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Inflected Infinitives? Sure enough, in Old English!

As if Anglo-Saxon grammar wasn’t complicated enough, with its grammatical gender, mood distinctions and dual pronouns, it also had a special ending on infinitives after to. Where did this inflection come from? Why did English lose it? And how was the Old English inflected infinitive different from its Modern English successor? It's a surprisingly complex story of grammatical birth and death.
Cartoon inflected infinitive Old English

Let there be inflections!

"To be or not to be" – that is a non-finite clause. And "to be" is an infinitive marked with to. Curiously enough, such to-infinitives had a special inflectional ending back in the days of Old English. Here is an example:

(1) Forðæm swa hwa swa wilnað good to donne,
for-that so who so wants good to do
he wilnað good to habbanne & mid goode to bionne.
he wants good to have and with good to be
'Therefore whosoever desires to do good things, he desires to have good things and to be with good things.'

Look at the infinitives in this sentence: to donne 'to do,' to habbanne 'to have,' to bionne 'to be.' See something strange? All these verbs end in a rather peculiar ending, namely -ne. You’re looking at the so-called Old English inflected infinitive.

Origin of the inflected infinitive

So, what is this strange ending? Where did it come from? Well, Old English had case markings for its nominal word classes, like nouns (house), determiners (the) or adjectives (old). One of them was the dative case. Dative was used, among others, for indirect objects (like Mary in John offered Mary a job) and more generally for discourse participants that are not in direct control of the action but are affected by it, like people who receive, experience, profit or suffer from something. Dative endings were also required after some prepositions, most importantly, after to. For instance, in the Old English phrases to Lundene 'to London' or to heofene 'to heaven,' the final vowel -e is a dative marker.
Now, some of these to prepositions plus a dative noun were quite remarkable because they behaved a little bit like clauses. That means that the head noun after to could have a direct relation with another noun phrase. This other noun phrase often expressed someone who derives some advantage from the head noun, a beneficiary or a profiteer. Look at the example below:

(2) þa þæt mæden wæs XV gear,
when that maiden was fifteen years,
þa wolde se fæder hi sellan sumum æþelon men to bryde.
then wanted the father her give some noble man to bride
'When the girl was fifteen, her father wanted to marry her to a noble man.'

Translated literally, this sentence includes the expression 'some noble man to bride.' But what that really means is that "some noble man" benefits from the "bride". The phrase could be translated as something like, the maiden functioned "as a bride for some noble man." There is an immediate relationship between the head noun, "bride," and the noun phrase, "a noble man." Here is another example that makes the same point:

(3) We soðlice æfter ðeawlicum andgite cealf offriað Gode to lace.
we truly after customary understanding calf offer God to sacrifice
'As is the right tradition, we sacrifice a calf to God'

As in the last example, there is a strange construction in this sentence, which literally reads, 'God to sacrifice.' What that means is that "God" is a profiteer of the sacrifice. The calf functions "as a sacrifice for God." As before, the head noun, "sacrifice," and the noun phrase, "God", have a direct relationship.
What's more - the dependent noun phrase could not only be interpreted as a beneficiary. Instead, it could even behave almost as if it was a direct object of the noun after to. This is illustrated in the following sentence.

(4) Apollonius onfengc þam mædenne to lare
Apollonius received the maiden to instruction
'Apollonius received the girl in order to teach her'

There is a complicated phrase in this example, "the maiden to instruction." Here, "the maiden" is not just an entity that profits from "instruction." Instead, she is the goal of the teaching, she directly receives instruction. That's why one could translate the noun after to and the noun phrase before to as if they were in a verb – object relation: "to teach the maiden." But keep in mind, "the maiden" is still dependent on another noun, "instruction, lore", not on a verb. Here is another illustration.

(5) Hasterbal, Hannibales broðor, for mid firde
Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, went with troop
of Ispanium on Italie Hannibale to fultume.
from Spain to Italy Hannibal to assistance.
'Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, came with an army to the aid of Hannibal from Spain to Italy.'

As in the previous sentence, an element before the preposition to, the proper name "Hannibal," has a direct relationship with the noun after the preposition to, "help, assistance," which goes beyond a beneficiary interpretation. "Hannibal" does not just profit from his brother's "help." Instead, he directly receives it; one could say, he is almost like the object of "assistance." That's the reason why the phrase can be translated as a verb - object structure: "in order to help Hannibal." But again, there is no verb after the preposition to here. The word "help, assistance" is clearly a noun.
However, since the preposition to often occurred with these fascinating clause-like nouns, it was only a small step to actually start using verbs in its place. The recipe is simple: instead of a noun, just stick any infinitive into the slot after the preposition and treat it as if it were a noun. Ingenious! Nominalized non-finite forms like this are called 'gerunds' and like all nouns after the preposition to, they had to be inflected for dative of course. That’s where the inflectional ending on Old English infinitives came from: it’s an old marking of dative case. The following example illustrates how this might have worked:

(6) Ic Ælfric munuc awende þas boc of ledenum bocum to engliscum gereorde
I Aelfric monk turned this book from Latin books to English language
þam mannum to rædenne þe þæt leden ne cunnon;
the men to read who that Latin not know
'I, monk Aelfric, translated this book from Latin books into the English language as reading for those men who do not know Latin.'

Once again, there is an odd phrase in this sentence, literally translated as 'the men to read." As before, the noun phrase before to can be thought of as a beneficiary of the word after to. That is to say, "men who don't know Latin" derive an advantage from the "reading," or the English book functions "as a reading for those men." The relations in this expression are therefore just as in the previous examples, "as a bride for the noble man" and "as a sacrifice for God." There is only one difference: the word after to is not a noun but a verb-derived gerund now. And if you look closely, you'll see that it does indeed show up with the inflectional dative ending -ne.

(7) hy hraðe common hym to fultumigenne
they quickly came them to help
'They quickly came to their aid'

In this example, there is a direct relationship between the pronoun "them" and "help" in the phrase, translated literally as, 'them to help.' Not only is it possible to interpret "them" as the profiteer of "help," but even directly as its recipient. In that sense, this example is similar to the object-like noun phrases in the above examples "the maiden to instruction" and - in fact even exactly parallel to - "Hannibal to assistance." The crucial difference is, once again, that the element after to is no longer a noun but a form based on a verb. It is an infinitive inflected for dative with the typical ending -ne.
Voilà, the proto-form was born of what was later to become the Modern English to-infinitive!

By Old English times, to-infinitives formed clauses

The state of affairs just described is very old. The inflected infinitive exclusively functioned like a noun after to only until Proto-Germanic times, maybe until 300 A.D. or so. By the time Old English was written down, it already behaved like a verb in the overwhelming majority of cases. That means that the whole complex, to plus the infinitive, developed from a prepositional phrase to a non-finite clause. The word to was recategorized from a preposition to a non-finite marker. And the infinitive itself changed from a nominalized gerund to a true verbal form.
It's easy to see how this reanalysis might have happened. Take again the last example, literally translated as 'they quickly came them to help.' Originally, the to-infinitive was interpreted as a prepositional phrase, "They quickly came as help for them / in their support / for their assistance." The translations suggested for to, "as", "in", "for", are prepositions. But look at the example again, 'they quickly came them to help.' Don't you feel that it's perfectly possible to analyze this sentence differently? One could assume that "them" is really the direct object of the infinitive "help", which would therefore be an actual verb. That's exactly what speakers of prehistoric Old English must have done. They heard the sentence and assumed that it included an infinitival clause, specifically, one that conveys the purpose of an action. They interpreted the sentence as "They quickly came in order to help them / to support them / to assist them." The translations suggested for to is thus the same non-finite marker, to, as in Modern English infinitives.
The crucial difference between the interpretation of to-infinitives as prepositional phrases or clauses is that the latter but not the former contain their own, implicit subject. For example, in the sentence Democratic politicians promised to sanction the dictator, it could be asked, "well, who do you understand to be the entity that would sanction the dictator?" The answer is "Democratic politicians." So, "Democratic politicians" refers to the implicit subject of the infinitival clause "to sanction the dictator." In contrast, the sentence The economy created fewer jobs in response to more sanctions does not allow answering the question, "Well, who do you understand to be the entitity that passed the sanctions?" We just don't know. The reason is that "to sanction the dictator" is a clause and contains a subject while "to more sanctions" is a prepositional phrase and doesn't have a subject.
The table below might clarify the difference between the original and reanalyzed interpetations of the Old English to-infinitive.

Original interpretation Reanalyzed interpretation
Translation: as a support for them to support them
Category: a prepositional phrase a non-finite clause
Status of to: a preposition a non-finite marker
Status of infinitive: nominalized (gerund) verbal
Crucial difference: doesn't have a subject has an implicit subject

So, how do we know that the to-infinitive already contained an implicit subject most of the time even by Old English times?
Well, first of all, Old English to-infinitives are often directly selected by main verbs. That means that the whole complex, to plus the infinitive plus other dependents, functions as the complement of the verb; it conveys the content of the main clause verb phrase. Such an interpretation is only possible if the to-infinitive heads a non-finite clause with its own, implicit subject. Here is an example of an Old English to-infinitive that functions as a complement.

(8) hie wielnien to wietanne ðæt ðæt hie nyton.
they desire to know that which they not-know
'They desire to know that which they don't know.'

Clearly, the non-finite clause "to know that which they don't know" is the complement of "desire." The subject of the main verb "desire" is also the subject of the infinitive "to know". In fact, this Old English example is totally parallel to its Modern English translation - hie wielnien to witanne is exactly like they desire to know. The infinitive has an implicit subject in both language stages.
Furthermore, there must be a subject in Old English to-infinitive clauses because there are some examples where the subject has a tight semantic relationship with the infinitive, but not with the main verb. For example, the subject and the infinitive may form a weather expression ("it's raining") or an idiom ("all hell broke loose"). Thus, when the subject shows up with the main verb, it's still evident that it actually belongs to the infinitive (that's called a "raising" construction). Here is an example:

(9) þær begann to brastligenne micel þunor.
there began to rattle great thunder
'a great thunder began to rattle.'

The only entity that can "rattle" in this sentence, is "great thunder". In contrast, "great thunder" cannot literally "begin" anything. Similarly, you cannot really say, "Great thunder wants / tries / hopes etc. something." Therefore, the subject "great thunder" must belong to the to-infinitive.
Finally, there are some cases where an infinitival clause with to does in fact occur with an overt subject - even though this happens only very rarely. The following sentence is a case in point:

(10) do hit mon us to witanne,
make it someone us to know
'matters should be arranged in such a way that we will know it.'

This Old English sentence contains the non-finite clause "us to know it." It depends on the now outdated expression "someone does" to mean "someone causes, makes, lets." The whole construction means "someone should cause the following: that we know it." Hence, "us" functions as the subject of the to-infinitive here.
All in all then, there can be absolutely no doubt that by Old English times already, the to-infinitive normally functioned as a real clause and included its own subject. It behaved like a prepositional phrase in marginal contexts only.

The declension has left the language!

In twelfth century Middle English, to-infinitives undergo further developments that turn them into an unambiguously verbal category. They begin to be used as passives (e.g. She was afraid [to be persecuted]), with perfective have (e.g. The president seems [to have taken an unpopular position]), and include independent negation (e.g. Peter promised [to not do it again]).
Furthermore, there was a decline at the same time of the last vestiges of to-infinitives that were plausibly analyzed as gerunds after the preposition to and not as verbs. After all, in Modern English you cannot really say things like "I translated you this book to read" anymore. Thus, learners of early Middle English were presented with more and more evidence that the to-infinitive should be treated like a verb and less and less evidence that it could be used like a noun.
Add to this state of affairs the fact that case morphology eroded across the board in early Middle English, and one might expect that the inflectional ending on infinitives would gradually disappear. Just imagine the linguistic subconsciousness of a twelfth century Englishman, thinking, "Why the heck is there a -ne ending on my infinitives? It's a noun? What are you kidding me? I've never heard the infinitive used like a noun. Ever! Dative? What? I don't even know what that is... You know what, I'm just gonna go ahead and erase this erratic ending."

And this is exactly what happened! The Old English inflected infinitive died a fast death in the late 11th and 12th centuries.
It is even possible to measure this decline empirically. The graph on the left-hand side is based on data retrieved from Old and Middle English corpora. It represents with red points the proportion of to-infinitves that have an inflectional ending in dozens of Old and early Middle English texts. The size of the points is relative to the number of examples in each text. The fitted blue line shows the general trend of the individual data points - namely that inflected infinitives drop out of the language.
Click on the graphic to enlarge it.
You can learn more about this graph and the data that was used to create it on this page.
The decline of inflectional endings on
Old English

That's the end of this story. The dinosaurs died out; the telegraph died out; the dative ending on English infinitives died out. And - just like the dinosaur or the telegraph - it won't be coming back! Rest in peace, Old English inflected infinitive.