Immagini della pagina

ancient strong verbs which still exist in the language under weak forms. The list is of practical utility for reference in reading Chaucer or the Elizabethan writers. Many a strong form, now unfamiliar to us, lingers in their pages.

The verb mete, to measure, is one that we do not often use at all, for the whole root is, as Webster says, obsolescent. In our Bible it has the weak conjugation, as

A nation meted out and troden downe.' Isaiah xviii. 2. • Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand ? and meted out heauen with the spanne, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountaines in scales, and the hilles in a balance ?' Isaiah xl. 12. But in Chapman's Iliad, iii. 327, we find the strong preterite of this verb:

• Then Hector, Priam's martial son, stepp'd forth, and met the ground.'

In some cases slight relics of the old strong conjugation are still preserved, though the verb itself has gone off into the weak or mixed form. Thus the verb to lose is now declined, lose, lost, lost. But in Saxon it was

[blocks in formation]

and from this ancient conjugation we have retained the participle as an adjective, lorn, forlorn. Its participial use may be seen as late as Milton, Paradise Lost, x. 921,

My only strength and stay: forlorn of thee,

Whither shall I betake me, where subsist ?' Some of these strong forms, which are now quite strange to us, existed down to a comparatively late date. In a Romance of the date 1450 or later, we have shof as a preterite, where we now use shoved : ‘And he shof ther-on so sore that he bar hym from his horse to the grounde.' Merlyn (Early English Text Society), p. 265.

To set against this gradual defection of strong verbs towards the prevalent form, we rarely find even a slight example of movement in the opposite direction. New verbs are hardly ever added to the ranks of the strong; whatever verb is invented or borrowed is naturally conjugated after the prevalent pattern. A marked exception to this rule, all the more conspicuous on account of its rarity, is the Scottish formula of verdict, Not proven. Here we have a French verb which has taken the form of a strong Gothic participle.

Sometimes a weak verb is treated as a strong, half playfully. But expressions which have had their rise in frolic, are sometimes repeated so often that they become established, at least so far as to get into print. Thus we find pled as the preterite of the verb to plead, in the Contemporary Review, April, 1869, p. 602 :

• The well-known story of the presbyter deposed from his office for forging the Acts of Paul and Thecla, although he pled that he had done so from the love of Paul.' I do not know whether


dove is recognised on the yonder side of the Atlantic, but I rather suppose the following is merely a passing fancy of the author.

I know not why, but the whole herd [of walruses] seemed suddenly to take alarm, and all dove down with a tremendous splash almost at the same instant.' Dr. Hayes, Open Polar Sea, ch. xxxvi.

But the member of this class which above all others demands our attention is the substantive verb to be : or rather, the fragments of two or three ancient verbs which join to fill the place of the substantive verb. The substantive verb' is so called, not from any association with or derival from the part of speech called a substantive; but for a distinct reason. It is the verb which expresses least of all verbs ; for it expresses nothing but to have existence. Every other verb implies existence besides that particular thing which it asserts : as, if I say I think, I imply that I am in existence, or else I could neither think nor do anything else. The verb substantive, then, is the verb which, unlike all other verbs, confines itself to the assertion of existence, which in all other verbs is contained by implication. The Greek word for existence or being was ovoia, and this was done into Latin by the word substantia, and by this avenue did the verb which predicates nothing but existence come to be named the substantive verb.

It seems so natural and easy to say that a thing is or was or has been, that we might almost incline to fancy the substantive verb to be the oldest and most primitive of verbs. But there is more reason for thinking contrariwise, that it was a mature and comparatively late product of the human mind. The French word été for been, is not an old word: we know its history. It is derived from stare, the Latin word for standing, as is witnessed by stato, the Italian participle of the substantive verb. And in many other cases the substantive verb is of no very obscure origin. We seem to be able to trace our word be, for example, by the help of the Latin fui and the Greek pów, to the concrete sense of growing. It has even been thought, and not at all unreasonably, that the stock of our be may be no other than that familiar verb for building and dwelling which in Scotland is to big, in Icelandic is búa, and which appears in the second member of so many of our Danish town-names in the form of by, as Whitby, Rugby. In Icelandic ‘búa búi sínu,' is to 'big ane's ain bigging,' i.e. to have one's own homestead?. In these cases, the concrete sense of growing or standing, or building or dwelling, has been as it were washed or worn out of the verb, and nothing left but the pale underlying texture of being.

1 Icelandic-English Dictionary, Cleasby and Vigfusson, v. Búa.

The great master of Oriental philology, Ewald, seems to think that the Hebrew substantive verb 1797 was developed from an ancient root meaning to make, prepare.'

In Sanskrit, as the substantive verb, has been developed. from a root signifying to breathe, and it seems probable that this was the original sense of the Greek čoti, the Latin est, the German ist, and our is. This has been explicitly stated in a previous chapter, p. 219. Here we catch a glimpse of the antiquity of our modern languages, and also of the process by which the most familiar instruments of speech have been prepared for their present use.

As the presentive noun fades or ripens into the symbol pronoun; as the pronoun passes into the still more subtle conjunction,-so also do verbs graduate from particular to general use, from such a particular sense as stand or grow or breathe, to the large and general sense of being. Nor does the trans-animation stop here.

It is not when this verb expresses absolute existence that it has reached its highest state of refinement. When Coleridge said ‘God has all the power that is,' he made this verb a predicate of existence. In this case the verb to be has still a concrete function, and is a presentive word: but in its state of highest abstraction it is equally in place in every proposition whatever, and is the purest of symbols. We can express John runs' by John is running ;' and every proposition is capable of being rendered into this form. The verb substantive here exhibits the highest possible form of verbal abstraction. It is the mere instrument of predication, and conveys by itself no idea whatever. It is the most symbolic of all the symbolic verbs, and it is symbolised to the utmost that is possible. For it expresses only that which every verb must express in order to be a verb, viz. the mental act of judgment.


[blocks in formation]

It should be observed that the substantive verb has been more tenacious of the personal forms than verbs in general, and that the remarks in the beginning of this chapter about the disuse of the personal forms are much less applicable here. Until the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries there was a larger variety of these forms, among which may be specified the n-forms of the third person plural, arn and weren.

The following is from one of the versified precepts of good manners which are so frequent in the literature of the fifteenth century.


Thus God þat is begynnere & former of alle thyng,
In nomber, weygħt, & mesure alle bis world wrought he ;
And mesure he taugħte us in alle his wise werkis,
Ensample by the extremitees þat vicious arn euer.'

That is to say: Extremes are always wrong.

This is, however, a matter of small importance in comparison with another remark which must here be made. The symbol-verb is not all of one root, it is a verbal conjugation made up of several roots. For, not to determine anything about the origin of am, art, and are, it is plain that besides these we have here the fragments of two verbs, whose infinitives in Saxon were BEON and WESAN.


« IndietroContinua »