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The Old English Verb

OE verbs have two tenses (present and past) and three moods (indicative, subjunctive and imperative). There are also the verbals – the infinitive, the first (present) and the second (past) participles. The verbs agree with the subject in person and number.

Germanic is distinguished among the branches of the Indo-European family by several unique features which were developed by internal progress of the Common Germanic language. One of such features was the formation of the weak verbs, which did not exist in the Proto-Indo-European language.

Modern English makes a distinction between regular and irregular verbs. This distinction goes back to the Old English system of strong and weak verbs. Strong verbs use the Germanic form of conjugation (known as Ablaut). In this form of conjugation, the stem of the word changes to indicate the tense. Verbs like this persist in modern English, for example "sing, sang, sung" is a strong verb, as are swim/swam/swum and choose/chose/chosen. The root portion of the word changes rather than its ending. In Old English, there were seven major classes of strong verb; each class has its own pattern of stem changes.


OE strong verbs are traditionally divided into seven classes, each having a distinct pattern of the root vowels in its principal parts, different from any other class. There were four basic forms of strong verbs in OE: the Infinitive, the Past singular, the Past plural, Participle II.


Class I
­ī ā i i
wrītan (write) wrāt writon writen
Class II
ēo ēa u o
bēodan (offer) bēad budon boden
Class III
(a) before nasal + consonant
i a (o) u u
drincan (drink) dranc druncon druncen
(b) before l + consonant
helpan (help) healp hulpon holpen
(c) before r + consonant, h + consonant
eo ea u o
steorfan (die) stearf sturfon storfen
Class IV
e æ ǣ o
stelan (steal) stæl stǣlon stolen
Class V
e æ ǣ e
tredan (tread) træd trǣdon treden
Class VI
a ō ō a
faran (go) fōr fōron faren
Class VII
feallan (fall) feioll feollon feallen



The classes had the following distinguishing features to their infinitive stems:

1. ī + one consonant.

2. ēo or ū + one consonant.

3. Originally e + two consonants (This was no longer the case by the time of written Old English).

4. e + one consonant (usually l or r, plus the verb brecan 'to break').

5. e + one consonant (usually a stop or a fricative).

6. a + one consonant.

7. No specific rule – first and second have identical stems (ē or ēo), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.


Weak verbs are formed principally by adding dental endings (containing –d- or –t-) to past and participles. Ever weak verb is characterized by three forms: infinitive, past tense and second participle. There are three major classes of weak verbs.

The first class displays i-mutation in the root. It also includes several subdivisions.



Class I Weak Verbs

Infinitive Past Second Participle
cēpan (keep) cēpte cēpt, cēped
tellan (tell) tealde teald


Class II verbs did not undergo any mutation, as the replacement of the original suffix *-ōja- was reduced to –i- at the time when the process of mutation was over. The infinitive of these verbs ends in –ian.


Class II Weak Verbs

Infinitive Past Second Participle
macian (make) macode macod
hopian (hope) hopode hopod


During the Old English period the third class was significantly reduced; only few verbs belonged to this group. Each of these verbs is distinctly irregular, though share some commonalities.


Class III Weak Verbs

Infinitive Past Second Participle
habban (have) hæfde hæfd
libban (live) lifde lifd



Class I strong verb wrītan (write)

Present Past
    Indicative Subjunctive Imperative Indicative Subjunctive
Sing. 1pers. wrīte wrīte — wrāt write
  2 pers. wrītest, wrītst wrīt wrīte
  3 pers. wrīteÞ, wrīt — wrāt
Plur.   wrītaÞ wrīten 2d pers. – wrītaÞ wrīton writen
Infinitive First Participle Second Participle
wrītan wrītende (ge)writen
Dat. tō wrītenne  

Every infinitive can have a dative case used with the preposition tō.

Class I weak verb styrian (stir)

Present Past
    Indicative Subjunctive Imperative Indicative Subjunctive
Sing. 1pers. styrie styrie — styrede styrede
  2 pers. styrest, styre styredest
  3 pers. styrieÞ — styrede
Plur.   styriaÞ styrien 2d pers. – styriaÞ styredon styreden


Infinitive First Participle Second Participle
styrian styriende (ge) styred


Preterite-present verbs

The preterite-present verbs are a class of verbs which form the present like the past of a strong verb, and the past like the past of a weak verb. These verbs derive from perfect tense verbs that have accuired a present meaning. For example, witan, "to know" comes from verb which originally meant "to have seen." As a result of this history, the present singular is formed from the first preterite stem, and the present plural from the second preterite stem.

Infinitive cunnan (can) sculan (shall, should)
Present tense Indicative  
Sing. 1st pers. cann sceal
2d pers. canst scealt
3rd pers. cann sceal(l)
Plural cunnon sculon
Sing. cunne scule, scyle
Plural cunnen sculen, scyle
Past Tense    
Sing. 1st pers. cūðe sceolde
2d pers. cūðest sceoldest
3rd pers. cūðe sceolde
Plural cūðon sceoldon
Sing. cūðe sceolde
Plural cūðen sceolden
Participle II cunnen, cūð —


Irregular (anomalous) verbs.

These verbs differ from all other verbs in that their forms are derived from different root, i.e. their system is based on suppletivity. For example, forms of the verb “be” are derived from three roots: wes-, es-, and be-. It is possible that these elements originally had different meanings, which were more concrete than the abstract meaning of ‘be’.

Conjugation / Infinitive wesan, bēon (be) gān, gangan (go)
Indicative Present Singular 1st pers. eom, bēo
2d pers. eart, bist gǣst
3d pers. is, biÞ gǣÞ
Plural sind(on), bēoÞ, sīen, sīn, bēon, sint gāÞ
Past Singular 1st pers. wæs ēode
2d person wǣre ēodest
3d person wæs ēode
Plural wǣron ēodon
Present Subjunctive Singular sīe, sī, bēo, sú
Plural sind(on), bēoÞ, sīen, sīn, bēon, sint gān
Past Subjunctive Singular wǣre ēode
Plural wǣren ēoden
Participle I wesende, bēonde gānde, gangende
Past Participle II — (ge)gān
Imperative Singular 2d person wes, bēo
Plural 2d person wesaÞ, bēoÞ gāÞ


Analytical verb formation in OE

The OE was a synthetical language, though some analytical forms already started to come into use. There existed the following prototypes of future analytical formations:

(1) sculan + infinitive, willan + infinitive

These constructions were occasionally used to convey future meaning. As you remember, there was no special future tense in OE, the hypothetical future meaning could be expressed by lexical means (context, adverbs etc.) or by compound modal predicate. Sculon and willan used to be pure modal verbs, sculan expressed obligation and willan – volition, for example:

Þonne sculan hīe Þās helle sēcan (they must seek that hell).

By the end of OE period these verbs started to lose their modal meaning.

(2) habban + Participle II (with transitive verbs), bēon + Participle II (with intransitive verbs)

These combinations mean that the subject had some thing or quality as a result of some action, for example:

hīe hæfdon hiera cyning āworpenne (they had their king deposed).

The Participle II usually agrees with the object in gender, number and case.

Later such constructions started to convey the meaning of completion and result of the action, which could be viewed as beginning of analytical perfective aspect. Occasionally completion of an action was expressed by means of ge- prefix. It also approaches in a way the meaning of he perfective aspect, dōn – gedōn.

(3) wesan/ bēon/weorÞan + Participle II.

This construction had a passive meaning and showed, that the subject aquired a feature as a result of an action performed, for example:

hē wearÞ ofslægen (he became a killed one).

Indo-European had three voices: active, passive and middle (reflexive); Germanic languages lost inflected passive and middle. The above construction could not be considered as expressing passive as it exists now, as the verbs wesan/ bēon/weorÞan retained their full meaning yet.


Date: 2015-01-29; view: 6999

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