dropping the different endings and concentrating on the roots of cognates, which spread to the whole language.
     

    Ellis91

    Member
    Welsh & English
    Simple sound changes also play a role; just compare spoken and written French, and how many fewer forms there are in the former. Endings just tend to get weakened and eventually reinterpreted as not existing, especially if a schwa is all there is distinguishing one form from another. Most of the endings in Modern Dutch won't last much longer.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    But, one answer could be that all written languages evolve toward simplicity, in their own ways.
    I do not think that a distinction can be made between written and unwritten languages when it comes to how they evolve. it can though be said that written language tends to evolve more slowly than spoken.

    Languages do not get simpler. Sobakus is right to refer to morphological simplicity in the context of English. There is a tendency to think that if the morphology of a language simplifies that the whole language simplifies, but syntax is just as much a question of complexity as morphology. All languages are more or less equally complex, but complex in different ways. We have had a few discussions on complexity, e.g.

    La gramática más compleja
    Why is Russian so Complicated?
    Do all languages have redundant features?

    Whether English is a creole depends on how you define "creole". See this thread for a discussion of the issue:

    Is English a creole?

    Various theories are offered as to why English became like it is. The problem is that the sort of changes which have happened in English have happened in other languages with different histories. It is not possible to conclude that the morphological simplification which happened in English necessarily results from interaction between the English and later invaders.
     

    S.V.

    Senior Member
    Español, México
    It is not possible to conclude
    It also coincided with the Medieval Warm Period (p. 2; p. 8, "Domesday Book thus records more than 40 vineyards"). You might also need everyone outside, in the equation :p ("the peaceful association"+"Serjeantson"; "full extent of Norse influence"+"Smith").

    To test the specifics of the process, perhaps they can 'brain-map' bilingual people through different levels of food & sleep deprivation, stress... so they have confirmation the closer langs. are more prone to 'weaker' retrievals. Like a word on the tip of the tongue, then 'mixed' as a loanword. Closer as somewhat overlapping, in the stressed sounds that recognize words and the patterns we give them.
     
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    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    One has to be careful not to commit a causal fallacy. Events may appear to be connected when they may not be.

    Take the f>h change in Castilian and Gascon. The following facts are true:

    1. Castilian and Gascon developed in an area where Basque was spoken
    2. Basque does not have /f/ in its phoneme inventory
    3. The change did not occur in any other Gallo- or Ibero-Romance language

    On the above facts it is very tempting to conclude that the change happened under the influence of Basque. However, other causes cannot be ruled out. The fact that a similar change has occurred in other languages where a substrate language without /f/ cannot be found tends to undermine the argument, though it does not rule it out. The fact that Aragonese also developed in an area where Basque was spoken, but does not display the f>h shift is also unhelpful.

    When it comes to English, the impact of Old Norse and Norman French on the lexicon cannot be denied. However, the extent to which the grammar was affected by either language is much less certain. In both cases the reasons for any changes and the precise circumstances in which they occurred must remain a matter of speculation.
     

    S.V.

    Senior Member
    Español, México
    Castilian had el fi*, el fue*, etc. while Aragonese had lo fi*, lo fue* protecting that /f/, from the contact stressor. I agree we should have more 'surrounding' details like that in mind. :p 'Here is a table with cognates [Keller 2020], notice the numbers mean they are overall close enough to be mutually intelligible' &c.

    Un saludo

    ue prevented f>h
    For its own thread, but people can know this is one of the main arguments against the Basque influence. A stressor works with˚el forno, but not with ˚el fuerte (→ "no /f/" is irrelevant). Then the other day we were telling someone of fui→jui, fue→jue... all over Latin America. :D But of course, in the centuries before that (Burgos for Castilian), when history could have gone different ways, Basque could not have an influence (cf. Figure 2, with all those).

    It would also be interesting to know more about the 'surrounding' factors, in England. If þe wifmon (Orosius) became common in Mercia, after the North, you get a natural pressure in ˚hæbbe þe, ˚hæfde þe (& the descendants' volatility is aided by the high-freq. of ᴏɴ hafa→ & ᴏᴇ habban→). In the natural evolution of languages, a pattern can then 'pull' others along. While some common verbs survive (cf. dranc, druncen, drakk, drukkin). And we agree any precise details should provide evidence.
     
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    Penyafort

    Senior Member
    Catalan (Catalonia), Spanish (Spain)
    Castilian had el fi*, el fue*, etc. while Aragonese had lo fi*, lo fue* protecting that /f/, from the contact stressor.
    El fi*? The diphthong ue prevented f>h, yes, but fi* did turn to hi*.

    In Gascon, f>h happened even before the diphthong.
     

    paddyfrenchman

    New Member
    french
    English is an aggregate of Anglo-Saxon, Old French, proto-german, old-swedish dialects. People living on the same territory had to communicate to be able to exchange and borrowed words from one language or another. The simpler the adopted form, the easier and more understandable it was, not to mention that interlocutors with different cultural, ethnical backgrounds and accents would not incline to learn the subtleties of each and one of the different grammars. Thus, the language evolved towards a multi-lingual aggregate using simpler forms: a sort of Pijin-Anglo-Saxon-Frenglish. Germanic languages tend to be analytical and make a large use of declination to express the function of the word groups in the sentences, contrarily French or English, because they were influenced by many other languages (also because of invasions), evolved towards a mostly positional syntax. In these languages it is the position of the word that defines its role the word (subject-verb-object, subject-verb-state) therefore can be invariant in the present tense, the most commonly used, note that preterit had to be distinguished and has inherited irregularities from German (see,saw,seen=sehe,sah,ge-sehen), and that the Future uses a Germanic construct (I will do = Ich werde tun). Another obvious simplification is the invariability of the adjectives, unknown to German, French or Latin languages English Subjunctive adopts the German constructs using auxiliary verbs rather than the extremely irregular and complex form of French subjunctive. This evolution has been driven by immigration in England and by the need of people to communicate with each others. So, Swedes, Danes, Frenches, Nordmands all brought their stone to build English on the ruins of Anglo-Saxon.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    English (US - northeast)
    I saw one cartoon (created by a linguist) about the history of English. It had a lot of Viking men (Norsemen) settling down in England and taking local wives. They ended up mostly using the local Anglo-Saxon language (with a few Viking additions), but they got very frustrated with all the word endings. So they chopped a bunch of them off (cartoon shows Viking dude swinging axe at blackboard).

    My understanding though is that most inflected ending in verbs as well as in nouns were gradually dropped in the 100 to 200 years before the Norman Conquest, as a result of the blending of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse languages.
    Like he says -- but the cartoon was funnier.
     

    Red Arrow

    Senior Member
    Nederlands (België)
    English is an aggregate of Anglo-Saxon, Old French, proto-german, old-swedish dialects. People living on the same territory had to communicate to be able to exchange and borrowed words from one language or another. The simpler the adopted form, the easier and more understandable it was, not to mention that interlocutors with different cultural, ethnical backgrounds and accents would not incline to learn the subtleties of each and one of the different grammars. Thus, the language evolved towards a multi-lingual aggregate using simpler forms: a sort of Pijin-Anglo-Saxon-Frenglish. Germanic languages tend to be analytical and make a large use of declination to express the function of the word groups in the sentences, contrarily French or English, because they were influenced by many other languages (also because of invasions), evolved towards a mostly positional syntax. In these languages it is the position of the word that defines its role the word (subject-verb-object, subject-verb-state) therefore can be invariant in the present tense, the most commonly used, note that preterit had to be distinguished and has inherited irregularities from German (see,saw,seen=sehe,sah,ge-sehen), and that the Future uses a Germanic construct (I will do = Ich werde tun). Another obvious simplification is the invariability of the adjectives, unknown to German, French or Latin languages English Subjunctive adopts the German constructs using auxiliary verbs rather than the extremely irregular and complex form of French subjunctive. This evolution has been driven by immigration in England and by the need of people to communicate with each others. So, Swedes, Danes, Frenches, Nordmands all brought their stone to build English on the ruins of Anglo-Saxon.
    From what I understand, linguists agree that the Normans had zero influence on English grammar.

    The complex verb conjugations were still there in Middle English, long after the Normans left, and English verb conjugation today is more complex than Norwegian and Danish verb conjugation, which were never influenced by French.
     
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    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    No, it wasn't like that.

    Wikipedia:

    "French was the mother tongue of every English king from William the Conqueror (1066–1087) until Henry IV (1399–1413)."​

    "For Europe as a whole, 1500 is often considered to be the end of the Middle Ages, but there is no universally agreed upon end date."​

    The British Library says Middle English lasted until about 1450. More or less.

    After the Norman invasion, society and government, and the English language, gradually evolved until the kings and court finally adopted English again. They converged together on a new identity. English had picked up lots of French vocabulary, and the originally-French aristocracy had been surrounded by English and English culture for 300+ years and became assimilated. The article I read said that the French-speaking English kings likely had at least some bilingual skill starting in the 1200s.

    Henry IV, for whatever reason, spoke English as his first language (friends?, tutors?, relatives?), so when he became king, a turning point was passed. Parliament had already switched to English years before.
     
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    Stoggler

    Senior Member
    English (Southern England)
    Their language left the British isles during the early Middle Ages, correct me if I am wrong.
    The language didn’t “leave” (that suggests it got up and left under its own steam! :D ), but Anglo-Norman or Anglo-French died out as a spoken language and then as a written language over time.

    Early Middle Ages is the first few centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, and in English-history is usually applied to the Anglo-Saxon period of history.
     

    pimlicodude

    Senior Member
    British English
    While it is true that where "thou" is used in standard English (e.g. in religious contexts), it is properly conjugated, where "thou" survives in dialects it might not be. In parts of Yorkshire, "thou" is used in phrases like "does thou know...?" /dəz ðæ: no:/ , rather than "knowest thou...?" In fact, I've never heard of words like "knowest" surviving in dialects, so where "thou" exists in colloquial English, it is not properly conjugated. Use in the Bible and prayers is calcified and not representative of dialectal usage.

    It is worth adding that there are the very occasional phrases where "thee" is used more broadly - I mean by speakers of standard English. This could occur where the speakers are jocularly quoting a dialectal phrase or where a dialectal phrase has become more widely known. The only phrase I can think of is "is this just between me and thee?" or "shall we keep it between me and thee?" This means "can I trust you to keep this secret and not to tell anyone else?" Even people not from Yorkshire occasionally say this.

    For example, in the Stephen King novel "Lisey's Story", we read "And just between me and thee, it's freakshow stuff" (p124 - see books google com). If you put "just between me and thee" in quotation marks into books google com, you will find quite a few examples of this exact phrase. It might be the only phrase that non-Yorkshire speakers occasionally use "thee" in. I think the rhyme "me.. .thee" may also support retention of this usage in this phrase.

    Edit: I've just realised there is also "X for thee, but not for me". If someone demands justice for himself, but unfairly does not demand it for others, you can mock this as "justice for thee, but not for me". "You want equal rights for thee, but not for me", etc. So this phrase can also be found with "thee", even in the English of non-dialect speakers.
     
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    jimquk

    Member
    British English
    While it is true that where "thou" is used in standard English (e.g. in religious contexts), it is properly conjugated, where "thou" survives in dialects it might not be. In parts of Yorkshire, "thou" is used in phrases like "does thou know...?" /dəz ðæ: no:/ , rather than "knowest thou...?" In fact, I've never heard of words like "knowest" surviving in dialects, so where "thou" exists in colloquial English, it is not properly conjugated. Use in the Bible and prayers is calcified and not representative of dialectal usage.

    It is worth adding that there are the very occasional phrases where "thee" is used more broadly - I mean by speakers of standard English. This could occur where the speakers are jocularly quoting a dialectal phrase or where a dialectal phrase has become more widely known. The only phrase I can think of is "is this just between me and thee?" or "shall we keep it between me and thee?" This means "can I trust you to keep this secret and not to tell anyone else?" Even people not from Yorkshire occasionally say this.

    For example, in the Stephen King novel "Lisey's Story", we read "And just between me and thee, it's freakshow stuff" (p124 - see books google com). If you put "just between me and thee" in quotation marks into books google com, you will find quite a few examples of this exact phrase. It might be the only phrase that non-Yorkshire speakers occasionally use "thee" in. I think the rhyme "me.. .thee" may also support retention of this usage in this phrase.

    Edit: I've just realised there is also "X for thee, but not for me". If someone demands justice for himself, but unfairly does not demand it for others, you can mock this as "justice for thee, but not for me". "You want equal rights for thee, but not for me", etc. So this phrase can also be found with "thee", even in the English of non-dialect speakers.

    We also have expressions like "holier than thou"; unusually, this preserves the subject case, where we would more commonly hear the object, "holier than me", rather than "holier than I"
     

    LeifGoodwin

    Senior Member
    English - England
    From what I understand, linguists agree that the Normans had zero influence on English grammar.

    The complex verb conjugations were still there in Middle English, long after the Normans left, and English verb conjugation today is more complex than Norwegian and Danish verb conjugation, which were never influenced by French.
    There are a few traces of Norman grammar in English such as court martial rather than martial court. British legal language is full of Norman French, and Norman French phrases are still used in parliament for ceremonial reasons. Norman French was the language of the ruling elite including royalty, and gradually they became assimilated rather than leaving. Bear in mind also that Britain owned parts of northern France post 1066 which would help prolong a link to the French language.

    One factor that can cause an apparent marked change in language is when for political reasons one dialect loses its prestige and is replaced by another. Thus the language may appear to change rapidly when that isn’t really what happened. I cannot remember where I read this, but someone claimed that the southern English dialect preserved complexity whereas the dialect of the midlands, which formed part of the Danelaw, was much simpler. The latter had reduced ending complexity under the influence of Vikings, and at some stage post 1066 that dialect became more prestigious. Thus written English changed from a complex dialect to a simplified one.

    There is of course the fairly recent and not widely accepted theory that English is in fact a Norse or Northern Germanic language and not Western Germanic. The claim is based on the supposed fact that English grammar is closer to Norse, and grammar is more conservative than vocabulary. Thus the language in the Danelaw was really norse with Anglo Saxon vocabulary according to this theory.

    Another point is that vulgar Latin was used by elites in France after the Roman conquest, with schools teaching it, thus standardising it. In Britain the elites spoke Norman French, so English was not standardised in the same way and thus it was free to evolve and not as constrained as Old French.

    One aspect that surprises me is that brythonic Celtic appears to have had almost no influence on English even though it is believed that the celts did not all leave. We see the same in France where Gaulish disappeared. Presumably this is because celtic languages were low prestige.
     
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