Morphological Classification of Verbs

§ 199.The conjugation of verbs given in Table 9 (§ 190) 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. The OE verb is remarkable for its complicated morphological classification which determined the application of form-building means in various groups 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 verbs which could be put together as "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. There were also a few other differences in the conjugations.

All the forms of the verb, finite as well as non-finite, were derived from a set of "stems" or principal parts of the verb: the Present tense stem was used in all the Present tense forms, Indicative, Imperative and Subjunctive, and also in the Present Participle and the Infinitive; it is usually shown as the form of the Infinitive; all the forms of the Past tense were derived from the Past tense stems; the Past Participle had a separate stem.

The strong verbs formed their stems by means of vowel gradation (ablaut, see § 63, 64) 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 p. sg Ind. Mood, the other - for the other Past tense forms, Ind. and Subj.

The weak verbs derived their Past tense stem and the stem of Parti­ciple II from the Present tense stem with the help of the denial suffix -d- or -t-; normally they did not change their root vowel, but in some verbs suffixation was accompanied by a vowel interchange. The main differences between the strong and the weak verbs can be seen in the following examples (see also Table 9, § 190)

  Present Tense stem Past Tense stem Participle II
  (Infinitive) sg pl  
Strong verb beran bær bǣron (ʒe)boren
Weak verb locian lōcode   (ʒe)lōcod

(The Past tense stem of the weak verbs is the form of the 1st and 3rd p. sg; the pl lōcodon is formed from the same stem with the help of the plural ending -on). The same ending marks the Past pl of strong verbs.

(Note the lack of ending in the form of the strong verb bær and the ending -de in the same form of the weak verb.)

Both the strong and the weak verbs are further subdivided into a number of morphological classes with some modifications in the main form-building devices.

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

Table 11

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

§ 200. 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 the table the principal forms of all the strong verbs have the same endings irrespective of class: -an for the Infinitive, no ending in the Past sg stem, -on in the form of Past pl, -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 and c, 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.

In addition to vowel gradation some verbs with the root ending in -s, -p or -f employed an interchange of consonants: [s ~ z ~ r]; [θ ~ ð ~ d] and [f ~ v]. These interchanges were either instances of po­sitional variation of fricative consonants in OE or relics of earlier po­sitional sound changes (see the references in § 203); they were of no significance as grammatical markers and disappeared due to levelling by analogy towards the end of OE.

Table 12

Strong Verbs in Old English

Principal forms   Classes Infinitive Past Singular[19] Past Plural Participle II[20] NE
writan wrāt writon writen write
(a) cēosan cēas curon coren choose
  (b) būʒan bēaʒ buʒon boʒen bow
(a) findan fand fundon funden find
  (b) helpan healp hulpon holpen help
  (c) feohtan feaht fuhton fohten fight
beran bær bǣron boren bear
(a) cweðan cwæð cwǣdon cweden ‘say’
          (obs. quoth)
  (b) sittan sæt sǣton seten sit
scacan scōc scōcon scacen shake
(a) hātan hēt hēton hāten ‘call’, ‘name’
    (heht) (hehton)    
  (b) ʒrōwan ʒrēow ʒrēowon ʒrōwen grow

§ 201. 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. 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, rinnan - NE 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; thus Classes 4 and 5 differed in one form only - the stems of Participle II; Classes 2, 3b and c and Class 4 had identical vowels in the stem of Participle II.

§ 202. The history of the strong verbs traced back through Early OE to PG will reveal the origins of the sound interchanges and of the division into classes; it will also show some features which may help to identify the classes.

The gradation series used in Class 1 through 5 go,back to the PIE qualitative ablaut [e ~ o] and some instances of quantitative ablaut. The grades [e ~ o] reflected in Germanic as [e/i ~ a] (see § 54, 55) were used in the first and second stems; they represented the normal grade (a short vowel) and were contrasted to the zero-grade (loss of the grada­tion vowel) or to the prolonged grade (a long vowel) in the third and fourth stem. The original gradation series split into several series because the gradation vowel was inserted in the root and was combined there with the sounds of the root. Together with them, it was then subjected to regular phonetic changes. Each class of verbs offered a peculiar pho­netic environment for the gradation vowels and accordingly transformed the original series into a new gradation series.

Table 13 shows the development of the OE vowel gradation from the IE ablaut [e ~ o] which accounts for the first five classes of strong verbs. In Classes 1 and 2 the root of the verb originally contained [i] and [u] (hence the names i-class and u-class); combination of the grada­tion vowels with these sounds produced long vowels and diphthongs in the first and second stems. Classes 3, 4 and 5 had no vowels, consequently the first and second forms contain the gradation vowels descending directly from the short [e] and [o]; Class 3 split into subclasses as some of the vowels could be diphthongised under the Early OE breaking. In the third and fourth stems we find the zero-grade or the prolonged grade of ablaut; therefore Class 1 - i-class - has [i], Class 2 - [u] or [o]; in Classes 4 and 5 the Past pl stem has a long vowel [ǣ]. Class 5 (b) contained [j] following the root in the Inf.; hence the mutated vowel [i] and the lengthening of the consonant: sittan.

In the verbs of Class 6 the original IE gradation was purely quan­titative; in PG it was transformed into a quantitative-qualitative series.

Class 7 had acquired its vowel interchange from a different source: originally this was a class of reduplicating verbs, which built their past tense by repeating the root. Reduplication can be illustrated by Gothic verbs, e.g. maitan - maimait - maimaitum - maitans (‘chop’). In OE the roots in the Past tense stems had been contracted and appeared as a single morpheme with a long vowel. The vowels were different with different verbs, as they resulted from the fusion of various root-morphemes, so that Class 7 had no single series of vowel interchanges.

Table 13

Development of Vowel Gradation in Old English Strong Verbs

(Classes 1-6)

Classes Vowels in the four principal forms Notes
1-5 I II III IV  
  e o     IE
  e/i a     PG (for [i > e/i]
  norma grade zero grade [o>a] see § 54, 55)
Class 1          
(i-class) e/i + i a+i i i Gradation vowel combined with the sounds of the root
  i: ai i i PG
  i: a: i i OE (for [ai > a:] see § 118)
Class 2          
u-class) e/i + u a + u u u Gradation vowel combined with the sounds of the root
  eu/iu au u o PG (for [u ~ o] see § 55)
  eo: ea: u o OE (for [iu>eo:, au > ea:] see § 118)
Class 3          
  e/i a u u/o PG
a) nasal or nasal + plosive i a u u OE
b) l + plo­sive e ea u o OE (for short diph­thongs see § 120)[21]
c) h, g or r + consonant eo/e ea/æ u o OE
Class 4     lengthened grade    
(sonorant) e/i a e: o PG
  e/i æ/a æ: o OE
Class 5 e/i a e: e/i PG
(noise con­sonant) e/i æ æ: e OE
Class 6 o ō ō o IE
  a ō ō a PG and OE (for [o > a] see § 54)

Direct traces of reduplication in OE are rare; they are sometimes found in the Anglian dialects and in poetry as extra consonants appearing in the Past tense forms: Past tense of hātan - heht alongside hēt (‘call’), Past tense of ondrædan - ondrēd and ondrēord (NE dread).

§ 203. To account for the interchanges of consonants in the strong verbs one should recall the voicing by Verner's Law and some subse­quent changes of voiced and voiceless fricatives. 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 NE 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 d d
snipan snāp 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 offricatives:

v t v v  
ceorfan cearf curfon corfen NE carve (Class 3)

(For relevant phonetic changes see § 57, 137, 138, 139).

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 risan, a strong verb of Class 1, alternated [s] with [z] but not with [r]: risan - rās - rison - risen (NE rise). Towards the end of the OE period the consonant interchanges disappeared.

Weak Verbs

§ 204. 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 - Past sg), e.g.

OE talu n tellan v (NE tale, tell)
OE full adj fyllan v (NE full, fill)
OE findan, v str. (Past sg fand) fandian v (NE find, find out)

Weak verbs formed their Past and Participle II by means of the dental suffix -d- or -t- (a specifically Germanic trait - see § 69). In OE the weak verbs are subdivided into three classes differing in the ending of the Infinitive, the sonority of the suffix, and the sounds pre­ceding the suffix. The principal forms of the verbs in the three classes are given in Table 14, 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, -ed or -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)).

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.

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. 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

§ 205.The verbs of Class I, being i-stems, originally contained the element [-i/-j] between the root and the endings. This [-i/-j] caused the palatal mutation of the root-vowel, and the lengthening of conso­nants which becomes apparent from comparing the verbs with related words (see fyllan and tellan in § 204, earlier forms *fulian, "tælian; and § 124 ff, for phonetic changes). [-i/-j] was lost in all the verbs be­fore the age of writing, with the exception of those whose root ended in -r (cf. styrian, dēman and temman in Table 14).

In the Past tense the suffix -i- was weakened to -e- after a short root-syllable (types (a), (b)) and was dropped - after a long one (types (c) and (d)); if the preceding consonant was voiceless the dental suffix was devoiced to [t]. Hence cēpan - cēpte. If the root ended in [t] or [d] with a preceding consonant the dental suffix could merge with the [t, d] of the root and some forms of the Past and Present tense became homo­nymous: thus sende was the form of the 1st p. sg of the Pres. Tense Ind. and Subj. and also the form of the Past Tense, 1st and 3rd p. sg Ind. and all the persons of the sg Subj. (cf. also restan - reste, wendan - wende, NE send, rest, wend).

Table 14

Weak Verbs in Old English

Principal forms Classes Infinitive Past Tense Participle II[22] NE
I -an/-ian -de/-ede/-te -ed/-d/-t  
  (a) styrian styrede styred stir
  (b) temman temede temed tame
  (c) dēman dēmde dēmed deem
  (d) cēpan cēpte cēped keep
  (e) tellan tealde teald tell
  (f) pyncan pūhte pūht think
II -ian -ode -od  
  lōcian lōcode lōcod look
III -an -de -d  
  libban lifde lifd live
  habban hæfde hæfd have

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, ʒe-iald. The absence of the nasal [n] in the Past and Participle II and the long vowel of pyncan - pūhte, ʒe-pūht is the result of the loss of nasal consonants before fric­atives (see phonetic changes in § 120, 121, 125 ff, 143).

§ 206. The verbs of Class II were built with the help of the stem-suffix -ō, or -ōj- and are known as ō-stems. Their most conspicuous feature - the element 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. (Pre-written reconstructed forms of the verbs of Class II are *lōkōjan, lufōjan, OE lōcian, lufian, NE look, love).

§ 207. Class III was made up of a few survivals of the PG third and fourth classes of weak verbs, mostly -ǣj-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.