Perfect Aspect in Middle English: From the Perspective of G. Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’

Middle English is called the period of changes due to all the different and significant developments that took place during this period. However, one of the most important changes in Middle English is the development of the perfect aspect having developed from the inflectional Old English to the periphrastic Modern English. For example, it has been noted (Lee 2003: 373) that even Old English had the perfect aspect, which ‘was not significantly different from Modern English in its semantic domain.’  If both Old and Modern English have the perfect aspect, I assume that Middle English must have one too. However, it has also been noted that the perfect aspect in Old English was still ’embryonic’ (Fischer & van der Wurff 2006: 111; Halas 2010: 259) and thus could be considered only as ‘the development of the periphrastic [auxiliary] constructions’ (Fischer 1992: 250).

In addition, it has also been claimed that in both Old and Middle English the perfect aspect was formed by two auxiliary verbs – ‘be’ and ‘have’ used together with the past participle. The difference between the both forms depends on the transitivity of verbs. For example,  in his analysis of Old English syntax, Lee mentions that ‘all transitive verbs were used with ‘have’, and all intransitive with ‘be” (Lee 2003: 373). A very similar observation can also be found in Halas’ (2010) study of the perfect aspect in Middle English – ‘the perfect form of transitive verbs included the present forms of the auxiliary ‘habban’ [have]. […]. Intransitive verbs used the present forms of the auxiliary ‘wesan’ [be] (260). The question arises: What are the most characteristic features of the perfect aspect in ‘The Canterbury Tales’?

The perfect aspect in Modern English

The perfect aspect can be defined as a ‘verbal periphrasis consisting of the […] auxiliary ‘have’ followed by a past participle’ (Michaels 1994: 111). Depending on the tense (the present or past perfect), the auxiliary is used in the present [‘has’ or ‘have’] or the past tense [‘had’].

There is a tendency to explore the present perfect separately from the past perfect, the reasoning behind this being that the meanings for these two are very different. I will folow this distinction and start with the present perfect.

There are basically two types of opinions; there are linguists who argue that there is just one meaning of the present perfect (see, for example, Klein 1992). On the other hand, the present perfect is said to be ‘polysemous in much the same way that words may be polysemous,’ where ‘a single for has several related meanings’ (Michaelis 1994: 113).  Usually the following three types of the present perfect are distinguished:

  1. Universal / continuative – used to talk about ‘states throughout an interval whose upper boundary is speech time’ (Michaelis 1994: 113). This means that the action has started in the past, is not completed yet and thus is still ongoing.
  2. Existential / experiential – this type implies that the speaker has had this type of experience before.  However, there is no specific time reference, so we do not know when exactly it happened. The most important thing here is the fact that it has happened.
  3. Resultative – this type of the present perfect is used to talk about the result of a past event.

As to the past perfect aspect in Modern English, it shows time relationships. If we look back at the three types of present perfect above, it also implies certain time relationships – there is always a connection between the past and the present. Whenever the past perfect is used, it always describes an action that precedes another action, which is used in the simple past tense. Therefore, the past perfect does not have a connection with the time of utterance but it does arguably have a connection with the time being referred to (a location in past time to which the action is being related).

G. Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (‘The General Prologue’)

Chaucer started writing ‘The Canterbury Tales’ at the end of the 14th century (1387) and continued it until his death in 1400.

Taking into consideration the fact that Middle English has been called the period of a variety of dialects, an important question arises: Can ‘The Canterbury Tales’ be considered a true representative of the language in this period? As Schlauch (1959: 21) has it, Chaucer was from London, which means that ‘he heard, adopted and used a number of occasional forms which came from outside that territory.’ Also, the London dialect started to prevail towards the end of the period. This probably led to the dialect mixture and incipient standardization. Chaucer was also very well educated and moved in court circles, so he was accustomed to the language of the social elite. Hence, it is possible to argue that ‘The Canterbury Tales’ truly represent the language that existed as late Middle English.

The form of the perfect aspect in Middle English

As has already been mentioned, the perfect aspect in Middle English was formed by the present form of either of the two auxiliaries ‘wesan’ [‘be’] or ‘habban’ [‘have’] together with  a past participle. Past participles can have different forms depending whether the verb is strong [irregular in Modern English] or weak [regular]. Most of the present perfect instances in Chaucer’s ‘The General Prologue’ are used with ‘hath’ (the third person singular in present), which resembles the form of the present perfect in Modern English. Similarly, ‘hadde’ (past of ‘habban’) would be used in instances of the past perfect. However, it is interesting to note that the word order is not as strict in Middle English as it is in the contemporray form. For example, the past participle can be used before the auxiliary:

So hadde I spoken with hem everychon

That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,

And made forward erly for to ryse

To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.


And therto hadde he ridden, no man ferre,

As wel in Cristendom as in Hethenesse,

And evere honoured for his worthynesse.

In both examples the same structure of the past perfect is used: the auxiliary + the subject + the past participle. Although this syntactical construction is possible in Modern English, the meaning is different. In Modern English, this structure is used in the 3rd type conditionals, but then the sentence has to be complex with a dependent (main) clause and an independent clause. These two examples have only one pair of subject and verb, which means that the conditional meaning is not possible here. Fischer (1992: 256-257) presumes that the word order can vary ‘due to the persistence of the so-called Verb-Second rule, which in Old English placed the finite verb immediately after the subject.’ The examples show that the past participle of the main verb is used just after the subject, which leaves a certain freedom for the place of the auxiliary.

Another example with a slightly different word order:

[..] in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene

Of grece, whan she dronken hadde hir draughte.

The same argument can be used to explain this word order as well. The main verb is used after the subject. The only thing that is different from the two examples above is the placement of the auxiliary, which can be everywhere as long as the main verb directly follows the subject.

Likewise, the place of other parts of speech is not that important, either:

A Sergeant of the Law, war and wys,

That often hadde been at the parvys,

Ther was also, ful riche of excellence.

In order to fully understand the reason why word order in Middle English is more flexible than it is nowadays, it is necessary to say some word about word order in Old English. Moore (1969)  contends that ‘the inflections of the language at this time were sufficiently distinct in form to permit a considerable freedom in word order’ (24). Since the English language has changed considerably over the period of time, Medieval English is to be looked upon as a period of transition. Although Middle English does resemble the contemporary sentence structure, there are still quite a few instances when word order is quite flexible.

There are some instances in ‘The General Prologue’ when ‘wesan’ is used as the auxiliary. The majority of linguists argue that the difference between the forms depends on the transitivity of the verbs.

For he was late ycome from his viage

At mete wel ytaught was she withalle

That straight was comen from the court of Rome.

And of a myrthe I am right now bythoght.

As these examples clearly show, the use of ‘wesan’ as the perfect auxiliary was indeed used with intransitive verbs. However, in late Middle English there already was a widespread tendency to use ‘habban’ even with intransitive verbs, which shows the development towards the only form used in Modern English.

The word order is not the only thing in the use of the perfect aspect in Middle English that is different from Modern English and thus is worth paying attention to. Although it is said to be used quite often (Burrow & Turville-Petre 2005: 46), there is no uniformity as when to use the perfect form and when just the simple past as the two forms can be used interchangeably (Fischer 1992: 256). Visser (1966) argues that the simple past can be used interchangeably only with the resultative form of the present perfect. However, this is not quite true in this particular text.

She was a worthy woman al hir lyve

This is one of the examples when the simple past is used instead of the present perfect  (which would normally be the case in Modern English). Here the wife of Bath is described. If the simple past is used to describe people in Modern English, a complete action is implied. This form would be used to show the activity ‘as firmly belonging to a particular moment in the past’ (Fischer & van der Wurff 2006: 139). Since the description is used to introduce the reader to the character (the wife of Bath), the action is still ongoing. Later on, the wife of Bath  will present her own story, which also indicates that her life is still continuing in full swing. Hence, I presume that the use of the simple past has another function here.

This example also helps to confront Visser’s (1963) claim that the only resultative perfect form can be used interchangeably with the simple past. This is an example of the universal / continuative present perfect – the wife of Bath has been a respectable woman and hasn’t stopped being one. Therefore,  ‘The Canterbury Tales’ prove  that Visser’s claim is not very well grounded.

A couple of lines below we read:

And thries hadde she been at jerusalem;

She hadde passed many a straunge strem;

At rome she hadde been, and at boloigne,

In galice at seint-jame, and coloigne.

It seems that in Middle English the past perfect was used with a different meaning as well. As Fischer (1992: 258) has noted, ‘the Middle English past perfect occurs more often in colloquial style’ and ‘is rare in purely narrative contexts’. This actually explains the the simple past is used to introduce the character to the reader (thus, purely narratorial) and is the dominant verb form in the whole text. If more detail (explanation) is needed, there is a switch to the prefect aspect. To a certain extent, this also resembles the contemporary use of the past perfect because using the past perfect we would normally go before another ation. In order to do this, we need to mention or at least imply the first action first.


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