Conjugation of preterite-presents in Old English

Infinitive   cunnan can   sculan shall, should  
Present tense          
Indicative Singular 1st 2nd     cann canst     sceal(l) scealt  
3rd   cann   sceal(l)  
Plural   cunnon   sculon  
Subjunctive Singular Plural     cunne cunnen     scule, scyle sculen, scylen  
Participle I        
Past tense          
Singular 1st   cūðe   sceolde  
2nd   cūðest   sceoldest  
3rd   cūðe   sceolde  
Plural   cūðon   sceoldon  
Singular   cūðe   sceolde  
Plural   cūðen   sceolden  
Participle II   cunnen, cūð    



Among the verbs of the minor groups there were several anomalous verbs with irregular forms.

OE willan was an irregular verb with the meaning of volition and desire; it resembled the preterite-presents in meaning and function, as it indicated an attitude to an action and was often followed by an infinitive. Cf.: 'þā ðe willað mīnes forsīðes fæ¥nian 'those who wish to rejoiceinmy death'.

Willan had a past tense form wolde, built like sceolde, the past tense of the preterite-present sculan, sceal. Eventually willan became a modal verb, like the surviving preterite-presents, and, together with sculan developed into an auxiliary (Mod E shall, will, should, would).

Some verbs combined the features of weak and strong verbs. OE dōn formed a weak Past tense with a vowel interchange and a Participle in -n: dōn dyde ¥e-dōn do. OE būan 'live' had a weak past būde and participle II, ending in -n, ¥e-būn like a strong verb.

Two OE verbs were suppletive: OE ¥ān, whose past tense was built from a different root: ¥ān eōde ¥e-¥ān go, and bēon be.

Bēon is an ancient (IE) suppletive verb. In many languages Germanic and non-Germanic its paradigm is made up of several roots. (Recall Ukr , R , , Fr être, suis, fut). In OE the present tense forms were different modifications of the roots *wes- and *bhū, 1st p. sg eom, bēo, 2nd p. eart, bist, etc. The past tense was built from the root *wes- on the pattern of strong verbs of Class 5. Though the infinitive and participle II do not occur in the texts, the set of forms can be reconstructed as: *wesan wæs wǽron weren.

Table 4.6

Conjugation of beon/wesan and ¥an/eode

Infinitive wesan/beon ¥an/eode
Present Indicative singular 1 person 2 person 3 person Plural   eom beo eart bist is biþ sint, sindon beoþ   ¥a ¥æst ¥æþ ¥aþ  
Present Subjunctive singular plural   sy, si beo syn, sin beon   ¥a ¥an
Imperative singular plural   wæs beo wæsaþ beoþ   ¥a ¥aþ
Participle I wesende beonde ¥ande, ¥an¥ende
Past Indicative singular 1 person 2 person 3 person plural   wæs wære wæs wæron     eode eodest eode eodon  
Past Subjunctive singular plural   wære wæren     eode eoden  
Participle II   (¥e)¥an


Suppletivity.As a means of grammatical expression suppletivity is observed in words, word-forms and morphemes of all Indo-European languages.

1) At the lexical level it helps express sex distinctions: boy girl, man woman, cock hen. Suppletivity in the system of lexico-grammatical classes of words can express different categorial meanings of notionals at the lexical level, as in the pairs of verbs carry bring, say tell.

2) At the morphological level:

a) suppletive forms of a verb paradigm can be used in English to express some morphological categories. The most striking in this respect is the verb to be: am, is are was, were are respectively corresponding forms for tense, number and person;

b) suppletive forms of degrees of comparison in some qualitative adjectives and adverbs: good better best, bad worse worst and little less least.

The verbals

The verb system in Old English was represented by two sets of forms: the finite forms of the verb and the non-finite forms of the verb, or verbals (the infinitive and the participle). Those two types of forms the finite and the non-finite differed more than they do today from the point of view of their respective grammatical categories, as the verbals at that historical period were not conjugated like the verb proper, but were declined like nouns or adjectives.

The infinitive could have two case-forms which may conventionally be called the common (nominative) case and the dative case.

Common case Dative case

wrītan to write writenneso that I shall write

cēpanto keep cepenneso that I shall keep

drincanto drink drincenneso that I shall drink

The so-called common case form of the infinitive was widely used in different syntactical functions, the dative case was used on a limited scale and mainly when the infinitive functioned as an adverbial modifier of purpose, i.e. Ic ¥ā tō drincenneI go to drink.

Thus, the infinitive had no verbal grammatical categories. Being a verbal noun by origin, it had a sort of reduced case-system: two forms which roughly corresponded to the Nom. and the Dat. cases of nouns beran the uninflected infinitive ("Nom." case); tō berenne or tō beranne inflected Infinitive ("Dat." case). Like the Dat. case of nouns the inflected infinitive with the preposition could be used to indicate the direction or purpose of an action, e.g. Mani¥e cōmen tō byc¥enne þā þin¥ 'many (people) came to buy those things'.

The uninflected infinitive was used in verb phrases with verbs or other verbs of incomplete predication, e. g.: hīe woldon hine forbærnan 'they wanted to burn him.

The participle was a kind of verbal adjective which was characterised not only by nominal but also by certain verbal features. Participle I present participle) was opposed to participle II (past participle) through voice and tense distinctions: it was active and expressed present or simultaneous processes and qualities, while participle II expressed states and qualities resulting from past action and was contrasted to participle I as passive to active, if the verb was transitive. Participle II of intransitive verbs had an active meaning; it indicated a past action and was opposed to participle I only through tense. The translations of the participles in Table 4.7 explain the meanings of the forms.

Table 4.7

Participles in Old English

    Active   Passive   NE  
Present   berende - bearing  
    sec¥ende     saying  
    ¥an¥ende farende     going 'travelling*  
Past   ¥e¥ān ¥eboren gone, born  
    ¥efaren ¥esædd 'who has departed, depar  


As seen from the table the forms of the two participles were strictly differentiated. Participle I was formed from the present tense stem (the infinitive without the endings -an, -ion) with the help of the suffix -ende. Participle II had a stem of its own in strong verbs it was marked by a certain grade of the root-vowel interchange and by the suffix -en; with weak verbs it ended in -d/-t. Participle II was commonly marked by the prefix ¥e-.

Participles were employed predicatively and attributively like adjectives and shared their grammatical categories: they were declined as weak and strong and agreed with nouns in number, gender and case.

Thus, the OE verb was characterised by many peculiar features. Though the verb had few grammatical categories, its paradigm had a complicated structure: verbs fell into numerous morphological classes and employed a variety of form-building means. All the forms of the verb were synthetic, as analytical forms were only beginning to appear. The non-finite forms had little in common with the finite forms and shared many features with the nominal parts of speech.



1. The verbal system in OE included finite and non-finite forms, which differed more than those in Mod E, since verbals were not only conjugated but also declined, like nominal parts of speech.

2. The system of conjugation of the OE verb included the categories of tense, mood, number and person.

2.1. The category of person involved the 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons; their forms differed only in the singular forms of the indicative mood.

2.2. The category of number was formed by the opposition of the singular and plural forms.

2.3. The category of tense was presented by the present and past forms. The meaning of futurity was expressed by means of the present forms accompanied with an appropriate adverb or a combination of the modal verb with the infinitive.

2.4. The category of mood included the forms of the indicative, imperative and oblique moods, with the latter being used both for expression of real and problematic actions ( which are expressed by two different moods in Mod E), and in place of the indicative mood to render indirect speech.

3. All OE verbs can be subdivided into a number of groups in accordance with the grammatical means used to build their principal stems: root vowel interchange and suffixation.

3.1. Strong verbs used ablaut, or root vowel interchange as the principal means of expressing different grammatical categories. Grammatical endings were added directly to the root (stem) of the verb. Strong verbs are the most ancient verbs of the language. There were 7 classes of strong verbs, which differed in their gradation series depending on the initial phonetic structure of the verb stem.

3.2. Weak verbs are younger than strong verbs. They used suffixation as a principal grammatical means to form their stems. This way of building the principal forms was most productive, and new verbs that entered the language generally built their forms on analogy with the weak verbs. In contrast to strong verbs, weak verbs had a stem-forming suffix that followed the root and preceded the grammatical ending. In accordance with the character of this suffix the weak verbs are subdivided into three classes.



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