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Q: historical linguistics - English ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   3 Comments )
Subject: historical linguistics - English
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: altoclef-ga
List Price: $4.00
Posted: 15 Jun 2002 17:32 PDT
Expires: 15 Jul 2002 17:32 PDT
Question ID: 27295
How did English develop the two word infinitive, e.g. to ask?
Both indo-european and non indo-european languages have a verb "root"
to which a suffix is added denoting the verb to be an infinitive.  The
suffix cannot stand alone, and has no function other than denoting the
root, or infinitive, of the verb.
Subject: Re: historical linguistics - English
Answered By: actualwolf-ga on 18 Jun 2002 07:25 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi Altoclef:

That's a very interesting question.

The prescriptive use of the two word infinitive in English can be
traced back to 18th century British Scholars love affair with Latin. 
They viewed Latin as the perfect language.

"Grammar has been trapped by the history of English. Some centuries
ago, when scholars became very interested in the structure of the
English language, they were also under the impression that English
could be improved by importing concepts from Latin into English. In
doing that, they simply used the Latin grammar to describe the
structure of English."

To "purify" English scholars tried to force a Latin mold on a Germanic
language., specifically the idea of singular infinitive. This didn't
work.  In Latin, infinitives are a single word, i/e: errare "to err". 
In English "to" is a separate word with it's own history dating far
back to times before scholars became obsessed with Latin.

This erroneous analogy with Latin gave rise to the false grammatical
phenomenon of "split infinitives".

Early English used single word infitives with inflectional endings.

The use of the word "to" as an affix to a verb evolved from a
different use of the word in Old English.

"The nearly universal use of to with infinitives (to sleep, to dream,
etc.) arose in M.E. out of the O.E. dative use of to, and helped drive
out the O.E. inflectional endings (though in this use to itself is a
mere sign, without meaning)."

Search strategy:
"english is not latin!" +infinitive
latin infinitive
to +etymology
old english verb structure

I hope that answers your question!

altoclef-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Thank you, Actualwolf.  The answer was wonderful. It is not only
complete on its face, but it refers me to excellent, relevant sites. I
have been looking for the answer to this question for years - off and
on.  Thanks again.

Subject: Re: historical linguistics - English
From: xinger-ga on 16 Jun 2002 16:08 PDT
Interesting question (for a non-English major, at least).  My research
took me to discussions about split infinitives, and one of these
discussions talked about English basically being a Germanic language. 
So I started looking at German infinitives and found that, as stated
in your question, they are mostly formed by suffixing -n or -en to the
verb.  However, I did find examples of a two word German infinitives,
one being "zu lesen", its English translation being "to read".  So it
appears that English two-word infinitives originate from the German
Subject: Re: historical linguistics - English
From: altoclef-ga on 16 Jun 2002 17:40 PDT
Thank you xinger.  Does German have just one two word infinitive?  How
strange.  Do they argue about splitting the "zu" from the "lessen?"
Subject: Re: historical linguistics - English
From: d_p_lee-ga on 17 Jun 2002 20:05 PDT
(This is a comment, but if you feel it answers your question
adequately, say so here and I will mark it as answered.)

I think it's safe to say that there is no "This is why" answer to your
question.  From what I have found, even linguists don't have a
complete answer to this mystery.

A very long discussion of this question can be found on the sci.lang
newsgroup, which is archived on the Google site and accessed through
the Google Groups search function.  The discussion is in response to
the following question posed by a curious member, "Why are English
infinitives so different?"

The complete discussion can be found at:

Following is my best attempt to summarize the major theories put
forward by the group.

The English "to" as in "to flower" (known as an infinitive marker
since it distinguishes between the idea of a "flower" and the "action
of flowering):

1. Was borrowed from the German "tun", e.g. "to have to do" = "haben
zu tun"
2. The word "to" was added to distinguish between the infinitive form
of the verb and its present-tense form, which are in most cases, the
same, e.g. "to build" and "I build, you build, we build, they build"
3. Old English infinitives were marked with "-an" as an ending, but
also required the preposition "to", before the word, e.g. "to specian"
meaning to speak.  The endings were eventually dropped (or adapted)
but the "to" remained.
4. "[I]t is common in Celtic languages to mark verb participles with
prepositions.  For example, you might translate 'writing' into Breton
as 'o skrivan~', where 'skrivan~' is the citation form for 'write'. 
Welsh uses the prepositions 'yn' and 'wedi' for present and past
participles, respectively.  I wonder if the use of prepositions in
Germanic languages might not have arisen from contact with Celtic
languages." (Copied directly from one of the posts)
5. The two word infinitive construct was created unintentionally by
the Church as it attempted to map English to Latin.  Since the
infinitive form of Latin verbs were one word, e.g. amare - 'to love'
an infinitive form was needed in English.  Although Latin doesn't
require a second word to distinguish an infinitive form of the verb,
English does (to distinguish between "to flower" and "flower") and so
(perhaps!) what was once a preposition to mark an infinitive case
became a two word construct that has remained to this day.

The discussion thread is very interesting and worth reading when you
have time.

If anyone has anything else to add to this question, feel free.

Best of luck xinger-ga!


"infinitive marker" AND English


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