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Is it by any chance the case that, historically, the い-adjective ending 〜かった is a contraction originating from 〜くあった, where あった is the past inflection of ある?

To me, it sure sounds plausible, and would be quite elegant given how 〜く and 〜ある seem to stick together in the negative forms of い-adjectives. Is this where 〜かった originates, or is this merely a coincidence?

例えば

  • 高い     (?) → 高い
  • 高かった   (?) → 高くあった
  • 高くない   (?) → 高くない
  • 高くなかった (?) → 高くあった
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Is it by any chance the case that, historically, the い-adjective ending 〜かった is a contraction originating from 〜くあった, where あった is the past inflection of ある?

That's exactly what you're seeing.

For ~い adjectives, there were three base conjugation forms:

  • ~し -- 終止形【しゅうしけい】: terminal / conclusive, for ending a sentence of clause.
  • ~き -- 連体形【れんたいけい】: attributive, for modifying a noun or other 体言【たいげん】 (uninflecting word).
    ⇒ The ~し and ~き forms are fused in the modern language to just ~い.
  • ~く -- 連用形【れんようけい】: adverbial, for modifying a verb or other 用言【ようげん】 (inflecting word).

Classical grammars often also include:

  • ~けれ -- 已然形【いぜんけい】: often treated as the realis for things that are definite, or are becoming so, or can become so; superseded in functional terms by hypothetical or conditional usage, resulting in the modern term 仮定形【かていけい】 or "hypothetical / suppositional / subjunctive form".

That said, some authors postulate that the ~けれ ending is also a fusion of ~く + something else, often suggested as あれ. Personally, I don't see how //ku// + //are// could possibly become //kere// just on phonetic grounds, so I wonder if it must have been something else.

You can see a bit more about this in the conjugation table at https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/形容詞#ク活用. The so-called -kari conjugation pattern clearly shows the ~く + ある fusion.

  • -kyere is obviously -ki + -are, but -ki is now known only as an adnominal. This should be a hind to how the adjectives interacted with the auxiliaries before the usage of the infinitive was extended in OJ. – Alexander Z. Nov 10 '19 at 20:23
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    @AlexanderZ., see also the 古典日本語の形容詞の活用 section where the article discusses this. I didn't go into that in my post as it's complicated and outside the scope of the question. In short, き + あれ is not indicated: the 連体形 was not used that way in OJP. Meanwhile, ~かれ existed as the 已然形 alongside ~けれ until the Edo period. Also, just plain ~け was used as the 已然形 in the Nara period, both suggesting that ~けれ is not simply ~く + あれ. – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 11 '19 at 1:37
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That is indeed correct. The -く form is the 連用形 (infinitive) of the adjectives, and from the earliest times it had the possibility to attach the verb -ar as an auxiliary to ease the further conjugation in the verbal categories (such as negation, mood, aspect). But, with the great reshuffle of the verbal paradigm during Late Middle Japanese (Ashikaga shogunate), most of these forms went out of usage. Nevertheless, the past form, newly formed during that period, employed this intervening verb (Frellesvig, Bjarke. A history of the Japanese language. Cambridge University Press, 2010. - p. 340 seems to claim that the appearance of a systematic past for adjectives is already an Edo development), originally employed without contraction, as -ku atta. There was the alternate in -ku gozatta at the time. As already mentioned, the contraction happened later.

  • Oh, interesting. By any chance, did the 〜く form of adjectives function anything similar to 5段 verbs ending in 〜く, or is that totally unrelated? – Trevor Kafka Nov 11 '19 at 17:01
  • @TrevorKafka, the ~く form of adjectives is a separate phenomenon from the 五段 verbs that happened to end in く. – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 11 '19 at 21:13

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