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As we all know, the Early Modern English 3sg verbal ending -eth has become -s in Modern English. This presumably happened in two steps:

  1. Elision of the unstressed e in the final syllable
  2. Changing final -th to -s.

But do we know what order these changes happen in? Do we find intermediate forms like speak'th (with elided vowel but no consonant change) or speakes (with consonant change but the vowel preserved)?

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I can’t find any historical occurrences of forms like speak’th. Forms like speakes certainly occur reasonably frequently; but it’s not clear whether this is actually the intermediate form you’re after, or just the modern -s construction applied by writers who spelled the base verb as speake. One could eliminate this issue by using a verb which wasn’t archaically spelled with an extra -e, but I can’t think of any such verb right now… can anybody else? –  PLL Apr 4 '11 at 17:40
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I don't know... but I was under the impression that -th already existed as an allomorph of -eth, and that -(e)s replaced both allomorphs at once; some articles I read say that "-(e)s replaced -(e)th", rather than describing a development in two stages. Another possibility is that both changes happened for a large part simultaneously: I know the introduction of the s took rather a long time, and both forms probably coexisted for centuries, -(e)th gradually being pushed back into more formal usage. –  Cerberus Apr 4 '11 at 21:31
    
bartleby.com/211/1905.html –  F'x Apr 4 '11 at 21:51
    
See also: Bryson's The Mother Tongue for a quick-and-dirty history on morphology. –  HaL Apr 4 '11 at 21:59
    
@Hal: but don't trust it. Bryson's an entertaining writer, but he's a journalist, not a linguist, and The Mother Tongue is full of errors and half-truths. –  Colin Fine Apr 5 '11 at 10:37
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1 Answer 1

In Old English, a final -th without a vowel before was attested in the conjugation of 3p. sg. verbs. For example, the verb, steal was stilð in the 3p. sg.

This also occurred in words such as heal (with hǣlþ) and say (with segð).

In these words, it is easy to see how a final þ and ð could become alveolarized as /s/ and /z/, respectively.

This means that in these words the final unstressed e had already been elided. From this, we know that the order of events, at least in these words, are as you listed: fisrt the elision of the e, and then the change from -th to -s.

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What evidence do we have that there was ever an e in those words? –  Marthaª Apr 7 '11 at 23:52
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