On loss of case in English

Gjertrud F. Stenbrenden, ILOS  

Most accounts of the history of the English language state that loss of case and other inflectional endings was sudden, and invoke as evidence the earliest Middle English (ME) texts, the Peterborough Chronicle (c. 1120-54) and the Ormulum (c. 1175). This loss, they claim, changed the nature of English dramatically, from a highly synthetic to a highly analytic language (Baugh & Cable 2005).

As for the cause(s) of this loss, a variety of suggestions have been made. One is that the vowels of unstressed syllables were neutralised, blurring their meaning, leading to the development of analytical constructions. Other suggestions point to a language contact situation, in which it is assumed that English inflection was simplified in a pidginisation process (Bailey & Maroldt 1977; Poussa 1982). Yet, evidence of confusion between historically distinct inflectional endings is found even in latish Old English (OE), in texts from an area presumably far away from the scene of Viking or Norman conquest (the Old English Orosius, Bately 1980). Hence, inflectional loss may not have been as sudden as the conventional story maintains. This bears directly on linguists’ demarcation of the OE and ME ‘periods’ and on our understanding of what constitutes OE or ME.

Additionally, the claim that OE was highly synthetic is challenged by Benskin (2001); Cuesta (2004) shows that the alleged discontinuity between Old Northumbrian and Northern ME has been overstated; and Kitson (1997) believes that ‘the ME period’ started later than assumed. Allen (1997) assesses the degree to which inflectional endings survive in early ME texts and are used to convey syntactic and semantic meaning.

This paper seeks to establish (a) to what extent OE and ME differed in terms of being synthetic or analytic, (b) dates for the beginning of the loss of cases and inflectional endings, and (c) the rate at which this loss progressed, making use of e.g. LAEME (Laing 2008).


Allen, C.L. 1997. ‘Middle English case loss and the creolization hypothesis’. English Language and Linguistics 1/1: 63-89.
Bailey, C. J. & K. Maroldt. 1977. ‘The French lineage of English’. In: Meisel, J.M. (ed.). Langues en contact: Pidgins,Creoles; Languages in Contact; 21-53. Tübingen: Narr.
Bately, J. 1980. The Old English Orosius. Early English Text Society, Supplementary Series 6. London: Oxford University Press.
Baugh, A.C. & T. Cable. 2005. A History of the English Language. Oxford: Routledge.
Benskin, M. 2001. [Review article] ‘A New History of Early English: Hans Frede Nielsen: A Journey Through the History of the English Language in England and America, Volume I: The Continental Backgrounds of English and its Insular Development until 1154. NOWELE, Supplement volume 19, Norsk Lingvistisk Tidsskrift 19: 93-122.
Cuesta, J.F. 2004. ‘The (Dis)continuity between Old Northumbrian and Northern Middle English’. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 49: 233-244.
Kitson, P. 1997. ‘When did Middle English begin? Later than you think!’ In: Fisiak, J. (ed.) Studies in Middle English Linguistics; 221-269. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Laing, M. 2008. A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English. University of Edinburgh. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/laeme2/laeme2.html
Poussa, P. 1982. ‘The Evolution of Early Standard English: The Creolization Hypothesis.’ Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 14: 69-85.

Publisert 25. jan. 2016 16:53