Running back through Time: the origins of Run

Having run through (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) a few different meanings of the word run, I thought it was time to look at its origins.

The modern verb has come a long way. It comes, not from one verb used in the past, but from two, which merged to form the verb we know today. Before you raise your eyebrows at this notion, I should point out that the two source verbs were related, they didn’t have completely different meanings, and it was an entirely logical progression – something you may feel is rarely the case in language!

Let’s take a look at the verbs in question. We’ll start with Old English rinnan or irnan, considered to be the same verb. This meant “to run, to flow”. The past tense will seem familiar to you; it was ran, and also sometimes arn, while the past participle was runnen.

Here is an example, from the translation into Old English in around 880, of Orosius, (credited to King Alfred, but thought to have been undertaken by an unknown scholar,) Book 1, Chapter 1:

Seó eá Danai irnþ ðonan súþryhte

(the river Don runs thence due south).

The translation here could equally read “flow”. Obviously, the word had this dual meaning even at that time.

The second Old English verb is earnan, which meant “to ride to, to reach by running”. You can see that the meaning is very similar. The major difference in grammatical terms was that rinnan (or irnan) was intransitive (it did not take a direct object), while earnan (or ærnan) was transitive.

By the 13th century, another form was being used, rennan, possibly influenced by Old Norse renna, or possible a simple metathesis of the initial sounds of ærnan, frequently with the past participle and past tense forms of irnan.

Here is an example from John of Trevisa’s translation of Higden’s Polychronicon from 1387:

He made his sones use hem to renne, to leepe

This form can be seen alongside other forms from the same time period, such as eorne, hirne, hurne, runne.

Now we shall have a look at where rinnan and ærnan came from. The latter has been traced to Proto-Germanic *rannjanan, from the root *ren-, meaning “to run”. German speakers may recognise the cognate modern German verb rennen in this root.

Both verbs are ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ri-ne-a-, which is derived from the root *reie-, meaning, unsurprisingly, “to flow, to run”. There is also a school of thought that it may be linked to *(s)rew, meaning “to flow”, which is the source of Greek verb ρέω (reo), meaning “flow”.

A cognate in modern English is “runnel” (stream).

5 thoughts on “Running back through Time: the origins of Run

    • A transitive verb takes a direct object. An intransitive verb doesn’t. So, for example, “go” is intransitive, you can’t say “I go a book to the table”, it doesn’t take a direct object. An example of a transitive verb might be “eat” – you could say “I eat a cake” – the cake is the direct object of the verb “eat”. If you get stuck, a simple way is to ask yourself “what?”. If you look at the “go” example, “what?” doesn’t work – what do I go? – so it is intransitive. What do I eat? -cake. So it works, it is transitive.

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