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The grammatical category of Case

Changes in the categories of the noun in Middle English.

Middle English Grammar (foe selfeducation)

Simplification of noun morphology affected the grammatical categories of the noun in different ways and to a varying degree.

The OE Gender, being a classifying feature, disappeared together with other distinctive features of the noun declensions. Division into genders played a certain role in the decay of the OE declension system: in Late OE and Early ME nouns were grouped into classes or types of declension according to gender instead of stems. In the 11th and 12th c. the gender of nouns was deprived of its main formal support – the weakened and leveled endings of adjectives and adjective pronouns ceased to indicate gender. Semantically gender was associated with the differentiation of sex and therefore the formal grouping into genders was smoothly and naturally superseded by a semantic division into inanimate nouns, with a further subdivision of the latter into males and females.

The grammatical category of Case was preserved but underwent profound changes. The number of cases in the noun paradigm was reduced from four to two in Late ME. Even in OE the forms of the Nom. and Acc. were not distinguished in the pl, and in some classes they coincided in the sg. In Early ME they fell together in both numbers. In the strong declension the Dat. was sometimes marked by -e in the Southern dialects; the form without the ending soon prevailed in all areas, and three OE cases, Nom., Acc. and Dat. fell together. Henceforth they are called the Common case in present-day English. The Gen. case was kept separate from the other forms, with more explicit formal distinctions in the singular than in the plural. In the 14th c. the ending -es of the Gen. sg had become almost universal, there being only several exceptions – nouns which were preferably used in the uninflected form (some proper names, names of relationship). In the pl the Gen. case had no special marker – it was not distinguished from the Comm. case pl or from the Gen. sg. Several nouns with a weak plural form in -en or with a vowel interchange, such as oxen or men, added the marker of the Gen. case -es to these forms: oxenes, mennes. In the 17th and 18th c. a new graphic marker of the Gen. case came into use: the apostrophe.

The other grammatical category of the noun, Number proved to be the most stable of the nominal categories. The noun preserved the formal distinction of two numbers through all the historical periods. In Late ME the ending –es was the prevalent marker of nouns in the pl. It underwent several phonetic changes: the voicing of fricatives and the loss of unstressed vowels in final syllables:

1) after a voiced consonant or a vowel, e.g. ME stones [΄sto:nəs] > [΄stounəz] > [΄stounz], NE stones;

2) after a voiceless consonant, e.g. ME bookes [΄bo:kəs] > [bu:ks] > [buks], NE books;

3) after sibilants and affricates [s, z, ∫, t∫, dз] ME dishes [΄di∫əs] > [΄di∫iz], NE dishes.

The ME pl ending –en, used as a variant marker with some nouns lost its former productivity, so that in Standard Mod E it is found only in oxen, brethren, and children. The small group of ME nouns with homonymous forms of number has been further reduced to three exceptions in Mod E: deer, sheep, and swine. The group of former root-stems has survived also only as exceptions: man, tooth and the like.


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