Germanic verb

Germanic verb

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 done with would in the preterite and have in the present).

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 in Proto-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 simply stative, 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 besides Old 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 English hebban "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.


The so-called preterite-present verbs are a small group of anomalous verbs in the Germanic languages in which the present tense shows the form of the strong preterite.


The Proto-Indo-European perfect usually developed into a Germanic past tense. Some perfects, however, developed into Germanic present-tense verbs and are called preterite-presents, since they have the meaning of the present tense and the form of the past or preterite tense. The Indo-European perfect originally signified a current state of being rather than any particular tense. Since the preterite-present verbs are non-past and signify current states (temporalized as present tense), they constitute a retention of the non-past nature of the Indo-European perfect.

For example, Proto-Indo-European *woida originally meant "I see, I am a witness". This meaning developed to the meaning "I know" in Ancient Greek oîda and Vedic veda, as well as in Gothic wait. The original semantic meaning of "seeing" is preserved in Latin vīdī 'I saw' (probably an old root aorist). Compare Polish widzieć (to see) and wiedzieć (to know).

Preterite-presents in Proto-Germanic

The known verbs in Proto-Germanic (PGmc):

Infinitive Meaning Class Present Preterite
*witanan "know" I wait wissa
*lisanan "know" I lais lissa
*aiganan "have", "own" I aig aihta
*duganan "be useful" II daug duhta
*unnanan "grant" III ann unþa
*kunnanan "know (how to)", later "can" III kann kunþa
*þurbanan "need" III þarb þurfta
*dursanan "dare" III dars dursta
*skulanan "must", later "shall" IV skal skulda
*munanan "think" IV man munda
*gamunanan "remember" IV gaman gamunda
*binuganan "behoove" V binag binuhta
*ganuganan "be enough" V ganag ganuhta
*maganan "can", later "may" VI mag mahta
*ōganan "fear" VI ōg ōhta
*mōtanan "may", later "must" VI mōt mōsta
*gamōtanan "have room" VI gamōt gamōsta


The present tense has the form of a vocalic (strong) preterite, with vowel-alternation between singular and plural. A new weak preterite is formed with a dental suffix. The root shape of the preterite (in zero-grade) serves as the basis for the infinitive and past passive participle, thus Gothic inf. witan and past participle witans; this contrasts with all other Germanic verb types in which the basis for those forms is the present stem.

Gothic Old English German Dutch Old Norse Icelandic Danish Swedish
infinitive witan witan wissen weten vita vita vide veta
present 1st & 3rd sg wait wāt weiß weet veit veit ved vet
present 3rd pl witun witon wissen weten vitu vita ved (veta)*
preterite 1st & 3rd sg wissa wisse wusste wist vissa/vissi vissi vidste visste
present participle witands witende wissend wetend vitandi vitandi vidende vetande
past participle witans gewiten gewusst geweten vitat** vitað** vidst vetat**
*(Plural forms have been lost in modern central Swedish, but are retained in some dialects.)

**(Actually, not the past participle but the supine.)

Personal endings

For the most part, the personal endings of the strong preterite are used for the present tense. In fact, in West Germanic the endings of the present tense of preterite-present verbs represent the original IE perfect endings better than that subgroup's strong preterite verbs do: the expected PGmc strong preterite 2 sg. form ending in -t was retained rather than replaced by the endings -e or -i elsewhere adopted for strong preterites in West Germanic.

The endings of the preterite (except for *kunnana) are the same as the endings of the first weak class.

Subsequent developments

In modern English, preterite-present verbs are identifiable by the absence of an -s suffix on the 3rd person singular present tense form. Compare, for instance, he can with he sings (pret. he sang); the present paradigm of can is thus parallel with the past tense of a strong verb. (See English modal verb.) In modern German there is also an ablaut shift between singular ich kann (I can) and plural wir können (we can). In the older stages of the Germanic languages (Old English, Middle High German) the past tense of strong verbs also showed different ablaut grades in singular and plural.

Many of the preterite-present verbs function as modal verbs (auxiliaries which are followed by a bare infinitive, without "to" in English, and which convey modality) and indeed most of the traditional modal verbs are preterite-presents. Examples are English must and shall/should, German dürfen (may), sollen (ought), mögen (like), and müssen (must). The early history of will (German wollen) is more complicated, as it goes back to an Indo-European optative, but the result in the modern languages is likewise a preterite-present paradigm.

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 be has 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).[citation needed]

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.

See also


Specialist subsidiary and related articles

The verb in particular Germanic languages

Other aspects of Germanic verbs


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  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. London: Oxford University Press. 
  • Galleé, Johan Hendrik (1910). Altsächsische Grammatik. Halle: Max Niemeyer. 
  • Gordon, E.V. (1927). An Introduction to Old Norse. London: Oxford University Press. 
  • Heuser, Wilhelm (1903). Altfriesisches Lesebuch mit Grammatik und Glossar. Heidelberg: Carl Winter's Universitätsbuchhandlung. 
  • Ringe, Don (2008). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: OUP. ISBN 0199552290. 
  • Skeat, Walter William (1868). A Moeso-Gothic glossary. London: Asher & Co.. 
  • Voyles, Joseph B. (1992). Early Germanic Grammar. San Diego: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-728270-X. 
  • Wright, Joseph (1906). An Old High German Primer (Second Edition). Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Wright, Joseph (1910). Grammar of the Gothic Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Wright, Joseph; Wright, Elizabeth Mary (1925). Old English Grammar (Third Edition). London: Oxford University Press. 
  • Guus, Kroonen (Expected October 2010). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic. Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, 11. Brill Academic Publishers. ISBN 978 90 04 18340 7. 

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