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Conjugation of verbs in Old English

Module 4


Part 2

The Verbal System


1. Grammatical categories of the finite verb

2. Morphological classification of verbs

2.1. Strong verbs

2.2. Weak verbs

2.3. Minor groups of verbs

3. Grammatical categories of the verbals

4. Conclusions

Grammatical categories of the finite verb

The OE verb had the following independent forms: one voice (active), two numbers, three persons, two tenses (present and past, or preterite), two complete moods (indicative and subjunctive), besides an imperative which was only used in the present tense; two verbal nouns (present infinitive and present participle), and one verbal adjective (the past participle). The simple future was generally expressed by the present tense. The verb-predicate agreed with the subject of the sentence in two grammatical categories: number and person. Its specifically verbal categories were mood and tense. Thus in OE hē bindeþ 'he binds' the verb is in the 3rd person singular, present tense, indicative mood; in the sentence Brin¥aþ mē hider þā 'Bring me those (loaves)' brin¥aþ is in the imperative mood plural.

The category of person was made up of three forms: the 1st, the 2nd and the 3rd, e.g. Ic write, þu writes, he writeþ. Unlike number, person distinctions were neutralised in many positions. Person was consistently shown only in the present tense of the indicative mood singular. In the past tense singular of the indicative mood the forms of the 1st and 3rd person coincided and only the 2nd person had a distinct form. Person was not distinguished in the plural; nor was it shown in the subjunctive mood.

The category of mood was constituted by the indicative, impera­tive and subjunctive. As can be seen from the paradigms in Table 1.1, there were a few homonymous forms which eliminated the distinction between the moods: the subjunctive did not differ from the indicative in the 1st person singular present tense – bere, dēme – and in the 1st and 3rd persons in the past. The coincidence of the imperative and indicative moods is seen in the plural – lōciaþ, dēmaþ.

Table 4.1

Conjugation of verbs in Old English

    Strong   Weak  
Infinitive   findan ‘find’ beran ‘bear’   dēman ‘deem’ lōcian ‘look’  
Present tense  
Singular 1st 2nd 3rd Plural   finde bere fintst bir(e)st fint bir(e)þ findaþ beraþ dēme lōcie dēmst lōcast dēmþ lōcaþ dēmaþ lōciaþ
Subjunctive Singular Plural   finde bere finden beren dēme lōcie dēmen lōcien
Imperative Singular Plural Participle I   find ber findaþ beraþ findende berende dēm lōca dēmaþ lōciaþ dēmende lōciende
Past tense  
Singular 1st 2nd 3rd Plural   fond bær funde bære fond bær fundon bæron dēmde lōcode dēmdest lōcodest dēmde lōcode dēmdon lōcodon
Subjunctive Singular Plural Participle II     funde bære funden bæren (¥e) fundon (¥e)boren     dēmde lōcode dēmden lōcoden (¥e)dēmed (¥e)lōcod  


The category of tense in OE consisted of two categorial forms, present and past, e.g. we (he, hie) writaþ – present tense, indicative mood; we (he, hie) writon – past tense, indicative mood. The meanings of these tense forms were very general, as compared with later ages and with present-day English. As has already been mentioned, the forms of the present were used to indicate present and future actions. With verbs of perfective meaning or with adverbs of future time the present acquired the meaning of futurity.

The use of the subjunctive mood in OE was in many respects different from its use in later ages. Subjunctive forms conveyed a very general meaning of unreality or supposition. In addition to its use in conditional sentences and other volitional, conjectural and hypothetical contexts subjunctive was common in other types of construction: in clauses of time, clauses of result and in clauses presenting reported speech.

The past tense was used in a most general sense to indicate various events in the past (including those which are nowadays expressed by the forms of the past continuous, past perfect, present perfect and other analytical forms). Additional shades of meaning could be attached to it in different contexts.

The conjugation of verbs given in Table 4.1 shows the means of form-building used in the OE verb system. Most forms were distinguished with the help of inflectional endings or grammatical suffixes; one form – participle II – was sometimes marked by a prefix; many verbs made use of vowel interchanges in the root; some verbs used consonant interchanges and a few had suppletive forms.


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