Morphological classification of verbs

The majority of OE verbs fell into two great divisions: the strong verbs and the weak verbs. Besides these two main groups there were a few others which will be treated under the general heading of "minor" groups. The main difference between the strong and weak verbs lay in the means of forming the principal parts, or the "stems" of the verb.

The following chart gives a general idea of the morphological classification of OE verbs.

Table 4.2

Morphological classification of Old English verbs

Strong Weak Minor groups
Seven classes with different gradation series Three classes with different stem-suffixes Preterite-presents Suppletive Anomalous

Strong verbs

The strong verbs formed their stems by means of vowel gradation (ablaut) in the root and by adding certain suffixes; in some verbs vowel gradation was accompanied by consonant interchanges. The strong verbs had four stems, as they distinguished two stems in the past tense one for the 1st and 3rd person singular, indicative mood, the other for the other past tense forms, indicative and subjunctive.

There were about three hundred strong verbs in OE. They were native words descending from PG with parallels in other OG languages; many of them had a high frequency of occurrence and were basic items of the vocabulary widely used in word derivation and word compounding.

The strong verbs in OE (as well as in other OG languages) are usually divided into seven classes.

Classes from 1 to 6 use vowel gradation which goes back to the IE ablaut-series modified in different phonetic conditions in accordance with PG and Early OE sound changes. Class 7 includes reduplicating verbs, which originally built their past forms by means of repeating the root-morpheme; this doubled root gave rise to a specific kind of root-vowel interchange.

As seen from Table 4.3, the principal forms of all the strong verbs have the same endings irrespective of class: 1) -an for the infinitive, 2) zero ending in the past sing stem, 3) -on in the form of past pl., 4) -en for Participle II.

Two of these markers the zero-ending in the second stem and -en in Participle II are found only in strong verbs and should be noted as their specific characteristics. The classes differ in the series of root-vowels used to distinguish the four stems. However, only several classes and subclasses make a distinction between four vowels as markers of the four stems see Class 2, 3b andc, 4 and 5b; some classes distinguish only three grades of ablaut and consequently have the same root vowel in two stems out of four (Class 1, 3a, 5a); two classes, 6 and 7, use only two vowels in their gradation series.

The classes of strong verbs like the morphological classes of nouns differed in the number of verbs and, consequently, in their role and weight in the language.

Table 4.3

Strong verbs in Old English

Principal forms Classes   Infinitive   Past Singular   Past Plural   Participle II   NE  
  writan wrāt writon writen write  
  (a) cēosan (b) bū¥an   ceas bēa¥ curon bu¥on coren bo¥en choose bow  
  (a) findan (b) helpan (c) feohtan   fand healp feaht fundon hulpon fuhton funden holpen fohten find help fight  
  beran bær bæron boren bear  
  (a)cweðan (b)sittan   cwæð sæt cwædon sæton cweden seten say sit  
  scacan scōc scōcon scacen shake  
  (a) hātan   (b) ¥rōwan     hēt (heht) ¥rēow hēton (hehton) ¥rēowon hāten ¥rōwen 'call', 'name' grow    


The 2nd stem is called past singular though it is the form of the 1st and 3rd person indicative only; past plural is the stem used to build the 2nd p. sg. indicative, the plural forms of the indicative and all the forms of the subjunctive.

Participle II is often marked by the prefix ¥e-, e.g. ¥e-written, ¥e-coren.

Classes 1 and 3 were the most numerous of all about 60 and 80 verbs, respectively; within Class 3 the first group with a nasal or nasal plus a plosive in the root (findan find, rinnan run) included almost 40 verbs, which was about as much as the number of verbs in Class 2; the rest of the classes had from 10 to 15 verbs each. In view of the subsequent interinfluence and mixture of classes it is also noteworthy that some classes in OE had similar forms.

Vowel gradation in the system of strong verbs was often accompanied by interchanges of consonants caused by Verner's Law and some subsequent changes of voiced and voiceless fricatives in the 3rd and 4th forms. The interchange [s ~ z] which arose under Verner's Law was transformed into [s ~ r] due to rhotacism and acquired another interchange [s ~ z] after the Early OE voicing of fricatives. Consequently, the verbs whose root ended in [s] or [z] could have the following interchange:

Z s r r

cēosan cēas curon coren choose (Class 2)


Verbs with an interdental fricative have similar variant with voiced and voiceless [θ, ð] and the consonant [d], which had developed from [ð] in the process of hardening:

ð θ d d

sniþan snāþ snidon sniden cut (Class 1)

Verbs with the root ending in [f/v] displayed the usual OE interchange of the voiced and voiceless positional variants of fricatives:

V f v v

ceorfan cearf curfon corfen carve (Class 3)


Verbs with consonant interchanges could belong to any class, provided that they contained a fricative consonant. That does not mean, however, that every verb with a fricative used a consonant interchange, for instance rīsan, a strong verb of Class 1, alternated [s] with [z] but not with (r): rīsan rās rison risen rise. Towards the end of the OE period the consonant interchanges disappeared.

Weak verbs

The weak verbs derived their past tense stem and the stem of participle II from the present tense stem with the help of the dental suffix -d- or -t-; normally they did not change their root vowel, but in some verbs suffixation was accompanied by a vowel interchange.

The number of weak verbs in OE by far exceeded that of strong verbs. In fact, all the verbs, with the exception of the strong verbs and the minor groups (which make a total of about 315-320 units) were weak. Their number was constantly growing since all new verbs derived from other stems were conjugated weak (except derivatives of strong verbs with prefixes). Among the weak verbs there were many derivatives of OE noun and adjective stems and also derivatives of strong verbs built from one of their stems (usually the second stem, i.e. past sg), e.g.

OE talu n tellan v NE tale, tell

OE full adj fyllan v NE full, fill

OE findan, v str. fandian v NE find, find out

As has already been pointed out, weak verbs formed their past and participle II by means of the dental suffix -d- or -t- (a specifically Germanic trait). In OE the weak verbs are subdivided into three classes differing in 1) the ending of the Infinitive, 2) the sonority of the suffix, and 3) the sounds preceding the suffix. The principal forms of the verbs in the three classes are given in Table 4.4, with several subclasses in Class I.

The main differences between the classes were as follows.

In Class I the infinitive ended in -an, seldom -ian (-ian occurs after [r]); the past form had-de, -ede or -te; participle II was marked by -d, -edor -t. Some verbs of Class I had a double consonant in the infinitive (subclass b), others had a vowel interchange in the root, used together with suffixation (types e and f). Weak verbs of this class were divided into regular and irregular. Regular verbs were most numerous; all of them were influenced by palatal mutation in all the forms. If the root of a verb ended in a voiceless consonant the dental suffix de turned into te.

Class II had no subdivisions. In Class II the infinitive ended in -ian and the past tense stem and participle II had [o] before the dental suffix. This was the most numerous and regular of all the classes. It included verbs borrowed from Scandinavian, Latin and French.

The verbs of Class III had an infinitive in -an and no vowel before the dental suffix; it included only four verbs with a full conjugation and a few isolated forms of other verbs, because most verbs of this class in OE passed over to Class II.

Genetically, the division into classes goes back to the differences between the derivational stem-suffixes used to build the verbs or the nominal stems from which they were derived.

Table 4.4

Weak verbs in Old English

Principal forms Classes   Infinitive   Past Tense   Participle II   NE  
I -an/-ian -de/-ede/-te -ed/-d/-t stir tame deem keep tell think  
(a) styrian (b) temman (c) dēman (d) cēpan (e) tellan (f) þyncan   styrede temede dēmde cēpte tealde þūhte   styred temed dēmed cēped teald þūht  
II   -ian -ode -od look  
lōcian lōcode lōcod
III   -an -de -d live have    
libban habban lifde hæfde lifd hæfd


Participle II of weak verbs, like that of strong verbs, was often marked by the prefix ¥e-. In the above table the forms of Participle II are given without this prefix.

Besides, participle II of most verbs preserved -e- before the dental suffix, though in some groups it was lost (types (e), and (f)).

Two groups of verbs in Class I, types (e) and (f), had one more peculiarity an interchange of root-vowels: the infinitive had a mutated vowel like all the verbs of Class I, while the other two forms retained the original non-mutated vowel probably these forms had no stem-suffix at the time of palatal mutation. The diphthong [ea] in tealde (type e) is the result of breaking before [ld]; it is found in the WS dialect, the Anglian forms being talde, ¥e-tald. The absence of the nasal [n] in the past and participle II and the long vowel of þyncan þūhte, ¥e-þūht is the result of the loss of nasal consonants before fricatives.

The verbs of Class II were built with the help of the stem-suffix , or -ōj- and are known as ō-stems. Their most conspicuous feature the element -o- before the dental suffix in the past and participle II is a remnant of the stem-suffix. The infinitives of all the verbs of Class II ended in -ian but the root-vowel was not affected because at the time of palatal mutation, the verbs preserved the full stem-suffix -ōj- and the long [o:] protected the root-vowel from assimilation.

Class III was made up of a few survivals of the PG third and fourth classes of weak verbs, mostly -æ:j-stems. The doubling of the consonants in the infinitive and the mutated vowels are accounted for by the presence of the element -i/-j- in some forms in Early OE.

Minor groups of verbs

Minor groups of verbs differed from the weak and strong verbs but were not homogeneous either. Some of them combined certain features of the strong and weak verbs in a peculiar way ("preterite-present" verbs); others were suppletive or altogether anomalous.

The most important group of these verbs includes the so-called "preterite-presents" or "past-present" verbs. Originally the present tense forms of these verbs were past tense forms (or, more precisely, IE perfect forms, denoting past actions relevant for the present). Later these forms acquired a present meaning but preserved many formal features of the past tense. Most of these verbs had new past tense forms built with the help of the dental suffix. Some of them also acquired the forms of the verbals: participles and infinitives; most verbs did not have a full paradigm and were in this sense "defective".

In OE there were twelve preterite-present verbs. Six of them have survived in Mod E: OE ā¥ owe, ought; cunnan, cann can; dear(r) dare, sculan, sceal shall; ma¥an, mæ¥ may; mōt must.

Table 4.5


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