LECTURE 3. The Old English Period.

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LECTURE 3. The Old English Period.


1) Old English alphabet and pronunciation;

2) Word stress in Old English;

3) Old English phonetic system;

4) Old English grammar system


Old English alphabet and pronunciation. OE scribes used two kinds of letters: the runes and the letters of the Latin alphabet. The use of Latin letters in English differed in some sounds from their use in Latin, for the scribes made certain modifications and additions. In the OE variety of Latin “i” and “y” were not distinguished, nor were “u” and “v”, the letters “k, g’ x” and “w” were not used until years later. A new letter was devised by putting a stroke through “d” – “đ” or “δ”, also the capital letter “Đ”, the voiceless and the voiced interdental [δ] and [θ]. The letter “a” was used either alone or as a part of a ligature made up of “a” and “e” – “æ”. The most interesting peculiarity of OE writing was the use of some runic letters: the rune called “thorn” – “þ” employed alongside the crossed ‘d” to indicate [δ] and [θ] and the rune “w” – “wynn” for the sound [w].

Old English alphabet.

a (ac)

æ (æsc)

b (beorc)

c [k] or [k’] (cen)

d (dæg)

e (eoh)

f [f] or [v] (feoh)

z [g], [g”], [y] or [j] (giefu)

h [x], [x’], [h] (hægl)

i (is)

l (lagu)

m (man)

n, ŋ (nied)

o (ōs)

p (peor)

r (rād)

s [s] or [z] (sigel)

t (tiw/tir)

þ, δ [δ] or [θ] (þorn)

u (ur)

w (wyn)

x (eolh)

y [ў] (yr)

In reading the letter “f, s, þ, δ” stand for voiced fricatives between vowels and also between a vowel and a consonant: “f” – ofer [‘over], “s” – risan [“ri:zan], “þ, δ” – oδer [‘o:δer], wyrδe [‘wirδe] (worth)).

The letter “z” stands for [g] initially before back vowels, for [j] before and after front vowels, for [y] between back vowels and for [g’] when preceded by “o”: zān [g], zēar [j], daz [j], dazas [y], seczan [gg].

The letter “h” stands for [x] between a back vowel and a consonant and also immediately before consonants and for [x’] before front vowels: hlæne [x], tahte [x], niht [x’], hē [x].

The letter “n” stands for [n] in all positions except when followed by [k, g], then it indicates [ŋ]: sinzan [ŋ].

Ōhthere sæde his hlāforde Ælfrēde

[o;xtxere sæ;de his xla:vorde ælfre:de]

cyninze þæt hē earla Norδmanna norþmest

[kyniŋge θæt he: earla norθma:nna norθmest]

būde…þā fōr hē ziet norþryhte

[bu:de θa: fo:r he: jiet norθryx’te]

swā feor swā hē meahte on þæm

[swa: feor swa: meaxte on θæ;m]

ōþrum þrīm dazum zesizlan

[o:δrum θri:m dayum jesiylan]


Word stress in Old English. The system of word accentuation inherited from Proto-Germanic underwent no changes in OE. A syllable was made prominent by an increase of force of articulation. In polysyllabic words the accent fell on the root-morpheme or on the first syllable. Word stress was fixed (remained the same in different grammatical forms). Polysyllabic compound words may have had two stresses: primary and secondary. In words with prefixes the position of the stress varied: verbal prefixes were unstressed, while in nouns and adjectives the stress usually fell on the prefix:

e.g.: ā-‘risan, mis-‘faran (v) = go astray, arise; ‘tō-weard, ‘or-eald (adj.) = toward, very old; ‘mis-dæd, ‘uδ- zenz (n) = misdeed, escape

If the words were derived from the same root, word stress served to distinguish the noun from the verb:

e.g.: ‘and-swaru (n) – and-‘swaru (v) = answer; ‘on-zin (n) – on-‘zinnan (v) = beginning, begin; ‘forwyrd (n) – for-‘wearþan (v) = destruction, perish


Old English phonetic system.

Vowels. There were 23 vowels in OE, there were also diphthongs and monophthongs which could be short and long. All the diphthongs were falling, i.e. the main syllabic element was the first one, the nucleus:

short: i, e, æ, a, o, y ea, eo, io, ie

long: ī, ē, æ, ā, ō, ỹ ēa, ēo, īo, īe

Before 23 vowels were reflected in writing they underwent some changes:

1) assimilative vowel changes (breaking = fracture): under the influence of succeeding and preceding consonants some OE monophthongs developed into diphthongs:

· if a front vowel stood before a velar consonant there developed a short glide between them, which together with the original monophthong formed a diphthong: [i], [e] and a newly developed [æ] turned into diphthongs with a back glide when they stood before [h], long (doubled) [ll] or [l] + another consonant or before [r] + another consonant:

æ►ea before r, l, h + a consonant or “h” at the end of the word

e►eo before r, l, h + a consonant or “h” at the end of the word

· breaking produced a new set of vowels: short diphthongs [eo], [ea]. Diphthongazation was caused by preceding consonants” a glide arose after a palatal consonant as a sort of transition to the succeeding vowel. After the palatal consonant [k’], [sk’], [j] short and long [e] and [æ] turned into diphthongs with a more front close vowel as their first element:

a►ea before c [k’], z [y], sc [sk’]

o►eo before c [k’], z [y], sc [sk’]

neaht [x’] ► nieht [x’]

2) palatalization: some front vowels before preceding palatal consonants c [k’], z [y], sc [sk’] turned into diphthongs:

æ ►ea zæf ► zeaf (gave)

æ ►ēa before c [k’], z [y], sc [sk’] zæfon ► zēafon (gave – pl.)

e ► ie zefan ► ziefan (give)

a ► ea scacan ► sceacan (shake)

o ► eo scort ► sceort (short)

3) i-mutation (=palatal umlaut): mutation is the change of one vowel into another through the influence of a vowel in the succeeding syllable. Palatal mutation is the fronting and raising of vowels through the influence of [i] and [j] in the following syllable. It affected words where a vowel in a stressed syllable was immediately followed by the sound [i] or [j] in the next syllable.

a ► e strangiþu ► strengþu

æ ► e tælian ► tellan

ā ► æ hālian ► hælan

o ► e ofstian ► efstan

ō ► ē dōmian ► dēman

u ►y fullian ► fyllan

ū ► ŷ cūþian ► cŷþan

ea ► ie ealdira ► ieldra (elder)

ēa ► īe zelēafian ► zelīefan (believe)

eo ► ie afeorrian ► afierran (remove)

ēo ► īe zetrēowi ► zetrīewe (true)

4) back mutation: velar mutation was caused by the influence of back vowels in the succeeding syllable, which transformed the accented root-vowels into diphthongs:

æ ► ea cæru ► cearu

e ► eo before a, o, u swestar ► sweostor

i ► io limu ► liomu (limbs)

5) mutation before “h”: its phonetic essence remains obscure. The example can be seen in the word “night”. It occurs in OE texts in the following variants: neah, nieht, niht, nyht. Of the 4 variants the first is the result of fracture from “næht”. The origin of the second variant “nieht” is either the change was due to palatal quality of the “h”, which then would have to be explained in its turn; or we may suppose it was due to an “i”, which may have been a cause ending in the original type of declension to which the word belonged. A similar state of things is found in the past tense of the verb “mæz“ “may” meahte, miehte, mihte, myhte”.

6) contraction: the consonant was dropped if it occurred before “a” or when two vowels met inside a word , they were usually contracted in one long vowel. The main types of contraction are:

ah+ vowel ► eah+vowel ► ēa (the 6th class of strong verbs): slahan ► slean ► slēan (slay)

eh/ih+vowel ► ēo: sehan ► sēon (to see)

oh+vowel ► ō: fohan ► fōn (catch)

7) lengthening: vowels were lengthened before the cluster of consonants “nd, ld, mb”: bindan ►bīndan (to bind). If the cluster was followed by another consonant, lengthening did not take place.

8) changes of unstressed vowels;

· final long vowels were shortened: namōn ► nama (name);

· short vowels in final unstressed syllables were dropped;

· after long syllables, or a short vowel followed by more than one consonant the vowels [i], [u] were lost: scīpu ► sceap (ship); werian ► dēman (were, deem)


Consonants were historically more stable than vowels. The system of OE consonants consisted of several correlated sets. The most universal and distinctive feature of them was the difference in length. Unlike vowels not all consonants were reflected in OE spelling and sometimes one letter was used to indicate 2-3 consonant sounds. But some certain changes took place in OE period:

1) voicing and unvoicing of fricatives: in OE a voiceless fricative surrounded by voiced sounds becomes voiced, and a voiced fricative when final is unvoiced (e.g. wīf – has a voiced second consonant in the gen. and dat. singular and plural, when the consonant is surrounded by vowels – wīfes, wīfe, wīfa, wī fum);

2) palatalization: at a very early time the consonant “c” before a front vowel (e.g. cild) and occasionally in other conditions became palatalized and approached the affricate [t∫]; in a similar way the cluster “sc” (e.g. scip) became palatalized and approached [∫] in Late OE;

3) other changes and loss of consonants: OE shows the results of a common Germanic phonetic process, which may be expressed by the following formula:

any velar consonant + t ► ht

any labial consonant + t ► ft

any dental consonant + t ►ss

e.g. sōcte ► sōhte (sought); zesceapt ► zesceaft (create); witte ► wisse (knew)

· “n” was lost before fricatives “h, f, s, p”, the preceding vowel becomes lengthened and nasalized (e.g. bronhte ► brohte (brought));

· the cluster “fn” often becomes “mn” by assimilation (e.g. efn ► emn (even); a similar change occurs in “fm” ► “mm” (e.g. wifman ► wimman);

· the consonant “d” becomes voiceless “t” when followed or preceded by a voiceless consonant in the 2nd person singular present indicative of some verbs (e.g. bindst ► bintst (bind);

· the cluster “dþ” is changed into :t” in the 3rd person singular present indicative of some verbs (e.g. bindþ ► bint)

· ‘h” is lost between vowels (e.g. tīhan ► tēon (accuse);

· palatal “z” is occasionally dropped before “d” and “n”, the preceding vowel is lengthened (e.g. mæzden ► mæden (maiden);

4) metathesis is a phonetic change which consists in two sounds exchanging their places. It most frequently affects the consonant “r” and the vowel in the following words: Þridda►Þirda (third), rinnan►irnan, iernan (run). The process seemed to be developed in the following way: first the vowel disappears, so that the “r” becomes syllabic, eventually the vowel reappears on the other side of the “r’.

5) rhotacism: PG [z] underwent a phonetic change through the stage of [z] into [r] and thus became a sonorant (e.g. huzd (PG) ► hord (OE) = hoard


Old English grammar system.


Three grammatical categories are represented in the OE substantives: gender, number and case. Of these three, gender is a lexico-grammatical category, i.e. every substantive with all its forms belongs to one gender (masculine, feminine or neuter). The other two are purely grammatical categories: substantives are inflected for number and case. There are two numbers: singular and plural, and four cases: nom., gen., dat., and acc. Acc. to the traditional view, two declensions of nouns are distinguished: strong and weak. The strong declension includes nouns with vocalic stems (-a-, -o-, -i-, -u-), and the weak declension comprises n-stems only. There are also some minor types.

a-stems may be either masculine or neuter. The difference between two genders is seen only in the nom., and acc. plural always had the ending –as. In the neuter substantives the ending depends on two factors: on the number of syllables and on the quantity of the root syllable. In monosyllabic words with a short root syllable the nom. and acc. plural have the ending –u; in monosyllabic substantives with a long root syllable these cases have no ending at all. In dissyllabic substantives with a short root syllable these cases have no ending; in dissyllabics with a long root syllable they have the ending –u.

masculine “stone”

nom. stān stānas

gen. stānes stāna

dat. stāne stānum

acc. stān stānas

neuter “ship”, “bone”

nom. scip scipu bān bān

gen. scipes scipa bānes bāna

dat. scipe scipum bāne bānum

acc. scip scipu bān bān



neuter “house”, “ox”

nom. reced reced nīeten nīetenu

gen. recedes receda nīetenes nīetena

dat. recede recedum nīetene nīetenum

acc. reced reced nīeten nietenu

Substantives having the vowel “æ” in the singular changed into “a” in the plural.

masculine “day” neuter “vessel”

nom. dæz dazas fæt fatu

gen. dæzes daza fætes fata

dat. dæze dazus fæte fatum

acc. dæz dazas fæt fatu

Examples of a-stems: masculine – earm (arm), eaort (earl), helm (helm), hrinz (ring), mūþ (mouth); neuter – dor (gate), hof (courtyard), zeoc (yoke), word (word), dēor (deer), bearn (child), zēar (year).

ja-stems are a special type of a-stems. The root vowel of such substantives undergoes mutation under the influence of an original -j- in the stem. Substantives with an originally short root syllable (except those ending in -r-) have their final consonant lengthened; in substantives with an originally long root syllable and with short syllables ending in -r- the final consonant is not lengthened and the nom. and the acc. singular end in –e.

masculine “back” neuter “kind”, “realm”

nom. hrycz hrycz(e)as cyn(n) cyn(n) rīce rīc(i)u

gen. hryczes hrycz(e)a cynnes cynna rīces rīc(e)a

dat. hrycze hrycz(i)um cynne cynnum rīce rīc(i)um

acc. hrycz hrycz(e)as cyn(n) cyn(n) rīce rīc(i)u

Examples of ja-stems: masculine – wecz (wedge), bōcere (scholar), fiscere (fisherman); neuter – net (net), bed (bed), wīte (punishment).

wa-stems are another special type of a-stems. The nom. and acc. singular of the masculine substantives and the nom. and the acc. singular and plural of the neuter ones end in u-:

masculine “wood” neuter “evil”

nom. bearu bearwas bealu bealu

gen. bearwes bearwa bealwes bealwa

dat. bearwe bearwum bealwe bealwum

acc. bearu bearwas bealu bealu

Examples of wa-stems: masculine - snāw (snow), þeaw (custom); neuter – searu (armour), trēow (tree), cnēw (knee).

ō-stems are all feminine. The form of the nom. depends on two factors: the number of syllables and the shortness or length of the root syllable. Monosyllabic substantives with a short root syllable take in this case the ending –u; monosyllabic ones with a long toot syllable and dissyllabic ones have no ending at all.

feminine “trace, journey, brick”

nom. swaþu swaþa fōr fōra tizol tizola

gen. swaþe swaþa fōre fōra tizole tizola

dat. swaþe swaþum fōre fōrum tizole tizolum

acc. swaþe swaþa fōr fōra tizol tizola

Examples of ō-stems: caru (care), sceamu (shame), ondswaru (answer), lufu (love), lār (learning), sorz (care), þrāz (time), ides (woman).

jō-stems are a special type of ō-stems, the root vowel has undergo mutation by an original -j- in the stem. Substantives with an originally short root syllable have their final consonant doubled:

feminine “bridge, wave”

nom. brycz brycza ÿδ ÿδa

gen. brycze brycza ÿδe ÿδa

dat. brycze bryczum ÿδe ÿδum

acc. brycz brycza ÿδe ÿδa

Examples of jō-stems: sib (peace), ecz (blade), secz (sword), hild (fight), æx (axe).

wō-stems are also a special type of ō-stems:

feminine “shade, meadow”

nom. sceadu sceadwa mæd mædwa

gen. sceadwe sceadwa mædwe mædwa

dat. sceadwe sceadwum mædwe mædwum

acc. sceadwe sceadwa mædwe mædwa

Examples of wō-stems: beadu (battle), nearu (need), læs (beam).

i-stems include substantives of three genders. The masculine and the neuter do not differ much in their declension from the a-stems, and the feminine ones do not much differ from the ō-stems. The root vowel has undergone mutation.

masculine “victory” neuter “hilt”

nom. size size/(as) hilt hilt

gen. sizes sizea hiltes hilta

dat. size sizum hilte hiltum

acc. size size(as) hilte hilt

feminine “hide”

nom. hyd hÿde, hÿda

gen. hÿde hÿda

dat. hÿde hÿdum

acc. hÿd hÿde, hÿda

Examples of i-stems: masculine – mere (sea), mete (food), bite (bite), dæl (part), ziest (guest), drynk (drink); neuter – spere (spear), flæsk (flesh); feminine – cwēn (woman), with (thing).

u-stems include masculine and feminine substantives. The form of the nom. and acc. singular depends on the length of their root syllable. Substantives having a short root syllable have in the nom. and acc. singular the ending –u; those with a long one have no ending at all:

masculine “son, field” feminine “door, hand”

nom. sunu suna feld felda duru dura hand handa

gen. suna suna felda felda dura dura handa handa

dat. suna sunum felda feldum dura durum handa handum

acc. sunu suna feld felda duru dura hand handa

Examples of u-stems: masculine – wudu (wood), medu (honey), weald (forest), sumor (summer); feminine – nosu (nose), flōr (floor).

n-stems comprise masculine substantives ending in –a in the nom. and feminine and neuter ones in –e; in the neuter substantives the acc. is the same as the nom. no difference between genders is found:

masculine “name” feminine “woman” neuter “eye”

nom. nama naman cwene cwenan ēaze ēazan

gen. naman namena cwenan cwenena ēazan ēazena

dat. naman namum cwenan cwenum ēazan ēazum

acc. naman naman cwenan cwenan ēaze ēazan

Examples of the n-stems: masculine – zuma (man), wita (wise man), steorra (star) mōna (moon), dēma (judge); feminine – eorþe (earth), heorte (heart), sunne (sun); neuter – ēare (ear).

Root stems comprise substantives, which never had any stem-forming suffixes, so the case endings were added on immediately to the root. In OE there are a number of them of all genders:

masculine “man, foot, tooth”

nom. mann menn fōt fēt tōþ tēþ

gen. mannes manna fōtes fōta tōþes tōþa

dat. menn mannum fēt fōtum tēþ tōþum

acc. mann menn fōt fēt tōþ tēþ

feminine “goose, mouse”

nom. zōs zēs mūs mÿs

gen. zōse zōsa mūse mūsa

dat. zēs zōsum mÿs mũsum

acc. zōs zēs mūs mÿs



There are several types of pronouns in OE: personal, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, definite, indefinite, negative and relative:

· personal: there are singular, plural and dual (for the 1st and 2nd persons) personal pronouns in OE. The pronouns of the 1st and 2nd persons had suppelative forms; the pronouns of the 3rd person, having originated from demonstrative ones, had many affinities.

1st, 2nd, 3rd person

nom. ic wē þū zē hē, hēo, hit hīe, hī, hÿ

gen. mīn ūre þīn ēower his,hire, his hiera, hira, hyra

dat. mē ūs þē ēow him, hire, him him

acc. mē ūs þē ēow hine, hīe, hit hīe, hī, hÿ

dual (1st, 2nd persons)

nom. wit zit

gen. uncer incer

dat. unc inc

acc. unc inc

· possessive: these are derived from the gen. case of the personal pronouns of all persons and numbers. The possessive pronouns “mīn, þīn, uncer, incer, ūre, ēower” are declined in the same way as strong adjectives. The possessive pronouns “his, hire, hiera” are unchanged.

· demonstrative: there are two demonstrative pronouns in OE: sē (that), and þes (this).

a) the meaning of the pronoun “sē” is often weakened, so that it approached the status of an article. The traditional view was that the definite article appeared in OE, while the indefinite one appears in ME.

singular (masc., fem., neut.) plural

nom. sē sēo þæt þā

gen. þæs þære þæs þāra, þæra

dat. þæm þære þæm þæm, þām

acc. þone þā þæt þā

instr. þÿ, þon - -- þÿ, þon ---

b) the declension of “þes” has some peculiarities, in several forms the –s is a kind of particle joined on to the corresponding form of the pronoun “sē”:

singular (masc., fem., neut.) plural

nom. þes þēos, þīos þis þās

gen. þisses þisse þisses þissa

dat. þissum, þisse issum þissum

acc. þi(y)sne þās þis þās

instr. þi(y)s --- þÿ(i)s ---

· interrogative: the interrogative pronouns “hwā” (who) and “hwæt” (what) have only singular forms. The interrogative “hwilc” (which is declined as a strong adjective.

nom. hwā hwæt

gen. hwæs hwæs

dat. hwæm hwæm

acc. hwone hwæt

instr. --- hwÿ, hwī

· definite: they include “zehwā” (every) (declined as “hwā”), zehwilc (each), æzþer (either), ælc (each), swilc (such) (declined as a weak adjective).

· indefinite: they comprise “sum” (some) and “æniz” (any) which are declined as strong adjectives.

· negative: “nān” and “næniz”, both meaning “no”, “none” are declined as strong adjectives.

· relative: the most usual of relative pronouns in OE is “þe”



Forms of the OE adjectives express the categories of gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), number (singular and plural) and case (nom., gen., dat., acc. and partly instr.). Every adjective can be declined acc. to the strong and weak declension. The use of this or that declension depends on syntactic conditions of usage. The weak declension was used in direct address or when the adjective was preceded by the demonstrative pronoun or the definite article. In all other cases when the adjective was in predicative or attributive functions without any determiners (the demonstrative pronoun in the function of the article) the strong declension was used.

The strong declension of adjectives differs a bit from the strong declension of substantives: some case forms of adjectives correspond to those of pronouns, so that the strong declension of adjectives as a whole is a combination of substantival and pronominal forms. Most adjectives are declined as a-stems for the masculine and neuter and as ō-stems for the feminine. Monosyllabic adjectives with a short syllable take in the nom.sing.fem. and acc.pl.neut. the ending –u; those with a long root syllable have no ending at in these forms. This difference is due to rhythmical factors.

masculine, neuter, feminine singular, plural (“black”)

nom. blæc blæc blacu blace blacu blaca

gen. blaces blaces blæcre blacra blacra blacra

dat. blacum blacum blæcre blacum blacum blacum

acc. blæcne blæc blæce blace blacu blaca

instr. blace blace ---

Dissyllabic adjectives often drop their 2nd syllable vowel before a case ending beginning with a vowel.

masculine, neuter, feminine singular, plural (“happy”)

nom. ēadiz ēadiz ēad(i)zu ēad(i)ze ēad(i)zu ēad(i)za

gen. ēad(i)zes ēad(i)zes ēad(i)zre ēad(i)zra ēad(i)zra ēad(i)gra

dat. ēad(i)zum ēad(i)zum ēad(i)zre ēad(i)zum ēad(i)zum ēad(i)zum

acc. ēad(i)ne ēadiz ēad(i)ze ēad(i)ze ēad(i)zu ēad(i)za

instr. ēad(i)ze ēad(i)ze ---

Ja-, jō-stem adjectives have the roots which vowel has undergone i-mutation.

masculine, neuter, feminine singular, plural (“sweet”)

nom. swēte swēte swētu swēte swētu swēta

gen. swētes swētes swētre swētra swētra swētra

dat. swētum swētum swētre swētum swētum swētum

acc. swētne swēte swēte swēte swētu swēta

instr. swēte swēte ---

Wa-, wō-stem adjectives are another type of a-, ō-stems.

masculine, neuter, feminine singular, plural (“narrow”)

nom. nearu nearu nearu nearwe nearu nearwa

gen. nearwes nearwes nearore nearora nearora nearora

dat. nearwum nearwum nearore nearwum nearwum nearwum

acc. nearone nearu nearwe nearwe nearu nearwa

instr. nearwe nearwe ---

The weak declension of adjectives does not differ from that of nouns in the gen.pl. of all genders, which often takes the ending –ra taken over from the strong declension.

masculine, neuter, feminine singular, plural (“black”)

nom. blaca blace blace blacan

gen. blacan blacan blacan blæcra (blacena)

dat. blacan blacan blacan blacum

acc. blacan blace blacan blacan

OE adjectives distinguished between 3 degrees of comparison: positive, comparative and superlative. The regular means used to form the comparative and the suparlative were the suffixes –ra and -est/ost. Sometimes suffixation was accompanied by an interchange of the root-vowel.

soft – softra – softos (soft)

wēriz – wērizra – wērizost (weary)

zlæd – zlædra – zladost (glad)

lonz – lenzra – lenzest (long)

eald – ieldra (ealdra) – ieldest (ealdost/est) (old)

zōd – bettra – bet(e)st (good)

lÿtel – læssa – læst (little)

micel – māra – mæst (much)


The OE verb was characterised by many peculiar features: few grammatical categories, numerous morphological classes, a variety of form-building means. All the forms were synthetic as analytical forms were only beginning to appear. The non-finite forms had little in common with the finite forms but shared many features with the nominal parts of speech. There were still two classes of verbs in OE.

Strong verbs are divided into 7 classes acc. to vowel gradation. In classes 1-5 the gradation system is based on the following principle: the 1st vowel is found in the infinitive and in the present forms, the 2nd vowel in the 1st and 3rd person singular, past indicative and the past subjunctive, the 4th in the participle II. The 6th and 7th classes have a different system. Some verbs, besides gradation, have also so-called grammatical alternation, which was accounted for by Verner’s Law: one consonant is found in the infinitive and the past singular, while the other in the past plural and the participle II. The principal forms of all the strong verbs have the same endings irrespective of class: -an – for the infinitive; no ending – in the past sing.: -on – in the past pl.; -en – for participle II.

I. i►ā►i►i

wrītan wrāt writon written (write)

snīþan snāþ snidon sniden (cut)

II. ēo►ēa ►u ►o

bēodan bēad budon boden (offer)

cēosan cēas curon core (choose)

III. before “nasal+consonant”: i►a(o)►u►u

before “l+consonant”: i►ea►u►o

before “r+consonant”, “h+consonant”: eo►ea►u►o

drincan dranc druncan drunken (drink)

helpan healp hulpon holpen (help)

steorfan stearf sturfon storfen (die)

weorδan wearδ wurdon worden (become)

feohtan feaht fuhton fohten (fight)

IV. before “l”, “r”: e►æ►æ►o

stelan stæl stælon stolen (steal)

beran bær bæron boren (bear)

V. e►æ►æ►e

tredan træd trædon treden (tread)

cweδan cwæδ cwædon cweden (say)

VI. a►ō►ō►a

faran fōr fōron faren (go)

VII. hātan hēt hēton hāten (call)

feallan feoll feollon feallen (fall)

cnēawan cnēow cnēowon cnāwen (know)

The number of weak verbs in OE exceeded that of strong verbs. Their number was constantly growing since all new verbs derived from other stems were conjugated weak. Among the weak verbs there were many derivatives from OE nouns and adjective stems and also derivatives of strong verbs built from one of their stems. There are 3 classes of weak verbs in OE. Every weak verb is characterised by 3 forms: infinitive (ended in –an/-ian), past tense (ended in –de, -ede or –te) and participle II (marked by –d, -ed or –t).

The regular class I verbs have mutation of their root vowel due to original i-element in their suffix. Verbs with a long root vowel drop the –i- no matter what consonant followed the root. Verbs with a short vowel followed by –r- keep the –i- and the –t- is not lengthened. Verbs with a short root vowel followed by a consonant rather than –r- drop –i- and their consonant is lengthened.

dēman dēmde dēmed (judge)

hīeran hīerde hīered (hear)

nerian nerede nered (save)

styrian styrede styred (stir)

fremman fremede fremed (commit)

cnyssan cnysede cnysed (push)

When the –d- of the suffix is preceded by a voiceless consonant it changes into –t-; in participle II both –t and –ed are found:

cīpan cēpte cēpt, cēped (keep)

zrētan zrētte zrēt, zrēted (greet)

Irregular class I verbs had the –i-, which produced mutation in the infinitive only. In the past and the 2nd participle the final consonant of the stem comes into immediate contact with the initial consonant of the suffix and this causes some peculiar phonetic changes:

sellan sealde seald (dive)

tellan tealde teald (tell)

tæc(e)an tāhte tāht (teach)

bycz(e)an bohte both (buy)

Class II verbs had the suffix –i- and the ending –ian in the infinitive and –ō- in the other forms:

macian macode macod (make)

lufian lufode lufod (love)

hopian hopode hopod (hope)

In OE class III verbs the suffix of the past and participle II is joined on to the root. In two verbs “secz(e)an” (say) and “hycz(e)an” (think) the infinitive has mutation; in the verb “habban” (have) no mutation is found but has vowel alternation. The final root consonant in all class III verbs with a short root vowel has been lengthened.

habban hæfde hæfd (have)

libban lifde lifd (live)

secz(e)an sæzde, sæde sæzd, sæd (say)

hycz(e)an hozde hozod (think)


Preterite-present verbs

Preterite-present verbs have a peculiar place within the system of OE. Originally the present tense forms of these verbs were past tense forms, later these forms acquired a present meaning but preserved many formal features of the past tense. Most of these verbs had new past tense forms built by the dental suffix. Some of them also acquired the forms of the verbals: participles and infinitives; most verbs didn’t have a full paradigm and were “defective”.

The present tense of these verbs corresponds to the past of strong verbs: the forms of the 1st and 3rd p.sing. were identical and had no endings – yet, unlike strong verbs, they had the same root-vowel in all the persons; the pl. had a different grade of ablaut similarly with strong verbs. The past tense of these verbs corresponds to past of weak verbs: the dental suffix + the endings –e, -est, -e.

In OE there were 12 preterite-presents, six of them have survived in MnE: āz (owe, ought); cunnan, cann (can); dear (dare); sculan, sceal (shall); mazan, mæz (may); mōt (must). Most of them didn’t indicate actions, but expressed a kind of attitude to an action denoted by another verb. In other words they were used like modal verbs and eventually developed into modern modal verbs.

Infinitive Cunnan sculan
Present tense Indicative Singular 1st 2nd 3rd Plural Subjunctive Singular Plural Participle I   cann canst cann cunnon   cunne cunnen -----   sceal(l) scealt sceal(l) sculon   scule, scyle sculen, scylen ----
Past tense Indicative Singular 1st 2nd 3rd Plural Subjunctive Singular Plural Participle II   cūδe cūδest cūδe cūδon   cūδe cūδen cunnen, cūδ   sceolde sceoldest sceolde sceoldon   sceolde sceolden ----


Anomalous verbs

Among OE verbs there were several anomalous verbs with irregular forms. OE “willan” was an irregular verb with the meaning of volition and desire; it resembled the preterite-presents in meaning and function, as it indicated an attitude to an action and was often followed by an infinitive. It had a past tense form “wolde” built like “sceolde”, the past tense of the preterite-present “sculan”. Eventually it became a modal verb and like the surviving preterite-presents developed into an auxiliary.

Some of the verbs combined the features of weak and strong verbs. OE “dōn” (do) formed a weak past tense with a vowel interchange and a participle in –n: dōn – dyde – ze-dōn. OE “būan” (live) had a weak past – “būde” and participle II ending in –n “ze-būn” like a strong verb.

Two OE verbs were suppletive: OE “zān” (go), whose past tense was built from a different root (zān – eōde – ze-zān), and “bēon” (be), whose present forms were different modofications of the root “wes-“; the past tense was built from the root “wes-“ on the pattern of strong verbs class V.

Infinitive wesan, bēon zān
Present tense Indicative Singular 1st 2nd 3rd Plural Subjunctive Singular Plural Imperative Singular 1st 2nd 3rd Plural Infinitive   eom, bēo eart, bist is, biþ sindon, bēoþ   sīe, sī, sÿ,bēo sīen, sīn, sÿn, bēon   ---- wes, bēo ---- wesaþ, bēoþ ----   zā zæst zæþ zāþ   zā zān   ---- zā ---- zāþ zān, zanzan
Past tense Indicative Singular 1st 2nd 3rd Plural Subjunctive Singular Plural Infinitive Participle I Participle II   wæs wære wæs wæron   wære wæren wesan, bēon wesende, bēonde ----   ēode ēodest ēode ēodon   ēode ēoden ---- zānde,zanzende (ze)zān



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