1

When you have a singular noun as subject, a singular verb follows. However, the pronouns "I" and "you" are singular but singular verbs do not follow after them. Does anyone know something about this reason or historical explanations?

For example, you say "I live" instead of saying "I lives".

  • You forgot, "I am" and I was, instead of are and were. It's basically the consequence of language evolving over the centuries and speakers seeking to simplify rather than complicate communication. – Mari-Lou A Dec 7 '13 at 7:07
3

As Mari-Lou has said in her comment, the first person singular of be is am in the present tense and was in the past tense. Neither is ever used as a plural in Standard English. The second person singular in the present tense is are and were in the past tense. Both are also used for all other numbers and persons except the first and third.

The reason English has such inconsistent forms of the verb be is that Old English had two equivalent verbs, beon and wesan, from different roots. The first person singular of the present tense of beon was eom, which gives us today’s am. Was is from the past tense of wesan, which had wæs in the first person singular. The origins of are are a little less certain, but the past tense of wesan was wære in the second person singular and wæron in the second person plural.

EDIT

I’m sorry, I got distracted by the verb be.

Verbs like live, which are regular in Modern English, had several inflections in Old and Middle English. The first person singular in the present tense was the base form with an optional -e ending, the second person singular had the ending -est, and the third person singular had the ending -eth. All persons in the plural had the ending -e(n). All these forms were simplified after the Middle English period, until now we have only the two forms in the present tense.

I haven’t researched the history of the transformation of -eth to -s, but I would guess that it came about through phonetic change. Others may be able to give a detailed explanation, but the history of English verb forms is complex.

  • Thank you. I learned the history of the verb "be". I appreciated it. But how about other verbs? You do not say "I lives". – 243 Dec 7 '13 at 7:53
  • -th to -s is not a phonological change, but a case of one dialect winning out over another. Old and Middle English dialects are a quagmire of confusion, but some do seem to be able to make sense of them. I believe -s in the 3sg was originally taken over (in the North) from the 2sg, possibly under Norse influence, but the picture is more complex than you'd think. (The 2sg -st is originally from the past tense and preterite presents.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 7 '13 at 14:12
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In regular verbs, it’s the third person singular which changes in the present tense. Just because “I live” is the same as “we live,” it does not mean that live is a plural form when used with I. It’s a singular form which happens to be the same as the plural form.

The third person singular is the exception.

  • Thank you for the answer. You are right. "Live" in the "I live" should be a special singular form for "I" and maybe "you". So my question is why the regular subject-verb agreement is not applied. – 243 Jan 11 '14 at 20:24
  • The regular subject-verb agreement is applied. In regular verbs, the 3S form has an s and all others don't. – Andrew Leach Jan 11 '14 at 22:49
  • I feel there is a misunderstanding, maybe it is because I did not define what is regular. Let me rephrase it. The verb form for the first and second person singulars is different from that for the third person singular. Why is it different? I felt the third person singular was regular because any singulars except for I and you are the third person singular, but this might confuse you. – 243 Jan 12 '14 at 5:11
  • I think you should edit your question if you need to rephrase it. – Andrew Leach Jan 12 '14 at 11:17
0

Your question implies some a priori reason to expect nouns and verbs to "adhere to the same system" in the first place with regard to plural marking (or presumably, by extension, marking of other features). But it's not clear, looking across languages generally, that there's much pressure for languages to evolve in that way: there are many languages with completely different morphology for nouns vs verbs.

Historically, you could point to features that have provided a "seed" for the -s in the nouns and verbs of English. But it's difficult to pinpoint a precise reason why -s was what "stuck" out of other possible courses of evolution. For example, many masculine nouns in Old English had an -(e)s ending in the plural. But many other nouns didn't: an -an ending (cf the -en of "oxen" today) was actually much more typical overall and a person in 1200 trying to predict the future might equally have thought that -en would prevail. In the verb system, there were various endings that had -s in, but equally you might have predicted that -(e)th would survive rather than -s.

But the historical details don't particularly matter anyway: in Darwinian terms, if there was "selective pressure" for the language to evolve to have "the same system" for nouns and verbs, then the language could essentially have evolved in that way whatever the historical "starting point" (there's really no magical "starting point" of course: languages are continually evolving from their previous state). But there just doesn't seem to be much pressure for languages to evolve in that way: the pressure seems to be rather for verbs vs nouns to have different systems.

  • There is a bit of a tendency among Germanic languages to reuse the same suffixes (or rather, identical suffixes) in both verbal and nominal morphology, however, even if they're used for different things. Like English -s found in both verbs and nouns, so also -en in German and Dutch (marking plurality in both nouns and verbs), -er/-ar in Swedish/Danish/Norwegian (same), -ir/-ar/-ur in Icelandic/Faeroese (singular in verbs, plural in nouns). This is especially noticeable in Germanic languages, but is quite common in inflectional languages in general. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 7 '13 at 14:18
  • I think this is true to some limited extent, but it's difficult to say that the language has evolved specifically to maintain such similarity rather than having evolved in such a way that e.g. certain syllables/suffixes are iconic as marking word boundaries and given enough suffixes, some coincidences emerge. For example, Germanic -en marks plurals in nouns in a small subset of cases whereas it marks plural "across the board" in verbs (and -en doesn't uniquely mark plurality on nouns anyway). – Neil Coffey Dec 7 '13 at 16:18
  • The coincidence of all these desinences is of course (in Germanic languages at least) quite simply the result of more or less regular sound laws reducing the phonotactically possible combinations of sounds in unstressed, final position. The verb-pluralising -en in German, for example, comes from an earlier *-ent, while the dative plural ending -en comes from -ōm. There is no inherent reason that such similarity should be maintained—but their coincidence is remarkably high within Germanic. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 7 '13 at 16:24
  • I couldn't conclude just from "eyeballing" the situation that the coincidence is necessarily "remarkably high" rather than just "statistically what you'd expect". All I can say is that at first sight, I really don't see much evidence of the language evolving to maintain particular suffixes specifically and exclusively for certain functions across both nouns and verbs. – Neil Coffey Dec 7 '13 at 16:29
  • P.S. I should have said more explicitly: there could well be inherent reasons why particular consonants are favoured in suffixes across the board, for example being highly sonorous, having a 'unique' feature such as nasality, etc. So it doesn't seem remarkable that e.g. a single "s" suffix is maintained across the board (but with different functions), or a nasal consonant in Germanic is maintained across the board (but again, with different functions). – Neil Coffey Dec 7 '13 at 16:34

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