ICEHL edition:17 location:Zürich date:20-25 August 2012
The topic of this talk is the development of a backgrounding function of the [be Ving/ende]-construction in Middle English, a development so far neglected in diachronic studies. Building on previous work by Killie (2008), and on the basis of extensive corpus data, I chart the development of the following functions.
(i) Aspectual function of duration/stativity. This function is neutral as regards grounding.
(1) Hie alle on þone cyning wærun feohtende oþ þæt hie hine ofslægenne hæfdon.
‘They all were/kept fighting against the king until they had killed him.’ (c891)
(ii) Interaction with foreground results in the narrative function, in which the stativity of the participle is used to emphasize the action.
(2) Min latteow [...] butan eldenne wæs eft his gong cerrende
‘My servant [...], without hesitating, turned around again.’ (c925)
(iii) In more backgrounded contexts, the construction developed into a focalized progressive.
(3) And as they were comynge homwarde, they founde themselfe vpon the ryver. (1483)
The event expressed by [be Ving/ende] is construed as going on at a particular (focalization) point in time, in (3) the finding-event. This use only becomes common in Middle English.
I argue that the increase of focalized [be Ving/ende] is made possible by a general loss of foreground-marking devices in Middle English, such as topicalizing þa ‘then’ + inversion (Los 2009). Its development, then, is argued to be part of a broader syntactic development towards background-marking in English (cf. Brinton 1996).