Gold THE GEOFFREY CHAUCER PAGE


 

The Loss of Final -e

 

Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) was, compared to Modern English, a heavily inflected language. That is, the function of a word in a sentence was indicated by the endings: Se hund biteÞ Þone ealdan mann (the dog bites the old man) means exactly the same as Þone ealdan mann biteÞ se hunda (The "Þ" stands for "th.") In Modern English the position of the words determines their meaning; "The old man bites the dog" differs considerably from "The dog bites the old man." In Old English the -ne on Þone and -an on ealdan indicate that "mann" is the object of the action, no matter in what order they appear, and the forms of Se and hund indicate that the "hund" does the biting.

However, even in late Old English times word order was becoming dominant and in the following years the grammatical endings became less important. For whatever reason a regular change took place: Final unstressed vowels moved first to schwah (the sound in the middle of "telephone") and then to zero, when they became silent. The ending of the word "tale," for example moves through these stages. from the sound "oo" to schawh to silence:

Old English: talu > Middle English tale > Modern English "tale"
Vowels within inflected endings (such as -ode and -as) moved the same way:
Old Eng.: lufode > Mid. Eng. lovede > Mod. Eng. "loved"
Old Eng.: stanas > Mid. Eng. stones > Mod. Eng. "stones"
A final -n slowed the process somewhat, and so -an survives from Old English in Middle English as both -en and -e:
Old Eng. bringan > Mid. Eng. bringen, bringe Mod. Engl. bring
The relative tenacity of the final -n (which survives in Mod. Eng. past participles ("broken promises") accounts for Chaucer's final -e in weak (or definite) adjectives; the -e was lost on strong (or indefinite) adjectives, but lost on the weak (which are used after an article, possessive, and such):
Old Eng. Strong: geonge cniht > Mid. Eng.: yong knight
Old Eng. Weak: Þone geongan cniht > Mid. Eng. The yonge knight
There are many more complications in the history of the loss of final -e. However, this may be sufficient to show that there is an orderly process in the evolution of the forms Chaucer used.
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Last modified: Aust, 28, 2000
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Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)