Germanic strong verb
In the Germanic languages, a strong verb is a verb that marks its past tense by means of changes to the stem vowel (ablaut). The majority of the remaining verbs form the past tense by means of a dental suffix (e.g. -ed in English), and are known as weak verbs.
In modern English, strong verbs include sing (present I sing, past I sang, past participle I have sung) and drive (present I drive, past I drove, past participle I have driven), as opposed to weak verbs such as open (present I open, past I opened, past participle I have opened). Not all verbs with a change in the stem vowel are strong verbs, however; they may also be irregular weak verbs such as bring, brought, brought or keep, kept, kept. The key distinction is that most strong verbs have their origin in the earliest sound system of Proto-Indo-European, whereas weak verbs use a dental ending (in English usually -ed or -t) that developed later with the branching off of the Proto-Germanic. As in English, in all Germanic languages weak verbs outnumber strong verbs.
The "strong" vs. "weak" terminology was coined by the German philologist Jacob Grimm in the 1800s, and the terms "strong verb" and "weak verb" are direct translations of the original German terms starkes Verb and schwaches Verb.
Strong verbs have their origin in the ancestral Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. In PIE, vowel alternations called ablaut were frequent and occurred in many types of word, not only in verbs. The vowel that appeared in any given syllable is called its "grade". In many words, the basic vowel was *e (e-grade), but, depending on what syllable of a word the stress fell on in PIE, this could change to *o (o-grade), or disappear altogether (zero grade). Both e and o could also be lengthened to ē and ō (lengthened grade). Thus ablaut turned short e into the following sounds:
As the Germanic languages developed from PIE, they dramatically altered the Indo-European verbal system. PIE verbs could occur in three distinct aspects: the aorist, present and perfect aspect. The aorist originally denoted events without any attention to the specifics or ongoing nature of the event ("ate", perfective aspect). The present implied some attention to such details and was thus used for ongoing actions ("is eating", imperfective aspect). The perfect was a stative verb, and referred not to the event itself, but to the state that resulted from the event ("has eaten" or "is/has been eaten"). In Germanic, the aorist eventually disappeared and merged with the present, while the perfect took on a past tense meaning and became a general past tense. The strong Germanic present thus descends from the PIE present, while the past descends from the PIE perfect. The inflections of PIE verbs also changed considerably.
In the course of these changes, the different root-vowels caused by PIE ablaut became markers of tense. Thus in Germanic, *bʰer- became *beraną in the infinitive (e-grade); *bar in the past singular (o-grade); *bērun in the past plural (ē-grade); and *buranaz in the past participle (zero-grade).
In Proto-Germanic, the system of strong verbs was largely regular. As sound changes took place in the development of Germanic from PIE, the vowels of strong verbs became more varied, but usually in predictable ways, so in most cases all of the principal parts of a strong verb of a given class could be reliably predicted from the infinitive. Thus we can reconstruct Common Germanic as having seven coherent classes of strong verbs. This system continued largely intact in the first attested Germanic languages, notably Gothic, Old English, Old High German and Old Norse.
Germanic strong verbs, mostly deriving directly from PIE, are slowly being supplanted by or transformed into weak verbs.
As well as developing the strong verb system, Germanic also went on to develop two other classes of verbs: the weak verbs and a third, much smaller, class known as the preterite-present verbs, which are continued in the English auxiliary verbs, e.g. can/could, shall/should, may/might, must. Weak verbs originally derived from other types of word in PIE and originally occurred only in the present aspect. They did not have a perfect aspect, meaning that they came to lack a past tense in Germanic once the perfect had become the past. Not having a past tense at all, they obviously also had no vowel alternations between present and past. To compensate for this, a new type of past tense was eventually created for these verbs by adding a -d- or -t- suffix to the stem. This is why only strong verbs have vowel alternations: their past tense forms descend from the original PIE perfect aspect, while the past tense forms of weak verbs were created later.
The development of weak verbs in Germanic meant that the strong verb system ceased to be productive: no new strong verbs developed. Practically all new verbs were weak, and few new strong verbs were created. Over time, strong verbs tended to become weak in some languages, so that the total number of strong verbs in the languages was constantly decreasing.
The coherence of the strong verb system is still present in modern German, Dutch, Icelandic and Faroese. For example, in German and Dutch, strong verbs are consistently marked with a past participle in -en, while weak verbs have a past participle in -t in German and -t or -d in Dutch. In English, however, the original regular strong conjugations have largely disintegrated, with the result that in modern English grammar, a distinction between strong and weak verbs is less useful than a distinction between "regular" and "irregular" verbs. Thus, the verb to help, which used to be conjugated help-holp-holpen, is now help-helped-helped. The reverse phenomenon, whereby a weak verb becomes strong by analogy, is rare (one example in American English, considered informal by some authorities, is sneak, snuck, snuck. Another is the humorous past tense of "sneeze" which is "snoze").
Some verbs, which might be termed "semi-strong", have formed a weak preterite but retained the strong participle, or rarely vice versa. This type of verb is most common in Dutch:
An instance of this phenomenon in English is swell, swelled, swollen (though swelled is also found for the past participle, and the older strong form swole persists in some dialects as the preterite and past participle and has found new use in recent years. ).
As an example of the conjugation of a strong verb, we may take the Old English class 2 verb bēodan, "to offer" (cf. English "bid").
While the inflections are more or less regular, the vowel changes in the stem are not predictable without an understanding of the Indo-European ablaut system, and students have to learn four or five "principal parts" by heart – the number depends on whether one considers the third-person singular present tense as a principal part. If we choose to use all five, then for this verb they are bēodan, bīett, bēad, budon, boden. The list of five principal parts includes:
Strictly speaking, in this verb ablaut causes only a threefold distinction: parts 1 and 2 are from the e-grade, part 3 from the o-grade, and parts 4 and 5 from the zero grade. The other two distinctions are caused by different kinds of regressive metaphony: part 2, when it is distinct at all, is always derived from part 1 by umlaut. In some verbs, part 5 is a discrete ablaut grade, but in this class 2 verb it is derived from part 4 by an a-mutation.
Germanic strong verbs are commonly divided into 7 classes, based on the type of vowel alternation. This is in turn based mostly on the type of consonants that follow the vowel. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Henry Sweet gave names to the seven classes:
In Proto-Germanic, the common ancestor of the Germanic languages, the strong verbs were still mostly regular. The classes continued largely intact in Old English and the other older historical Germanic languages: Gothic, Old High German and Old Norse. However, idiosyncrasies of the phonological changes led to a growing number of subgroups. Also, once the ablaut system ceased to be productive, there was a decline in the speakers' awareness of the regularity of the system. That led to anomalous forms and the six big classes lost their cohesion. This process has advanced furthest in English, but in some other modern Germanic languages (such as German), the seven classes are still fairly well preserved and recognisable.
The reverse process in which anomalies are eliminated and subgroups reunited by the force of analogy is called "levelling", and it can be seen at various points in the history of the verb classes.
In the later Middle Ages, German, Dutch and English eliminated a great part of the old distinction between the vowels of the singular and plural preterite forms. The new uniform preterite could be based on the vowel of the old preterite singular, on the old plural, or sometimes on the participle. In English, the distinction remains in the verb "to be": I was, we were. In Dutch, it remains in the verbs of classes 4 & 5 but only in vowel length: ik brak (I broke - short a), wij braken (we broke - long ā). In German and Dutch it also remains in the present tense of the preterite presents. In Limburgish there is a little more left. E.g. the preterite of to help is (weer) hólpe for the plural but either (ich) halp or (ich) hólp for the singular.
In the process of development of English, numerous sound changes and analogical developments have fragmented the classes to the extent that most of them no longer have any coherence: only classes 1, 3 and 4 still have significant subclasses that follow uniform patterns.
Before looking at the seven classes individually, the general developments that affected all of them will be noted. The following phonological changes that occurred between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic are relevant for the discussion of the ablaut system.
For the purpose of explanation, the different verb forms can be grouped by the vowel they receive, and given a "principal part" number:
In West Germanic, the 2nd person singular past indicative deviates from this scheme and uses the vowel of Part 3. Its ending is also an -i of unclear origin, rather than the expected -t < PIE *-th₂e of North and East Germanic, which suggests that this state of affairs is an innovation.
The first 5 classes appear to continue the following PIE ablaut grades:
Except for the apparent ē-grade in part 3 of classes 4 and 5, these are in fact straightforward survivals of the PIE situation.
The standard pattern of PIE is represented in Germanic by classes 1, 2 and 3, with the present (part 1) in the e-grade, past indicative singular (part 2) in the o-grade, and remaining past (part 3) and past participle (part 4) in the zero grade. The differences between classes 1, 2, and 3 arise from semivowels coming after the root vowel, as shown in the table below.
As can be seen, the e-grade in part 1 and o-grade in part 2 are shared by all of these five classes. The difference between them is in parts 3 and 4:
Class 6 appears in Germanic with the vowels a and ō. PIE sources of the a vowel included *h2e, *o, and a laryngeal between consonants; possibly in some cases the a may be an example of the a-grade of ablaut, though the existence of such a grade is controversial. It is not clear exactly how the ō is to be derived from an earlier ablaut alternant in PIE, but believable sources include contraction of the reduplicant syllable in PIE *h2-initial verbs, or o-grades of verbs with interconsonantal laryngeal. In any event, within Germanic the resulting a ~ ō behaved as just another type of vowel alternation.
The forms of class 7 were very different and did not neatly reflect the standard ablaut grades found in the first 5 classes. Instead of (or in addition to) vowel alternations, this class displayed reduplication of the first consonants of the stem in the past tense.
It is generally believed that reduplication was once a feature of all Proto-Indo-European perfect-aspect forms. It was then lost in most verbs by Proto-Germanic times due to haplology. However, verbs with vowels that did not fit in the existing pattern of alternation retained their reduplication. Class 7 is thus not really one class, but can be split into several subclasses based on the original structure of the root, much like the first 5 classes. The first three subclasses are parallel with classes 1 to 3 but with e replaced with a: 7a is parallel to class 1, class 7b to class 2, and class 7c to class 3.
The situation sketched above did not survive intact into any of the Germanic languages. It was changed significantly, but rather differently in Gothic on the one hand, and in the Northwest Germanic languages on the other.
Reduplication was retained in Gothic, with the vowel ai inserted. However, as in all other strong verbs, consonant alternations were almost eliminated in favour of the voiceless alternants. The present and past singular stem was extended to the plural, leaving the reduplication as the only change in the stem between the two tenses. The vowel alternation was retained in a few class 7d verbs, but eliminated otherwise by generalising the present tense stem throughout the paradigm. The verb lētan "to allow" retained the past form lailōt with ablaut, while slēpan "to sleep" had the past tense form saislēp without it. The form saizlēp, with Verner-law alternation, is occasionally found as well, but it was apparently a relic formation with no other examples of alternation elsewhere.
In the Northwest Germanic languages, which include all modern surviving Germanic languages, class 7 was drastically remodelled. Reduplication was almost eliminated, except for a few relics, and new ablaut patterns were introduced. Many attempts were made to explain this development. Jasanoff posits the following series of events within the history of Northwest Germanic:
Stages 4 and 5 were not quite complete by the time of the earliest written records. While most class 7 verbs had replaced reduplication with ablaut entirely, several vestigial remains of reduplication are found throughout the North and West Germanic languages. Various other changes occurred later in the individual languages. *e in class 7c was replaced by *ē (> ia) in Old High German and Old Dutch, but by *eu (> ēo) in Old English.
The following "Late Proto-Northwest-Germanic" can be reconstructed as descendants of the earlier Proto-Germanic forms given above. Note that ē became ā in Northwest Germanic.
The Proto-Germanic language most likely used more than 500 strong roots. Although some roots are speculative, the language can be reconstructed with the following strong roots based on the work of Elmar Seebold (1970), Robert Mailhammer (2007) and Guus Kroonen (2013). Proto-Germanic had aorist-present roots, a remnant of the aorist aspect found in Proto-Indo-European. These verbs used the former aorist as a present tense form. The aorist had a zero-grade vowel, like parts 3 and 4 of the perfect. So these verbs have an anomalous vowel in the present tense, they decline regularly otherwise.
Being the oldest Germanic language with any significant literature, it is not surprising that Gothic preserves the strong verbs best. However, some changes still occurred:
Some relics of class 7 reduplication remain in Old English, mostly in texts from Anglia (infinitive and past singular shown):
In Modern English, generally speaking, the verb classes have disintegrated and are not easily recognisable.
For the principal parts of all English strong verbs see: Wiktionary appendix: Irregular English verbs.
Class 1 is still recognisable, as in most other Germanic languages. The modern past is taken from either the old past singular (ride rode ridden) or the old past plural (bite bit bitten). In the case of shine shone shone, the past participle has also assimilated to the past singular.
Class 1 roots in modern English (excluding derived verbs such as abide and override) are bide, bite, chide, drive, hide, ride, rise, rive, shine, shit/shite, shrive, slide, smite, stride, strike, strive, thrive, write. Note that bide, chide, rive, shine, shrive, strive, thrive can also be weak. However, although most of these verbs have uniformity in their infinitive vowel, they no longer form a coherent class in further inflected forms – for example, bite (bit, bitten), ride (rode, ridden), shine (shone, shone), and strike (struck, struck/stricken, with struck and stricken used in different meanings) all show different patterns from one another – but bide, drive, ride, rise, smite, stride, strive, write do form a (more or less) coherent subclass. Most of these verbs are descended from Old English class 1 verbs. However:
In American English, the past tense of the verb dive is usually dove, as though it is in Class 1, but the past participle is still dived.
Class 2 does not form a coherent class, as each verb has developed different irregularities. It includes choose, cleave, fly, freeze and shoot (whose usual passive participle is shot rather than shotten). The verb bid (in the sense of "to offer") was in Class 2, but now the past and past participle are bid. The obsolete verb forlese is now used only as the passive participle forlorn.
Class 3 in English is still fairly large and regular. The past is formed either from the old past singular or from the past plural. Many of the verbs have two past forms, one of which may be dialectal or archaic ( and wring). The class 3a verbs in modern English are:begin, drink, ring, shrink, sing, slink, spin, spring, stink, swing, swim
English fling does not go back to Old English, and may be a loan-word from Norse. It seems to have adopted class 3 forms by analogy with cling etc. Similarly, ring and string were historically weak. The verb ding (in the meaning of to hit) was in this class as well, but is now usually treated as a weak verb.
In Modern English, regular class 4 verbs have all kept the –n in the participle, though eliminating the medial e after r, this class exhibits near homogeneity of vowel pattern:
but several verbs have archaic preterites that preserve the "a" of Middle English (bare, brake, gat, sware, tare, and spake or Scots spak). Class 4 verbs in English (not including derivatives such as beget) are bear, break, get, shear, speak, steal, swear, tear, tread, wake, weave; and without the -n and of irregular vowel progression: come. Get, speak, tread and weave (weave, and occasionally tread, can also be weak) were originally of class 5, whereas swear was originally class 6. Wake was also originally class 6, and in fact retains the "a" of the present tense – the preterite woke (Middle English wook) only conforms to the modern class 4 preterite, not to the historic class 4 preterite in "a". The verb come is anomalous in all the West Germanic languages because it originally began with qu-, and the subsequent loss of the w sound coloured the vowel of the present stem. modern English "come came come", compared to Old English cuman cymþ - cōm cōmon - cumen and Middle English comen - cam or com – comen.
Class 5 verbs in Modern English: bid (in the sense of "to command" or "to invite"), eat, forbid, give, lie (= lie down), see, sit. The verb quethe is only used poetically now. Get, speak, tread, and weave, which come from Class 5 verbs, are now Class 4. The verb forbid comes from a Class 2 verb in Old English, as did bid in the sense of "to offer, proclaim", but forbid is conflated with the other verb bid ("to command"). The preterite can be forbad or forbade, or even forbid. The preterite ate is pronounced "et" in some British dialects; historically the form eat, homophonous with the present stem was also found for the preterite. Although the verb to be is suppletive and highly irregular, its past follows the pattern of a class 5 strong verb, with grammatischer Wechsel (the alternation of "s" and "r" in "was" versus "were"), and has uniquely retained the singular/plural distinction of both ablaut grade and consonant in the modern languages. Old English: wæs/wǣron, English: was/were. For full paradigms and historical explanations see Indo-European copula.
Class 6 has disintegrated as well. The verbs shake, take and forsake come closest to the original vowel sequence. The consonant anomaly in stand is still visible, and is extended to the participle.
Class 6 verbs in modern English: drag, draw, forsake, lade, shake, shape, shave, slay, stand, take. The verb heave is in this class when used in a nautical context. Like most other classes in Modern English, this class has lost cohesion and now forms principal parts according to many different patterns. Two preterites (drew and slew) are now spelled with "ew", which is similar in sound to the "oo" of the others that still use a strong form. Swear is now class 4. The adjective graven was originally a past participle of the now obsolete verb grave. Note that lade, shape, shave, wax are now weak outside of their optionally strong past participle forms (laden, shapen, shaven, and waxen respectively). Fare has archaic past tense fore and rare past participle faren, but is normally weak now.
The following modern English verbs descend from class 7 verbs, and still retain strong-verb endings: beat, blow, fall, hew, grow, hang, hold, know, throw. (Hew can be a preterite or present, although the usual preterite, and sometimes the participle too, is hewed.) The verb let can be considered Class 7, though the past participle now lacks the ending -en. The verbs mow and sow sometimes retain the strong-verb participles mown and sown but the preterites are now usually mowed and sowed. (The verb sew was always weak, even though one can say sewn for the past participle.) The verb show, originally a weak verb, has acquired a strong past participle shown, and in some dialects even a class 7 strong past tense shew (This "shew" is not to be confused with present "shew", which is an older spelling of, and pronounced the same as, "show"). Archaic English still retained the reduplicated form hight ("called", originally a past tense, usually with a passive meaning, but later also used as a passive participle). The verb crow was also in class 7, as in the King James Version "while he yet spake, the cock crew".
Old Dutch is attested only fragmentarily, so it is not easy to give forms for all classes. Hence, Middle Dutch is shown here in that role instead. The situation of Old Dutch generally resembled that of Old Saxon and Old High German in any case.
This class is well preserved and has the most strong verbs. Not only has it preserved many strong verbs inherited from the proto language, it was also able to expand by introducing the strong inflection to a large number of weak verbs by analogy. Sound changes caused the historical ‘ai’ and ‘i’ in open syllables, to merge as a long ‘e’ essentially merging parts 2,3,4.
A notable development in Dutch is the growth of class 2b at the expense of class 2a. Like class 1, sound changes caused the historical ‘au’ and ‘u’ in open syllables, to merge as a long ‘o’ merging parts 2,3,4.
Class 3a and 3b have generalised part 3 to part 2, eliminating the -a- from this class. Some 3b verbs have a past in -ie- like class 7: helpen - hielp - geholpen. This can be considered a new "class 3 + 7".
Class 4 and 5 verbs still show the distinction in vowel between the past singular (part 2) and plural (part 3), although this is not obvious due to the rules of Dutch orthography: ik nam ("I took") has the plural wij namen (not *nammen), that is, the 'short' vowel [ɑ] of the singular is replaced by the 'long' [aː] in the plural. (Note the relationship of consonant doubling to vowel length, which is explained at Dutch orthography). The pattern is therefore: breken brak (braken) gebroken ("to break")
Class 6 has become very small, many of its verbs have gone weak or have become semi-strong.
Class 7 has shrunk in the modern language, like class 6 many of its verbs have become semi-strong. This class has an -ie- in the past tense, the past participle has the same vowel as the present tense. (The verbs with * are nowadays mostly semi-strong)
A special case is hoeven, which is a weak verb that can decline a strong participle in some circumstances, even though the verb was never strong to begin with.
The distinction between strong and weak verbs has been lost in Afrikaans, as the original past tense has fallen out of use almost entirely, being replaced with the old perfect tense using the past participle. For example, the ancestral Dutch hij zong has become hy het gesing ("he sang/has sung/had sung). One relic of a strong verbs remains, however: wees was gewees ("to be").
In class 1, part 3 is generalised, eliminating the older -ei- or -e-. However, a new subdivision arises because the i of the past tense forms is lengthened to ie before a single consonant. reiten ritt geritten ("to ride") versus leihen lieh geliehen ("to loan"). Class 1 verbs in modern German are:
In class 2, part 2 is generalised, eliminating older -u-. Class 2b verbs are rare, as in Old High German.
In class 3, part 2 is generalised. The o of the 3b participle has been passed by analogy to some 3a verbs, and also to the past of some verbs of both groups: beginnen begann begonnen, bergen barg geborgen ("to rescue"), quellen quoll gequollen ("to well up"). Thus, there are now 5 subgroups:
In class 4, the long -a- of part 3 was generalised to part 2. Example: nehmen nahm genommen ("to take").
Class 5 is little changed from Old High German, like class 4 the long -a- of part 3 was generalised.
Class 6 is also preserved. In Modern German the uo is monophthongised to u.
In class 7, the various past tense vowels have merged into a single uniform -ie-.
As in Middle Dutch Lengthening of vowels in open syllables: e > ē, o > ō, a > ā, ö > ȫ, ü > ǖ. i Is often lengthened to ē.
There is no single Modern Low German, and some sources gives different forms than this. E.g. see
Most classes are quite well preserved, although the cohesion of some has been lost substantially or even entirely.
This class has genralised part 2 over part 3 creating a past tense in 'e'. The class can be split up by the different vowels the supine can take:
This class has genralised part 2 over part 3 creating a past tense in 'ø'. The class can be split up by the different vowels the supine can take:
This class has disintegrated into a number of smaller subgroups, all its members have generalised part 2 over part 3 creating a past tense with 'a'.
Class 5 this class has lost cohesion. It is marked by 'å' or 'a' in the past tense and the supine has the same vowel as the infinitive.
Class 6 is marked by 'o' in the past tense and the supine has the same vowel as the infinitive.
Danish has removed the vowel alternation between the past and present tenses (except for få and gå)
Unlike Danish, this class is still uniform in Swedish, all verbs have an ‘e’(eː) in the past tense, the supine has the same vowel as the present tense.
Regular class 1 verbs (iː-eː-iː): bita, bliva / bli, driva, fisa, glida, gnida, gripa, kliva, knipa, kvida, lida, niga, pipa, rida, riva, skina, skita, skrida, skrika, skriva, slita, smita, snika, sprida, stiga, strida, svida, svika, tiga, vika, vina, vrida
In Swedish this class split up into multiple patterns all verbs have an ‘ö’ (øː) in the past tense:
Class 3a is well preserved and has a predictable pattern, with 'a' in the past tense and 'u'(ɵ) in the supine. Class 3b on the other hand has shrunk in the modern language to only a few members, most of the remaining verbs now often appear with weak forms as well, making this subclass fairly unstable.
Regular class 3a verbs (ɪ-a-ɵ): binda, brinna, brista, dimpa, dricka, finna, förnimma (originally class 4), gitta (Danish loan word), hinna, klicka, klinga, rinna, simma (also weak), sitta (originally class 5), skrinna, slinka, slinta, slippa, spilla (also weak), spinna, spricka, springa, spritta, sticka, stinga, stinka, svinna (försvinna), tvinga, vinna
Anomalous: The verb varda, is declined vart-vorten. But it is now only used in the past tense (as an alternative for the past tense of bliva)
This class has become small, only three regular verbs remain, they have a long ‘a’ (ɑː) in the past tense and a long ‘u’ (ʉː) in the supine.