Etymological Analysis Of Tense And Aspect In Old English Texts


Any language is a constantly changing historical phenomenon. This applies to all aspects of the language: grammar and vocabulary, phonetics and spelling. The main purpose of studying the history of the language is to explain the current stage of its existence, allowing you to better understand its modern peculiarities. Much research in the theory and history of the grammatical structure of the English language is directed toward grammatical categories of the English verb. This article is devoted to the study of grammatical categories in old English, in particular, the study of the meanings of the category of tense and aspect. In old English the grammatical category of tense and aspect has its own peculiarities. The purpose of this article is to study the concept and evolution of the grammatical category of verb tense and aspect, to identify the main features and specifics of their functioning on the synchronous cross section of the old English period. In order to reveal the full extent of these categories in old English, it is necessary to determine the ways and means of their expression, analyze the cases of their use in speech. For this purpose, it is necessary to trace the use of grammatical categories of tense and aspect in the syntactic structure of the sentence.

Keywords: Grammatical categoryold English period


Before studying the evolution of grammatical categories of the verb, we should focus on what linguists understand by grammatical category.

Unfortunately, the term and concept "grammatical category" have not been uniformly interpreted and applied in either Russian or foreign linguistics. It is evidenced by a number of definitions and explanations. Barannikova (2010) believes that grammatical categories are general grammatical concepts that define the character of a language and get their expression in a word and sentence.

Maslov (1975) considers that grammatical oppositions form systems which are called grammatical categories. Thus, a grammatical category can be defined as a system (ordered collection) of opposed grammatical meanings expressed by certain formal indicators. Grammatical categories are extremely diverse – both in the number of opposed grammatical meanings, or grammemes, and in the ways of formal expression, and in the nature of the grammatical meanings expressed, and in the relation of these meanings to reality.

In addition to the aforementioned understanding of the grammatical category, there are also other approaches associated with such names as Shakhmatov, Kuznetsov, Pospelov, Budagov. A grammatical category is considered either as a general grammatical concept that finds morphological or syntactic expression or as something similar to what has been said (Bondarko, 2001).

According to Shcherba (1957), the existence of any grammatical category stems from the close inseparable connection of its meaning and all its formal features, since it is unknown whether they mean anything, and consequently, whether they exist as such, and whether the category exists itself.

Ivanova, in the book "Theoretical Grammar of Modern English" points out that a grammatical category is the combination of two or more grammatical forms, opposed or correlated by grammatical meaning. So, there are three forms of tense-present, past and future; four verbal categories- simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous; but two forms of the number of nouns, two voices.

Grammatical meaning is a generalized, highly abstracted meaning that combines large categories of words and is expressed through its characteristic formal indicators or, in contrast, through the absence of indicators (Ivanova et al., 1981).

According to Bloch (2000), grammatical category is a system of expression of generalized grammatical meaning, realized through the paradigmatic correlation of forms. If the grammatical meaning combines the proper (generic) meanings of grammatical forms correlated in paradigmatic chains, then the grammatical category as such, like the grammatical form, acts as integration of material forms and meanings, that is, in the form of a certain microsystem of a two-sided, signemic nature.

Arakin (2003) considers that the English verb system includes the following grammatical categories: 1) the category of tense, realized in three forms of time-present, past and future; 2) the category of modality, represented by six morphologically expressed forms of moods – indicative, imperative, subjunctive I, subjunctive II, suppositive and conditional; 3) the category of voice, which has morphological expression in the forms of active and passive voice; 4) the category of aspect, represented by forms of two types: general and continuous; 5) the category of temporary reference, represented by forms of perfect; 6) the category of a person expressed in the present tense by the morpheme-e(s) in the 3rd person and zero morphemes in other persons; 7) the category of a number.

Problem Statement

From ancient times, researchers have tried to discover the secret of the category of tense. Scientists of the ancient world observed the form and content of the concept of time. Aristotle paid attention to the form of the verb.

Scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries suggested the existence of perceived subjective time. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant considered space, time and causality as "a priori" phenomena independent of human experience. However, Kant denied "any claim to absolute reality" in the category of tense. He introduced the concept of "absolute time" and "absolute space".

In linguistics, the term "absolute" tense has been replaced by the terms: "abstract", "cosmic", "natural", "native". According to scientists, such natural tense is linearly directed from the past to the future, continuously, irreversibly, without termination, homogeneously.

"Natural" tense is usually associated with the categories of eternity, infinity and cyclicity, with "life circles", with the cycle of phenomena in nature.

Relative tense can be finite, i.e., it can be related to another time, reference point, date, and it can be calculated.

The categories of tense and aspect were divided. In research by modern Russian and foreign scientists regarding the category of tense, the following concepts were introduced: "moment of speech", "moment of reference", coinciding or not coinciding with the event and "moment of speech".

Along with these concepts, the term "reference point" was introduced. In relation to the "moment of speech" and "reference point", the concept of "secondary time" was introduced, which distributes the phases of a process (or event) on a time scale.

Research Questions

In the development of verb forms of tense and aspect, it is difficult to distinguish the initial stage "before the beginning of changes". In the period of recorded history, the process of changes is already visible at the stage of coexistence and variation of grammatical and lexical-grammatical synonyms, which provided the material for the following formation of categories of temporal correlation and aspect. Despite the fact that in the Old English period there is a very limited number of grammatical categories of the verb, its paradigm has a very complex structure: verbs are divided into many morphological classes and use a variety of means of formation. All verb forms at this stage of language development are synthetic, although according to some grammarians analytical forms begin to appear by the end of the Old English period (Smirnitsky, 1998).

The Old English category of tense was characterized by a smaller quantitative composition of categorical forms of its components in comparison with modern English. There were two tenses in Old English: present and past. The future tense forms, like other old Germanic languages, were not presented in Old English. Future action, as Brunner (2003) points out, was expressed by the normal form of the present tense (indicative, sometimes optative mood). Moreover, the temporal meaning was not required to be specified by the context – adverb or subordinate clause of time. Thus, the Latin forms of the future tense were translated into Old English by the forms of the present without any additions.

However, many linguists emphasize that there is a need to consider the context. Thus, according to Arakin (2007), the meaning of the future tense was conveyed by verbs in the form of the present tense with appropriate adverbial words.

Ivanova also underlines the existence of contextual specifiers of the temporal scope, or the entire lexical structure of the sentence suggests the idea of the future:

1. Of þē forð gǣð þe heretoʒa «from you will come that headman»;

2. Ic mē mid Hruntige dōm ʒewyrce oþðe mēc deað nimeð «I will win glory with my sword, or death will take me» (Ivanova & Chakhoyan, 1999, p. 163).

Purpose of the Study

This paper is devoted to the study of the historical formation of the verbal category of tense as a whole in the corpus of Old English texts. The relevance of the research lies in the very formulation of the problem, which is essential for an adequate description of the development of the grammatical structure of the English language.

Research Methods

The study was carried out using the descriptive, transformational, contrastive-comparative and contextual methods, as well as elements of component analysis and statistical calculations. The theoretical basis for the research was the papers of Russian and foreign linguists in the field of linguistics, the history of the English language, theoretical and practical grammar.


The origin of the future tense form occurred at the end of the ancient period due to combinations of the verbs sculan – to be obliged and willan – to wish, want with infinitives of other verbs. In the sentence, these combinations were modal predicates. However, a compound predicate with other modal verbs (cunnan, durran, motan, maʒan) could also convey a shade of the future tense meaning along with the main modal meaning. The meanings of obligation and wish expressed by the verbs sculan and willan refer the action to the plan of the future tense since the temporal meaning in such combinations is intimately connected with the modal. The temporal meaning that associated with the modal gradually began to replace it in some contexts. As a result, the verbs shall and will be divided into auxiliary and modal verbs. The auxiliary verbs have lost its lexical meaning acquiring a grammatical one and turned into functional words that were closely related to notional verbs that formed analytical forms of the future tense with their help. When weakened phonetically, both verbs are reduced to a single sound in fluent speech. Moreover, as modal verbs, they retain their lexical meaning and their sound composition.

There are no analytical forms in the Old English verb system yet, although we can already observe their origin. For example, in the language of the ancient period, there was no special grammatical category for expressing a long stretch of time, although verb combinations such as was ʒanʒende "was walking" were often observed. During this period, this combination was also widely used as the correlation of the past action to the moment of speech, for example:

3. þā cwæþ hē sē tō him sprecender wæs- Then said the one who spoke to him (Arakin, 2003, p. 242).

Moreover, the combination of the verb wesan with the present participle had other meanings: it expressed a more permanent character of the action, denoted the initial or final stage of the action.

Thus, the combination of the verbs bēon and weorþan with the present participle are the precursors of modern continuous forms. The status of these combinations in Old English is evaluated in different ways: some linguists consider them to be compound predicates expressing the state or property of the subject (Ivanova), others consider them to be a verb form that can express an action.

In Old English, there was also no grammatical category of time correlation (perfect tense) and, consequently, no special perfect forms. There was no need for them, as the language of this period had a system of aspects. However, there were free combinations of verbs habban, wesan and some others with the past participle. They were composite predicates in which wesan and other verbs were linking, and past participles were the nominal part of the predicate. The combination of the verb wesan with the past participle of intransitive verbs, especially verbs of movement, indicated the state of the subject resulting from the performance of this action due to the meaning of the participle II.

For example:

4. Hē is cumen – He has come, i.e., he is here (Zalesskaya & Matveeva, 1984, p. 75).

Combinations of the verb habban with the past participle were used for expressing of the action result. In this case, the participle was mostly a definition to the object governed by the verb habben, and followed this object rather than the verb itself, for example:

5. Ic habbe þā bōс (ʒe-) written – I have this book written (Zalesskaya & Matveeva, 1984, p. 75).

It should be noted that Ivanova indicates the existence of so-called preterite-present verbs. These preterite-present verbs are semantically united by the fact that there is not a single verb among them that denotes a specific single action. The aspect meaning in them was focused on keeping the result in the present, rather than on the perfection associated with the past. Therefore, during the formation of the tense system of Germanic languages, the old aspect forms were split into two unequal parts: the vast majority of the perfect and aorist forms were reinterpreted in the past tense of strong verbs and a small group of verbs, the aspect forms have been reinterpreted in the present tense (Ivanova & Chakhoyan, 1999).

As for the category of aspects, Smirnitsky (1998) distinguishes two categories of aspects in Old English: perfective and imperfective. However, at the same time, he points out that the difference in aspects was half lexical. The aspect was expressed by the presence or absence of a prefix, which often made changes not only in the grammatical, but also in the lexical meaning of the verb, i.e., it was no longer a formative, but a word-forming tool (Smirnitsky, 1998). Thus, the aspect system of the Old English verb was unstable. This is due not only to the word-forming nature of prefixes but also to the fact that not all verbs could prefix. Moreover, if the verb already had a prefix, the second prefix was usually not added. As a result, a great number of verbs did not distinguish the aspect, what caused the failure of this system and further loss of the category of the aspect in the English language. In addition, the disappearance of the category of aspect also contributed to the reduction of prefixes, especially those that did not make changes in the lexical meaning of the verb (prefixes ʒе-, a-, b-, for -). Moreover, Ivanova indicates that in most cases, aspect oppositions in old English are not presented so clearly, because although the addition of a prefix ʒe- always introduces the meaning of perfective aspect, unprefixed verbs in some cases can transmit both types of meaning: leornian "to study" and "have studied"; secʒean "to say" and "have said ". The aspects distinction was already completely lost in later old English manuscripts, as verbs with the prefix ʒe- obtain the ability to convey the meaning of an imperfective aspect (Ivanova & Chakhoyan, 1999).


Thus, it should be concluded that the modern category of aspects, expressed on the basis of the opposition of forms of continuous and general aspects, is not a continuation of the old English category of aspect.

The aspect meaning of duration did not have a specially fixed form of expression in Old English. In most cases, it was transmitted using a simple verb form, and only the context indicated the meaning of the duration. In some cases, a long-lasting action could be conveyed using a special syntactic construction – a nominal compound predicate expressed by the verb beon(wesan) and the participle I.

The meaning of duration conveyed by the combination «bеоn(wеsаn) +причастие I» has a fundamentally new character than the meaning of duration peculiar for modern continuous tenses. It is an indefinite duration which is unlimited in time. This meaning is closer to the meaning of nonperfectiveness than to the meaning of modern "continuous tenses".

The limitation of a long-lasting action to a time frame was achieved only by contextual means – the presence of time circumstances expressing a certain period. But it was not peculiar for the form itself:

6. ond hie wæron feothende ealne dæʒ «and they have fought all day» (Ivanova & Chakhoyan, 1999, p. 165).

A grammatical category is a system of expression of a generalized grammatical meaning conveyed through a paradigmatic correlation of forms. In the old English period, the verb does not yet have a specially fixed form of expression of long duration. In most cases, it is conveyed by a simple form of the verb-preterite or present, the long-term meaning of which is conveyed by additional lexical means, or is determined contextually


  1. Arakin, V. D. (2003). History of the English language. Fizmatlit.
  2. Arakin, V. D. (2007). Essays on the history of English. Fizmatlit.
  3. Barannikova, L. I. (2010). Introduction to linguistics, ed. 2, add. URSS.
  4. Bloch, M. Y. (2000). Theoretical foundations of grammar. Vysshaya shkola.
  5. Bondarko, A. V. (2001). The principles of functional grammar and questions of aspectology. Editorial URSS.
  6. Brunner, K. (2003). History of the English language. URSS.
  7. Ivanova, I. P., Burlakova, V. V., & Pocheptsov, G. G. (1981). Theoretical Grammar of Modern English. Vysshaya shkola.
  8. Ivanova, I. P., & Chakhoyan, L. P. (1999). History of English. Lan’.
  9. Maslov, Y. S. (1975). Introduction to linguistics. Prosveshcheniye
  10. Shcherba, L. V. (1957). Selected papers in Russian. Nauka.
  11. Smirnitsky, A. I. (1998). Old English. Moscow State Univer.
  12. Zalesskaya, L. D., & Matveeva, D. A. (1984). A Handbook on the History of the English Language. Moscow.

Copyright information

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

About this article

Publication Date

27 February 2021

eBook ISBN



European Publisher



Print ISBN (optional)


Edition Number

1st Edition




National interest, national identity, national security, public organizations, linguocultural identity, linguistic worldview

Cite this article as:

Volodina, M. S., Vartanova, N. G., & Prokhorova, A. P. (2021). Etymological Analysis Of Tense And Aspect In Old English Texts. In & I. Savchenko (Ed.), National Interest, National Identity and National Security, vol 102. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 1095-1100). European Publisher.