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Middle English Verbs of Emotion and Impersonal Constructions

Verb Meaning and Syntax in Diachrony


Ayumi Miura*


Oxford Studies in the History of English

Oxford: University Press, 2015

Hardcover. xvii+290 p. ISBN 978-0199947157. £47.99


Reviewed by Fabienne Toupin

Université François-Rabelais, Tours




Impersonal constructions are known to be one of the most active research areas where the history of the English language is concerned. The literature on the subject spans more than a century, raising the question of whether there is actually room for further research and new results. Until now, the perspective has been mostly syntactic, and the semantics side has been under-scrutinised, with the result that linguists are unable to say with any certainty why certain verbs could be used in impersonal constructions while others could not, despite their apparent near-synonymity. Such verb pairs as like~love and loathe~hate, in which only the first members licensed impersonal uses in ME, are standard illustrations of this question. It is therefore Dr Ayumi Miura's aim to offer an investigation of the interface between verb meaning and syntax with special reference to ME verbs of emotion, as they represent the largest category of verbs compatible with impersonal usage in early English [19].

Chapter 1 serves as the Introduction to the book. Ayumi Miura begins by describing the lack of linguistic consensus with regard to the term impersonal. 'Impersonals' are an ill-defined category, both semantically and syntactically. So far individual researchers have come up with definitions of 'impersonals' tailored to their own needs. The author retains three essential properties of impersonal constructions, based on Möhlig-Falke's (2012) study: the lack of a nominative grammatical subject, the presence of an oblique argument whose semantic role is experiencer (an 'animate being inwardly affected by an event or characterised by a state', Traugott 1972: 34), and a lexical verb in the third person singular form. By contrast, she defines 'personal' constructions as those which involve a nominative experiencer with which the verb agrees in number and person [4-6]. As the investigation deals with two distinct levels, constructions and verbs, a definition of impersonal verbs is also needed. The author defines them as verbs known to have been used in impersonal constructions, even though they may also have been attested in other syntactic patterns. The complementary category is not 'personal verbs' but 'non-impersonal verbs', those which apparently did not occur in impersonal constructions, a necessary precaution in line with other developments [§2.1: 'Positive and Negative Evidence for Studying the Syntax of a Historical Language'].

Ayumi Miura provides a historical outline of impersonal constructions. They were attested as early as OE, but the ME period witnessed a significant spread to new verbs, either of native or of foreign origin, a tendency which is usually ascribed to semantic analogy. The expansion lasted until the 14th and 15th centuries, when impersonal constructions began to lose productivity in favour of other, personal syntactic patterns. Complete loss of productivity is considered to have been reached by 1500. Most scholars accept the traditional explanation of this change, based on the breakdown of the inflectional system and the subsequent establishment of a rigid Subject-Verb-Object word order, which would have caused a preverbal oblique experiencer to be replaced by a nominative one.

In this chapter, the author also reviews morphosyntactic and semantic definitions of impersonals as discussed in previous studies. It ends with a summary of the three characteristics that distinguish her study from previous investigations: i) focus on the differences between verbs which occurred in impersonal constructions in ME and those which, despite being near-synonyms of the impersonal verbs, did not; ii) emphasis on the ME period, while previously OE has received much more attention; iii) use of research on verbs of psychological state, or psych-verbs, in PDE and other modern languages (cf. Levin 1993).

In Chapter 2 (Theoretical and Methodological Considerations), Ayumi Miura begins by taking the standard precautions linked to the two kinds of evidence, positive and negative, available for the historical study of a language. She then critically reviews several theoretical and methodological approaches which have been used for investigating the syntactic-semantic interface of pairs (or sets) of semantically related or near-synonymous verbs in early English. She goes on to address the question of semantic roles, here again reviewing previous literature on the subject, raising a number of problems of descriptive adequacy and justifying her own adoption of the cover terms experiencer and target of emotion. The literature on psych-verbs indicates a promising direction: focusing on two event-structure concepts, causation (causative meaning) and aspect (more specifically, stative or non-stative meaning).

In the end, the author identifies five parameters relevant to her study of how impersonal usage of emotion verbs was licensed and came to spread in ME, viz. (1) constructional patterns, (2) animacy of the target of emotion, (3) argument alternations, as well as (4) causation and (5) aspect. As it is generally agreed that a single property cannot adequately account for the behaviour of a whole class of lexemes, these parameters are to be taken as a set on which a combined approach is based. The chapter closes with lists of questions the author aims to answer in relation to each parameter [44-45].

Chapter 3 (Verbs of Emotion and the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary) opens with a word of caution, as Ayumi Miura demonstrates that there might very well be impersonal verbs that have gone unnoticed so far, and that there is no knowing exactly how many there are unless one reads all the extant ME texts. All the figures quoted, therefore, are necessarily provisional, although the lists given in Möhlig-Falke (2012) may be considered the most up-to-date and the most comprehensive at the moment [47-50].

The author then explains how she delimits the category of 'verbs of emotion.' Membership of the category is based on the recently released Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (HTOED), which is supposed to contain all recorded words in English, from OE to PDE. She justifies her methodological choice of the HTOED, and more specifically of section 02.02 ('Emotion'), and concludes by underlining some of the problems which arise from the use of the HTOED.

In Chapter 4 (Old and Middle English Impersonal Verbs of Emotion: Analysis from Dictionary Meanings), Ayumi Miura first revisits her initial list-compiling process, narrowing down the lists in the HTOED as she is interested only in impersonal verbs with matching, near-synonymous, non-impersonal equivalents.

She then goes on to discuss each of the seven semantic subcategories of emotion verbs, i.e.: pleasure/enjoyment, mental pain/suffering, anger, hatred / enmity, pity / compassion, humility, and fear. For each subcategory, she determines when impersonal usage was first attested, how it spread to other verbs, and whether it is possible to correlate it with causative meaning. For each individual verb involved in the study, she provides (at least) one example.

The seven subcategories of verbs turn out to be quite different in terms both of the number of impersonal verbs involved and of the frequency of impersonal usage of individual verbs. The author stresses several tendencies that distinguish the class of verbs of fear and anger from the others, and, conversely, a significant tendency that spans all subcategories, an apparently close correlation between impersonal uses and causative meaning.

The object of Chapter 5 (Semantic Distinctions between Impersonal and Non-impersonal Verbs of Emotion: Evidence from Entries in the Middle English Dictionary) is to investigate to what extent this generalisation concerning causation is supported by the actual data. Nonetheless, the other four factors previously identified in Chapter 2 are also taken into consideration. At this stage non-impersonal verbs – in David Denison's (1990: 122) words, the 'outer perimeter' – are included too.

In order to justify her use of the quotations given under the MED entries as a database, Ayumi Miura gives both a negative reason, the lack of a suitable choice among the existing corpora of ME, and positive reasons [97-98]. She then reviews each of the seven subcategories of emotion verbs with reference to the five parameters set out in Chapter 2, systematically contrasting impersonal verbs with near-synonymous non-impersonal ones as she goes along. The review comes to an end with an excursus on verbs of jealousy / envy, pride and courage, in an attempt to understand why, although they can all be considered verbs of emotion, they never occurred in impersonal constructions.

Her conclusion is that there is not one single factor governing impersonal usage of ME verbs of emotion, but rather a range of parameters. Two of these, causation and aspect, affect the whole class. The other three factors do not have the same impact on the different subcategories, making generalisation more difficult.

In Chapter 6 (Concluding Remarks), Ayumi Miura addresses the question of transitivity. Impersonal verbs of emotion display low transitivity 'in terms of affectedness of object' [234], at any rate lower transitivity than their non-impersonal near-synonyms.

She also gives a dynamic picture of the factors licensing impersonal usage. These were not stable over the ME period, with a turning point coming around the 14th century. Leaving aside purely linguistic considerations, she then demonstrates how the linguistic boundaries she has established between impersonal and non-impersonal ME verbs of emotion correlate with psychological definitions and classifications of 'emotion'. The chapter ends with an exposition of several topics for further research.

* * *


The publication of this monograph is particularly welcome in a context of continued scholarly interest in impersonal constructions (cf. Möhlig-Falke 2012), or of renewed interest in emotions, whether from a historical point of view, with reference to medieval England (cf. Jorgensen et al. (eds.) 2015) or from a contrastive one, with reference to modern Indo-European languages (cf. Chuquet et al. (eds.) 2013). In this section, I will first raise a few methodological questions, most of them minor, beginning with a few terminological remarks. I will then focus on the qualities of Ayumi Miura's work, summarising my opinion in the conclusion.

One wonders whether the cover term target of emotion, adopted from Allen (1995), was the best terminological option, as target does not seem to fit in with intuitions of ordinary language speakers concerning reference to someone or something 'that triggers an emotion' [37]. In this respect stimulus (Croft 1991) might have been less counter-intuitive. The term transitive raises another kind of problem. Some grammatical traditions, the French one for instance, do not describe the prepositional constructions of verbs, e.g. ME dreden+of+NP, as intransitive [cf. 113], reserving the term for the absence of any object constituent. Constrasting dreden+of+NP with dreden+NP, such traditions would consider both NPs as objects of the verb dreden, the latter being direct and the former indirect (i.e. prepositional), and dreden as having either transitive or indirect transitive use. Dekeyser et al. (1999: §§13.23-13.25) adopt a very similar position when they coin the label 'secondary transitive verbs' (i.e. prepositional verbs), which they contrast with 'primary transitive verbs' (and 'primary transitive complementation'). It would therefore be helpful to define important concepts like (in)transitivity as early as possible in the investigation process, so as to avoid potential misunderstandings.

Though etymology is not at all a central concern of the book, it is somewhat surprising that a scholarly work of such quality should rely on only one dictionary, albeit the OED, as a source of etymological information [60], when several more are at hand to supplement it, e.g. Skeat (1961), Klein (2003), not to mention the MED itself. The question of the uncertain origin of irken might thus have been gone into more deeply (cf. note 16 on p. 247], as this entry (first published in 1900) has not yet been fully updated in the OED. Skeat (1961), for instance, argues for native origin.

A separate paragraph could have been dedicated to potential translation effects, where the syntax of the original text influences that of the target text, as well as to the effects of structural borrowing, where a verb is borrowed together with the syntactic pattern(s) it governs in the source language. The author is perfectly aware of both phenomena [cf. pp. 65 & 81], but gathering what for the moment remains a series of rather scattered remarks into a distinct paragraph could only serve to enhance their relevance, and would have the extra advantage of showing more clearly that multi-causality is likely to have been at work in the subject investigated. This leads me on to my next remark.

On three different occasions, the author observes a strong connection between the emergence of impersonal uses of ME verbs of emotion and the West-Midland dialect [63, 77 & 86-87], and concludes that the authors of the Brut, the Ancrene Riwle, and the 'Katherine Group' texts were instrumental in establishing impersonal usage with a number of verbs of emotion. In this context potential Celtic (i.e. Welsh) influence could be suggested, but the author seems to disregard this hypothesis, favouring another explanation: '[...] convergence of examples in these texts may be due to the fact that Laȝamon's Brut, 'Katherine Group' texts, and Ancrene Riwle, all of which generally belong to the West-Midland dialect, constitute a large part of the surviving thirteenth-century texts and that the MED cites frequently from these works' [91]. Yet, the language-contact hypothesis is plausible in view of recent scholarship (cf. Tristram 2007, among others) and theoretically compatible not only with the two arguments just quoted but also with the language-internal factors the author puts forward in her analysis. As she is primarily interested in investigating the interface between verb meaning and syntax, she might simply have factored in language-contact and multi-causality in her list of topics for further research.

Some of the author's methodological decisions might appear questionable. I would like to take two examples to illustrate this point. The verbs expressing gratitude which belong to section 02.02 ('Emotion') in the HTOED might have formed part of the excursus on emotion verbs never occurring in impersonal constructions, alongside verbs of jealousy/envy, pride, and courage. The author excludes them on the grounds of 'gratitude' being irrelevant as an emotion concept: 'Gratitude' plays 'no part in the psychological literature on the emotions' (Diller 2007: 588) [59]. And yet, if we turn to the definition of gratitude given in the OED: 'The quality or condition of being grateful; a warm sense of appreciation of kindness received, involving a feeling of goodwill towards the benefactor and a desire to do something in return; gratefulness.' (OED, s.v. gratitude, n., 1.a), the idea that 'gratitude' has nothing to do with the concept of emotion appears to be less well-founded, and the linguist would therefore be justified in examining the six verbs of gratitude attested before 1500 (ME þankien, grace, mercie, ȝelden, remercye, and regracye).

This example does not in any way invalidate the author's generalisations and conclusions. More debatable, perhaps, is her decision concerning the material against which to test her hypotheses: 'In the process of compiling the list of verbs for this study, I have thus decided not to import subsections in other categories to 'Emotion' but have remained faithful to the existing classification.' [54]. I do not think the faithfulness argument carries much conviction. Does not the following cautionary remark – made by the author herself and originally applied to other verbs – also hold true here? 'Excluding these verbs, though not large in number, from the object of investigation may lead to missing some important facts about the development of impersonal constructions [....]' [7]. The author's apparently arbitrary decision regarding the delimitation of the ME class of emotion verbs can perhaps be connected to the fact that a definition of 'emotion' is not given until p. 93, that is to say in Chapter 5, whereas §3.1 ('Limiting the field of investigation') would appear to be a more logical point at which to define the concept.

One particularly appreciable aspect of Ayumi Miura's investigation of verbs of emotion in ME is the author's extremely judicious use of examples to illustrate her study. Chapters 4 and 5, in particular, testify to this quality. I am not simply referring to the number and adequacy of the examples selected, but would also like to stress the excellent contextualisation of her examples. The arguments for paying attention to the context (or co-text) in which the emotion verbs appear [101-102] might seem superfluous if one forgets that too often the contextualisation of examples in work on historical linguistics is reduced to a single clause (or some such fragment), which is not only frustrating but also overtly poor methodology. Here, the reader is nearly always provided with whole sentences and sometimes even whole passages: cf. (4-43) p.74, (5-20) p.107, (5-21) p.108, (5-36) p.116. The author's respect for actual and linguistically adequate (i.e. well contextualised) data enable her in Chapter 4 to provide the reader with what could be termed 'monographs within the monograph', i.e. a series of detailed scientific 'portraits' of whole semantic categories and even individual verbs, which semanticists or lexicologists should find very valuable. Last but not least, the author's various demonstrations and generalisations, substantiated by such high-quality examples, are very convincing (see for instance the generalisation that almost all of the impersonal verbs of hatred/enmity semantically involve some physical effect [82]).

It is also entirely to the author's credit that she never sweeps potential distorting factors or obstacles to her line of reasoning, such as exceptions, away under the rug. For example in Chapter 5, she scrupulously points out instances of structural ambiguity between personal and impersonal usage (cf. (5-40) p. 120); more significantly, when later on causation is found to be a crucial factor for licensing impersonal usage of ME verbs of emotion, she does not shy away from dealing at some length with the exceptions [226-227].

The quality of the author's examples, her respect for actual linguistic data, and her intellectual honesty go hand-in-hand with impressive scholarship and critical reading of the secondary sources. I think Ayumi Miura, in this book, has achieved her goals. In particular:

a) She proposes a novel use both of the HTOED and of the MED. The HTOED contains relatively little grammatical information, and is not basically intended for diachronic grammatical research; but the author's approach is not unduly complex, and as a promising first experience can surely be extended to other groups of verbs or lexemes. As to the usability of the MED as a primary database in historical lexical semantics, I consider it to be successfully demonstrated in the book.

b) Hers is a new empirical and theoretical contribution to the study of impersonal constructions in the history of English, making up for the neglect in recent scholarship of the interface between verb meaning and syntax.

c) She provides the reader with a careful analysis of the compatibility between verbs expressing emotion in ME and the impersonal construction. She comes up with a synthetic picture by identifying the determining factors enabling impersonal usage, thus showing the impersonal verbs to have formed a relatively homogeneous class (coherence emerges out of a blurred initial picture). At the same time, she shows that these conditions (i) did not apply in quite the same way to all subcategories of verbs, and (ii) were not fixed but evolved diachronically within the period considered [§6.2], thereby re-introducing heterogeneity into the picture. This, in the opinion of the present reviewer, is historical linguistics at its best, because the author ends up dealing with intersecting series of variables and not with (spuriously reassuring) constants.

But Ayumi Miura has also achieved more than her initial goals in her book, as she also successfully establishes a link between two active research areas which so far have been investigated separately: impersonal verbs in the history of the English language, and psych-verbs in modern languages (the link is the essential role played by aspect and causation). In so doing, the author also connects two distinct disciplines, linguistics and psychology: '[...] boundaries between impersonal and non-impersonal verbs of emotion have interesting correlations with how emotions are defined and classified in psychology' [20]. This book, which undeniably opens up future research perspectives, is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the study of early English verbs – advanced students, philologists, and linguists (historical or otherwise) alike.



Allen, C, 1995. Case Marking and Reanalysis: Grammatical Relations from Old English to Early Modern English. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Chuquet, H., R. Nita & F. Valetopoulos (eds.), 2013. Des Sentiments au point de vue: Études de linguistique contrastive. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

Croft, W., 1991. Syntactic Categories and Grammatical Relations: The Cognitive Organisation of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dekeyser, X. et al., 1999. The Foundations of English Grammar for University Students and Advanced Learners. Leuven: Acco.

Denison, D., 1990. ‘The Old English impersonals revived’. In Sylvia M. Adamson et al. (eds.), Papers from the 5th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics: Cambridge, 6-9 April 1987 (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 65). Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins: 111-140.

Diller, H.-J., 2007. Measuring the Growth of Semantic Fields: The Case of the English Emotion Lexicon. In W. Chⱡopicki et al. (eds.), Cognition in Language: Volume in Honour of Professor Elzbieta Tabakowska. Kraków: Tertium: 574-596.

Jorgensen, A., F. McCormack, & J. Wilcox (eds.), 2015. Anglo-Saxon Emotions: Reading the Heart in Old English Language, Literature and Culture (Studies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland). Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate.

Klein, E., 2003 [1966-67]. A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Levin, B., 1993. English Verb Classes and Alternations: A Preliminary Investigation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Möhlig-Falke, R., 2012. The Early English Impersonal Construction: An Analysis of Verbal and Constructional Meaning (Oxford Studies in the History of English). Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Skeat W.W., 1961 [1879-82]. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (new ed. revised and enlarged). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Traugott, E.C.,1972. A History of English Syntax: A Transformational Approach to the History of English Sentence Structure (Transatlantic Series in Linguistics). New York & London: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Tristram, H., 2007. ‘Why Don’t the English Speak Welsh?’ In N.J. Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England (Publications of the Manchester Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7). Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 192-214.


OE = Old English; ME = Middle English; PDE = Present-Day English.


*Dr Ayumi Miura is an Assistant Professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. The book reviewed here is a revised version of her PhD thesis. Her PhD supervisors were Professor David Denison and Dr Nuria Yáñez-Bouza of the University of Manchester.



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