Weorðan "become" and begin as
indicators of the unbounded to
bounded shift in English
Peter Petré
Functional Linguistics Leuven (FLL)
Research Foundation Flanders (FWO Vlaanderen)
ICEHL 16 – 23-27 August 2010
Introduction: topic, approach etc.;
Frequency overview of (ge)wearð and began;
Construal of narrative: bounded and unbounded types of construal;
Old English as a bounded language;
Loss of (ge)wearð as a consequence of the breakdown of the OE bounded
• Increase of begin as an indicator of the emergence of unbounded
construal in Middle English;
• Conclusions.
• Two developments taking place between 950-1500, and their relation:
(A) Disappearence of copula and passive auxiliary (ge)weorðan ‘be(come)’;
(B) Increase of ingressive ‘gin-verbs’, especially begin 'begin'.
• Their relation is clearest in the past tense.
• Analysis is limited to past tense (ge)wearð and began.
Research questions
• Is there a relation between these two developments?
• Is there a relation with other developments in the grammar, such as word
order shift, grammaticalization of the progressive, etc.?
• Both (A) and (B) are related to a shift in the grammatical status of
bounded and unbounded construal.
• Development (A) is an index of the breakdown of an Old English
grammaticalized system of bounded construal.
• Development (B) is an index of the grammaticalization of a new system of
unbounded construal.
• Charting their development adds important information on the timing of
the shift from a bounded system to a mixed system.
• Specifically, it provides earlier evidence for the grammaticalization of
unbounded construal than what appears from the grammaticalization of
the progressive.
Getting off the beaten track
• Previous research has focused
◊ for (ge)weorðan: on dialectal distribution, competition with wesan and loss
through external influence (Frary 1929, Kurtz 1931, Klingebiel 1937, Mitchell
1985, Kilpiö 1989).
◊ for gin-verbs: on properties in either OE or ME, but not the diachronic
development itself (Los 2000, Brinton 1988, 1996).
• My own approach draws attention to the relation between lexical
developments and larger grammaticalized systems (constructional
environments) (for the disappearance of (ge)weorðan, see Petré 2010a,
Terminology (1)
• I restrict ingressive/inchoative aspect to those verbs that highlight the
beginning of a process or state and leave unexpressed the endpoint of this
process or state (unbounded).
• This is specifically the function of verbs like begin, start, in which case the
state or process itself is expressed by the infinitive complementing these
• I am specifically interested in those uses where a begin-clause sets the
scene for the events described following that clause.
(1) She began sailing with her husband, Tom, in the BVI in 1986. To date she has
chartered from many of the islands in the Caribbean. From 1986 to 1995 she
was the mainsail trimmer and navigator aboard “Quetzal” a J-92
campaigned heavily on Long Island Sound.
Terminology (2)
• Verbs like become, or indeed (ge)weorðan itself, have been called
ingressives/inchoatives in the past (see e.g. Biese 1952, Comrie 1976).
• I will consider these verbs a separate category and refer to them as
change-of-state verbs instead.
• They do not focus on the beginning of new state, but on the dynamic
process by which one state changes into another one (in (2) the
'becoming-sick event').
• The clauses containing them are generally bounded, and this is at odds
with the semantics of open-endedness of 'true' ingressives.
(2) Then the baby became sick (~ the baby began to ail)
(3) that day she became hit by a car (*she began to be hit by a car)
• (Ingressive verbs can still shift into change-of-state verbs and vice versa, as
the history of gin-verbs clearly shows.)
Corpus and frequencies
• The corpora used for the frequency tables are YCOE and PPCME2
• Additional examples are taken from various sources (LEON, MED, DOEC)
• The frequencies as appearing from these corpora are not entirely
◊ The period 1051-1150 contains few original late OE texts and many late copies
of earlier texts
◊ West-Saxon is too dominant in YCOE
◊ Narrative is heavily underrepresented for the period 1251-1350
• These problems result in frequency histories that are in some ways very
• With this in mind, the main tendencies can be seen to show through
• In the future a more representative corpus will be used (LEON, see Petré
Corpus and frequencies
(Ge)wearð, began, ongan pmw
Corpus and frequencies
Weight of (ge)wearð, began, ongan
Bounded versus unbounded construal
Genre and grammar
• Genre correlates to a module within the grammar
• Genre can be considered a macro-constructional environment (a
grammaticalized system) in which a large number of lexemes and
constructions interact in a structured and regular way.
• An important distinction within narrative text construction is that between
bounded and unbounded:
◊ Bounded language use: the endpoint is included, marks progress (e.g. He
walks over to the other side).
◊ Unbounded language use: construes situations as open-ended, often by
means of a progressive (e.g., he is walking about) (Declerck 2007).
Bounded versus unbounded construal
Nature of grammaticalized systems
• Both types of use are not freely available in a language-independent
fashion (Carroll & von Stutterheim 2003, Carroll & Lambert 2003 & Carroll,
von Stutterheim & Nuese 2004):
• Grammatical form should be viewed as incorporating a system of
meanings which is in a given language prominent in the conceptualisation
of states of affairs (2004: 185).
• Cross-linguistic diversity consists less in what is possible to specify than in
the relative ease with which meanings can be specified by the grammar.
• Depending on the availability of certain grammaticalized constructions,
some languages show a strong preference for bounded construal of
events (German, Dutch), while other languages more easily make use of
unbounded construal (Present-Day English or Arabic).
Bounded versus unbounded construal
Bounded construal
• Languages with grammaticalized bounded construal: German, Dutch
• Similar to a camera filming through the eyes of the protagonist
(4) Auf einmal hört der Mann Wasser tropfen
Und dann gräbt er nach dem Wasser
Bis der Sand dann unter ihm nachgibt
• Abundant use of time adverbials
◊ divide the narrative in temporal segments (bound each segment):
◊ define a topic-time (topic 1; Klein 1994: 3), for which the statement applies.
◊ topic-time shifts with each segment
◊ connect the preceding clause with the present clause
◊ are often in first position (Vf2).
• The subject (topic 2) is the protagonist of the series of events
Bounded versus unbounded construal
Unbounded construal
• Languages with grammaticalized unbounded construal : English, Arabic
• Like a camera filming with bird's eye view
(5) The man is hearing the sound of dripping water
and he is digging for the water
and the sand is caving in under him
• Topic-time remains constant and serves as a frame (an implicit 'long now')
• Events:
◊ are construed in an unbounded manner (progessive)
◊ are all anchored to the framing topic-time
• Subject
◊ fixed in first position
◊ only topic
Bounded versus unbounded construal
Present versus past tense (1)
• Contrast bounded-unbounded is explained through present tense
• In real-time descriptions of events
◊ Speakers of Present-Day English opt for a progressive form, linking them to an
implicit topic time.
◊ Speakers of German use a series of bounded, perfectively construed events
(no progressive), anchoring subevents in time (and space) by means of
adverbs like dann filling the first slot of the clause.
Bounded versus unbounded construal
Present versus past tense (2)
• The contrast works slightly differently in the past tense
• In past narrative, all events are already completed (have reached their
end-points) in reality
• As a result:
◊ Bounded construal is more accessible.
◊ Unbounded construal strategies are less accessible
Bounded versus unbounded construal
Present versus past tense (3)
• Accordingly:
◊ German behaves the same in the past and present tense.
◊ Present-Day English uses a hybrid system: bounded construal is the default,
but unbounded strategies regularly creep in, for instance by making use of
ingressive constructions (start Ving) or switching to unbounded progressives
in the present tense (Carroll, von Stutterheim & Nuese 2004: 204-211).
(6) He started to dig around, and like a cat kind of eh throwing up the sand
behind him and he dug so hard that he fell through into a different kind of
equally desolate world
◊ A preference for unbounded construal in real-time descriptions therefore also
correlates to syntactic strategies in retelling past events that are different from
default bounded construal.
A – Disappearance of (ge)weorðan
Grammaticalized boundedness in OE
• Bounded language use is omnipresent in OE:
(7) Ða æfter feawa dagum se gingra sunu forspilde his æhta. Ða he hig hæfde
ealle amyrrede þa wearð mycel hunger & he wearð wædla. Þa beþohte he
hine & cwæð, Ic fare to minum fæder, & ic secge him, Eala fæder, do me swa
anne of þinum yrðlingum. & þa gyt þa he wæs feorr his fæder he hyne
geseah & wearð mid mildheortnesse astyrod.
“Then after a few days the younger son wasted his possessions. When he
had them all wasted, then a great hunger came (wurde) over the country &
he became (wurde) a beggar. Then he thought by himself and said: “I will go
to my father, and I will tell him: hey father, take me as one of your servants."
And he arose then and came to his father, and when he was still far his
father saw him and was (wurde) stirred by mercy”.” (c1025. Lk (WSCp): 1320)
• We may speak of an OE bounded system.
A – Disappearance of (ge)weorðan
Breakdown of OE bounded system
• From c1300:
◊ Vf2 breaks down, and SV develops
◊ Drastic decrease of time adverbials, especially þa (Kemenade & Los 2006)
◊ Present tense: increase of progressive be Vende/ing (Killie 2008)
◊ Past tense: increase of partly unbounded ingressive constructions with
(be)ginnen (Brinton 1988, Los 2000)
• Contrast the following ME translation (and note the absence of wearð)
(8) And not aftir many daies the ȝonger sone wastide hise goodis. And aftir that
he hadde endid alle thingis, a strong hungre was maad, and he bigan to haue
nede. And he turnede aȝen to hym silf, and seide, Y schal go to my fadir, and Y
schal seie to hym, Fadir, make me as oon of thin hirid men. And whanne he
was ȝit afer, his fadir saiȝ hym, and was stirrid bi mercy. ((c1384). WBible(1)
(Dc 369(2)): Luke 15.13-20)
A – Disappearance of (ge)weorðan
(Ge)wearð and the bounded system
• The change of state-semantics of (ge)wearð are very suitable for
expressing narrative action (foreground)
• Narrative action constitutes the domain where bounded constructions are
• (Ge)wearð is strongly associated with this type of constructions
• A first indication is its strong preference for main clauses (see Petré 2010a)
• Main clauses provide two types of evidence of the association:
◊ semantic evidence: strong association with bounding time adverbs
◊ formal evidence: strong association with verb-second word order
• The strength of this association can best be measured by comparing
(ge)wearð with its most frequent competitor wæs.
A – Disappearance of (ge)weorðan
Semantic association: time adverbials
• Time adverbials bound sentences (define topic-time)
• A distinctive collexeme analysis shows the association between (ge)wearð
with time adverbials of narrative progress vs. wæs
The analysis of alternating pairs of constructions and their relative preferences
for words that can (or should be able to) occur in both of them’ (Gries and
Stefanowitsch 2004: 101).
Table 1: 951-1050
Table 2: 1151-1250
CollStr Wæs
CollStr (Ge)wearð
CollStr Wæs
4.73 Ø
7.97 Ø
3.09 STILL
2.63 THO
3.08 THEN
2.63 ON_TIME
4.67 NEVER
2.85 FIRST
1.80 AFTER_X
• Because of this strong association of (ge)wearð with (bounding) time
adverbials of narrative progress, (ge)wearð disappears when these time
adverbials disappear
A – Disappearance of (ge)weorðan
Examples of semantic association
Wearð + THO / + SOON
(8)Heo hine freclice bat. Ða wearð heo sona fram deofle gegripen.
"She beat him heavily. Then was/got she suddenly taken by the devil." (c1025)
Wearð + AFTER_X
(9) Meoduscerwen wearð æfter symbeldæge
"A beer-bitterness arose after the feast-day." (c1000)
Wæs without time adverbial
(10) Yfel wæs Iudas ðe Crist becheapode. "Evil was Judas who betrayed Christ."
Wæs with ERE_X (in a subordinate clause)
(11) Ða wæs se calic eft swa gehal swa he ær wæs.
"Then the chalice was whole again as it had been before." (c1000)
(12) Her forðferde Cnut cing æt Scieftesbyri, [...] & he was cing ofer eal Englaland
welneah XX wintra.
"In this year died king Cnut in Shaftesbury, [...] and he was/had been king over
all England almost 20 winters." (c1107)
A – Disappearance of (ge)weorðan
Formal association: main clause order
• First position in Vf2-system serves to construe textual coherence
◊ Often, but not always, time adverbials are in first position
◊ PPs of place or cause are also possible (e.g. dadurch wurde er krank)
• "verb-second was all but defunct by 1500" (Los 2009: 110; Warner 2007)
Table 3: Word order of main clauses with (ge)wearð vs. wæs (prose)
(Ge)wearð Wæs (Ge)wearð Wæs (Ge)wearð Wæs (Ge)wearð Wæs
No inversion
61 77
82 66
21 37
51 36
73 19
25 15
[Excluded prose]
[15] [23]
[12] [4]
[21] [2]
[0] [0]
• Preference for Vf2 associates wearð to bounded constructions formally
A – Disappearance of (ge)weorðan
• (Ge)wearð was very strongly associated to the OE bounded system
• When this system broke down from the 13th ct. onwards, (ge)wearð
disappeared too.
B – Increase of ingressive gin-verbs
Old English ingressives
• In Old English onginnan and beginnan might be used with bare infinitive
or to-infinitive with ingressive force.
(13)Þa þa he wæs þrittig wintra eald on þære menniscnysse. ða began he to
wyrcenne wundra & geceas þa twelf leorningcnihtas.
"When he was 30 years old in this human shape, then he began to work
wonders and chose then twelve disciples." (c1020(c995). ÆCHom I, 19
• However, the action complementing begin does not continue in what
follows. Therefore begin does not have a framing function here, and is not
necessarily a sign of grammaticalized unbounded construal.
B – Increase of ingressive gin-verbs
Old English: ingressives under pressure
• Often onginnan (and, less frequently, beginnan) - especially with bare
infinitive - did not have an apparent ingressive meaning.
• Instead it was used as a perfectivizing auxiliary (bounded construal) (Los
2000: 259).
(14)Þa genam he his bogan & hine gebende, & ða mid geættredum stræle ongan
sceotan wiþ þæs þe he geseah þæt hryþer stondan.
"Then he took his bow and bent it, and then with a poisoned arrow did
(*began) shoot towards where he saw the bull stand." (c1000(c971). LS 25
(MichaelMor): 45)
(15) Mid ðam ða geseah he ðone strangan wind. and ongann to forhtigenne.
“Then he saw that strong wind, and became afraid (?began to be(come)
afraid).” (c1020(c995). ÆCHom II, 28 223.73)
(16)Videns vero ventum validum timuit
seeing truly wind strong feared.Perf. Ind.3Sg
“But when he saw that strong wind, truly, he became afraid.” (Mt 14:30) 27
B – Increase of ingressive gin-verbs
Middle English: ingressive revival
• From late Old English onwards the ingressive use rapidly gains ground.
• This holds especially for beginnan, which became much more frequent in
Middle English, and which Brinton argues to be ingressive as a rule (see
Brinton 1988: 116, 161; Los 2000: 256).
B – Increase of ingressive gin-verbs
Ingressives and unboundedness (1)
• Verbs of the ginnen-class, if used ingressively, focus on the onset of a new
situation and on the ongoing (unbounded) character of that situation after
it has started. In this respect they differ from (GE)WEARÐ, which focuses on
the transitional process itself from one state into another one, including
the end result.
• Ingressive verbs like begin, now, are frequently found in past tense
retellings of events as a counterpart to the progressive in present tense
descriptions: they also may assume framing functions.
• Their framing use seems to be more frequent in unbounded languages
(Carroll, von Stutterheim & Nuese 2004: 206).
• Their increase in Middle English therefore is a first indication that Middle
English has a higher preference for unbounded constructions than Old
B – Increase of ingressive gin-verbs
Ingressives and unboundedness (2)
• ME example with a framing function:
(17)Þere he bygan to lyve an anker his lyf, and dede meny myracles, and hadde
power over unclene spirites...
‘There he began to live a hermit’s life, and did many miracles and had power
over unclean spirits...’ (a1387)
B – Increase of ingressive gin-verbs
Begin replacing (ge)wearð (1)
• Sometimes ingressives replace (GE)WEARÐ. See, e.g. (7) & (8), where bigan
to haue nede ‘began to have need’ has replaced wearð wædla ‘became a
• A similar difference between Old English (18) — which also contains þa —
and Middle English (19) — which lacks a bounding time adverb — appears
in two versions of Exodus.
(18)Þa læfdon hi hit sume oð hit morgen wæs, & hit wearð wyrmum creowyd &
hit forrotode.
‘Then some men left it until it was morning, and it got crowded by worms
and rotted.’ (c1075. Exod [Ker]: 16.20)
(19)But sum therof lafte vnto the morwen, and it biganne to boyle wormes, and
‘But some of them left until the morning, and it began to spawn worms, and
stank.’ (a1425(a1382). WBible(1) [Corp-O 4]: Ex.16.20)
B – Increase of ingressive gin-verbs
Begin replacing (ge)wearð (2)
• The underlying Latin Vulgate source twice has a form of coepio (see e.g.
Tweedale 1598).
• The OE translators were highly unwilling to translate an unbounded
ingressive construction with a direct Old English equivalent (some other
examples can be found in Frary 1929: 44).
• This unwillingness shows how strongly grammaticalized bounded
construal in Old English was.
• The occurrence of begin in the Middle Englsh version is somewhat less
conclusive, since the translation may be literal, and a more detailed study
of non-translated prose would be necessary to shed light on the status of
ingressives in Middle English.
• At least it shows that ME grammar was less averse to the use of ingressive
constructions than was Old English
Relation between two developments
• Loss of (ge)wearð due to loss of OE bounded system
• Increase of begin due to grammaticalization of unbounded construal in ME
(probably already ongoing before grammaticalization of progressive is
documented in early ModE)
• Replacement of (ge)wearð by begin is evidence that both developments
interacted and that the loss of (ge)wearð is therefore also indirectly
related to the grammaticalization of unbounded constructions.
Timing of the transition
• The current hypothesis is that the transition from bounded to unbounded
has taken place during the EModE period (1500-1710), when – as is
generally believed – the progressive be Ving-construction increased in
frequency and became part of the core grammatical system (Kemenade,
Los & Starren 2008).
• The infrequent attestation of the progressive before 1500, however, is
probably mainly due to the poor documentation in the surviving ME
material of present tense (real-time) descriptions, the genre in which the
progressive is mainly used
• Evidence from ingressives, which perform similar functions in the past
tense, suggest that the transition was already ongoing in ME.
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Contact information
Peter Petré
Department of Linguistics
University of Leuven
Blijde-Inkomststraat 21
B-3000 Leuven, Belgium
Email: peter.petre@arts.kuleuven.be
Link to presentation:

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