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.

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:

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

Historically, the pronunciation of the suffix in the vast majority of weak verbs (all four classes) was, although in most sources discussing Proto-Germanic it is spelled by convention. In the West Germanic languages, this suffix hardened to, but it remained a fricative in the other early Germanic languages (Gothic and Old Norse).

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 the 't kofschip rule.

In Afrikaans, which descends from Dutch, the past tense has fallen out of use altogether, and the past participle is marked only with the prefix ge-. Therefore, the suffix has disappeared along with the forms that originally contained it.

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 remained a voiced dental fricative in the form it was inherited from Old Norse.

The situation of early Norwegian was similar to Icelandic, but intervocalic eventually disappeared. In the verbs where it remains, the dental is /t/, /d/, depending on conjugation class and dialect. It is spelled accordingly. In Nynorsk, it can be different in the preterite and the past participle.

Swedish is very similar to Norwegian, although the dental is retained in the spelling, even between vowels. Some informal spellings indicate a lost dental, such as in sa ("said") from the standard spelling sade.

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:

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. þankjanaN "to think", past tense *þāNht-
  2. þunkjanaN "to seem", past tense *þūNht-
  3. 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:

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

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:

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 Frisian verbs given here are unattested, almost certainly due to the small nature of the respective corpora.

GothicOld NorseOld High GermanOld SaxonOld EnglishOld Frisian
Infinitivegramjangremjagremmengremmiangremmangremma
Pres. 1sg.gramjagremgremmugremmiugremmegremme
Pres. 2sg.gramjisgremrgremis(t)gremisgremes(t)gremest
Pres. 3sg.gramjiþgremrgremitgremidgremeþgremeth
Pres. 1du.gramjōs----------
Pres. 2du.gramjats----------
Pres. 1pl.gramjamgremjumgremmemēs (-ēn)gremmiadgremmaþgremmath
Pres. 2pl.gramjiþgremiðgremmetgremmiadgremmaþgremmath
Pres. 3pl.gramjandgremjagremmentgremmiadgremmaþgremmath
Pres. Subj. 1sg.gramjáugremjagremmegremmia (-ie)gremmegremme
Pres. Subj. 2sg.gramjáisgremirgremmēs(t)gremmias (-ies)gremmegremme
Pres. Subj. 3sg.gramjáigremigremmegremmia (-ie)gremmegremme
Pres. Subj. 1du.gramjáiwa----------
Pres. Subj. 2du.gramjáits----------
Pres. Subj. 1pl.gramjáimagremimgremmēm (-ēn, -ēmēs)gremmiangremmengremme
Pres. Subj. 2pl.gramjáiþgremiðgremmētgremmiangremmengremme
Pres. Subj. 3pl.gramjáinagremigremmēngremmiangremmengremme
Past 1sg.gramidagramdagremitagremidagremedegremede
Past 2sg.gramidēsgramdirgremitōs(t)gremidōsgremedes(t)gremedest
Past 3sg.gramidagramdigremitagremidagremedegremede
Past 1du.gramidēdu----------
Past 2du.gramidēduts----------
Past 1pl.gramidēdumgrǫmdumgremitum (-un, -umēs)gremidungremedongremedon
Past 2pl.gramidēduþgrǫmduðgremitutgremidungremedongremedon
Past 3pl.gramidēdungrǫmdugremitungremidungremedongremedon
Past Subj. 1sg.gramidēdjáugremdagremiti (-ī)gremidigremedegremede
Past Subj. 2sg.gramidēdeisgremdirgremitīs(t)gremidīsgremedegremede
Past Subj. 3sg.gramidēdigremdigremiti (-ī)gremidigremedegremede
Past Subj. 1du.gramidēdeiwa----------
Past Subj. 2du.gramidēdeits----------
Past Subj. 1pl.gramidēdeimagremdimgremitīm (-īn, -īmēs)gremidīngremedengremede
Past Subj. 2pl.gramidēdeiþgremdiðgremitītgremidīngremedengremede
Past Subj. 3pl.gramidēdeinagremdigremitīngremidīngremedengremede
Imper. 2sg.grameigremgremigremigremegreme
Imper. 3sg.gramjadáu----------
Imper. 2du.gramjats----------
Imper. 1pl.gramjamgremjumgremmemēs (-ēn)------
Imper. 2pl.gramjiþgremiðgremmetgremmiadgremmaþgremmath
Imper. 3pl.gramjandáu----------
Pres. Participlegramjandsgremjandigremmentigremmiandgremmendegremmand
Past Participlegramiþs
  • gramiðr
gigremitgremidgremedgremed

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)

GothicOld NorseOld High GermanOld SaxonOld EnglishOld Frisian
Infinitivehausjanheyrahōrenhōrianhīeranhēra
Pres. 1sg.hausjaheyrihōruhōriuhīerehēre
Pres. 2sg.hauseisheyrirhōris(t)hōrishīer(e)s(t)hēr(i)st
Pres. 3sg.hauseiþheyrirhōrithōridhīer(e)þhēr(i)th
Pres. 1du.hausjōs----------
Pres. 2du.hausjats----------
Pres. 1pl.hausjamheyrumhōremēs (-ēn)hōriadhīeraþhērath
Pres. 2pl.hauseiþheyriðhōrethōriadhīeraþhērath
Pres. 3pl.hausjandheyrahōrenthōriadhīeraþhērath
Pres. Subj. 1sg.hausjáuheyrahōrehōria (-ie)hīerehēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 2sg.hausjáisheyrirhōrēs(t)hōrias (-ies)hīerehēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 3sg.hausjáiheyrihōrehōria (-ie)hīerehēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 1du.hausjáiwa----------
Pres. Subj. 2du.hausjáits----------
Pres. Subj. 1pl.hausjáimaheyrimhōrēm (-ēn, -ēmēs)hōrianhīerenhēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 2pl.hausjáiþheyriðhōrēthōrianhīerenhēri (-e)
Pres. Subj. 3pl.hausjáinaheyrihōrēnhōrianhīerenhēri (-e)
Past 1sg.hausidaheyrðahōrtahōrdahīerdehērde
Past 2sg.hausidēsheyrðirhōrtōs(t)hōrdōshiērdes(t)hērdest
Past 3sg.hausidaheyrðihōrtahōrdahīerdehērde
Past 1du.hausidēdu----------
Past 2du.hausidēduts----------
Past 1pl.hausidēdumheyrðumhōrtum (-un, -umēs)hōrdunhīerdonhērdon
Past 2pl.hausidēduþheyrðuðhōrtuthōrdunhīerdonhērdon
Past 3pl.hausidēdunheyrðuhōrtunhōrdunhīerdonhērdon
Past Subj. 1sg.hausidēdjáuheyrðahōrti (-ī)hōrdihīerdehērde
Past Subj. 2sg.hausidēdeisheyrðirhōrtīs(t)hōrdīshīerdehērde
Past Subj. 3sg.hausidēdiheyrðihōrti (-ī)hōrdihīerdehērde
Past Subj. 1du.hausidēdeiwa----------
Past Subj. 2du.hausidēdeits----------
Past Subj. 1pl.hausidēdeimaheyrðimhōrtīm (-īn, -īmēs)hōrdīnhīerdenhērde
Past Subj. 2pl.hausidēdeiþheyrðiðhōrtīthōrdīnhīerdenhērde
Past Subj. 3pl.hausidēdeinaheyrðihōrtīnhōrdīnhīerdenhērde
Imper. 2sg.hauseiheyrhōrihōrihīerhēre
Imper. 3sg.hausjadáu----------
Imper. 2du.hausjats----------
Imper. 1pl.hausjamheyrumhōremēs (-ēn)------
Imper. 2pl.hauseiþheyriðhōrethōriadhīeraþhērath
Imper. 3pl.hausjandáu----------
Pres. Participlehausjandsheyrandihōrentihōriandhīerendehērand
Past Participlehausiþsheyrðrgihōrithōridhīeredhēred

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 *laþōnaN "to invite" (Gothic laþōn, Old Norse laða, Old High German ladōn, lathōn, Old Saxon lathian (-ōjan), ladian (-ōjan), Old English laþian, Old Frisian lathia).

GothicOld NorseOld High GermanOld SaxonOld EnglishOld Frisian
Infinitivelaþōnlaðaladōn, lathōnlathian (-ōjan), ladian (-ōjan)laþianlathia
Pres. 1sg.laþōlaðaladōm (-ōn), lathōm (-ōn)lathōn, ladōnlaþielathie
Pres. 2sg.laþōslaðarladōs(t), lathōs(t)lathōs, ladōslaþastlathast (-est)
Pres. 3sg.laþōþlaðarladōt, lathōtlathōd, ladōdlaþaþlathath
Pres. 1du.laþōs----------
Pres. 2du.laþōts----------
Pres. 1pl.laþōmlǫðumladōmēs (-ōn), lathōmēs (-ōn)lathōd (-ōjad), ladōd (-ōjad)laþiaþlathiath
Pres. 2pl.laþōþlaðiðladōt, lathōtlathōd (-ōjad), ladōd (-ōjad)laþiaþlathiath
Pres. 3pl.laþōndlaðaladōnt, lathōntlathōd (-ōjad), ladōd (-ōjad)laþiaþlathiath
Pres. Subj. 1sg.laþōlaðalado, latholathō (-ōja), ladō (-ōja)laþielathie
Pres. Subj. 2sg.laþōslaðirladōs(t), lathōs(t)lathōs (-ōjes), ladōs (-ōjes)laþielathie
Pres. Subj. 3sg.laþōlaðilado, latholathō (-ōja), ladō (-ōja)laþielathie
Pres. Subj. 1du.laþōwa----------
Pres. Subj. 2du.laþōts----------
Pres. Subj. 1pl.laþōmalaðimladōm (-ōn, -ōmēs), lathōm (-ōn, -ōmēs)lathōn, ladōnlaþienlathie
Pres. Subj. 2pl.laþōþlaðiðladōt, lathōtlathōn, ladōnlaþienlathie
Pres. Subj. 3pl.laþōnalaðiladōn, lathōnlathōn, ladōnlaþienlathie
Past 1sg.laþōdalaðaðaladōta, lathōtalathōda, ladōdalaþodelathade
Past 2sg.laþōdēslaðaðirladōtōs(t), lathōtōs(t)lathōdōs, ladōdōslaþodest
  • lathadest
Past 3sg.laþōdalaðaðiladōta, lathōtalathōda, ladōdalaþodelathade
Past 1du.laþōdēdu----------
Past 2du.laþōdēduts----------
Past 1pl.laþōdēdumlǫðuðumladōtum (-un, -umēs), lathōtum (-un, -umēs)lathōdun, ladōdunlaþodonlathadon
Past 2pl.laþōdēduþlǫðuðuðladōtut, lathōtutlathōdun, ladōdunlaþodonlathadon
Past 3pl.laþōdēdunlǫðuðuladōtun, lathōtunlathōdun, ladōdunlaþodonlathadon
Past Subj. 1sg.laþōdēdjáulaðaðaladōti (-ī), lathōti (-ī)lathōda, ladōdalaþode
  • lathade
Past Subj. 2sg.laþōdēdeislaðaðirladōtīs(t), lathōtīs(t)lathōdōs, ladōdōslaþode
  • lathade
Past Subj. 3sg.laþōdēdilaðaðiladōti (-ī), lathōti (-ī)lathōda, ladōdalaþodelathade
Past Subj. 1du.laþōdēdeiwa----------
Past Subj. 2du.laþōdēdeits----------
Past Subj. 1pl.laþōdēdeimalaðaðimladōtīm (-īn, -īmēs), lathōtīm (-īn, -īmēs)lathōdun, ladōdunlaþodenlathade
Past Subj. 2pl.laþōdēdeiþlaðaðiðladōtīt, lathōtītlathōdun, ladōdunlaþodenlathade
Past Subj. 3pl.laþōdēdeinalaðaðiladōtīn, lathōtīnlathōdun, ladōdunlaþodenlathade
Imper. 2sg.laþōlaðalado, latholathō, ladōlaþa
  • latha
Imper. 3sg.laþōdáu----------
Imper. 2du.laþōts----------
Imper. 1pl.laþōmlǫðumladōmēs (-ōn), lathōmēs (-ōn)------
Imper. 2pl.laþōþlaðiðladōt, lathōtlathōd, ladōdlaþiaþ
  • lathiath
Imper. 3pl.laþōndáu----------
Pres. Participlelaþōndslaðandiladōnti, lathōntilathōnd (-ōjand), ladōnd (-ōjand)laþiendelath(i)ande
Past Participlelaþōþslaðaðrladōt, lathōtlathōd, ladōdlaþodlathad

Class III Verbs

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

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

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

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):

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:

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, fullniþ, 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-háilnan "to become whole" (háils "whole"). Examples of deverbal Class IV verbs in Gothic are fra-lusnan "to perish" (fra-liusan "to destroy"), ga-þaúrsnan "to dry up, wither away" (ga-þaírsan "to wither"), mikilnan "to be magnified" (mikiljan "to magnify"), us-háuhnan "to be exalted" (us-háuhjan "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-taúrnan "to be torn asunder, burst asunder" (Class IV dis-taíran "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, Norwegian 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.:

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:

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

One of the regular weak verb conjugations is as follows.

West Germanic

Englishcolspan=2West FrisianAfrikaansDutchLow GermanGermanYiddish
Infinitiveworkwurkjeleare 2werk 1werkenwarkenwerken(verkn) װערקן
presentI work
thou workest
he works
we work
you work
they work
ik wurkje
do wurkest
hy wurket
wy wurkje
jim wurkje
hja wurkje
ik lear
do learst
hy leart
wy leare
jim leare
hja leare
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 wark
du warks(t)
he warkt
wi warkt
ji warkt
se warkt
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
ik wurke
do wurkest
hy wurke
wy wurken
jim wurken
hja wurken
ik learde
do leardest
hy learde
wy learden
jim learden
hij learden
(not used)ik werkte
jij werkte
hij werkte
wij werkten
jullie werkten
zij werkten
ik wark
du warks(t)
he warkt
wi warken
ji warken
se warken
ich werkte
du werktest
er werkte
wir werkten
ihr werktet
sie werkten
(not used)
Past participleworkedwurkeleardgewerkgewerkt(ge)warktgewerkt(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

SwedishDanishNorwegian BokmålNorwegian NynorskIcelandicFaroese
Infinitiveverkavirkevirkeverka/verkeverkavirka 3
presentjag verkar
du verkar
han verkar
vi verkar
ni verkar
de verkar
jeg virker
du virker
han virker
vi virker
I virker
de virker
jeg virker
du virker
han virker
vi virker
dere virker
de virker
eg verkar
du verkar
han verkar
vi/me verkar
de verkar
dei 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
jeg virkede
du virkede
han virkede
vi virkede
I virkede
de virkede
jeg virket/virka
du virket/virka
han virket/virka
vi virket/virka
dere virket/virka
de virket/virka
eg verka
du verka
han verka
vi/me verka
de verka
dei verka
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 participleverkatvirketvirket/virkaverkaverkaðurvirkaður

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:

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). The Dutch cognate vragen retained its new strong past vroeg up to the present day, but its past participle is weak gevraagd (though in some dialects gevrogen is used).

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:

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 *lubōda dēdē ("love-did") → *lubōdē → 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-dhH1n̥t
  • dedun
-dedun

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

These objections are sometimes answered as follows:

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.

References

Notes and References

  1. Rudolf Ernst Keller (1961). German dialects: phonology and morphology, with selected texts. Manchester University Press.