German sentence structure

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The Germanic language family is one of the language groups that resulted from the breakup of Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It in turn divided into North, West and East Germanic groups, and ultimately produced a large group of mediaeval and modern languages, most importantly:Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish (North); English, German and Dutch (West); and Gothic (East, extinct).

The Germanic verb system lends itself to both descriptive (synchronic) and historical (diachronic) comparative analysis. This overview article is intended to lead into a series of specialist articles discussing historical aspects of these verbs, showing how they developed out of PIE, and how they came to have their present diversity.

Verb types

The Germanic verb system carried two innovations over the previous Proto-Indo-European verb system:

  1. Simplification to two tenses: present (also conveying future meaning) and past (sometimes called "preterite" and conveying the meaning of all of the following English forms: "I did, I have done, I had done, I was doing, I have been doing, I had been doing").
  2. Development of a new way of indicating the preterite and past participle, using a dental suffix.

Later Germanic languages developed further tenses periphrastically, that is, using auxiliary verbs, but the constituent verbs of even the most elaborate periphrastic constructions are still only either in present or preterite (cf I would have had with would in preterite).

Germanic verbs fall into two broad types, strong and weak. Elements of both are present in the preterite-present verbs. Despite various irregularities, most verbs fall into one of these categories. Only two verbs are completely irregular, being composed of parts of more than one Indo-European verb.

Strong verbs

Strong (or vocalic) verbs display vowel gradation or ablaut, and may also be reduplicating. These are the direct descendants of the verb inProto-Indo-European, and are paralleled in other Indo-European languages such as Greek: leipo leloipa elipon. All Indo-European verbs that passed into Germanic as functioning verbs were strong, apart from the small group of irregular verbs discussed below.

Examples in Old English:

  • fallan – feoll – feollon – (ge)fallen
  • hātan – hēt – hēton – (ge)hāten

Or Old High German:

  • fallan – fiall – fiallun – (gi)fallan
  • heizan – hiaz – hiazun – (gi)heizan

In Proto-Germanic consonant alternations known as grammatischer Wechsel developed, as a result of Verner's law. An example in modern Dutch:

  • verliezen – verloor – verloren

The preterite of strong verbs are the reflex of the Indo-European perfect. Because the perfect in late Indo-European was no longer simplystative, but began to be used especially of stative actions whose source was a completed action in the past (e.g. Greek), this anterior aspect of it was emphasized in a couple of Indo-European daughter languages (e.g. Latin), and so it was with Germanic that the perfect came to be used as a simple past tense. The semantic justification for this change is that actions of stative verbs generally have an implied prior inception. An example of this is the typical and widespread PIE stative *woida 'I know': one who "knows" something at some point in the past "came to know" it, much as the natural inference from noting someone in a sitting state is that a prior action of becoming seated occurred. The classical/Koine Greek perfect is essentially an early step in the development of the stative aspect to a past tense, being a hybrid of the two that emphasizes the ongoing (present/stative) effects of a past action (e.g. leloipa "I have left"). Apparently it was this latter anterior respect that is responsible for the Indo-European perfect showing up as a past tense in Germanic, Italic, and Celtic.

The Indo-European perfect took o-grade in the singular and zero grade in the dual and plural. The Germanic strong preterite shows the expected Germanic development of short o to short a in the singular and zero grade in the plural; these make up the second and third principal parts of the strong verb. The Indo-European perfect originally carried its own set of personal endings, the remnants of which are seen in the Germanic strong preterite. The reduplication characteristic of the Indo-European perfect remains in a number of verbs (seen most clearly in Gothic), a distinction by which they are grouped together as the seventh class of Germanic strong verbs.

Weak verbs

Weak (or consonantal) verbs are those that use a dental suffix in the past or "preterite" tense, either -t- or -d-. In Proto-Germanic such verbs had no ablaut -- that is, all forms of all tenses were formed from the same stem, with no vowel alternations within the stem. This meant that weak verbs were "simpler" to form, and as a result strong verbs gradually ceased to be productive. Already in the earliest attested Germanic languages strong verbs had become essentially closed classes, and almost all new verbs were formed using one of the weak conjugations. This pattern later repeated itself—further sound changes meant that stem alternations appeared in some weak classes in some daughter languages, and these classes generally became unproductive. This happened, for example, in all of the West Germanic languages besidesOld High Germanic, where umlaut produced stem alternations in Class III weak verbs, and as a result the class became unproductive and most of its verbs were transferred to other classes. Later, in Middle English, stem alternations between long and short vowels appeared in Class I weak verbs (examples are "meet" vs. "met" and "hear" vs. "heard"), and the class in its turn became unproductive, leaving the original Class II as the only productive verb class in Modern English.

In Proto-Germanic, there were five main classes of weak verbs:

  • Class I verbs were formed with a suffix -j- (-i- in the past), e.g. Gothic satjan "to set" (Old English settan), sandjan "to send" (Old English sendan), sōkjan "to seek" (Old English sēcan). As shown in the Old English cognates, the -j- produced umlaut of the stem vowel in languages other than Gothic and then disappeared in most verbs in old Germanic languages other than Gothic and Old Saxon. (It also resulted in West Germanic gemination in some verbs, and palatalization of velar consonants in Old English.)
  • Class II verbs were formed with a suffix -ō- (sometimes -ōja-), e.g. Gothic salbōn "to anoint", Old English sealfian < *salbōjan, cf. "to salve".
  • Class III stative verbs were formed with a suffix that was -ja- or -ai- (later -ē-) in the present and was null in the past, e.g. Old Englishhebban "to have" < *habjan, past tense iċ hæfde "I had". The West Germanic languages outside of Old High German preserved this conjugation best, but in these languages the conjugation had become vestigial and had only four verbs in it. In other languages, it was merged with the Class III factitive verbs (see below) and significantly modified, e.g. Gothic haban, past tense ik habáida; Old High German habēn, past tense ih habēta.
  • Class III factitive verbs were formed with a suffix that was -ā- or -ai- in the present and -a- in the past. This class merged with the Class III stative verbs in Gothic, Old High German and (mostly) Old Norse, and vanished in the other Germanic languages.
  • Class IV verbs were formed with a suffix -n- (-nō- in the past), e.g. Gothic fullnan "to become full", past tense ik fullnōda. This class vanished in other Germanic languages; however, a significant number of cognate verbs appear as Class II verbs in Old Norse and as Class III verbs in Old High German.


These verbs have a present tense looking like a vocalic preterite, originally from an Proto-Indo-European perfect, and preterite with dental suffix.

Suppletive verbs

A small number of Germanic verbs show the phenomenon of suppletion, that is, they are made up from more than one stem. The verb to behas its forms from four IE roots (*es-, *er-, *bhu- and *wes-).

The phenomenon of verb paradigms being composites of parts of different earlier verbs can best be observed in an example from recorded language history. The English verb to go was always irregular, having the past tense eode in Old English; in the 15th century, however, this was replaced by a new irregular past tense went. In fact went is originally the past tense of the verb to wend (compare wend-went with send-sent); today wend has the regular past tense wended.

IE optative

A special case is *wiljana (to want, will), which has its present forms from an IE optative. Today, only Faroese retains the optative[citation needed], and it is mostly used in fixed syllables.

Regular and irregular verbs

When teaching modern languages, it is usually most useful to have a narrow definition of a "regular verb" and treat all other groups as irregular. See the article irregular verb. By this standard, English has 283 irregular verbs,[citation needed] and only the most straightforward weak verb counts as regular. (In English, the strong verb system has collapsed so far that all strong verbs can be regarded as irregular.) However, Faroese still counts both its strong and weak verbs as regular verbs, counting vocal changes as regular. Faroese irregular verbs change their consonantal composition, e.g. at doyggja (to die), doyr (dies), doyði (died), etc. Despite this, 'at vera' (to be) is still regular even when it loses its initial 'v' in present tense (hann er - he is).

In historical linguistics however we seek patterns to explain anomalies and tend only to speak of "irregular verbs" when these patterns cannot be found. Most of the 283 English "irregular" verbs belong to historical categories that are regular within their own terms. However, the suppletive verbs are irregular by any standards, and for most purposes the preterite-presents can also count as irregular. Beyond this, isolated irregularities occur in all Germanic languages in both the strong and the weak verb system.


  1. Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod


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