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The Germanic languages that I'm familiar with all use a prefix similar to ge- on past participles:

German: Ich habe mir den Fuß gebrochen.

Dutch: Ik heb mijn voet gebroken.

But English doesn't do this at all:

English: I've broken my foot.

Where did this prefix come from? Did English ever have the ge- past participle prefix? If so, why was it lost?

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4  
Related: The times they are a-changin'. –  Jon Purdy Apr 26 '11 at 16:23
    
Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/13661/… –  Cerberus May 22 '11 at 15:30
    
(cont.) But yu'll hav to gloss it, otherwise, no one will kno what yu'r talking about! –  AnWulf Jan 7 '12 at 20:18
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I can only think of three ge- words off the top of my head that are still in the tung gemoot (also gemot, gemote), gebur, and gefrain (reputation in heathenry). There is also the compound word, witenagemot The others like gestalt are loanwords. Doesn't mean that someone can't edquicken (revive) one or use the ge- forefast (prefix) ... –  AnWulf Jan 7 '12 at 20:18
    
@AnWulf I don't believe any of these are modern English words, and personally I would rather return English to its Latin roots than the Anglo-Saxon ones. But +1 for a man who's not afraid to stand up for his views. –  TimLymington Jan 7 '12 at 21:46

5 Answers 5

up vote 40 down vote accepted

In short:

  • In Proto-Germanic, the prefix was *ga-;
  • In Old English, it was ġe- (pronounced /je/, /jə/);
  • In Middle English, it was y-, i-, or ȝe- (pronounced /ɪ/);
  • In Modern English, it survives in a handful of words as i-, a-, or y- (see below).

The Wiktionary page for y- has these usage notes:

This prefix represents a common Germanic perfective prefix which was used to form past participles. Already by the Old English period such participles could be used with or without it, and as it passed into Middle English forms y-, i-, and ȝe-, it became less productive. The prefix was later adopted as a conscious archaism by some writers such as Edmund Spenser, who prepended it to existing past participles.

Etymonline has this to say about y-:

perfective prefix, in y-clept, etc.; a deliberate archaism, introduced by Spenser and his imitators, representing an authentic M.E. prefix, from O.E. ge-, originally meaning "with, together" but later a completive or perfective element, from P.Gmc. *ga-. It is still living in German and Dutch ge-, and survives, disguised, in some English words (e.g. alike, aware, handiwork).

Finally, the Merriam-Webster has this discussion of yclept:

"Clepe" itself is a word that is considered archaic and nearly obsolete, but its past participle "yclept" (pronounced ih-KLEPT) continues to be used, albeit rarely. In Old English, the prefix "ge-" denoted the completion or result of an action; in Middle English, the prefix shifted to "y-" and appeared in words such as "ybaptised" and "yoccupied." Eventually, all the "y-" words except "yclept" fell into disuse. One reason that "yclept" persists may be that it provides a touch of playfulness that appeals to some writers. Another may be that although "yclept" is an unfamiliar term to most people, its meaning can usually be inferred from context. Whatever the reason, "yclept" continues to turn up occasionally in current publications despite its strange and antiquated look.

Emphasis mine in all cases.

And yes, I realize that I haven't addressed the why part of your question.

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How is y- disguised in those words? It's not immediately obvious to me. –  Uticensis Apr 26 '11 at 14:19
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@Billare, For instance handiwork could be confounded as a compound of "handy" + "work" but it is actually "hand" + "iwork" from Old English hand + geweorc. The ones prefixed in "a" are different. For me it's like in afford (geforðian) or alike (gelīc => gleich in G.) or aware ("gewær", G. "gewahr" ) enough (genōg, "genug" in G.)... –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 26 '11 at 14:29
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@Billare: alike comes from O.E. gelic (see German gleich), aware from O.E. gewær (see German gewahr and compare Modern English wary), and handiwork from O.E. handgeweorc, from weorc, worc (see German Werk, Modern English work). Edit: @Alain: jinx! –  RegDwigнt Apr 26 '11 at 14:32
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@Billare, as for the why, the theory put forward by people in the know is that Anglo Saxons speaking Old English and Danes speaking Old Norse came in contact to trade. They both spoke a Germanic language and could understand each other other's vocabulary (Wortschatz/word hoard) but the inflections were different, so that they had to mute them. This is why English lost its Germanic inflections whereas neither German nor the other Scandinavian languages did. The same happened to verbs: Old Norse verbs had already lost the "ge". To find a "common ground" Saxons dropped it as well. –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 17 '11 at 1:00
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Also preserved in the frequently sung en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_lay_ybounden –  Mark May 22 '11 at 16:11

I can only tell you that Old English had the ge- form. For example, the inscription on the Ælfred the Great Jewel says "ÆLFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN". That translates to "Alfred had me made [crafted]." And gewyrcan would have been pronounced "yewirkahn", roughly speaking.

That said, John McWhorter cites the loss of these prefixes (along with be- and for-) as part of what the Vikings did to English. They simplified many forms and caused many markers to be dropped. (See Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.)

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I fixed your ash for you. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 26 '11 at 13:17
    
@JSBangs: Thanks. Can you also fix the one on the first line, first reference to "Alfred the Great"? Thanks. :) –  Robusto Apr 26 '11 at 13:33
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@Robusto: CTRL+C, CTRL+V. I'm sure you can handle it. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 26 '11 at 13:40
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@JSBangs: Oh, duh. –  Robusto Apr 26 '11 at 13:46
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Some linguists have actually claimed that the influence of Old Norse was such in the transition from Old English to Middle English that one could speak of creolization. As pointed out by Robusto, in Old Scandinavian (and present day Norwegian, Danish and Swedish of course) the Old Germanic ge- (and other prefixes) had already disappeared. Although having relatively little influence on its vocabulary, Old Norse had a huge influence on OE morphology; the theory being that when two languages are close enough they can influence each other's grammar much more than if they are remote cousins. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 26 '11 at 14:44

Like German, Old English did use ge- as a prefix to mark past participles. As it moved into Middle English, this evolved into y- (also i- or ȝe-), and as with many forms of inflection became non-productive and mostly disappeared by the time modern English rolled around.

Wikitionary lists yclept as a holdover, though that in itself isn't terribly common. It does illustrate the point well though moving from geclypod in OE, to ycleped in ME and now to yclept.

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As reported by Wikipedia, in Old English strong (or irregular) past participles were marked with a ge- prefix, as are most strong and weak past participles in Dutch and High German today.

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The only two major groups of Modern Germanic languages still using this prefix are as you pointed out above: Dutch (along with Afrikaans) and German. That's two out of how many Modern Germanic languages? Even Low German has dropped it, save 2 dialects close neighbouring on High German.

So here's the breakdown:

Germanic languages using ge-:

  • Dutch/Afrikaans
  • 2 dialects of Low German
  • High German

Germanic languages forgoing use of ge-:

  • English
  • Scots
  • Frisian languages (3)
  • Low German (majority of dialects)
  • Danish
  • Swedish
  • Norwegian (both forms)
  • Faroese
  • Icelandish

The reason why it was lost in English is because it was instressed and not needed when forming past participles. When presented with "ytaken" vs. "taken" it is clear the latter is one less syllable to pronounce. Coupled this with the fact that the past participle moved to immediately after the auxillary verb (due to Scandinavian influence), which also helped. Had we kept using the Old Saxon word order: "I have the picture from off the wall ytaken" we might still be using it.

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