Germanic weak verb

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In Germanic languages, including English, weak verbs are by far the largest group of verbs, which are therefore often regarded as the norm, though historically they are not the oldest or most original group.

General description

In Germanic languages, weak verbs are those verbs that form their preterites and past participles by means of a dental suffix, an inflection that contains a /t/ or /d/ sound or similar. (For comparative purposes we may refer to this generally as a dental, although in some of the languages, including most varieties of English, /t/ and /d/ are alveolar rather than dental consonants.) In all Germanic languages, the preterite and past participle forms of weak verbs are formed from the same stem. For example:

  Infinitive Preterite Past Participle
English (regular) to love loved loved
to laugh laughed laughed
English (irregular) to say said said
to send sent sent
to buy bought bought
to set set set
German lieben (love) liebte geliebt
bringen (bring) brachte gebracht

In English, the dental is a /d/ after a voiced consonant (loved) or vowel (laid), and a /t/ after a voiceless consonant (laughed), though English uses the spelling in <d> regardless of pronunciation, with the exception of a few verbs with irregular spellings.

In Dutch, /t/ and /d/ are distributed as in English provided there is a following vowel, but when there is no following vowel, terminal devoicingcauses the pronunciation /t/ in all cases. Nevertheless, Dutch does distinguish the spellings in <d> and <t> even in final position. See Dutch spelling for the 't kofschip rule.

In German the dental is always /t/, and always spelled <t>, as a result of the third phase of the High German consonant shift (d→t).

In Icelandic, the dental has become a voiced dental fricative /š/, as it was in some verbs in Old English. In Afrikaans it has disappeared altogether.

Classes of verbs

In Proto-Germanic, there were seven types of weak verbs, five of which were significant. However, they are normally grouped into four classes, based on the conjugational system of Gothic.

Class I Verbs

Class I verbs actually consist of three classes in Proto-Germanic:

Class I, subclass (i)

A small class of verbs had no suffix in the present, and no suffix in the past (other than the -d- or -t- of all weak verbs). This class had only three members:

  1. *bringanaN "to bring", past tense *brāNht-. This verb was continued as such in all the descendants, although an alternate present form *brangjan occasionally appeared in some of the West Germanic languages (e.g. Old English brenġan).
  2. *brūkanaN "to use", past tense *brūht-. This verb tended to move into other classes. For example, in Gothic this verb moved into subclass (ii) of Class I (brūkjan, past brūhta), whereas in Old English it became a Class II strong verb (brūcan, past tense brēac <*brauk).
  3. *būanaN "to dwell", past tense *būd-. This verb continued as such in most descendants but became a Class III weak verb bauan in Gothic.

Class I, subclass (ii)

A small class of verbs had the suffix -j- in the present and no suffix in the past. This class had only five members in Proto-Germanic:

  1. *bugjanaN "to buy", past tense *boht-
  2. *sōkjanaN "to seek", past tense *sōht- (given a regularized subclass (iii) past sōkida in Gothic)
  3. žankjanaN "to think", past tense *žāNht-
  4. žunkjanaN "to seem", past tense *žūNht-
  5. wurkjanaN "to work", past tense *worht-

Verbs of this class are said to undergo rückumlaut ("reverse umlaut") in the past, since the umlaut occurring in the present (triggered by the -j-) is undone or "reversed" in the past (due to the lack of the umlaut-triggering stem -i- of subclass (iii)), leading to a non-umlauted vowel in the past.

These verbs also have consonant and vowel alternations between present and past that are due to regular sound changes but result in strikingly different forms in the historical Germanic languages (e.g. think, past tense thought). Specifically:

  • There is an alternation between -k- or -g- in the present and -h- in the past, caused by the -t- of the past-tense suffix. Prior to the operation of Grimm's Law, the stem consonant was -g- or -gh-. Before -t- the consonant was devoiced to -k- by assimilation, and then became -h- by Grimm's Law. This alternation is sometimes called Primärberührung.
  • -n- before -h- disappeared after nasalizing the previous vowel. When the -n- disappeared, the vowel was lengthened by the process ofcompensatory lengthening.
  • -u- was lowered to -o- in the past tense due to a-mutation, since the following vowel was always non-high.

The class remained small in Gothic, but expanded significantly in the other languages:

  • In Old Norse, all short-stem verbs (those with a short vowel followed by at most consonant or a long vowel followed by no consonant) appeared to move into this class, as indicated by the fact that no umlaut occurs in the past, as would be caused by a suffix -i-. However, this may have been due to a regular sound change that eliminated unstressed nonfinal short vowels coming after a short stem before the operation of umlaut.
  • In Old High German, short-stem verbs ending in -zz (-tz), -pf, -ck (Proto-Germanic root ending in *-t, -p, -k), and optionally those in -ll, join this class. For example, zellen "to tell" < *taljan, past tense zalta, zelita. A number of long-stem verbs also join this class, e.g.brennen "to burn", past tense branta; wenten "to turn", past tense wanta.
  • In Old English and the other northern West Germanic languages, a number of verbs ending in -(c)c- and -ll- joined the class, e.g. in Old English:
  • cweccan "to shake" < *kwakjan, past tense cweahte < *kwaht-
  • dreccan "to afflict", past tense dreahte
  • lęccan "to seize" (based on earlier *lǣcan?), past tense lǣhte
  • leccan "to moisten", past tense leahte
  • rǣcan "to reach" < *raikjan, past tense rǣhte, rāhte < *raiht-
  • reccan "to narrate", past tense reahte
  • reccan "to care for" (based on earlier *rēcan?), past tense rōhte
  • tǣcan "to teach", past tense tǣhte, tāhte
  • streccan "to stretch", past tense streahte
  • žeccan "to cover", past tense žeahte
  • weccan "to awake", past tense weahte
  • cwellan "to tell" < *kwaljan, past tense cwealde < *kwald-
  • dwellan "to tell", past tense dwealde
  • sellan "to give, sell", past tense sealde
  • stellan "to place", past tense stealde
  • tellan "to tell", past tense tealde

In Late Old English, further verbs in -can were drawn into this class by analogy, but with umlaut maintained, e.g. bepǣcan "to deceive", past tense bepǣhte, earlier bepǣcte, or wleccan "to warm", past tense wlehte, earlier wlecede. At the same time, verbs in -ccan were modified to follow the same pattern, e.g. new past tense cwehte alongside earlier cweahte.

Class I, subclass (iii)

A large class of verbs had the suffix -j- in the present and -i- in the past: e.g. Gothic satjan "to set" (Old English settan), sandjan "to send" (Old English sendan). As shown in the Old English cognates:

  • The -j- produced umlaut of the stem vowel in languages other than Gothic.
  • The -j- caused West Germanic gemination in the West Germanic languages in short-stem verbs ending in a consonant other than -r.
  • The -j- resulted in palatalization of preceding velar consonants in Old English.
  • The -j- remained in Gothic and Old Saxon, but disappeared in the other languages: In long-stem verbs in Old Norse, and in all verbs except those in -r in the remaining West Germanic languages. (In Old High German, it deflected *-jan into *-jen before disappearing, leaving a suffix -en.

This class was split into two subclasses in all the Old Germanic languages, one consisting of short-stem verbs and one of long-stem verbs. The distinction between the two was originally due to Sievers' Law, and was extended due to changes such as West Germanic gemination, which affected short-stem but not long-stem verbs. The West Germanic languages had a third subclass consisting of short-stem verbs ending in -r (e.g. Old English erian "to plow", nerian "to save", styrian "to stir"), due to West Germanic gemination and subsequent loss of -j- not taking place.

The following is a cross-language paradigm of a short-stem Class I verb *gramjanaN "to anger" (Gothic gramjan, Old Norse gremja, Old High German gremmen, Old Saxon *gremmian, Old English gremman, Old Frisian *gremma). Note that the Old Saxon and Old Frisianverbs given here are unattested, almost certainly due to the small nature of the respective corpora.

  Gothic Old Norse Old High German Old Saxon Old English Old Frisian
Infinitive gramjan gremja gremmen gremmian gremman gremma
Pres. 1sg. gramja grem gremmu gremmiu gremme gremme
Pres. 2sg. gramjis gremr gremis(t) gremis gremes(t) gremest
Pres. 3sg. gramjiž gremr gremit gremid gremež gremeth
Pres. 1du. gramjōs -- -- -- -- --
Pres. 2du. gramjats -- -- -- -- --
Pres. 1pl. gramjam gremjum gremmemēs (-ēn) gremmiad gremmaž gremmath
Pres. 2pl. gramjiž gremiš gremmet gremmiad gremmaž gremmath
Pres. 3pl. gramjand gremja gremment gremmiad gremmaž gremmath
Pres. Subj. 1sg. gramjįu gremja gremme gremmia (-ie) gremme gremme
Pres. Subj. 2sg. gramjįis gremir gremmēs(t) gremmias (-ies) gremme gremme
Pres. Subj. 3sg. gramjįi gremi gremme gremmia (-ie) gremme gremme
Pres. Subj. 1du. gramjįiwa -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Subj. 2du. gramjįits -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Subj. 1pl. gramjįima gremim gremmēm (-ēn, -ēmēs) gremmian gremmen gremme
Pres. Subj. 2pl. gramjįiž gremiš gremmēt gremmian gremmen gremme
Pres. Subj. 3pl. gramjįina gremi gremmēn gremmian gremmen gremme
Past 1sg. gramida gramda gremita gremida gremede gremede
Past 2sg. gramidēs gramdir gremitōs(t) gremidōs gremedes(t) gremedest
Past 3sg. gramida gramdi gremita gremida gremede gremede
Past 1du. gramidēdu -- -- -- -- --
Past 2du. gramidēduts -- -- -- -- --
Past 1pl. gramidēdum grǫmdum gremitum (-un, -umēs) gremidun gremedon gremedon
Past 2pl. gramidēduž grǫmduš gremitut gremidun gremedon gremedon
Past 3pl. gramidēdun grǫmdu gremitun gremidun gremedon gremedon
Past Subj. 1sg. gramidēdjįu gremda gremiti (-ī) gremidi gremede gremede
Past Subj. 2sg. gramidēdeis gremdir gremitīs(t) gremidīs gremede gremede
Past Subj. 3sg. gramidēdi gremdi gremiti (-ī) gremidi gremede gremede
Past Subj. 1du. gramidēdeiwa -- -- -- -- --
Past Subj. 2du. gramidēdeits -- -- -- -- --
Past Subj. 1pl. gramidēdeima gremdim gremitīm (-īn, -īmēs) gremidīn gremeden gremede
Past Subj. 2pl. gramidēdeiž gremdiš gremitīt gremidīn gremeden gremede
Past Subj. 3pl. gramidēdeina gremdi gremitīn gremidīn gremeden gremede
Imper. 2sg. gramei grem gremi gremi greme greme
Imper. 3sg. gramjadįu -- -- -- -- --
Imper. 2du. gramjats -- -- -- -- --
Imper. 1pl. gramjam gremjum gremmemēs (-ēn) -- -- --
Imper. 2pl. gramjiž gremiš gremmet gremmiad gremmaž gremmath
Imper. 3pl. gramjandįu -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Participle gramjands gremjandi gremmenti gremmiand gremmende gremmand
Past Participle gramižs *gramišr gigremit gremid gremed gremed

The following is a cross-language paradigm of a long-stem Class I verb *hauzjanaN "to hear" (Gothic hausjan, Old Norse heyra, Old High German hōren, Old Saxon hōrian, Old English hīeran, Old Frisian hēra)

  Gothic Old Norse Old High German Old Saxon Old English Old Frisian
Infinitive hausjan heyra hōren hōrian hīeran hēra
Pres. 1sg. hausja heyri hōru hōriu hīere hēre
Pres. 2sg. hauseis heyrir hōris(t) hōris hīer(e)s(t) hēr(i)st
Pres. 3sg. hauseiž heyrir hōrit hōrid hīer(e)ž hēr(i)th
Pres. 1du. hausjōs -- -- -- -- --
Pres. 2du. hausjats -- -- -- -- --
Pres. 1pl. hausjam heyrum hōremēs (-ēn) hōriad hīeraž hērath
Pres. 2pl. hauseiž heyriš hōret hōriad hīeraž hērath
Pres. 3pl. hausjand heyra hōrent hōriad hīeraž hērath
Pres. Subj. 1sg. hausjįu heyra hōre hōria (-ie) hīere hēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 2sg. hausjįis heyrir hōrēs(t) hōrias (-ies) hīere hēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 3sg. hausjįi heyri hōre hōria (-ie) hīere hēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 1du. hausjįiwa -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Subj. 2du. hausjįits -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Subj. 1pl. hausjįima heyrim hōrēm (-ēn, -ēmēs) hōrian hīeren hēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 2pl. hausjįiž heyriš hōrēt hōrian hīeren hēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 3pl. hausjįina heyri hōrēn hōrian hīeren hēri (-e)
Past 1sg. hausida heyrša hōrta hōrda hīerde hērde
Past 2sg. hausidēs heyršir hōrtōs(t) hōrdōs hiērdes(t) hērdest
Past 3sg. hausida heyrši hōrta hōrda hīerde hērde
Past 1du. hausidēdu -- -- -- -- --
Past 2du. hausidēduts -- -- -- -- --
Past 1pl. hausidēdum heyršum hōrtum (-un, -umēs) hōrdun hīerdon hērdon
Past 2pl. hausidēduž heyršuš hōrtut hōrdun hīerdon hērdon
Past 3pl. hausidēdun heyršu hōrtun hōrdun hīerdon hērdon
Past Subj. 1sg. hausidēdjįu heyrša hōrti (-ī) hōrdi hīerde hērde
Past Subj. 2sg. hausidēdeis heyršir hōrtīs(t) hōrdīs hīerde hērde
Past Subj. 3sg. hausidēdi heyrši hōrti (-ī) hōrdi hīerde hērde
Past Subj. 1du. hausidēdeiwa -- -- -- -- --
Past Subj. 2du. hausidēdeits -- -- -- -- --
Past Subj. 1pl. hausidēdeima heyršim hōrtīm (-īn, -īmēs) hōrdīn hīerden hērde
Past Subj. 2pl. hausidēdeiž heyršiš hōrtīt hōrdīn hīerden hērde
Past Subj. 3pl. hausidēdeina heyrši hōrtīn hōrdīn hīerden hērde
Imper. 2sg. hausei heyr hōri hōri hīer hēre
Imper. 3sg. hausjadįu -- -- -- -- --
Imper. 2du. hausjats -- -- -- -- --
Imper. 1pl. hausjam heyrum hōremēs (-ēn) -- -- --
Imper. 2pl. hauseiž heyriš hōret hōriad hīeraž hērath
Imper. 3pl. hausjandįu -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Participle hausjands heyrandi hōrenti hōriand hīerende hērand
Past Participle hausižs heyršr gihōrit hōrid hīered hēred

Class II Verbs

Class II verbs were formed with a suffix -ō-. In the northern West Germanic languages, an alternative extended suffix -ōja- sometimes appears in the non-past forms, e.g. the Old English infinitive -ian < *-ōjan.

The following is a cross-language paradigm of *lažōnaN "to invite" (Gothic lažōn, Old Norse laša, Old High German ladōn, lathōn, Old Saxon lathian (-ōjan), ladian (-ōjan), Old English lažian, Old Frisian lathia).

  Gothic Old Norse Old High German Old Saxon Old English Old Frisian
Infinitive lažōn laša ladōn, lathōn lathian (-ōjan), ladian (-ōjan) lažian lathia
Pres. 1sg. lažō laša ladōm (-ōn), lathōm (-ōn) lathōn, ladōn lažie lathie
Pres. 2sg. lažōs lašar ladōs(t), lathōs(t) lathōs, ladōs lažast lathast (-est)
Pres. 3sg. lažōž lašar ladōt, lathōt lathōd, ladōd lažaž lathath
Pres. 1du. lažōs -- -- -- -- --
Pres. 2du. lažōts -- -- -- -- --
Pres. 1pl. lažōm lǫšum ladōmēs (-ōn), lathōmēs (-ōn) lathōd (-ōjad), ladōd (-ōjad) lažiaž lathiath
Pres. 2pl. lažōž lašiš ladōt, lathōt lathōd (-ōjad), ladōd (-ōjad) lažiaž lathiath
Pres. 3pl. lažōnd laša ladōnt, lathōnt lathōd (-ōjad), ladōd (-ōjad) lažiaž lathiath
Pres. Subj. 1sg. lažō laša lado, latho lathō (-ōja), ladō (-ōja) lažie lathie
Pres. Subj. 2sg. lažōs lašir ladōs(t), lathōs(t) lathōs (-ōjes), ladōs (-ōjes) lažie lathie
Pres. Subj. 3sg. lažō laši lado, latho lathō (-ōja), ladō (-ōja) lažie lathie
Pres. Subj. 1du. lažōwa -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Subj. 2du. lažōts -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Subj. 1pl. lažōma lašim ladōm (-ōn, -ōmēs), lathōm (-ōn, -ōmēs) lathōn, ladōn lažien lathie
Pres. Subj. 2pl. lažōž lašiš ladōt, lathōt lathōn, ladōn lažien lathie
Pres. Subj. 3pl. lažōna laši ladōn, lathōn lathōn, ladōn lažien lathie
Past 1sg. lažōda lašaša ladōta, lathōta lathōda, ladōda lažode lathade
Past 2sg. lažōdēs lašašir ladōtōs(t), lathōtōs(t) lathōdōs, ladōdōs lažodest *lathadest
Past 3sg. lažōda lašaši ladōta, lathōta lathōda, ladōda lažode lathade
Past 1du. lažōdēdu -- -- -- -- --
Past 2du. lažōdēduts -- -- -- -- --
Past 1pl. lažōdēdum lǫšušum ladōtum (-un, -umēs), lathōtum (-un, -umēs) lathōdun, ladōdun lažodon lathadon
Past 2pl. lažōdēduž lǫšušuš ladōtut, lathōtut lathōdun, ladōdun lažodon lathadon
Past 3pl. lažōdēdun lǫšušu ladōtun, lathōtun lathōdun, ladōdun lažodon lathadon
Past Subj. 1sg. lažōdēdjįu lašaša ladōti (-ī), lathōti (-ī) lathōda, ladōda lažode *lathade
Past Subj. 2sg. lažōdēdeis lašašir ladōtīs(t), lathōtīs(t) lathōdōs, ladōdōs lažode *lathade
Past Subj. 3sg. lažōdēdi lašaši ladōti (-ī), lathōti (-ī) lathōda, ladōda lažode lathade
Past Subj. 1du. lažōdēdeiwa -- -- -- -- --
Past Subj. 2du. lažōdēdeits -- -- -- -- --
Past Subj. 1pl. lažōdēdeima lašašim ladōtīm (-īn, -īmēs), lathōtīm (-īn, -īmēs) lathōdun, ladōdun lažoden lathade
Past Subj. 2pl. lažōdēdeiž lašašiš ladōtīt, lathōtīt lathōdun, ladōdun lažoden lathade
Past Subj. 3pl. lažōdēdeina lašaši ladōtīn, lathōtīn lathōdun, ladōdun lažoden lathade
Imper. 2sg. lažō laša lado, latho lathō, ladō laža *latha
Imper. 3sg. lažōdįu -- -- -- -- --
Imper. 2du. lažōts -- -- -- -- --
Imper. 1pl. lažōm lǫšum ladōmēs (-ōn), lathōmēs (-ōn) -- -- --
Imper. 2pl. lažōž lašiš ladōt, lathōt lathōd, ladōd lažiaž *lathiath
Imper. 3pl. lažōndįu -- -- -- -- --
Pres. Participle lažōnds lašandi ladōnti, lathōnti lathōnd (-ōjand), ladōnd (-ōjand) lažiende lath(i)ande
Past Participle lažōžs lašašr ladōt, lathōt lathōd, ladōd lažod lathad

Class III Verbs

What is known as "Class III" was actually two separate classes in Proto-Germanic:

  • A class of verbs with stative semantics (i.e. denoting a state rather than an action), formed with a present suffix that was either *-ai- or *-ja-, and no suffix in the past.
  • A class of verbs with factitive semantics (i.e. with the meaning "make X" where X is an adjective or noun, e.g. "renew, enslave"), formed with a suffix that was either *-ai- or *-ā-, and a suffix *-a- in the past.

The histories of this class in the various Germanic languages are quite varied:

  • Old High German combined both into a single class and generalized *-ai- (appearing as -ē- through regular sound change) to all forms of the present and past.
  • Gothic combined both into a single class, keeping the *-ai-/-ā- alternation of the factitives in the present, generalizing the alternation to the statives as well, and borrowing *-ai- as the past suffix.
  • Old Norse for the most part combined both into a single class in the same fashion as Gothic; however, two relic stative verbs (segja "to say" and žegja "to be silent") preserve the stative suffixes in both present and past, and a third verb (hafa "to have") is a mixture of the two, with factitive suffixes in the present indicative plural and imperative and stative suffixes in the present indicative singular and past participle (elsewhere, the two types have fallen together).
  • The other (i.e. northern) West Germanic languages have only small numbers of Class III verbs -- but they consistently follow the stative paradigm, unlike the three languages above.

An example is the stative verb reconstructed as Proto-Germanic *habjanaN "to have", past indicative first singular habdōN (N indicates a nasal vowel):

  • Old English hebban < *habjan, past 1sg. hęfde -- derived entirely through regular sound changes.
  • Old High German habēn, past 1sg. habēta -- derived through analogical spread of suffix -ē-.
  • Gothic haban, past 1sg. habįida -- derived through various analogical changes.
  • Old Norse hafa, past 1sg. hafša -- partly regular, partly analogical.

Only four stative verbs survive as Class III verbs in the northern West Germanic languages (i.e. Old English, Old Saxon, Old Frisian and Old Low Franconian):

  • *sagjanaN "to say"
  • *libjanaN "to live"
  • *habjanaN "to hold, have"
  • *hugjanaN "to think"

However, there are five more verbs that appear as Class III verbs in Old High German, Gothic and/or Old Norse that also have remnants of the stative conjugation in one or more northern West Germanic languages:

  • *žagjanaN "to be silent"
  • *siljanaN "to be silent"
  • *žuljanaN "to endure" (normally Class II žolian in Old English, but cf. archaic umlauted infinitive -žoelġe; Class III in Old Norse žola)
  • *fijanaN "to hate"
  • *hatjanaN "to hate" (normally Class II hatian in Old English, but cf. umlauted nominalized present participle hettend "enemy"; Class III in Gothic hatan)

Class IV Verbs

Class IV verbs were formed with a suffix -nan, e.g. Gothic fullnan "to become full". The present tense was conjugated as a strong verb, e.g. Gothic fullna, fullnis, fullniž, etc. The past tense was conjugated with suffix -nō-, e.g. Gothic fullnōda, fullnōdēs, etc. 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. This class has fientive semantics, i.e. "become X" where X is an adjective or a past participle of a verb. Examples of deadjectival Class IV verbs in Gothic are ga-blindnan "to become blind" (blinds "blind"), ga-hįilnan "to become whole" (hįils "whole"). Examples of deverbal Class IV verbs in Gothic are fra-lusnan "to perish" (fra-liusan "to destroy"), ga-žaśrsnan "to dry up, wither away" (ga-žaķrsan "to wither"), mikilnan "to be magnified" (mikiljan "to magnify"), us-hįuhnan "to be exalted" (us-hįuhjan "to exalt"). Note that the last two are deverbal even though the underlying root is adjectival, since they are formed to other verbs (which are in turn formed off of adjectives). The vast majority of Class IV verbs appear to be deverbal. Class IV verbs derived from weak verbs keep the same stem form as the underlying weak verb. However, class IV verbs derived from strong verbs adopt the ablaut of the past participle, e.g. dis-skritnan "to be torn to pieces" (Class I dis-skreitan "to tear to pieces"), us-gutnan "to be poured out" (Class II giutan "to pour"), and-bundnan "to become unbound" (Class III and-bindan "to unbind"), dis-taśrnan "to be torn asunder, burst asunder" (Class IV dis-taķran "to tear asunder, burst"),ufar-hafnan "to be exalted" (Class VI ufar-hafjan "to exalt"), bi-auknan "to abound, become larger" (Class VII bi-aukan "to increase, add to").

Modern languages

In the modern languages, the various classes have mostly been leveled into a single productive class. Icelandic and Frisian have retained two productive classes of weak verbs. (In Frisian, in addition to the class with -de, there is a class of je-verbs, where the dental suffix has dropped, i.e. -je < -iad.) Swiss German also has two types of weak verbs, descended from Class I and Classes II and III respectively of Old High German weak verbs and marked with -t and -et, respectively, in the past participle.[1]

In the history of English, the following changes happened:

  1. Most Class III verbs were moved into Class II prior to the historical period of Old English.
  2. The remaining four Class III verbs moved into Class I or Class II late in Old English.
  3. Throughout the Middle English period, Class I verbs gradually moved into Class II.

In Modern English, only one productive weak paradigm remains, derived from Class II. A number of Class I verbs still persist, e.g.:

  • From Old English subclass (i): bring (brought)
  • From Old English subclass (ii) or analogously: buy (bought); catch (caught); seek (sought); sell (sold); teach (taught); tell (told);think (thought); work (wrought, obsolescent)
  • From Old English subclass (iii) or analogously: bend (bent); bet (bet); breed (bred); build (built); cast (cast); cost (cost); creep (crept); cut (cut); deal (dealt); dream (dreamt); feed (fed); flee (fled); hear (heard); hit (hit); hurt (hurt); keep (kept); kneel (knelt);knit (knit); lay (laid); lead (led); leap (leapt); leave (left); lend (lent); light (lit); lose (lost); mean (meant); meet (met); put (put);read (read); rend (rent, obsolescent); send (sent); set (set); shed (shed); shoot (shot); shut (shut); sleep (slept); speed (sped);spend (spent); spill (spilt); split (split); spread (spread); sweep (swept); thrust (thrust); upset (upset); wed (wed); weep (wept); as well as a few others
  • From Old English Class III verbs: have (had); say (said)

As the previous list shows, although there is only one productive class of weak verbs, there are plenty of "irregular" weak verbs that don't follow the paradigm of this class. Furthermore, the regular paradigm in English is not unitary, but in fact is divided into subclasses in both the written and spoken language, although in different ways:

  • In the written language, before the past-tense suffix -ed, short-stem verbs double the final consonant (e.g. dip (dipped)), while a -yfollowing a consonant becomes -i (e.g. carry (carried)).
  • In the spoken language, the past-tense suffix -ed is variously pronounced /t/, /d/, or /əd/ depending on the preceding consonant.

Both of these characteristics occur in a similar fashion in most or all the modern Germanic languages. In modern German, for example, descendants of the original subclass (ii) of Class I are still irregular (e.g. denken (dachte) "to think", brennen (brannte) "to burn"), and subclasses of the productive verb paradigm are formed by verbs ending in -eln or -ern and in -ten or -den, among others.

Modern paradigms

The regular weak verbs conjugate as follows.

West Germanic

  English Afrikaans Dutch West Frisian German Yiddish
Infinitive to work werk 1 werken wurkje leare 2 werken (verkn) װערקן
present I work
(thou workest)
he works (worketh)
we work
you work
they work
ek werk
jy werk
hy werk
ons werk
julle werk
hulle werk
ik werk
jij werkt
hij werkt
wij werken
jullie werken
zij werken
ik wurkje
do wurkest
hy wurket
wy wurkje
jim wurkje
hja wurkje
ik lear
do learst
hy leart
wy leare
jim leare
hja leare
ich werke
du werkst
er werkt
wir werken
ihr werkt
sie werken
(ikh verk) איך װערק
(du verkst) דו װערקסט
(er verkt) ער װערקט
(mir verkn) מיר װערקן
(ir verkt) איר װערקט
(zey verkn) זי װערקן
Preterite I worked
(thou workedst)
he worked
we worked
you worked
they worked
(not used) ik werkte
jij werkte
hij werkte
wij werkten
jullie werkten
zij werkten
ik wurke
do wurkest
hy wurke
wy wurken
jim wurken
hja wurken
ik learde
do leardest
hy learde
wy learden
jim learden
hij learden
ich werkte
du werktest
er werkte
wir werkten
ihr werktet
sie werkten
(not used)
Past participle worked gewerk gewerkt wurke leard gewerkt (geverkt) געװערקט
1. The distinction between the infinitive and present forms of Afrikaans verbs has been lost with the exception of a very few such as weesand is, "to be" and "is/am/are"
2. learn, teach

North Germanic

  Swedish Icelandic Faroese
Infinitive verka verka virka 3
present jag verkar
du verkar
han verkar
vi verkar
ni verkar
de verkar
ég verka
žś verkar
hann verkar
viš verkum
žiš verkiš
žeir verka
eg virki
tś virkar
hann virkar
vit virka
tit virka
teir virka
Preterite jag verkade
du verkade
han verkade
vi verkade
ni verkade
de verkade
ég verkaši
žś verkašir
hann verkaši
viš verkušum
žiš verkušuš
žeir verkušu
eg virkaši
tś virkaši
hann virkaši
vit virkašu
tit virkašu
teir virkašu
Past participle verkat verkašur virkašur
3. prepare, manufacture

Weak and strong

Weak verbs should be contrasted with strong verbs, which form their past tenses by means of ablaut (vowel gradation: sing - sang - sung). Most verbs in the early stages of the Germanic languages were strong. However, as the ablaut system is no longer productive except in rare cases of analogy, almost all new verbs in Germanic languages are weak, and the majority of the original strong verbs have become weak by analogy.

Strong to weak transformations

As an example of the rather common process of originally strong verbs becoming weak, we may consider the development from the Old English strong verb scūfan to modern English shove:

  • scūfan scēaf scofen (strong class 2)
  • shove shoved shoved

Many hundreds of weak verbs in contemporary English go back to Old English strong verbs.

In some cases a verb has become weak in the preterite but not in the participle. These verbs may be thought of as "semi-strong" (not a technical term). Dutch has a number of examples of this:

  • wassen waste gewassen ("to wash")
  • lachen lachte gelachen ("to laugh")

An example in English is:

  • sow sowed sown (strong class 7 with weak preterite)

Often the old strong participle may survive as an adjective long after it has been replaced with a weak form in verbal constructions. The English adjective molten is an old strong participle of melt, which is now a purely weak verb with the participle melted. The participlegebacken of the German verb backen (to bake), is gradually being replaced by gebackt, but the adjective is always gebacken (baked).

Weak to strong transformations

The reverse process is also possible, though very rare: verbs which were originally weak can become strong by analogy. This can also be partial, producing "semi-strong" verbs:

  • show showed shown (originally weak verb with participle modelled on sown)

Weak verbs which develop strong forms are often unstable. A typical example is German fragen (to ask), which is historically weak, and weak in German today, but for a time in the 18th century it had the forms fragen frug gefragen by analogy with for example tragen (to carry). However, this innovation did not survive (though a present tense frägt is still heard in dialects).

Origins of the weak conjugation

The weak conjugation of verbs is an innovation of Proto-Germanic (unlike the older strong verbs, the basis of which goes back to Proto-Indo-European). While primary verbs (those inherited from PIE) already had an ablaut-based perfect form which was the basis of the Germanic strong preterite, secondary verbs (those derived from other forms after the break-up of PIE) had to form a preterite otherwise; this necessitated the creation of the weak conjugation.

Denominative derivation

The vast majority of weak verbs are secondary, or derived. The two main types of derived verbs were denominative and deverbative. A denominative verb is one which has been created out of a noun. The denominative in Indo-European and early Germanic was formed by adding an ablauting thematic *-yé/ó- suffix to a noun or adjective. This created verbs such as Gothic namnjan 'to name'.

Causative verbs

A significant subclass of Class I weak verbs are (deverbal) causative verbs. These are formed in a way that reflects a direct inheritance from the PIE causative class of verbs. PIE causatives were formed by adding an accented affix -éy- to the o-grade of a non-derived verb. In Proto-Germanic, causatives are formed by adding a suffix -j/ij- (the reflex of PIE -éy-) to the past-tense ablaut (mostly with the reflex of PIE o-grade) of a strong verb (the reflex of PIE non-derived verbs), with Verner's Law voicing applied (the reflex of the PIE accent on the -éy- suffix). Examples:

  • *bītanaN (I) "to bite" → *baitijanaN "to bridle, yoke, restrain", i.e. "to make bite down"
  • *rīsanaN (I) "to rise" → *raizijanaN "to raise", i.e. "to cause to rise"
  • *beuganaN (II) "to bend" → *baugijanaN "to bend (transitive)"
  • *brinnanaN (III) "to burn" → *brannijanaN "to burn (transitive)"
  • *fraweržanaN (III) "to perish" → *frawardijanaN "to destroy", i.e. "to cause to perish"
  • *nesanaN (V) "to survive" → *nazjanaN "to save", i.e. "to cause to survive"
  • *ligjanaN (V) "to lie down" → *lagjanaN "to lay", i.e. "to cause to lie down"
  • *sitjanaN (V) "to sit" → *satjanaN "to set, seat", i.e. "to cause to sit"
  • *faranaN (VI) "to travel, go" → *fōrijanaN "to lead, bring", i.e. "to cause to go"
  • *faranaN (VI) "to travel, go" → *farjanaN "to carry across", i.e. "to cause to travel" (an archaic instance of the o-grade ablaut used despite the differing past-tense ablaut)
  • *grētanaN (VII) "to weep" → *grōtijanaN "to cause to weep"
  • *lais (I, preterite-present) "(s)he knows" → *laizijanaN "to teach", i.e. "to cause to know"

Essentially all verbs formed this way were conjugated as Class I weak verbs.

This method of forming causative verbs is no longer productive in the modern Germanic languages, but many relics remain. For example, the original strong verb fall fell fallen has a related weak verb fell felled felled, which means "to cause (a tree) to fall"; strong sit sat sat and lie lay lain are matched with weak set set set and lay laid laid, meaning "to cause something to sit" or "lie" respectively. In some cases, phonological or semantic developments make the pairs difficult to recognize. For example, rear is the regular phonological development of Proto-Gemanic *raizijanaN given in the above list, but the connection between rise and rear is no longer obvious. (raise is a later, analogical development.) As another example, drench was originally the causative of drink, but the modern meaning of "drench" (i.e. "to cause to get wet") is no longer similar to "cause to drink". Similarly, German strong leiden litt gelitten ("to suffer") has the derived weak verb leiten ("to lead"), which makes sense when one realises that leiden originally meant "walk, go" and came to its present meaning through the idea of "undergoing" suffering.

Other types

There are primary verbs that date to Indo-European that took a weak conjugation because they were unable to take a perfect, including verbs that had zero grade of the root in the present and were therefore unable to show the ablaut distinction necessary for a strong preterite. This was the case with the verbs waurkjan 'to work, create', bugjan 'to buy', and sokjan 'to seek' (Gothic forms).

Preterite-present verbs are primary verbs in which the PIE present was lost, and the perfect was given a present meaning. These needed a new past tense, which followed the weak pattern.

All borrowings from other languages into Germanic were weak.

Origin of the dental suffix of weak verbs

The origin of the dental suffix is uncertain. Perhaps the most commonly-held theory is that it evolved out of a periphrastic construction with the verb to do: Germanic *lubōjana dēdo ("love-did") → *lubōdo → Old English lufode  loved. This would be analogous to the way that in Modern English we can form an emphatic past tense with "did": I did love.

The common PIE root *dheH1- meaning 'do' was a root aorist, and as such did not take a perfect. It did, however, take a reduplicating present. The imperfect of this root is taken by many to be the origin of the dental suffix.

Periphrastic origin of dental suffix PIE imperfect of "do" Proto-Germanic imperfect of "do" Gothic weak preterite ending
Singular *dhe-dhéH1-m *dedēn -da
*dhe-dhéH1-s *dedēs -des
*dhe-dhéH1-t *dedē -da
Plural *dhe-dhH1 *dém → *dedum (by analogy) -dedum
*dhe-dhH1 *dédd → *deduž (by analogy) -deduž
*dhe-dhH1n̩t *dedun -dedun

This view is not without objections. These are two often-proposed difficulties with this explanation:

  • Gothic -e- in the plural is long, but PGmc is short.
  • Reduplication is only in the Gothic plural.

These objections are sometimes answered as follows:

  • There might have been a refashioning according to cases like gēbun, viz. *gegbun > gēbun : *dedun  dēdun.
  • Reduplication only in the plural can easily be explained by haplology in Proto-Germanic (i.e., *dede- being reduced to *de-) for the singular, with a later development of haplology for the plural in non-East Germanic languages.

Another theory is that it came from a past participle ending, a final *-daz from PIE *-tos (cf Latin amatus), with personal endings added to it at a later stage. This theory is also disputed because of its inability to explain all the facts.

Other meanings

The term "weak verb" was originally coined by Jacob Grimm and in his sense refers only to Germanic philology. However, the term is sometimes applied to other language groups to designate phenomena which are not really analogous. For example, Hebrew irregular verbs are sometimes called weak verbs because one of their radicals is weak. See: weak inflection.



  1. Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod


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