Old English subjunctive

Old English subjunctive

The subjunctive mood is a flexible grammatical instrument for expressing different gradients in thought when referring to events that are not stated as fact. It is still used frequently in such languages as French, German and Spanish, and also in languages outside the Indo-European branch such as Turkish and Hungarian. In modern English we possess only remnants of a once complex system of separate conjugations. What once could be expressed succinctly with the mere change of a conjugation is now only expressible, more often than not, by using word-laden modal constructions.



The word subjunctive as used to denote grammatical mood derives directly from the Latin modus subjunctivus. This, in itself, is a Greek translation. The original Greek term is hypotaktike enklisis i.e. subordinated mood. In Greek the subjunctive is almost exclusively used in subordinate clauses. The earliest known usage of the term subjunctive in English dates from the 16th century.


The subjunctive mood in Old English can, theoretically, be traced back to its origins in the Indo-European proto language i.e. the reconstructed hypothetical proto language that is deemed to be the parent of many language families. These include Germanic languages (including English), Latinate Romance languages, Slavic languages, Celtic languages and several others, of which the Anatolian Branch is completely extinct. It has two closely related moods: the subjunctive and the optative. Many of its daughter languages combined or confounded these moods.

Indo-European optative

In Indo-European, the optative mood was formed with a suffix *ieh or *ih. (containing sounds as explained by laryngeal theory). It expressed wishes or hopes.

Indo-European subjunctive

In Indo-European, the subjunctive was formed by using the full ablaut grade of the root of the verb, and adding the thematic vowel *-e- or *-o- to the root stem, with the full, primary set of personal inflections. The subjunctive was the Indo-European irrealis, used for hypothetical or nonfactual situations.

Proto-Germanic subjunctive

Already in Proto-Germanic (the distant ancestor of English, German, Dutch and Yiddish, as well as others), we see the optative completely subsumed by the subjunctive. An example of the sound shifts evident after this subsuming can be seen in the verb beran 1st pers. sing. pret. sub. bērī, 2nd pers. sing. pret. sub. bērīz, 3rd pers. sing. bērī and respectively the plural forms bērīme, bērīd̵, bērīd̵.

Old English subjunctive

From Proto-Germanic, the subjunctive mood passed down into the Ingvaeonic Anglo-Frisian group, also referred to as Insular Germanic, of which Old English in a member. It is interesting to note the simplification of inflexions that took place along the way. The preterite subjunctive of beran now has only one form for singular, bǣre, and also only one form for plural, bǣren.

Uses Of Subjunctive Detail
1. Wish or Desire Nó ðæt ýde byð tó be-fleonne – fremme sé þe wille- (Beowulf,ll. 1003-04)

Not at all is [it] easy to escape – try as he might, he who will-

The weak (I) verb “fremman” is rendered here in the third person singular present subjunctive. The phrase “try as he might” is an idiom in English and retains the now almost defunct subjunctive. In the indicative form of the verb, this would be “tries”. It is interesting to note that in order to render the correct nuance in modern English the modal verb “might” needs to be employed. In Old English a simple change from indicative to subjunctive suffices for such a shift in meaning.

2. Command, Requirement, Suggestion and Recommendation Hroðgar sume worde hét þæt iċ his ǽrest ðé ést ġe-sæde… (Beowulf, ll. 2156-57)

Hrothgar commanded through certain word[s] that I first should declare to you his regard…

The sense of a transferred imperative (i.e. the imperative of Hrothgar as transferred to the iċ character) rendered by the third person singular past subjunctive form of (ge)secgan is expressed in modern English with the modal construction should + infinitive.

3. After impersonal verbs Ús dafenaþ ðæt wé waċien.

[It] is fitting for us that we should stay awake.

Here the subjunctive gives a sense of a moral code acting on the speaker from outside and also adds to the sense of the stated not being in the realm of facts.

4. Hypothetical Situations Sentences introducing a hypothetical concept often start with swelċe (as if), ġif (if), bútan (unless) and þéah or þéah þe (although).

Ġif messe-preost his áġen líf ríhtliċe fadie, þonne is ríht þæt his wurðscipe wexe. If a priest lives his own life in a righteous way, then [it] is right that his honour should grow.


Hasenfratz, Robert and Jambeck, Thomas. "Reading Old English". West Virginia, USA, West Virginian Press, 2005.

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