Grammar: Nouns - Pronouns - Articles - Adjectives - Numbers - Verbs - Participles - Adverbs - Conjunctions - Prepositions - Interjections - Appositives - Word Formation -
What is a verb? Verbs are a class of words. Verbs tell you what a person is doing in a sentence, or what they are. They are either action verbs (like Modern English "do" or "make" as in "I do this" or "He makes cars") or stative verbs (like Modern English "be" or "become" as in "I will be a dog" and "You become angry").
Verbs have to agree with the subject of the sentence in number (singular when the subject of the verb is just one, and plural when the subject of the verb is more than one), and person (I, you, he/she/it). This is sometimes the case even in Modern English, but more so for Old English. An example of how verbs change to agree for number and person in Modern English is when we add "-s" to third person singular verb, as in "He sings well"; but we don't add "-s" for anything else, including third person plural, for example "They sing well".
Look at this example of how an Old English changed depending on the person and number it is used with, compared with how it is done to a lesser extent in Modern English:
|Modern English (go)||Old English (gān)|
|I go||we go||iċ gā||ƿē gāþ|
|thou goest (archaic)/you alone go||ye/you all go||þu gǣst||ġē gāþ|
|he/she/it goes/goeth (archaic)||they go||hē/hēo/hit gǣþ||hīe gāþ|
You can see that there are four different ways the word "gān" is changed for different people and numbers in Old English:
- First person singular (iċ gā - I go)
- Second person singular (þū gǣst - you alone go)
- Third person singular (hē/hēo/hit gǣþ - he/she/it goes)
- Plural (which is the same for all people) (ƿē/ġē/hīe gāþ - we/you all/they go).
Compare to Modern English, which is simpler and only has two forms:
- "Goes" (third person singular)
- "Go" (for everything else)
Example of a verb
Here is an example of the various parts of one Old English verb singan, "to sing".
|Conjugation||Pronoun||"Singan" - "to sing"|
Not every verb is conjugated exactly like this: this, as it happens, is a Class III strong verb, and verbs are conjugated differently according to their class. More details of how verbs are conjugated will be supplied later. First, we should look at what the various parts of the verb are for.
In Modern English, we really have two infinitives, as exemplified by the phrases: "I can sing" and "I want to sing". The choice of which to use is dictated by the role that the infinitive plays in the sentence.
In the same way, Old English has two infinitives for each verb: in the case of "to sing" they would be singan and tō singenne. The choice of which to use essentially follows the same rules as in Modern English. The plain infinitive is used after modal verbs such as "can" or "may" or "shall". The "tō" infinitive is used:
- After verbs which require an infinitive but which are not modal, as in hīe ƿilniaþ tō singenne ("They want to sing").
- After an adjective, as in ic eom gearu tō singenne ("I am ready to sing").
- To indicate purpose, as in þū ārise tō singenne ("You got up to sing").
The present participle
The present participle (in our example singende) is the equivalent of the Modern English present participle (in this case, "singing") It could be used as an adjective to show that someone was doing something, or usually did something, for example se singenda man - "the singing man". However, it was only rarely used to show a continuous or currently happening action, for example, iċ eom singende þone sang ("I am singing the song"); it would be much more normal for an Anglo-Saxon to simply say iċ singe þone sang, using the present indicative.
The present and past indicative
Old English really only has two tenses: the present and the past (or preterite). Each of these tenses therefore has to play several roles.
So a statement using the present tense, such as iċ singe can mean: "I sing", or "I am singing", or "I will sing", or "I will be singing". (The use of the present for the future is still acceptable in Modern English: for example, it is perfectly OK to say: "I take my driving test on Tuesday.")
Meanwhile a statement using the preterite, such as iċ sang, can mean "I sang" or "I was singing" or "I have sung".
You might, then, consider the Old English language as being primitive and inexpressive by contrast with Modern English. However, this is not really the case. After all, in almost every other respect Old English has more grammar than Modern English, and yet we seem to get by: for example, in Modern English we have no grammatical distinction between the second person singular and plural, and yet this never seems to cause any confusion, because context is almost always sufficient to resolve any confusion that might arise, by using other words with the pronoun (and some dialects, particularly in Northern England, still use "thou" and its forms).
The imperative in Old English is just like that in Modern English: it is used for giving commands, so sing in Old English means the same as "sing!" in Modern English. The only difference is that as with the other parts of the verb, the imperative in Old English is inflected according to number, so that if you wanted to tell more than one person to sing, you would say singaþ. Unlike in some other languages, the imperative form can be negated directly, by prefixing it with ne as you would to negate any other verb: ne singaþ! "don't sing!"
The first-person plural imperative is usually formed with uton and the infinitive: uton singan! "Let's sing!"
Old English has present and past subjunctives. The subjunctive is used in Old English to describe hypothetical or counter-factual situations.
The true Old English subjunctive does not occur often in Modern English; but it is sometimes used where no other phrase will do. For example, the National Enquirer, not noted for the excessive formality of its grammar, has this to say in an item of gossip about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie:
- But the 48-year-old “Moneyball” star finally snapped when Angie, 37, insisted that he go to rehab to conquer his demons, insiders say.
There is really no substitute for "that he go". If we tried to substitute: "that he goes", then Ms. Jolie would be insisting that he does presently go to rehab, which he doesn't. If we tried to substitute: "that he went", then she'd be insisting that he used to go into rehab, which he didn't. If we substituted: "that he ought to go" or "that he should go", then this would say that she was insisting that this was the right thing for him to do, but not that she was insisting that he do it. Only the subjunctive form "that he go" properly expresses what Ms. Jolie was insisting; that she was presenting him with an ultimatum.
In Old English the usage is rather broader: it would include "that he ought to go", and "that he should go".
Here's another example of the true subjunctive in Modern English, in an article discussing the movie The Fly:
- When David Cronenberg was hired as director, one condition was that he be able to extensively rewrite the script.
In this case, "that he was" would also be perfectly good Modern English.
We can see more uses of the subjunctive if we go back a few centuries, and look at Shakespeare or the King James Bible. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet exclaims:
- If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.
Again, Juliet is discussing a hypothetical situation, so she uses the subjunctive. Nowadays, any English speaker would write: "If he is married".
In Modern English, then, we tend to use the subjunctive as the last resort. In Old English, however, the subjunctive is frequently used, and often mandatory. For example, consider the sentence:
- Ġif messe-preost his āġen līf rīhtliċe fadie, þonne is rīht þæt his ƿurþscipe ƿexe."
If we translate this into Modern English, keeping the subjunctive mood, that would come out as:
- "If a priest govern his own life rightly, it is right that his honor grow."
This seems strange and stilted in Modern English, and we would be more likely to drop all indication of the subjunctive and translate it into Modern English as follows:
- "If a priest governs his own life rightly, it is right that his honor grows."
But if we tried to drop the subjunctive in the Old English, and rewrite the passage in the indicative, as:
- Ġif messe-preost his āġen līf rīhtliċe fadaþ, þonne is rīht þæt his ƿurþscipe ƿexeþ."
... then this would not really be grammatical. We would use the indicative and say "fadaþ" and "ƿexeþ" if we wanted to assert of a particular priest that he is arranging his own life well, and that as a result his honor is growing. But instead the author wished to assert of a general and hypothetical priest that if he arranges his own life well, then his honor ought to grow as a consequence; therefore he had to use the subjunctive.
So we find, for example, subjunctive forms such as:
- Ūs dafenaþ þæt ƿē ƿaċien.
This might be translated as "It is fitting that we be wakeful". We couldn't keep this meaning if we put it into the indicative and wrote:
- Ūs dafenaþ þæt ƿē ƿaċiaþ.
... because if that was grammatical at all, it would mean "It is fitting that we are awake", which has a different meaning.
The past participle works like the Modern English past participle, so that ġesungen just means "sung". As with the Modern English past participle, it can be used as an adjective, and it can also be used with the verb "to have" to form a perfect tense, as in Modern English "I have sung the song". However, in Old English the participle tends to go at the end of the clause, as it does in German: iċ hæbbe þone sang ġesungen.
There are several types of verbs in Old English, more than in Modern English, which has many weak (love/loved/loved), some strong (sing/sang/sung), and a few irregular verbs (be/was/been). Old English has four types of weak verbs, typically called Class 1a, Class 1b, Class 2, and Class 3. Strong verbs are typically arranged in seven classes, according to their vowel-changes (ablaut). All verbs do have the following in common: the infinitive ends in -an for nearly all verbs (a smaller portion end in -ian and -rian), the present participle ends in -ende (a smaller portion end in -iende), the present plural is always -aþ, and the inflected infinitive ends in -enne.
Weak verbs are often called regular verbs in most English texts, because they have a regular past tense in -ed, with very few exceptions. In Old English, these verbs were also the majority of verbs, most often derived from nouns, adjectives, and other verbs. While we can generalize across all classes, it will be easier to lay them out and allow the reader to see the similarities for themselves.
Weak Class 1 verbs
Class 1 weak verbs are traditionally divided into two subclasses.
In class 1a there are:
- Verbs like fremman, where the stem has a short vowel followed by (in the infinitive) two consonants.
- Verbs like nerian, where the stem has a short vowel followed by an r followed by (in the infinitive) an i.
In class 1b are verbs where the stem consists either of a long vowel followed by a single consonant, or a short vowel followed by two different consonants; both of these behave just the same.
In the table below, we give the complete conjugations of fremman and nerian, which are Class 1a verbs, and of hīeran, a Class 1b verb.
|tō fremmenne||tō nerienne||tō hīerenne|
There is a clear pattern here. The suffixes of the same parts of the different verbs are very similar across all the verbs. What is more, we can observe that where forms of fremman have a double m, forms of nerian have an i, and forms of hīeran have a suffix beginning with a vowel. Conversely, with one exception, where forms of fremman have a single m, forms of nerian have no i, and the suffix of the corresponding form of hīeran is like the suffix for fremman and nerian except for lacking the first e in the suffix. The one exception is the past participle, where this rule fails more often than not.
In Class 1b verbs, where the -d- in the suffix in the past tense is jammed right up against the final consonant of the stem, certain changes occur to make the resulting word easier to pronounce. After an unvoiced consonant (c, f, h, p, s, t) the d will become a t; moreover, if the unvoiced consonant is a c, it will become an h; so we get iċ tǣċe ("I teach") but iċ tǣhte ("I taught").
Another rule is that when the formation of the past tense of a Class 1b verb would put a double d or a double t after another consonant, it contracts to a single d or t. So with the verb myntan ("to intend"), "I intended" is not iċ myntde, nor yet iċ myntte, but rather iċ mynte.
Irregular Class 1 verbs
There are some common verbs which inflect like Class 1 weak verbs; indeed, they are, technically, Class 1 weak verbs. However, there are changes in the stem between the present tense, infinitive, and present participle forms on the one hand, and the stem in the past and past participle forms on the other.
Some of these verbs survive into Modern English; for example "sell"/"sold" and "buy"/"bought". Some verbs adopted more regular endings later in English development, such as "work"/"worked" where the archaic participle "wrought" is used only in specific contexts as an adjective (as it "wrought iron"; "wright", as in "shipwright" is also related to this word). However, other participles were simply utilized as a new verb outright. For instance, "stretch"/"straighte" becomes "stretch"/"stretched" and "straighten"/"straightened" (with "straight" becoming an adjective).
Since these are still Class 1 weak verbs, it is sufficient to give only two forms of the verb; the rest can be figured out with reference to the table showing the Class 1 conjugation. In the table we given the infinitive and 1st person singular past indicative.
|Definition||Infinitive||1 sg. past ind.|
Weak Class 2 verbs
Class II weak verbs have an infinitive ending in -ian, with the exception of almost all verbs which end in -rian, which conjugate like the Class 1 weak verb nerian as discussed above.
Here is the complete conjugation of the Class 2 weak verb lufian, "to love".
This is very like the way Class 1 weak verbs work. Note that lufian loses its i in just those cases where fremman loses one of its ms, nerian loses its i, and hīeran has no e at the start of its suffix.
There are differences, though. In the second and third person singular present indicative the vowel in the suffix is an a, not an e. This means that the third person singular present indicative ends in -aþ, an ending which in every other conjugation is associated with the plural present indicative.
Note also the use of an o instead of an e in forming the past tense and past participle.
Weak Class 3 verbs
The third class of weak verbs contains only four verbs, but they are very common ones: habban, "to have"; libban, "to live"; seċġan, "to say"; and hyċġan, "to think". Each class 3 weak verb behaves oddly in its own particular way, and so it is probably best just to give each part of each verb.
|tō hæbbenne||tō libbenne||tō seċġenne||tō hyċġenne|
|þū||hæfst / hafast||leofast / lifast||sæġst / seġ(e)st||hyġst / hogast|
|hē/hit/hēo||hæfþ / hafaþ||leofaþ / lifaþ||sæġþ / seġ(e)þ||hyġþ, hogaþ|
|ƿē/ġē/hīe||habbaþ||libbaþ / leofaþ||seċġaþ||hyċġaþ|
|Imperative||Singular||hafa||leofa||sæġe/saga||hyġe / hoga|
|Past indicative||iċ||hæfde||lifde / leofode||sæġde||hog(o)de|
|hē/hit/hēo||hæfde||lifde / leofode||sæġde||hog(o)de|
|ƿē/ġē/hīe||hæfdon||lifdon / leofodon||sæġdon||hog(o)don|
|Past subjunctive||iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo||hæfde||lifde / leofode||sæġde||hog(o)de|
|Past participle||(ġe)hæfd||(ġe)lifd / (ġe)leofod||(ġe)sæġd||(ġe)hogod|
In strong verbs, the vowel in the stem of the verb changes according to person, tense, and mood; this change is known as ablaut or gradation. Relics of this system survive in Modern English in such variations as "sing", "sang", "sung" or "write", "wrote", "written".
Although strong verbs are fewer in number than weak verbs, they include some very common verbs, and so you will come across them often.
Example of a strong verb
Below is an example of all the parts of the strong verb "dūfan" ("to dive").
Gradation provides us with four variations on the vowel in the stem:
- The infinitive vowel ū is used in the infinitives, present participle, present tense, and imperative.
- The first preterite vowel ēa is used in the first and third person singular of the preterite.
- The second preterite vowel u is used in all the other forms of the preterite: second person singular, plural, and subjunctive.
- The past participle vowel o is used only in the past participle.
But the reader will notice that there are in fact five vowels appearing in the stem of the verb in this table: in the second and third person present indicative we have the vowel ȳ. This is not, technically, gradation, it is i-mutation: these parts of strong verbs undergo i-mutation whenever the vowel is one of the kind of vowel that undergoes i-mutation; this change is perfectly regular.
The seven classes of strong verbs
Strong verbs can be divided into classes according to the vowels in their ablaut systems. We can see relics of the classes in Modern English: write/wrote/written goes like drive/drove/driven; whereas sing/sang/sung goes like ring/rang/rung. These seven classes are standardized and come from Proto-Germanic; we divide a few of them further into subclasses for our own purposes.
In the table below we show the gradation series of the seven classes of strong verbs, using an example verb for each pattern. For each verb we give the infinitive, the third-person singular present, the first-person singular preterite, the plural preterite, and the past participle. Using these forms, all the other forms of the verb can be predicted.
|Class||Infinitive||3p. sg. pres.||1p. sg. pret.||Pl. pret.||Past part.|
The vowel in the infinitive and past participle of class VII verbs is highly variable; the subclasses are distinguished by their preterite forms. However, the vowel in the past participle will almost always be the same as the vowel in the infinitive for class VII verbs (ƿēpan being a notable exception, with its past participle ƿōpen).
Some of these verbs exhibit consonant changes as well as vowel changes—notice, for instance, how the "n" in standan disappears in the preterite—but the vowel changes are what define the verb classes. Some of these consonsant changes are discussed below.
What happened to Class III?
Class III verbs would originally have all conjugated the same way. However, the vowels in their stems then underwent changes according to the consonants adjacent to them.
Class IIIa represents the unaltered form of the verb.
In Class IIIb verbs, the vowel was followed by an h or r, and so underwent breaking to a diphthong in the infinitive and first preterite forms.
In Class IIIc verbs, breaking is caused in the first preterite by an l following the vowel.
In Class IIId, the vowel is preceded by ċ, ġ, or sċ, and undergoes what is known as palatal diphthongization.
In Class IIIe, the quality of the vowel was changed by being followed by a nasal consonant, that is m or n.
A further complication is that there are some Class IIIa verbs in which the vowel is followed by an r, and yet have not turned into Class IIIb verbs. An example is the verb berstan, meaning "to burst". What has happened here is that the word was originally brestan, then the sound changes occurred that produced class IIIb verbs, and then the word brestan underwent what is known as metathesis of r to produce berstan.
Stems ending in g
In the 2nd and 3rd person present singular indicative, the same cases in which i-mutation takes place, if the verb stem ends in g, this usually becomes an h. So for example in the verb belgan ("to be angry) we have þū bilhst and hē bilhþ.
Stems ending in s, t, or d
Also in the 2nd and 3rd person present singular indicative, certain changes take place to prevent awkwardness when the dental consonants in the suffix are stuck onto dental consonants at the end of the stem.
- If the stem of the verb ends in s, then instead of the 2nd person ending in -sst, this becomes -st; and instead of the 3rd person ending in -sþ, this becomes -st.
- If the stem of the verb ends in t, then instead of the 3rd person ending in -tþ, this becomes -tt.
- If the stem of the verb ends in d, then instead of the 3rd person ending in -dþ, this becomes -tt, and instead of the 2nd person ending in -dst, this becomes -tst
There are certain consonants occurring at the end of the stem which change along with the vowel in gradation, having one consonant to go with the indicative and 1st preterite vowels, and another to go with the 2nd preterite and past participle vowels.
|Inf. + 1st pret||2nd pret + p.p|
So for example the table below shows the conjugation of the Class II verb sēoþan ("to boil"). Note that apart from this change in the consonant, it is a perfectly ordinary Class II verb.
Where a verb stem originally ended in an h, various things happened. First, the h caused breaking, turning the vowel into a diphthong; then when the h came between two vowels, it disappeared, lengthening the vowel it comes after, and then the second vowel disappeared.
So, for example, the Class VI verb lēan ("to blame") would originally have been lahan. Breaking turned this into leahan; loss of h and lengthening of the vowel would give us lēaan, and loss of the vowel that came after the h gives us lēan. By contrast, in the 3rd person singular present indicative, there is no vowel after the h, so only the breaking will occur, and we get hē liehþ.
Such verbs will also undergo the Verner's Law variation of the consonant, so the h will only appear with the infinitive vowel and the 1st pret. vowel.
Putting all this together, here is the complete conjugation of the verb lēan.
In a preterite-present verb, the past (preterite) tense has taken on a present-tense meaning, and the verb has then acquired a weak past tense.
As an example, consider the verb ƿitan (to know). It is derived from what was once a perfectly ordinary verb meaning "to see" (cognate, as it happens, with the Latin verb "videre"). It is not hard to understand how the past tense could have taken on a present-tense meaning; if you saw something in the past, then you know about it in the present.
Hence we have forms such as iċ ƿāt ("I know") and ƿē ƿiton ("we know") which look like the past tense of a strong verb, specifically a class I strong verb, but which have a present-tense meaning. Then a weak past tense is formed with a dental suffix.
While the verb ƿitan has not survived into Modern English, a number of preterite-present verbs have, such as "can" and "shall"; it is because they are preterite-present verbs that the 3rd person present indicative is "he can" and "he shall" rather than "he cans" and "he shalls".
Preterite-present verbs can be learned with five principal parts; the rest of the forms can be predicted based on these. Old English has twelve of them, not counting compound forms:
|cunnan||cann||canst||cunne||cūþe||to know how to|
|dugan||dēah||dēaht||duge||dohte||to be useful|
|ġenugan||ġenēah||ġenēaht||ġenuge||ġenohte||to be enough|
|magan||mæġ||meaht||mæġe||meahte||can; to be able to|
|mōtan||mōt||mōst||mōte||mōste||to be allowed to|
- To form the long infinitive, take the infinitive and replace the -an with -enne: tō āgenne
- To form the indicative plural, take the infinitive and replace the -an with -on: āgon
- As always, to form the subjunctive plural, add -n to the subjunctive singular: āgen
- The preterite is conjugated as follows: iċ āhte, þū āhtest, hē āhte, wē āhton.
- The past subjunctive uses the preterite stem and is conjugated as follows: iċ/þū/hē āhte, wē āhten.
- The singular imperative is the same as the singular subjunctive: āge
- For the plural imperative, take the singular imperative and replace the -e with -aþ: āgaþ
- To form the past participle, take the infinitive and replace the -an with -en: āgen. The prefix ġe- may optionally be added as well, except in the case of ġemunan and ġenugan, which already have it.
Full conjugations for the preterite-present verbs are shown in the tables below. The only reason there are three tables is so that they fit on the page; there is no particular significance to a verb being in one table rather than another.
|tō āgenne||tō cunnenne||tō dugenne||tō durrenne|
|Past participle||(ġe)āgen||cunnen / (ġe)cūþ||dugen||durren|
|Conjugation||Pronoun||"be able to"||"be allowed to"||"remember"||"suffice"|
|tō magenne||tō mōtenne||tō ġemunenne||tō ġenugenne|
|Past indicative||iċ||meahte / mihte||mōste||ġemunde||ġenohte|
|þū||meahtest / mihtest||mōstest||ġemundest||ġenohtest|
|hē/hit/hēo||meahte / mihte||mōste||ġemunde||ġenohte|
|ƿē/ġē/hīe||meahton / mihton||mōston||ġemundon||ġenohton|
|Past subjunctive||iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo||meahte / mihte||mōste||ġemunde||ġenohte|
|ƿē/ġē/hīe||meahten / mihten||mōsten||ġemunden||ġenohten|
|tō sċulenne||tō þurfenne||tō unnenne||tō ƿitenne|
Some of the entries in the table are not actually attested in manuscripts, but are reconstructions of how the verb forms probably would have looked if they were.
This class consists of four verbs which have little in common except that they are very difficult to classify. It is usual in any language that the most irregular verbs are also among the most common, and these are a case in point.
Bēon and ƿesan
The Old English verb for "to be" is actually made up of bits of three different verbs; as is the Modern English verb which descends from it.
|Infinitives||ƿesan / bēon|
|iċ||eom / bēo|
|þū||eart / bist|
|hē/hit/hēo||is / biþ|
|ƿē/ġē/hīe||sind(on) / sint / bēoþ|
|Imperative||Singular||ƿes / bēo|
|Plural||ƿesaþ / bēoþ|
|Present subjunctive||iċ/þū/hē/hit/hēo||sīe / bēo|
|ƿē/ġē/hīe||sīen / bēon|
As we have noted above, the present tense can be used as a future tense. In this case, eom / eart / is / sindon are typically used for the present. Bēo / bist / biþ / bēoþ are typically used for the future. They are also used to state timeless truths. For example the poem known as Resignation ends with the lines:
- Giet biþ þæt selast, þonne mon him sylf ne mæg
- ƿyrd onƿendan, þæt he þonne ƿel þoliġe.
("Yet it is best, if a man cannot change his fate, that he bear it well.") Clearly the poet thinks that this is a general statement about the human condition, and so used biþ rather than is.
Dōn and gān
The verbs dōn ("to do") and gān (to go) don't inflect exactly the same, but there are certain similarities that justify putting them in the same table.
|tō dōnne||tō gānne|
Finally, the verb ƿillan, meaning "to want" or "to wish".