Two for the price of one: on the history of the English progressive

Johan Elsness, ILOS

Old English had a much simpler system of verb forms than the present-day language. The vast majority of verb forms were in either the simple present or the simple past form. Over the centuries various periphrastic verbal constructions have emerged and become numerous: the perfect, the passive and the progressive. In this talk the focus will be on the progressive (BE + -ing) and the status of this verb form especially in early Modern English. It is commonly assumed that the modern English progressive had a dual origin in Old English: It seems to have arisen as a blend between an Old English construction which also consisted of a BE verb followed by a present participle, then ending in –ende (... þæt scip wæs ealne weg yrnende under segle, '... that ship was all the way running under sail'), and an Old English construction with BE followed by a preposition, often on, plus the gerund (... ʒyrstandæʒ ic wæs on huntunʒe, ‘… yesterday I was (on) hunting’). Gradually the preposition from the latter construction was reduced (as in a-hunting) and then lost altogether, while the participial ending changed from –ende to –ing, leading to a merger of the two constructions. Various counts suggest that the frequency of the progressive has multiplied several times since the beginning of the Modern English period and that it is still on the increase today. This presentation will also take up the semantic development of the English progressive, and address the apparent paradox that at the same time as this verb form underwent a huge increase in frequency, its semantic range seems to have narrowed: The present-day construction expresses a pretty clear imperfective meaning, while in earlier stages of the language it could be used much more freely to refer even to events reported as perfective, sometimes to events seen as foregrounded and appearing in a sequence of events; it could also express a clearly passive meaning without being formally marked for the passive.

Publisert 23. jan. 2012 19:24