Germanic weak verb explained

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.

For other aspects of the verb in Germanic languages see the article Germanic verb.

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 English the preterite and participle are always identical, but in most of the other Germanic languages there are three principal parts. For example:

InfinitivePreteritePast Participle
rowspan=2English (regular)to lovelovedloved
to laughlaughedlaughed
rowspan=4English (irregular)to saysaidsaid
to sendsentsent
to buyboughtbought
to setsetset
rowspan=2Germanlieben (love)liebtegeliebt
bringen (bring)brachtegebracht

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 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 devoicing causes the pronunciation /t/ in all cases. Nevertheless, Dutch does distinguish the spellings in and even in final position. See Dutch spelling for the 't kofschip rule.

In German the dental is always /t/, and always spelled , 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 /ð/, as it was in some verbs in Old English. In Afrikaans it has disappeared altogether.

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:

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:

An example in English is:

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 participle gebacken 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:

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'.

Deverbative derivation

A deverbative verb is one created from another verb. One very productive source was the derivation of new verbs with causative meanings from existing verbs, resulting in many pairs of related strong and weak verbs: 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. Occasionally semantic shifts make these pairs difficult to recognise. 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.

In Germanic, the deverbative derivation was almost exclusively made by changing the vowel of the root to o-grade and adding the causative/iterative *-éye/o- suffix.Gothic shows a more archaic form in its infinitive satjan < *sodeyo- < *sed- 'sit'. In both varieties, the -y- component remains most often in Gothic (written as ), but in all applicable cases it caused i-mutation in the other Germanic languages (this explains the vowel in English set : Gothic sat-).

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.

Theory of periphrastic origin

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 lufodeloved. 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 suffixPIE imperfect of "do"Proto-Germanic imperfect of "do"Gothic weak preterite ending
rowspan=3Singular
  • dhe-dhéH1-m
  • dedēn
-da
  • dhe-dhéH1-s
  • dedēs
-des
  • dhe-dhéH1-t
  • dedē
-da
rowspan=3Plural
  • dhe-dhH1
  • dém → *dedum (by analogy)
-dedum
  • dhe-dhH1
  • dédd → *deduþ (by analogy)
-deduþ
  • dhe-dhH1n̩t
  • dedun
-dedun

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

These objections are sometimes answered as follows:

Theory of participial origin

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.

Historical conjugations

In the medieval Germanic languages, a number of different classes of weak verbs had to be distinguished, according to the consonants in the stem. Class 1 is known as the -jan conjugation, because their development was influenced by a /j/ in Germanic, which however is only attested in Old Saxon. In Old English, class 1 weak verbs commonly had preterites ending in -ede. This group commonly experienced consonant doubling in the infinitive caused by West Germanic Gemination. Class 2 weak verbs typically ended in -ode in Old English. Besides these two main classes there were several smaller ones.

Modern paradigms

In the modern languages, these distinctions have mostly been levelled. Only Frisian has retained two productive classes of weak verbs. In addition to the class with the -de, there is a class of je-verbs, where the dental suffix has dropped (-je<-iad). The regular weak verbs conjugate as follows.

West Germanic

EnglishAfrikaansDutchcolspan=2West FrisianGermanYiddish
Infinitiveto workwerk 1werkenwurkjeleare 2werken(verkn) װערקן
presentI 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
PreteriteI 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 participleworkedgewerkgewerktwurkeleardgewerkt(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 wees and is, "to be" and "is/am/are"

2. learn, teach

North Germanic

SwedishIcelandicFaroese
Infinitiveverkaverkavirka 3
presentjag verkar
du verkar
han verkar
vi verkar
ni verkar
de verkar
ég verka
þú verkar
hann verkar
við verkum
þið verkið
þeir verka
eg virki
tú virkar
hann virkar
vit virka
tit virka
teir virka
Preteritejag verkade
du verkade
han verkade
vi verkade
ni verkade
de verkade
ég verkaði
þú verkaðir
hann verkaði
við verkuðum
þið verkuðuð
þeir verkuðu
eg virkaði
tú virkaði
hann virkaði
vit virkaðu
tit virkaðu
teir virkaðu
Past participleverkatverkaðurvirkaður

3. prepare, manufacture

Irregularities

Weak verbs are often thought of as having a regular inflection, but not all weak verbs are regular verbs; some have been made irregular by ellipsis or contraction, such as hear ~ heard; while others are merely irregular due to the eccentricities of English spelling, such as lay ~ laid. In German, verbs ending in -eln or -ern have slightly different inflection patterns. There are many other examples. The Preterite-present verbs are in a sense weak verbs with very significant irregularities; but usually they are not bracketed under weak verbs.

One particularly interesting category of irregular weak verb is the so-called rückumlaut verb. This is discussed in the article on Germanic umlaut under the section "Umlaut in Germanic verbs". An original -j- in the inflection caused the whole of the present stem (including the infinitive) to experience a fronting of the stem vowel, though the past tense retains the back vowel. Another irregularity is a consonant alternation sometimes referred to by the German word Primärberührung, which looks superficially like Grammatischer Wechsel but in fact results from the phenomenon of the Germanic spirant law in early Germanic. In effect this is a process of assimilation of the plosive at the end of the stem caused by contact with the dental suffix. Both Rückumlaut and Primärberührung are observable in the verb to think:

Some school text books use the term "mixed verb" to describe these. This rests on the misconception that these verbs display both ablaut and a dental suffix, and are therefore at once strong and weak. But the vowel change is not ablaut.

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.