Variation and emotional affect: the case of quiten and aquiten

Jacek Kozlowski
University of Helsinki


This article provides an analysis of two closely related Middle English verbs, quiten and acquiten. The two verbs differ in their form by the prefix a- but are otherwise similar in meaning. Several previous studies on prefix verbs in Old and Middle English are briefly reviewed, and the article seeks to demonstrate that the speaker's choice between the two verb forms can at least in part be explained on pragmatic grounds. Specifically, the analysis shows that emotional affect is a salient factor in the distribution of the two verb forms. The article uses corpus methodology and provides close readings of authentic passages which contain the verbs. The conclusion suggests that further study of specific verb forms in conjunction with emotional affect, as well as a diachronic view of prefix and simplex function, variation, and change would greatly improve our knowledge of prefixes in earlier stages of English.

1. Introduction

This paper uses data from the Helsinki Corpus of English Texts (HC hereafter), the Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse (CMEPV hereafter) and the Middle English Dictionary (MED hereafter) to compare the use of the verbs quiten and acquiten in the Middle English period. The two verbs are very close in meaning, and their forms are distinguished only by the prefix a-. The form of the verb with the prefix I will call the prefix verb, while the form of the verb that lacks the prefix will be referred to as the simplex. Both verbs are divided by the MED into seven lexemes and are variously glossed ‘to pay, to repay, to free, to reward, to acquit.’ As well, both verbs have a distinct reflexive meaning, ‘to do one’s duty’ or ‘to do one’s part.’ The purpose of this study is to come closer to an understanding of the functional and pragmatic differences between the simplex/prefix pair quiten and aquiten.

Two examples suggest that the simplex form, that is quiten, exhibits a tendency to index emotional affect. The first example is from a Middle English play:

(1) [\To the women in the audience:\]
We women may wary all ill husbandys;
I haue oone, bi Mary that lowsyd me of my bandys!
If he teyn, I must tary, howsoeuer it standys,
With seymland full sory, wryngand both my handys
For drede;
Bot yit otherwhile,
What with gam and with gyle,
I shall smyte and smyle,
And qwite hym his mede.
(To the women in the audience: we women should beware all bad husbands; I have one, by Mary, who freed me from my bonds! If he pulls, though, I must hurry, no matter what. With an apologetic countenance, wringing both of my hands for dread; but on the other hand with merriment and guile, I will smite and smile and give him what he deserves.) [1]
HC: The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle (19–20)

The passage in (1) contains a stage direction in which Noah’s wife breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. [2] Direct audience address increases interpersonal communication between actors on a stage and the individuals in the audience. By using the inclusive plural personal pronoun we and post-modifying it with women, the wife seeks affiliation with the women in the audience against the men in the audience. The emotional tone in the passage is then emphasized by the use of the discourse marker bi Mary (see Lutzky 2008: 3–20). [3] Following this, the wife explains how her husband freed her from her bandys but that she must still be under his control. Her emotional tone is emphasized by the heavy enjambment in the fourth line which also marks a turning point in the passage. Here, the wife suggests that she will get the upper hand and “qwite hym [Noah] his mede,” that is, give to Noah what he deserves. The contrast between the wife’s fearful situation and her plans to get even with Noah is made explicit by different line lengths. The first part of the passage contains long lines of ten or more syllables, each ending with a rhyme for husbandys /bandys, standys, handys. Following this, at the volta point of the stanza, the lines are considerably shorter and employ alliteration as a poetic device. The passage leads up to the “qwiting” which is the culmination of its emotional force, and the verb quiten functions as an emphatic marker of the emotional state of Noah’s wife. The verb thus expresses the climax point of the wife’s performance and contributes to the emotional affect of the passage. It also plays a role in negotiating the connection the wife wants to establish with the women in the audience.

A second example, this time with the verb aquiten, is more neutral with respect to emotional affect:

(2) Loo, heere may ye seen that Job preyde respit a while to biwepe and waille his trespas, for soothly oo day of respit is bettre than al the tresor of this world. And forasmuche as a man may acquiten hymself biforn God by penitence in this world, and nat by tresor, therfore sholde he preye to God to yeve hym respit a while to biwepe and biwaillen his trespas.
(Lo, here you may see how Job prayed for respite to weep and wail for his sins, for truly one day of respite is better than all the treasure in the world. And forasmuch a man can acquit himself before God by penitence in this world and not by worldly possessions; therefore he should pray to God to give him respite to weep for his sins.)
HC: The Parson’s Tale (291)

The passage in (2) begins with an interjection, Loo, here serving to index the “biblical certainty” of what follows and grab the reader’s attention (Taavitsainen 1999: 229). However, the rest of the passage is stated in a simple manner without any attempts to raise the emotional impact on the reader. The parson maintains reader attention, for example by using the adverb soothly and in the repetition of the alliterative word pair biwepe and biwaillen, but the passage is otherwise emotionally neutral and takes the form of a logical argument. The sentence which contains aquiten begins with a proposition introduced by forasmuche, and it is concluded with therfore... which gives the passage a tone of formality and reserve. This is in marked contrast to the use of quiten in (1).

These two introductory examples indicate that there is a potential functional difference between quiten and aquiten. Quiten seems to show a tendency to index emotional affect, while aquiten does not. However, the data (reviewed below) contain examples of aquiten indexing emotional effect, and there are also examples of quiten which are emotionally neutral. The results of this study show a tendency, and the distinction between the two verbs must in the final analysis remain fuzzy. In the following sections, I begin by reviewing the data that are used in the study (section 2) as well as the critical concepts of interpersonal discourse functions and personal affect (section 3). In the analysis section of the paper (section 4), I first show which modalities occur with quiten and aquiten. I then look at optative expressions that index pious wishes and are a form of politeness. The study then looks at different examples of simplex/prefix collocations, and, finally, an interesting result for the collocation of quiten and al(le) is presented. This finding is methodologically important as it shows how collocational proximity searches can reveal patterns that would otherwise go undetected. Following the analysis, I provide a conclusion (section 5) which speculates on a possible connection between my findings and the findings of Lutz (1997).

2. Data

The data for this study are taken from the Middle English section of the HC, the MED (online), and the CMEPV. For the HC, I used AntConc 3.2.3w to retrieve the data. The CMEPV was last updated in 2006 and currently includes 62 texts which were either provided by the Oxford Text Archive or by the Humanities Text Initiative (which assembled the database). [4] Like the MED, the CMEPV is fully searchable online but not downloadable. It is difficult using its online functionality to retrieve frequency information as the total number of words is not given. Because of these limitations, I have also relied heavily on qualitative methods, in other words reading longer excerpts of the texts in order to supplement the shorter results found in the corpora and dictionaries. In general, it is difficult to assess interpersonal language functions based on short corpus extracts and some researcher discretion is unavoidable. Neither of the two corpora I used is tagged for word class, so I have manually removed instances (such as the adverb quitli) that are not relevant to this study.

3. Prefixes and interpersonal language functions

Previous studies on the prefix a- agree that its use as a productive prefix was already in decline in the Old English period and that, in the Middle English period, its use dropped significantly (see Hiltunen 1983: 93–94 and Lutz 1997: 259–263). These studies tend to disagree on the meaning or function of a-, but there is a general consensus that the Old English prefix was either used to intensify the meaning of a verb or used to add the meaning ‘forth’ or ‘away’ (Elenbaas 2007: 114). The prefix is also considered to have a variety of other meanings such as negation, deterioration, or opposition, or it may add no meaning whatsoever (Hiltunen 1983: 48).

The situation in Middle English is significantly more complicated. Not only are there verbs that survive from Old English with the a- prefix, but the introduction of French after the Norman Conquest brought with it verbs which contain the a- prefix found in French, the prefixes an- and as- in Anglo-French, and the prefix e(s)- from Old French, all of which can reduce phonographically to a (see MED). Most of these prefixes trace back to the Latin prefixes a-, as-, ac-, ad-, and ab-, and some verbs seem to have come directly from Latin into Old and Middle English. In addition to this, the reduction of the Old English prefixes on-, an-, and oþ- led to confusion with the prefix a-, so it is often difficult to know precisely what the origins of a particular prefixed verb are. [5]

The studies I cite above and the definitions which are available from various Old English and Middle English dictionaries tend to focus on what can be called textual functions of language discourse. Such studies take into account lexical meaning, and they also extend their scope to functions related to textual continuity or the way text is organized (see Halliday 2005 [1970]: 174–175). An exception to this is Lutz (1997: 285–288) who ends her study of English prefix verbs by pointing out that stylistic level is an oft-ignored factor in whether a verb is typically used with a prefix (for example befall) or whether the verb is post-specified by a phrasal particle (for example fall down). Prefixes tend to be used in more formal situations: “speakers are well aware that such verbs all belong to more formal registers, and consequently, they tend to avoid them in colloquial speech” (Lutz 1997: 286). Nonetheless, prefix studies (cf. Hiltunen 1983) and prefix definitions (cf. the MED) often focus on textual functions at the expense of interpersonal functions which take into account the context-of-situation. Such interpersonal functions are defined as functions which relate to negotiation of meaning between speakers and are therefore concerned with pragmatic aspects of language use. This potential pragmatic function of prefixes has not to my knowledge been studied in detail, although Elenbaas (2007: 113) suggests that Old English prefixes can be analyzed alongside of particles that appear before the verb as preverbs: “there is a functional equivalence between prefixes and particles that supports the idea that both can be analyzed as doing similar work.” Overall, however, while particles are very often the subject of pragmatic-based studies, prefixes are rarely so.

In this paper, I make the case that the simplex form of the quiten-aquiten pair, that is quiten, has a tendency to be used by speakers to index personal affect in Middle English. Personal affect can be usefully described as “the [linguistic] expression of subjective emotions, feelings, moods and attitudes” (Taavitsainen 1997: 193–194). Linguistic features that index affect may also be described in terms of intensification, but rather than intensifying meaning or grammatical function, they intensify the degree to which the speaker is involved in his or her utterances, or the degree to which the speaker attempts to involve the interlocutors in his or her utterances. [6]

4. Analysis of quiten and aquiten

Using the Middle English section of the HC, I found 49 instances of quiten and aquiten combined. The verbs are not very common, occurring only 0.06 times per 1,000 words, but, of the two verbs, aquiten seems to be far less common: only seven instances of these 49 are aquiten, although they occur in six different texts and in both prose and verse. [7] The higher frequency of simplex forms is also suggested by the MED, which provides significantly more data for quiten: 281 examples to only 70 examples of aquiten. While the MED cannot be used to accurately assess the distribution of forms, it is often the case that it provides more examples for more frequently occurring words. Finally, a search in the CMEPV for quiten/quyten yielded 32 results, whereas aquiten/aquyten yielded only one result. [8] The tentative conclusion one can draw from these examples is that quiten is the more common verb.

4.1 Modal verbs with quiten and aquiten

In Kozlowski (2011), I show that modal verbs are a salient factor in determining the illocutionary force of quiten in its context. In other words, whether a verb is used to make a threat, an insult, or a promise depends heavily on the modal verb that supports it. The following analysis looks at modal verbs with quiten and acquiten in order to examine whether pragmatic differences exist on the speech act level. The HC contains only 11 instances of quiten and aquiten with modals and so I use instead data from the MED, which contains 108 instances of quiten collocated with modals and 26 instances of aquiten collocated with modals. Included in these figures are passives of the form I shall be quit which utilize the past participle. These are included in the table data because in such instances it is the modal that carries much of the speech act force. I have not included data from the CMEPV since it is not possible to download this data for statistical queries. Table 1 shows the distribution of aquiten and quiten with modal verbs.

Aquiten Quiten
Can 0 0.00% 1 0.93%
Could 3 11.54% 2 1.85%
May 2 7.69% 16 14.81%
Might 0 0.00% 6 5.56%
Shall 8 30.77% 48 44.44%
Should 1 3.85% 7 6.48%
Will 7 26.92% 22 20.37%
Would 5 19.23% 6 5.56%
Total 26 100.00% 108 100.00%

Table 1. Modal Verbs with aquiten and quiten

The data in Table 1 show a wide distribution for quiten and aquiten with modal verbs, although can and might appear only with quiten. For both verbs, shall is used the most often, accounting for 31% of the aquiten instances and 44% of the quiten instances. The next most common modal is will which occurs roughly at the same frequency for both verbs, 27% for aquiten and 20% for quiten. Quiten shows a preference for these two modals and in fact appears with them in two thirds of the instances. Aquiten also shows a preference for will and shall, but to a slightly lesser degree: 58% of the instances use either will or shall. On the other hand, aquiten uses the past tense or conditional forms of the modals more than quiten. Could, might, should, and would appear in nearly 34% of the aquiten instances, but in under 20% of the quiten instances. [9]

The simplex/prefix distribution does not suggest a strong preference for either quiten or aquiten to pair with a particular modal verb. Furthermore, there is no specific meaning or function which can be attributed to one verb rather than the other based on this data. I checked to see what sorts of modality quiten and aquiten could take, and the results do not lead in any particular direction that would differentiate the verbs. Both verbs commonly pair with modals that express a commissive modality, usually with the illocutionary force of a promise or threat, as in this example from Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale:

(3) I shal hym quyten euery grot.
(I will pay him back every bit.)
MED: (c1395) Chaucer CT.Fri.(Manly-Rickert) D.1292

Deontic modality, usually implying some kind of obligation on the interlocutor’s part is also quite common in both verbs. The next example from Walter of Henley's Husbandry implies obligation:

(4) The strawe & þe chaffe shall aquite þe threshyng.
(Straw and chaff will give returns for their threshing.)
MED: a1500 Henley Husb.(Sln 686) 51

There are also examples in which the modality is ambiguous. The following, from Richard Coeur de Lion, can be read as an obligation or a threat.

(5) Sere, þou schalt aquyte [vr. quyt] me here, And alle oure oþer hostagere.
(Sir, you shall make good with me and all our other hostages here.)
MED: a1450–1509 Rich.(Brunner) 6387

In (5), not only is the modality ambiguous, but so is the form of the verb. The dictionary data indicates that a variant, in this case quyt, exists in a different manuscript for the prefix verb aquyte. The two verbs are thus not only very close lexically, but they seem also to be quite close with respect to the modal verbs they take. The similar modal environments also suggest that the speech act force of the verbs is similar, although in the following section I will show a case in which there is a clear difference between the two forms.

4.2 Pious wishes: the expression God you quite

In pious wishes that express hope and good feeling towards the interlocutor or some third person, quiten seems to do work that aquiten does not do. Quiten can be used in the expression “God you quite,” which is similar to more familiar expressions such as “God be with you” or “God bless you.” The form is a simple third person present, but the expression obviously does not indicate any obligation on God’s part. On the contrary, it is an expression of solidarity, or hope, and can be classed as an optative mood. For example, Hoccleve uses it in the Regement of Princes:

(6) Mi dere maistir – god his soule quyte – And fadir, Chaucer, fayn wolde han me taght.
(My dear master, God save his soul, and father, Chaucer, gladly would have taught me.)
MED: a1450(1412) Hoccl. RP (Hrl 4866) 2077

The form and function can be altered slightly to become a threat or insult, as it does in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women:

(7) “The devel quyte hym his while!”
(The devil give him what he deserves!)
MED: c1430(c1386) Chaucer LGW (Benson-Robinson) 2227

There are five such instances in the MED data, and no similar examples that use aquiten. I was able to find 19 examples using quiten in the CMEPV by running a proximity search for quiten and God. Significantly, a similar search for aquiten and God turned up no relevant results. Here is one example taken from Gower’s Confessio Amantis:

(8) She seith, “Grant mercy, lieve sire, / God quite it you, ther I ne may.” / And thus thei drive forth the day...
(She says “Gramercy, dear sir, may God give to you what I never could.” And thus the days went by...)
CMEPV: John Gower's Confessio Amantis, 8.1254.

The form can also be used as a reported speech act in the third person:

(9) And þonked hym of his fordede, / And preied god schulde quite his Mede. / þe Ieuh seide þo: “so mot I þe, / I trouwe þat þou scorne me...
(And thanked him for his deeds, and prayed that God would give him what he deserves. The Jew said then: “So may I thrive, I think that you scorn me…)
CMEPV: XXIX.VI Miracles of oure lady 127–129.

The results seem to suggest that a parallel expression *God you aquite does not exist. [10] The following example, again from Confessio Amantis, shows that its inadmissibility cannot be explained by dialect. Gower clearly has both quite and aquite in his vocabulary, and he uses them in rhyming position frequently:

(10) Mi fader, hou so that it stonde, / Youre tale is herd and understonde, / As thing which worthi is to hiere, / Of gret ensample and gret matiere, / Wherof, my fader, god you quyte. / Bot in this point miself aquite
(My father, as it is, your tale has been heard and understood as a thing worthy to hear, containing great examples and matter, so that, my father, God give you what you deserve. But in this point I absolve myself...)
CMEPV: Confessio Amantis, 8.2029-2034

In (10), the speaker is the Lover who is seeking the Confessor’s final counsel in matters of love and his soul. He begins his request for counsel by praising the Confessor’s tale, calling it “ hiere” and using the repetition of gret ensample and gret matiere to emphasize the compliment. He then continues by using the pious wish god you quyte and addresses the Confessor directly and politely with the form my fader. When he uses the pious wish god you quyte, he emphasizes the polite tone of the compliment as well as his emotional involvement in the utterance. Following this, he hedges slightly with the word Bot to signal that he is going to defend his behaviour, which he proceeds to do next. The prefix form of the verb then occurs and its function needs to be addressed (in line 2034: “Bot in this point miself aquite”). Here, the Lover begins a long defense of how he has kept his heart pure and avoided lust. It is possible that an element of face-saving is indexed by the expression [I] miself aquite. Since the Lover’s defense could easily be interpreted as a dismissal of the Confessor’s advice, the face-threatening potential of his statement is high. Nonetheless, this face-saving function of aquite is different from the emotional affect indexed by the simplex verb in god you quyte, and it does not seem to be as strongly marked. The major work of promoting positive politeness and increasing the emotional connection between the Lover and his interlocutor is done by the pious wish.

The optative expression god you quyte is used for pious wishes, or, in the case of (7) above, insults and threats. Although it can be considered formulaic, it functions to bring interlocutors closer, increasing interpersonal relationships, good feelings, and politeness. It may be analysed as a surge feature (Taavitsainen 1997: 193-194), that is, a spontaneous exclamation that indexes emotion and heightens the interpersonal impact of the speaker’s utterance. The fact that editors generally enclose the expression in commas or dashes indicates that it functions on a level apart from the rest of the utterance. This level apart can also be analyzed as having a vocative function. In (10), this vocative function, along with my fader, addresses the interlocutor directly and plays a role in the politeness strategy of the speaker, contributing to positive politeness. The use of the simplex quiten, I argue, contributes to this strategy by indexing the Lover’s emotional affect.

In the following section, I will look at other instances in which simplex and prefix forms are found in variation in the same text.

4.3 Variation of the prefix and simplex forms

In (11), which is an explanation of how to recite The Lord’s Prayer, the simplex form of the verb is collocated with the prefix form, giving an opportunity to analyze the two in the same context:

(11) In ðis askynge we biddeð oure fadre of heuene ðat he wole forȝeue vs oure mysdedes, as we forȝeueð hem ðat han mysdo to vs, ðan seye we ðus: 'Faire fader, quyte vs oure as we acquyten oure dettoures.' [11]
(In the asking, we bid our father in heaven to forgive our misdeeds, just as we forgive those that have done us harm, and so we say thus: “Fair father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”)
HC: The Book of Vices and Virtues, (112–113)

The passage in (11) is remarkable for its use of parallelism and repetition, not only in the quoted section from Matthew, but also in the instructions the author of the text gives to the reader. The instructions first use the verb forȝeuen, ‘to forgive,’ to describe what “oure fadre of heuene” bestows on humanity, and then, in a parallel way, what each individual can bestow on those who have hurt him or her. The parallelism is quite precise and signifies a chain of order by which God forgives us, and we forgive others. The parallel structure is reinforced by the repetition of mysdedes, ‘offences,’ and the verbal form mysdo, ‘offend.’ After this, The Lord’s Prayer itself is quoted directly: we pray to God to “quyte vs oure dettes,” just as we also “acquyten oure dettoures.” The use of repetition and parallel structure is replicated in the direct words to God. The repetition of the two forms of quyte/acquyten, as well as the repetition of dettes, ‘debts’ and dettoures, ‘debtors,’ emphasize again that the forgiveness that is sought from God is paralleled on earth by the forgiveness we extend to our neighbours. However, if the strategy is to employ parallel and repetitive structures, the simplex/prefix switching requires explanation.

The emphasis on the parallel relationship between God/man and man/neighbours may not be the only aspect which the author wants to convey. For example, while emphasizing the parallels between what God does in heaven and what men do with their neighbours on earth, the author is aware that extending this parallel too far may verge on a kind of blasphemy. The kinds of dettes that God quytes are of a different order than those which we acquyten in our neighbours, since God is responsible for the souls of men, while we are not responsible for the souls of our neighbours. The kind of forgiveness that is sought from God, therefore, requires a larger emotional load concomitant with the force of the imperative quyte which indexes a prayer or emotionally loaded request. The indicative prefix form acquyten lacks the same emotional force; it is interpretable as a statement of fact, a piece of evidence of good behaviour on earth. Thus, while the structure of the double-forgiveness is parallel in the Lord’s Prayer and accompanying authorial instructions, the simplex verb quiten carries interpersonal force that the prefix form lacks.

The following example also shows that the simplex form is preferred to index a heightened emotional state. It is taken from the Testamentum Petri Plouhman in the C-Text of Piers Ploughman. Piers uses the simplex verb quiten in his will:

(12) My wyf shal haue of þat ich wan · with treuthe, and no more,
And dele hit among my douhtres · and my dere children.
For þauh ich deyde þys day · my dettes ben quyted
Ich bar hom þat ich borwede · er ich to bedde ȝeode.
(My wife shall have all that I own, truly, and no more; and divide it among my daughters and my dear children. For though I died this day, my debts have been paid; I returned what I borrowed before I went to bed.)
CMEPV: Piers Plougman, C-Text, Passus IX, 105–108

A will is a legal document which contains formal prose and little personal affect, but, in (12), Langland appropriates the form to create out of it an emotional performance that is intended to teach other pilgrims. The repetition of the personal pronouns Ich, ‘I,’ and my, ‘my,’ used at least twice in every line, indexes emotional involvement in the speaker’s utterance. Furthermore, the touching addition of the adjective dere, ‘dear,’ which modifies children is an indication that the author wishes to express his personal connection with his family. The verb quyted is here used in the passive voice, [12] and it is found in a line which otherwise uses the first person simple past four times. In this respect, it is marked and attention is drawn to its form and functional potential in the passage. Given the context of emotional involvement apparent in the surrounding linguistic context, I suggest that quyted, too, plays a role in indexing personal affect in the utterance.

However, some of the manuscripts of the Piers Ploughman have variants of quyted. Two manuscripts read y-quyted, one reads a-quited, and one reads quite. However, in these cases, it seems clear that a- must be read as a reduced form of the past participle rather than the prefix -. [13] It is likely, therefore, that the use of quyted, as opposed to aquyted, in (12) contributes to the emotional force of the passage.

Nonetheless, there are other examples in Piers Ploughman that seem to defy explanation:

(13) So lyf shal [lyf] lete · þer lyf haþ lyf anyented,
So þat lyf quyte lyf · þe olde lawe hit askeþ.
Ergo, soule shal soule quyte · and synne to synne wende,
And al þat man mys-dude · ich, man, to amenden hit;
And þat þat deþ for-dude · [my] deþ to releuen,
Boþe aquyte and aquykye · þat was aqueynt þorw synne;
And gyle be by-gyled · thorgh grace atte laste,
(So life shall cause loss of life, just as life anointed life; life for life as the Old Law asks. Therefore, soul for soul and sin to sin, and all of man’s misdeeds, I, a man, will make amends for. And all that Death has done, my death will redeem; both acquit and save those who were acquainted with sin. And guile will be beguiled through grace in the end.)
CMEPV: Piers Plougman, C-Text, Passus XXI, 389–395

The author uses quyte twice to signify the revenge motif in the Old Law of “an eye for an eye.” This is a common use of quiten that can be frequently found in Middle English: lyf quyte lyf, ‘a life for a life.’ While it is conceivable that the use of quyte in these lines indexes the emotional load of the revenge motif, the formulaic nature of the trope gives evidence against this. In line 394 as well, the author switches to the prefix form, aquyte. The simple explanation is that this form is used to alliterate with aquyke and aqueynt in the line, but there is no reason why all three words could not be used in their simplex forms: quyte, quyke, and queynt. Indeed, there is variation in the manuscripts on this point. (14) shows line 394 in four manuscripts, M, F, and I and T (which have the same reading): [14]

(14) M: Boþe aquyte and quikie • þat was aqueynt þorw synne;
F: Boþe aquyte and quikie • þat was aqueynt with synne;
I and T: And boþe quykye and quyte • þat queynte was þorw synne;
(Both acquit and save those who were acquainted with sin.)

Simplex/prefix switching of this kind suggests a general weakening of the prefix (see Hiltunen 1983: 84–85) and therefore lends itself to the common idea that such prefixes add no meaning or function to the verb stem (see Dollinger 2001: 6). [15] However, such a view must be taken with caution. The fact that a function cannot consistently be attributed to a prefix or simplex pattern does not invalidate instances in which that function is clearly or even partially verifiable.

4.4 Quiten + al(le) collocations

As a result of the proximity searches I conducted, I noticed that many instances of quiten are collocated with al(le), a token which itself exhibits a variety of functions. For example, it can modify an object noun phrase, as in this line from Thomas Norton's Ordinal of Alchemy:

(15) Then ride or go where ye delite, For alle your costis he wille yow quyte.
(Then ride or go wherever you want, for he will pay you all your costs.)
MED: a1500(c1477) Thomas Norton's Ordinal of Alchemy (Add 10302) 2680

Al(le) can be used as the object itself, although in this example, taken from Wycliffe’s Evangelia Dominicalia, it may also be read as an adverbial:

(16) Þis servant fell doun and praiede þe lord and seide, Have pacience in me, and Y shal quyte þee al.
(This servant fell down and prayed to the lord and said, “have patience with me and I will repay you everything.”)

Often it is used preverbally with the past participle form of quiten, as in this example from Ayenbite of Inwyt:

(17) Þet is ine holy ssriftte ine þo cort. huo acounteþ ariȝt : he is al quit.
(That is, in holy confession in the heart, he who confesses rightly; he is completely redeemed.)
CMEPV: Dan Michel's Ayenbite of Inwyt : or, Remorse of conscience : Richard Morris's transcription now newly collated with the unique manuscript British Museum MS. Arundel 57, volume 1, text; pg. 138.

When used as a passive, the form also takes the preposition of to indicate the object:

(18) þu worst quit of alle þin sunnen.
(You were redeemed of all your sins.)
CMEPV: Altenglische legenden IV. Das Fegfeuer des h. Patrick aus Ms. Ashmol. 43.

In total, I located 39 quiten-al(le) collocations in the CMEPV and only one similar collocation for aquiten. There are also no instances of aquiten with al(le) in the HC. The MED contains 19 instances of al(le) with quiten and only two instances with aquiten. The results are tabulated in Table 2:

Quiten + al(le) Aquiten + al(le)
Corpus of ME Prose & Verse 39 1
Helsinki Corpus 1 0
Middle English Dictionary 19 2

Table 2. Collocations of quiten/aquiten + al(le)

The preference for quiten to collocate with various uses of al(le) suggests a functional difference from aquiten that may be related to emotional affect. The examples above share a similar context: they are all situations in which a person has been absolved of all debts or sins. Thus, they represent turning points in which a previous situation of debt has been wiped clean, or a sin has been forgiven. It is easy to see that such a turning point would be accompanied by an emotional state, and my interpretation of the use of al(le) in these contexts is that it indexes the totality and extremity of the quiting. In other words, quiten and al(le) reinforce each other. They emphasize the turning point of the situation and index the emotional affect that such a turning point produces.

A similar observation is made by Bechler (1909: 66 [cited in Hiltunen 1983: 52]) about the Old English prefix to- and the adverbial (e)al, equivalent to Middle English al(le). Bechler notes that the combination (e)al to- is relatively rare in Old English but becomes increasingly common in Middle English. By the first part of the Middle English period, “the prefix is hardly found without the accompanying al” (ibid.). This indicates that the force of the prefix to- in Middle English is waning, since speakers seem to require the adverbial al(le) to maintain the verb intensity. In my data, however, the collocation is exactly the opposite: al(le) seems to accompany instances of quiten that do not have the prefix. Since quiten clearly appears without al(le) in the data, it cannot be that the force of the verb is waning in the Middle English period. On the contrary, the effect of the addition of al(le) may, like an optative mood, increase interpersonal relations or mark emotional affect. The verb itself carries an emotional force, and the addition of al(le) adds to this emotional force. The collocations with al(le) support the idea that quiten, as opposed to aquiten, has an interpersonal function related to emotional affect.

5. Concluding Remarks

The analysis in this paper and any concluding remarks must remain provisional since the scope here is limited to one simplex/prefix relationship, that is, quiten and aquiten. However, I have shown that studies of simplex/prefix variation could benefit from a different approach. Rather than focusing on the prefix with a large variety of verbs, looking at one simplex/prefix verb allows the researcher to see features that a larger approach may miss. The data show that the simplex form does exhibit some tendency to index emotional affect and could thus be said to be a marker of an interpersonal function. It is interesting to note that the diachronic view through Present-day English seems to support these findings. My assessment supports the view presented by Lutz (1997), which shows how prefix use is connected to the stylistic level, and it may be the case that a tendency for simplex forms to index emotional affect in Middle English contributes to their continued use in informal situations in Present-day English. Further study is needed to see whether there is data that bear this tentative conclusion out, but there is evidence in this paper to suggest that interpersonal language is indeed a salient factor in Middle English speakers’ choices between prefix and simplex forms.


[1] All translations of Middle English texts are my own.

[2] Breaking the fourth wall is a dramatic technique by which a character in the play talks directly to the audience or makes reference to an element in the audience’s world that cannot logically be in the world of the play (see Bell 2008: 203). It is often employed as a technique of irony or metafiction but can also be used to give the audience the sense that they are active participants in the drama.

[3] Lutzky (2008: 12–16) identifies three main functions for the discourse marker marry: an intensifying function, an attention-getting function, and a signal of expected new information. However, it is important to note that Lutzky is studying the Early Modern English marry, not the Middle English bi Mary. The two are clearly related but may have unique functions which separate them. For example, it is unclear to what extent bi Mary can be considered a discourse marker rather than an oath or an instance of mild swearing.

[4] For more details see the About page on the Middle English Compendium website: and also the Main page on the CMEPV website:

[5] The OE prefix oþ- was reduced to of-/æt-/ed- and by the 13th to 15th centuries appeared as ov-/o-/a-. See Lutz (1997: 269-270).

[6] On interpersonal functions and personal affect, see Ochs and Schieffelin (1989).

[7] The Middle English section of the HC is currently 608,600 words. See

[8] This does not account for all forms of (a)quiten, but it does suggest a tendency. The CMEPV is not flexible enough to allow for downloading and removal of false positives and can thus only be used to find illustrative examples qualitatively. As such, the frequency results mentioned here should be interpreted with caution.

[9] Hiltunen (1983: 66) notes that simplex/prefix switching commonly occurs with the simple past tense in his data. It may be useful to consider the effect of tense on prefixed verbs.

[10] It is possible that the form god you quite represents a fossilized phrase, and this suggests an alternative explanation for its prominence over *god you aquite.

[11] There is a marginal note in the manuscript (omitted from the HC) which reads “Meaning of 'Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.'“ The note translates both verbs with “forgive,” suggesting that the two verbs are synonyms, but the need for the note itself suggests that its writer found the verbs obscure enough to justify clarification (see Francis 1942). The translation is clearly influenced by the preceding forȝeuen and most modern versions of The Lord’s Prayer use the verb forgive.

[12] It can also be interpreted as an adjective.

[13] On a- as a reduced form of y- (and ge-), see MED a- prefix (3).

[14] The manuscript designations correspond to the scheme devised in Skeat (1867). The current manuscript shelf marks and locations (Mooney, Linne, et al.) are as follows:

M: MS Cotton Vespasian B. xvi. (in British Museum)
F: MS Cambridge University Library (Ff. 5. 35)
I: "The Ilchester Manuscript" London University Library MS S.L.V.88
T: MS. Trinity College, Cambridge (R. 3. 14)

[15] Dollinger categorizes various attempts to classify the meanings of the Old English prefix ge- into four main categories and calls those who maintain that the prefix was superfluous the “nihilists.” The seemingly random simplex/prefix switching observed by many scholars has often lead to the view that prefixes such as a- and ge- are semantically empty and functionally neutral.


Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse. Ann Arbour, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. Accessed 3/2012.

Helsinki Corpus of English Texts, The. 1991. Department of English, University of Helsinki. Compiled by Matti Rissanen (Project leader), Merja Kytö (Project secretary); Leena Kahlas-Tarkka, Matti Kilpiö (Old English); Saara Nevanlinna, Irma Taavitsainen (Middle English); Terttu Nevalainen, Helena Raumolin-Brunberg (Early Modern English).

Middle English Dictionary, The. 1954. Hans Kurath ed. Ann Arbour, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. Accessed 9/2011 – 5/2012.


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