The Syntactic Evolution of Modal Verbs in the History of English

6. Article ą paraītre

The grammaticalization of the preterite-present verb AGAN

Cet article a fait l“objet d“une communication lors de la 2e Conférence Internationale sur la Modalité ą Pau en 2004 et sera publié dans un volume concernant le temps et la modalité.

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to try and explain, on syntactic and semantic grounds, the grammaticalization of the semi-modal ought to in Old and Middle English (hence OE and ME), i.e. how this lexical item has become a grammatical one(note: ).

6.1. Introduction

In OE, agan means “possess”, but in Contemporary English (CE) it now means “owe, should”. Agan belongs to the class of preterite-present verbs: broadly speaking, they have a past form, but a present meaning (see Campbell (1959) for further details). The ME form comes from the past form ahte in OE.

In the first section, we shall deal with OE data, mainly focusing on the syntax of agan. In the second section, ME data will be analyzed, making a parallel with the preceding section. Finally, in the third section, we shall focus on grammaticalization, going back and forth the OE and ME periods.

6.2. Agan in Old English

6.2.1. The distribution of agan

Agan(note: ) can be found in different structures:

It can function as a lexical verb and then it takes a DP object,

Dryhten hęlend, žu že ahst doma geweald.
Lord Christ, NOM-you NOM-who IND.PRES-owns GEN-justice ACC-power.

Lord Christ, who owns the power of justice. (cocynew(note: ),86.723. 623)

It can be passivized(note: ),

Ža cwęš se cyningc to his mannum siššan Apollonius agan węs...
Then PRET-said the NOM-king to DAT-his DAT-men when NOM-Apollonius P.PART-had IND.PRES-was...

Then the king said to his men when he had had control over Apollonius... (ApolT,


or it can be an infinitive and follow another preterite-present,

Ac se še ža ecan agan wille sošan gesęlša.
But the NOM-one ACC-the ACC-eternal obtain PRES-will ACC-true ACC-blessing.

But who will obtain the eternal true blessing. (comeboe,161.7.23. 52)

It can have the same structure as the auxiliary verb BEON/WESAN “be”(note: ); it is then followed by a past participle,

... se že ah lifes wyn gebiden in burgum.
... ACC-who IND.PRES-ought GEN-life ACC-gain P.PART. in DAT-town.

...who ought to ask in town the gain of life. (coexeter,144.27.133)

hi agon on agenan hwilan mid earfedan gewunnen.
NOM-they IND.PRES-ought during DAT-proper DAT-time by DAT-suffering P.PART-remained.

they ought to remain in suffering for their own time. (WHom, WHom_20.2:51.1425)

What is striking concerning this verb is that we have not found examples displaying the structure AGAN + infinitive (which can be found with all the other preterite-presents) in Pintzuk & al. (2000). Meanwhile we did find examples of the structure AGAN + to + infinitive,

& betęhte him ęl žęt he ahte TO bewitenne.
& PRET-delivered DAT-him all that NOM-he PRET-ought TO DAT-keep.

& delivered to him all that he ought to keep. (Heptateuch,Gen:39.4. 1564)

6.3. Agen in Middle English

At the ME period, it is commonly assume that morphology gets poorer, i.e. a great number of flexions tend to be blurred, or dropped, leaving the words bare. Because of this morphological impoverishment, grammar (and syntax) has to readjust, entailing changes of parameters, hence status of some items.

6.3.1. The distribution of agen

We now find two forms for AGEN: the present form owe and the past form ahte, both being used either as a lexical or a modal verb.

As a lexical verb, agen can be found as a transitive verb,

... žet hit er ahte.
... that OBJ-it already PRET-possessed.

... that (he) already owned it. (CMLAMBX1,31.377)

... the love that men to hym owen.
... the love that SUBJ-men to OBJ-him PRES-owe.

... the love that men owe him. (CMCTPARS,313.C2.1087)

As a modal verb, agen is found in two types of structures: modal + infinitive (unlike the OE agan) and modal + to + infinitive(note: )

... žt euch mon ahte hersumin & herien in eorše.
... that each SUBJ-one ought obey & praise on earth.

... that each one ought to obey & praise on earth. (CMKATH,23. 75)

žus ahte ech of us him seluen TO cnowen.
thus ought each of SUBJ-us him OBJ-self TO know.

thus, each of us ought to know himself. (CMTRINIT,123.1649)

[Arthure] owen al že worlde TO deme.
[SUBJ-Arthur] PRES-ought all the OBJ-world TO deem.

Arthur ought to deem all the world. (CMBRUT3,81.2468)

first, we owen vndirstonde it bi the lettre.
first, SUBJ-we ought understand OBJ-it by the letter.

we first ought to understand it word by word. (CMPURVEY,I,52. 2123)

6.4. Syntax and grammaticalization

Let us now turn to the syntax of agan/agen in OE and ME. In all the examples we parsed, we found two types of uses : a lexical and a modal use.

6.4.1. Old English syntax of agan

In examples (643) to (648), agan is a lexical verb. It is then a V within a vP(note: ); in (650), it is a control verb. In Roméro (2005), we have shown that the syntax of the preterite-presents and the syntax of TO in infinitivals were quite similar.

Let us have a look at the following examples, where ∅ indicates an ellipsis of the verb:

Ure ęghwylc sceal ende gebidan worolde lifes; se že mote domes ęr deaže ∅.
GEN-Us NOM-every PRES-must ACC-end wait GEN-world GEN-life; NOM-who that PRES-has to GEN-judgment before DAT-death ∅.

Everyone of us must wait for the end of life of the world, and before death, one has to wait for the judgment. (cobeowul,43. 1386.1148)

willaž žęt gewrecan gif we magon, žeah we beotiaž TO ∅.
FUT-will ACC-that avenge if NOM-we PRES-can, yet NOM-we PRES-pride ourselves to ∅.

(we) will avenge it if we can, yet we pride ourselves on doing it. (BlHom, HomS_10_[BlHom_3]:127.446)

According to those examples (two among many others), the preterite-present verb mote (“must, have to”) and TO seem to have the same behaviour concerning ellipsis. Mote (i.e. a special kind of v) heads a TP, and to (i.e. a C) heads a TP).

But, in that respect, agan does not behave like the other preterite-presents: it is the only one to be structured with TO.

This leads us to question the syntactical status of agan in OE. From examples (643) to (650), agan is a lexical verb. But the structure of (650) is interesting since agan is followed by TO: here we assume it is a control verb, hence the following structure,

Tree 129

We also assume that when agan is followed by a bare infinitive, it has a different grammatical status: it has become a semi-lexical verb (what we called vModal in Roméro (2005)), what example (657) seems to indicate for preterite-present verbs.

So, in OE, we can find agan either as V followed by a TP, or as a control verb when used with TO, i.e. followed by CP. Let us now have a look at ME syntax of agen.

6.4.2. Middle English syntax of agen

Unlike OE, ME agen can be found both in AGEN + bare infinitive or AGEN + to + infinitive structures, and strikingly enough, we find more examples of OWE(N) + to + infinitive than AHTE + to + infinitive. If we just follow our analysis, agen is a control verb in the structure AGEN + to + infinitive, and semi-lexical in AGEN + bare infinitive(note: ).

So (654) and (655) still display control verbs, but not (653) and (656). The changing point lies in (656): in OE agan was not found with bare infinitives, it was only a control verb. We assume this is due to the grammaticalization of agen (and generally speaking of all the preterite-presents class), as well as the reanalysis of TO(note: ) (and what Dekeyser calls the "HABERE/DEBERE interface).

Syntactically, we thus have in ME, two competing structures for agen: the “control” structure, which is identical with (659), and a “grammaticalized” one, which is as follows,

Tree 130

6.4.3. What about grammaticalization?

Grammaticalization is the process in which a lexical item becomes a grammatical one. With respect to agen, this is, as Dekeyser (1998) says, a “braintwister”: in CE, ought does not have a past meaning anymore, but more an irrealis one (a conditional), and it is considered as a “semi-modal”: grammaticalization seems to have not been completed. And we must add that it always functions with TO, which was reanalyzed because of the loss of the infinitive morphology(note: ). Strikingly enough, at the same period, we have not found examples of dare + to + infinitive, nor žurven “need” + to + infinitive(note: )

Moreover, we have two forms of agen: present owe(n) and past ahte(note: ). In our corpus (Kroch & Taylor (2000)), we have found 20 examples of OWE(N) + to + infinitive, but only 7 with AHTE. Yet, only the latter became a grammatical item. We shall see in the next section that the choice of ahte over owe seem to be due to the meaning of the morphological form(note: ). On semantic ground, by the end of the ME period, owe “own, possess” is to be used more as a lexical verb, and ahte “ought, obligation” as a modal one (see Dekeyser (1998) for more details).

So we have two processes at work for what is to become the modal periphasis ought to: the reanalysis of TO into a TO(Irrealis) (now followed by a bare infinitive) and of AHTE as an irrealis item, with an obligation meaning.

6.4.4. Grammaticalization and tense

In the following examples, we give illustrations of “past“ forms of modals which have conditional meanings. Some are already grammaticalized (examples (661) and (662)), some on their way to grammaticalization (examples (663) and (664)).

“Though I wiste that neither God ne man ne sholde nevere knowe it, yet wolde I have desdayn for to do synne.
“Though SUBJ-I PRES-know that neither SUBJ-God nor SUBJ-man not should never know OBJ-it, yet would SUBJ-I have disdain to do OBJ-sin”.

“Though I am aware that neither man or God should never know it, yet I would scorn sin.“ (CMCTPARS,290.C2.94)

The yeer of oure Lord 1391, the 12 day of March at midday, I wolde knowe the degre of the sonne.
The SUBJ-year of our Lord 1391, the 12 day of March at midday, SUBJ-I would know the OBJ-degree of the sun.

On March 12th in the year of our Lord 1391, I would know the degree of the sun. (CMASTRO,669.C1.189)

but, certes, he sholde suffren it in pacience as wel as he abideth the deeth of his owene propre persone.
but, certainly, SUBJ-he should suffer OBJ-it in patience as well as SUBJ-he PRES-awaits the OBJ-death of his own proper person.

But he should certainly endure it with patience, as well as he awaits his very own death. (CMCTMELI,217.C1b.20)

for ase ofte ase ʒe žrefter breken eni of ham, hit walde to swiše hurten ower heorte ant maken ou swa offered žet ʒe muhten sone, as God forbeode, fallen i desesperance...
for as often as SUBJ-you thereafter PRES-break any of OBJ-them, SUBJ-it would too greatly hurt your OBJ-heart and make SUBJ-you so P.PART-offered that SUBJ-you might soon, as SUBJ-God PRET-forbade, fall in despair...

for, as often as you break any of them this way, it would too greatly hurt your heart and make you so offered that you might soon be desperate, which God forbade... (CMANCRIW,I.46.65)

Let us now turn to agen. The situation is somewhat different: there are more examples with OWE (FOR)TO (morphological present form) than with AHTE TO (morphological past subjunctive form).

žogh ʒe mow wyth glosyng wordys desayve me and say ʒe ben yn full charyte as ʒe owen FORTO be, ...
although SUBJ-you may with glosing words deceive OBJ-me and say SUBJ-you PRES-are in full charity as SUBJ-you ought to be, ...

although you may deceive me with glosing words and say you are indulgent as you ought to/should be, ... (CMMIRK,130.3483)

and heruth God seruyce as cristen men owen FORTO do;
and IMP-hear God OBJ-service as christian SUBJ-men ought to do;

and hear God service as Christian men ought to; (CMMIRK,138. 3674)

& [že eorl] benam him al šat he ahte TO hauen.
& [the SUBJ-earl] PRET-took OBJ-him all that SUBJ-he ought to have.

The earl took from him all that he should have had. (CMPETERB, 58.529)

When ye wyl aske any žing at a ryche man in erthtt, ye aske ful mekelike yure erande wyd mekil mare deuociun ahte ye žanne AT pray to god, of whaim žat al ʒude cumis.
When SUBJ-you will aske any OBJ-thing to a rich man on earth, SUBJ-you PRES-ask full much your OBJ-request with lot more devotion ought SUBJ-you then to pray to God, of whom that all OBJ-good PRES-comes.

When you ask anything to a rich man, you will fully ask your request with much more devotion, should you then pray to God, from whom all good comes. (CMBENRUL,19.667)

When owe is used, TO has been reanalyzed ((665), (666) and (668)), whereas when it is ahte, TO has not yet but the modal has (667).

What does this syntactically mean? The modal is no more generated in V, but in Mod/T: it no more has a past meaning, nor is it a lexical item since it functions as a [+irrealis] head, i.e. a subjunctive, and it weakens so that it cannot move to T anymore(note: ). Hence it is no longer a control verb, but a raising one. By the end of the ME period, the syntax of agen would thus be,


[TP [Spec Subjecti [T ahte [(Neg) [TP [T to [VP [Spec ti [V verb]]]]]]]]], that is,

Tree 131

which is different from (659).

6.5. Conclusion

With the loss of the infinitive morphology, we showed that the reanalysis of TO went along the one of agen and specially ahte. We also underlined that the meaning shift of ahte, from “past” to “conditional”, or broadly speaking to irrealis, was partly responsible for its grammaticalization. Semantically, agan/agen no longer means “possess” but “obligation”. As for syntax, ought, a control verb in OE, turned into a raising verb generated under T and taking a TO-complement (like “seem” or “appear”) by the end of the ME period.

Yet, dealing with the grammaticalization of such a verb is not that easy since the very process is still obscure, and Contemporary English displays the two “layers” of agan: the lexical verb “own/owe“ and the semi-modal “ought to”(note: ). For reasons of space, we did not investigate the root/epistemic interface.

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