Strong verbs in Old and Middle English and irregular verbs in Modern English

A history of verb development and a comparison of classifications

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 2



1. Introduction

2. Old English
2.1 The Old English Classification System of Strong Verbs
2.2 Old English Conjugational System

3. Middle English
3.1 The Middle English System of Strong Verbs
3.2 Middle English Conjugational System

4. Modern English
4.1 Modern English Classification of Irregular Verbs
4.2 Conjugation of Irregular Verbs in Modern English

5. A Comparison of the Different Classification Systems

6. Development of Strong Verbs from Old English to Modern English

7. Conclusion

List of Abbreviations


1. Introduction

In the following essay the development of strong verbs in English will be examined, starting in the Old English period and reaching up to Modern English times. The different classification systems and conjugational patterns that apply for the periods will be compared. The main task of the essay will be to find out similarities differences and parts which have remained the same in these systems.

In the course of the essay, the Old English system of strong verbs will be compared to the Middle English system and finally the Modern English system. In order to do this, it will be necessary to describe the classification system of Old English strong verbs in detail as well as pointing out the conjugational patterns that apply for these verbs.

In the next section the same will be done for Middle English strong verbs. In that section changes will already have to be mentioned.

Afterwards, an entirely different classification of Modern English irregular verbs as suggested by Quirk & Greenbaum will be introduced. In addition the conjugational system of Modern English verbs will be described.

Following this mainly descriptive first part of the essay, the second part will compare the systems and point out the main differences or similarities.

The last section provides a summary of the developments which took place in the evolution of strong verbs and which have already been touched in the descriptions of the different classification systems.

2. Old English

2.1 The Old English Classification System of Strong Verbs

In Old English there are four types of verbs: strong verbs, weak verbs, preterite present verbs and irregular verbs. The differences between these types are mainly marked in the category of tense. Weak verbs show a dental suffix in their preterite and past participle, strong verbs forms their preterite by changing the stem vowel in quality and/or quantity. Preterite present verbs show both in their preterite: a change of the stem vowel and a dental suffix. The last group consists of only four verbs (dōn, gān, beon, willan). These verbs show irregular forms for their present and preterite (Fichte & Kemmler 79). The full paradigm for beon for example even shows two different roots.

This section will deal with the Old English strong verbs exclusively and disregard the other types.

Old English strong verbs have four different stems in the gradation series: the infinitive stem (from which all present forms including the present participle and the infinitive derive), two preterite stems (one, from which the indicative forms of the first and third person derive and another one from which all other finite preterite forms derive) and a past participle stem (Fichte & Kemmler 81). The stems are distinguished by different vowels: crēopan, (‘creep’) crēap – crupon – cropen. However, the same vowel may occur twice. Bindan (‘bind’) for example has three different vowels: bindan – band – bundon – bunden whereas faran (‘go, travel’) has only two: faran –for- foron –faren.

According to their gradation series, OE strong verbs form six different classes. The seventh class consists of formerly reduplicating verbs (Fichte & Kemmler 81).

Each class has a recognition symbol on its own[1]. Class 1 and 2 are quite simple:

Class 1:

This class has the following gradations series ī – ā – i – i and is followed by one consonant. An example would be scīnan – scāh – scinon – scinen (‘shine’).

Class 2:

The typical series of vowels of the stems are ēō – ēa – u – o or ū – ēa – u – o. Examples would be crēopan – crēap – crupon – cropen (‘creep’) or lucan – lēac – lucon – locen (‘lock’).

Grammatical alternation occurs in the stems of class 1 verbs like snīðan (‘cut’), stīgan (‘ascend’) or þīon (‘prosper’) as well as in the stems of class 2 verbs, for example in cēosan (‘choose’) sēoðan (‘seethe’) and tēon (‘draw’). Subsequently the g in stīgan changes to h in the first preterite stem: stīgan – stāh – stigon – stigen and the s in cēosan becomes r in the second preterite stem and in the past participle stem: cēosan – cēas – curon – coren.

Moreover, tēon and þīon belong to the Verba contracta.

Class 3 is more complicated to describe, because the vowels vary according to the consonants preceding or following the stem. The basic vowel qualities of class 3 are e – æ – u – o. However, there are three subclasses: In 3 a they occur as i- a/o – u – u, because they are influenced by a nasal + consonant at the end of the stem. An example for class 3 a would be: bindan –band/bond – bundon – bunden (‘bind’). If the vowels of the stem are followed by a liquid + consonant, breaking occurs in West Saxon. Hence, the vowel series (of 3 b) will be like this: e/eo/ie – ea – u – o. Examples are helpan- healp – hulpon – holpen (‘help’) and ceorfan - cearf – curfon – corfen (‘carve’). Also in class 3 b are verbs with a palatal sound at the beginning of the stem like gieldan, which have undergone palatal diphthongization of the stem vowel. Class 3 c shows the series eo – ea – u –o. This sequence occurs if there is h + a stem final consonant as it is the case in feohtan – feaht – fuhton – fohten (‘fence’/‘fight’).

Verbs of class 4 have a stem final liquid and the series is e – æ – æ – o like in beran – bær – bæron – boren (‘bear’). The verbs brecan (‘break’) and hlecan (‘join’) also belong to class 4 although their stem final consonant is not a liquid. Further exceptions are verbs with a stem final nasal like niman – nōm, nam – nōmon, nāmon - numen (‘take’) or cuman – c(w)ōm - c(w)ōmon - cumen (‘come’).

Typical for class 5 is a single stem final consonant which is not a liquid or nasal. According to phonetic developments breaking and contraction occur if the consonant is an h. Palatal diphthongization as in class 3 occurs in West Saxon if the consonant at the beginning of the stem is palatal. The vowel series for class 5 is e – æ – æ – e.

Examples for the different cases are specan – spæc – spæcon – specen (‘speek’), sēon – seah – sāwon – sewen (‘see’) and giefan – geaf – gēaf – giefen (‘give’).

Furthermore biddan (‘beg’) , sittan (‘sit’) and licgan (‘lie’) , the so called j-presentia belong to that class. They show i-mutation and gemination in their present stem as in biddan – bæd – bædon – beden.

The gradation series for class 6 is a – ō – ō – a, like in faran – fōr – fōron – faren (‘go’/’ travel’) .

In this class, also contracted verbs like slēan (‘slay’) may be found. Further peculiarities of class 6 are verbs which form their presents with a j and therefore show i-mutation and gemination like hebban (‘lift’).

Verbs of class 7 are even less uniform. In the second and third stems of these verbs the vowel quality is either ēa or ē but the vowels of the first and fourth stem vary.

To this class belong verbs like: hōn – hēng – hēngon – hangen (‘hang’), cnāwan – cnēow – cnēowon – cnāwen (‘know’).

The Old English classification of strong verbs is a comprehensive system. Each verb can be clearly assigned to one of the seven classes. There are a couple of special cases which are somewhat difficult to assign to a distinct class at first. Knowledge of the relevant phonetic processes of that time like breaking or palatal diphthongization is essential in order to classify each verb precisely. Nevertheless, a morphological classification like this makes sense in Old English. The Old English classification system is based on gradation, which is a typical phenomenon for all Indo-European languages (Pyles 124) and therefore is a historically meaningful system.

2.2 Old English Conjugational System

The conjugation of strong verbs in Old English is shown in the following table[2] using the examples of the class 4 verb beran (‘bear’, ‘carry’) singan (‘sing’) as example for class 3 and tēon (‘drag’) for class 2:


[1] The following classification is taken from Fichte & Kemmler 81-84. Examples from Fichte & Kemmler 81-84 and Mitchell & Robinson 35-43.

[2] Verb forms in the table according to Fichte & Kemmler 89 and Mitchell & Robinson 43-44.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Strong verbs in Old and Middle English and irregular verbs in Modern English
A history of verb development and a comparison of classifications
University of Tubingen  (Seminar für Anglistik)
Historical Grammar
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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449 KB
Strong, Middle, English, Modern, English, Historical, Grammar
Quote paper
Sonja Rieber (Author), 2006, Strong verbs in Old and Middle English and irregular verbs in Modern English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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