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The Historical Grammar of the Old English Language
1. The history of Old English and its development.
2. The Old English Phonetics.
3. The Old English Substantive.
4. The Old English Adjective.
5. The Old English Pronoun.
6. The Old English Numeral.
7. The Old English Adverb.
8. The Old English Verb.
9. The Old English Auxiliary Words.
10. Old English dialects.
Appendix I: Texts.
        § 8. The Old English Verb.

Here is the story about how this section appeared. When several days ago I turned to Prof. Robert Beard from Bucknell University (Pennsylvania), one of the linguistic Web giants, asking to include this grammar into his online collection, he answered that the grammar is good enough, but there were also verbs in Old English. I consulted a few libraries and it appeared that Old English really had verbs! So I could not ignore them.

Still another little story. When I was just planning to write the Old English grammar, one nice girl from Latvia told me that to her mind Old English was much like modern German, not more. This question is really interesting. In fact she is right, there is much more in common between Old English and German, than between Modern English and German. That happens because different languages have different speed of development. English through history was very progressive and active - the whole revolution happened with it in the 15th and the 16th centuries, not only taking into consideration the Great Vowel Shift, but also the major grammar changes. The result was the Modern, or New, English, which has practically no declension, lost genders, shortened words and forms, simplified the syntax.

German was slower in its analytic development, and at the moment it still has strong and weak verbs, four main noun cases, three genders and a declinable definite article. That is why German still stays closer to ancient Germanic languages, including Gothic, Old Scandinavian and Old English, and this also concerns verbs. So those who know basic things about German, will easily understand Old English.

Modern English makes a distinction between regular and irregular verbs. This distinction goes back to the Old English system of strong and weak verbs: the ones which used the ancient Germanic type of conjugation (the Ablaut), and the ones which just added endings to their past and participle forms. Strong verbs make the clear majority. According to the traditional division, which is taken form Gothic and is accepted by modern linguistics, all strong verbs are distinguished between seven classes, each having its peculiarities in conjugation and in the stem structure. It is easy to define which verb is which class, so you will not swear trying to identify the type of conjugation of this or that verb (unlike the situation with the substantives).

Here is the table which is composed for you to see the root vowels of all strong verb classes. Except the VII class, they all have exact stem vowels for all four main forms:

Infinitive í  éo i eo e e e a different 
Past singular á  éa a ea ea æ æ  ó  é, eo,éo
Past plural i u u u u æ' æ' ó  é, eo, éo
Participle II i o u o o o e a a, á, ea
Below it all is explained in detail. And by now you can easily see that while Modern English has three basic verb forms (a nightmare for school pupils all over the world), Old English was terrible enough to have even four of them, because past singular and plural forms were quite different from each other sometimes.

Now let us see what Old English strong verbs of all those seven classes looked like and what were their main four forms. I should mention that besides the vowel changes in the stem, verbal forms also changed stem consonants very often. The rule of such changes is not mentioned practically in any books on the Old English language, though there is some. See for yourselves this little chart where the samples of strong verb classes are given with their four forms:

Infinitive, Past singular, Past plural, Participle II (or Past Participle)
                        Class I
wrítan (to write), wrát, writon, writen
snípan (to cut), snáþ, snidon, sniden
    Other examples: belífan (stay), clífan (cling), ygrípan (clutch), bítan (bite), slítan (slit), besmítan (dirty), gewítan (go), blícan (glitter), sícan (sigh), stígan (mount), scínan (shine), árísan (arise), líþan (go).

                         Class II
béodan (to offer), béad, budon, boden
céosan (to choose), céas, curon, coren
    Other examples: créopan (creep), cléofan (cleave), fléotan (fleet), géotan (pour), gréotan (weep), néotan (enjoy), scéotan (shoot), léogan (lie), bréowan (brew), dréosan (fall), fréosan (freeze), forléosan (lose).

                         Class III
                  IIIa) a nasal consonant
drincan (to drink), dranc, druncon, druncen
    Other: swindan (vanish), onginnan (begin), sinnan (reflect), winnan (work), gelimpan (happen), swimman (swim).
                  IIIb) l + a consonant
helpan (to help), healp, hulpon, holpen
    Other: delfan (delve), swelgan (swallow), sweltan (die), bellan (bark), melcan (milk).
                  IIIc) r, h + a consonant
steorfan (to die), stearf, sturfon, storfen
weorþan (to become), wearþ, wurdon, worden
feohtan (to fight), feaht, fuhton, fohten
    More: ceorfan (carve), hweorfan (turn), weorpan (throw), beorgan (conceal), beorcan (bark).

                         Class IV
stelan (to steal), stæ'l, stæ'lon, stolen
beran (to bear), bæ'r, bæ'ron, boren
    More: cwelan (die), helan (conceal), teran (tear), brecan (break).

                         Class V
tredan (to tread), træ'd,  træ'don, treden
cweþan (to say), cwæ'þ,  cwæ'don, cweden
    More: metan (measure), swefan (sleep), wefan (weave), sprecan (to speak), wrecan (persecute), lesan (gather), etan (eat), wesan (be).

                         Class VI
faran (to go), fór, fóron, faren
    More: galan (sing), grafan (dig), hladan (lade), wadan (walk), dragan (drag), gnagan (gnaw), bacan (bake), scacan (shake), wascan (wash).

                         Class VII
hátan (to call), hét, héton, háten
feallan (to fall), feoll, feollon, feallen
cnéawan (to know), cnéow, cnéowon, cnáwen
    More: blondan (blend), ondræ'dan (fear), lácan (jump), scadan (divide), fealdan (fold), healdan (hold), sponnan (span), béatan (beat), blówan (flourish), hlówan (low), spówan (flourish), máwan (mow), sáwan (sow), ráwan (turn).

So the rule from the table above is observed carefully. The VII class was made especially for those verbs which did not fit into any of the six classes. In fact the verbs of the VII class are irregular and cannot be explained by a certain exact rule, though they are quite numerous in the language.

Examining verbs of Old English comparing to those of Modern English it is easy to catch the point of transformation. Not only the ending -an in the infinitive has dropped, but the stems were subject to many changes some of which are not hard to find. For example, the long í in the stem gives i with an open syllable in the modern language (wrítan > write, scínan > shine). The same can be said about a, which nowadays is a in open syllables pronounced [æ] (hladan > lade). The initial combination sc turns to sh; the open e was transformed into ea practically everywhere (sprecan > speak, tredan > tread, etc.). Such laws of transformation which you can gather into a small table help to recreate the Old word from a Modern English one in case you do not have a dictionary in hand, and therefore are important for reconstruction of the languages.

Try to guess what was the Old English origin of the words to shake, to slide, to knead. The answer is here.

No language can do without exceptions. And there is also a law here - the less "developed" is the language, the more is the number of exceptions in it. Deeply synthetic languages like Ancient Greek or Vedic in fact have more exceptions from the rules than the rules themselves. The Old English language shows quite a lot of them as well, and especially concerning the verbs. We are giving a list of peculiar strong verbs of all the seven classes, but though this list is quite long and can seem unnecessary for some of our respectable readers, we publish it here.

Germanic is distinguished among the branches of the Indo-European family by several unique features which were developed by internal progress of the Common Germanic language, or (what seems preferable in nowadays linguistics) by the substratum languages influence. At all linguists name from 5 to 15 unique Germanic characteristics which make it unique in the family and cannot be found in any other language groups.

One of such features was the formation of the weak verbs, which did not exist in the Proto-Indo-European language. Many linguists consider these weak verbs the derivatives from nouns or adjectives (like Gothic fulljan 'to fill' from full 'full'), which made such verbs secondary in relation to strong ones. There are still other versions, but morphologically the difference is quite clear. While the strong verbs form their past participle (as well as the infinitive) with the suffix *-no- added to the present tense stem, the weak type verbs have the suffix *-to- instead, which later became -d- or -ed or -de and spread to all the past forms. Both these suffices derive from the markers of Proto-Indo-European participles.

Weak verbs in Old English (today's English regular verbs) were conjugated in a simpler way than the strong ones, and did not use the ablaut interchanges of the vowel stems. Weak verbs are divided into three classes which had only slight differences though. They did have the three forms - the infinitive, the past tense, the participle II. Here is the table.

                         Class I
                          Regular verbs
      Inf.            Past             PP
déman (to judge), démde, démed
híeran (to hear), híerde, híered
nerian (to save), nerede, nered
styrian (to stir), styrede, styred
fremman (to commit), fremede, fremed
cnyssan (to push), cnysede, cnysed

  When the suffix is preceded by a voiceless consonant the ending changes a little bit:
cépan (to keep), cépte, cépt / céped
grétan (to greet), grétte, grét / gréted

  If the verb stem ends in consonant plus d or t:
sendan (to send), sende, send / sended
restan (to rest), reste, rest / rested

sellan (to give), sealde, seald
tellan (to tell), tealde, teald
cwellan (to kill), cwealde, cweald
tæ'can (to teach), táhte, táht
ræ'can (to reach), ráhte, ráht
bycgan (to buy), bohte, boht
sécan (to seek), sóhte, sóht
wyrcan (to work), worhte, worht
þencan (to think), þóhte, þóht
bringan (to bring), bróhte, bróht

Other examples of the I class weak verbs just for your interest: berian (beat), derian (harm), erian (plough), ferian (go), herian (praise), gremman (be angry), wennan (accustom), clynnan (sound), dynnan (resound), hlynnan (roar), hrissan (tremble), sceþþan (harm), wecgean (move), féran (go), læ'ran (teach), dræfan (drive), fýsan (hurry), drýgean (dry), híepan (heap), métan (to meet), wýscean (wish), byldan (build), wendan (turn), efstan (hurry). All these are regular.

                           Class II
macian (to make), macode, macod
lufian (to love), lufode, lufod
hopian (to hope), hopode, hopod

Tis class makes quite a small group of verbs, all of them having -o- before the past endings. Other samples: lofian (praise), stician (pierce), eardian (dwell), scéawian (look), weorþian (honour), wundrian (wonder), fæstnian (fasten), mærsian (glorify).

                           Class III
habban (to have), hæfde, hæfd
libban (to live), lifde, lifd
secgan (to say), sægde, sægd
hycgan (to think), hogde, hogod
þréagan (to threaten), þréade, þréad
sméagan (to think), sméade, sméad
fréogan (to free), fréode, fréod
féogan (to hate), féode, féod

These are just seven, so they are worth learning by heart.

We offered you the examples of the basic forms of both strong and weak, regular and irregular verbs of the Old English. But how to say, for example, in Old English I have, you thought, we were brought? The answer to this question is the conjugation which follows.

Old English verbs are conjugated having two tenses - the Present tense and the Past tense, and three moods - indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. Of these, only the subjunctive mood has disappeared in the English language, acquiring an analytic construction instead of inflections; and the imperative mood has coincided with the infinitive form (to write - write!). In the Old English period they all looked different.

The common table of the verb conjugation is given below. Here you should notice that the Present tense has the conjugation for all three moods, while the Past tense - for only two moods (no imperative in the Past tense, naturally). Some more explanation should be given about the stem types.

In fact all verbal forms were generated in Old English from three verb stems, and each verb had its own three ones: the Infinitive stem, the Past Singular stem, the Past Plural stem. For the verb wrítan, for example, those three stems are: wrít- (infinitive without the ending -an), wrát- (the Past singular), writ- (the Past plural without the ending -on). The table below explains where to use this or that stem.

Singular (infinitive stem +)
Plural (infinitive stem +)
Plural (past plural stem +)
1st person (I, we) -e -aþ Past singular stem -on
2nd person (thou, you) -est -aþ Past plural stem + -e -on
3rd person (he, she, they) -eþ -aþ Past singular stem -on
Subjunctive -e -en Past plural stem + -e -en
Imperative infinitive stem -aþ
Additionally, the participles (Participle I and Participle II) are formed by the suffix -ende to the Infinitive stem (participle I), or the prefix ge- + the Past Plural stem + the ending -en (Participle II).

Tired of the theory? Here is the preactice. We give several examples of the typical verbs - first strong, then weak, then irregular.

     Class I strong - wrítan (to write)
       Pres.                                     Past
       Ind.       Subj.      Imper.   ¦   Ind.          Subj.
Sg. 1 wríte                  -           ¦  wrát
     2 wrítest  wríte    wrít         ¦  write         } wríte
     3 wríteþ               -             ¦  wrát
Pl.  wrítaþ   wríten  2 wrítaþ     ¦  writon        writen

        Infinitive               Participle
   wrítan                   I wrítende   II gewriten

     Class III strong - bindan (to bind)
       Pres.                                           Past
      Ind.          Subj.      Imp.         Ind.              Subj.
Sg. 1 binde                      -        ¦  band, bond
      2 bindest } binde     bind      ¦  bunde        } bunde
     3 bindeþ                     -        ¦  band, bond
Pl.    bindaþ   binden     bindaþ   ¦  bundon         bunden

            Inf.            Part.
  bindan               I bindende  II gebunden

     Class V strong - séon (to see)
         Pres.                                        Past
    Ind.         Subj.       Imp.         Ind.          Subj.
Sg.1 séo                    -              seah
    2 síehst   } séo      seoh         sáwe      } sáwe,
    3 síehþ                  -               seah           sæge
Pl.   séoþ     séon    2 séoþ        sawon       sáwen
  I séonde  II gesewen, gesegen

     Class VII strong - fón (to catch)
         Pres.                                Past
    Ind.         Subj.       Imp.      Ind.         Subj.
Sg. 1 fó                     -            feng
     2 féhst  } fó         fóh         fenge     } fenge
     3 féhþ                  -            feng
Pl.   fóþ       fón      2 fóþ        fengon      fengen
  I fónde  II gefangen, gefongen

     Class I weak - styrian (to stir)
         Pres.                                Past
    Ind.         Subj.       Imp.        Ind.         Subj.
Sg. 1 styrie                  -            styrede
     2 styrest }styrie     styre       styredest }styrede
     3 styreþ                 -            styrede
Pl.   styriaþ   styrien   2 styriaþ  styredon   styreden
  I styriende  II gestyred

     Class I weak - tellan (to tell)
         Pres.                                Past
    Ind.         Subj.       Imp.         Ind.        Subj.
Sg. 1 telle                   -            tealde
     2 tellest }telle     tele, tell     tealdest }  tealde
     3 telleþ                 -             tealde
Pl.   tellaþ    tellen    2 tellaþ      tealdon     tealden
   I tellende  II geteald

     Class II weak - lufian (to love)
         Pres.                                Past
    Ind.         Subj.       Imp.         Ind.        Subj.
Sg. 1 lufie                  -             lufode
      2 lufast }lufie       lufa          lufodest } lufode
      3 lufaþ                 -             lufode
Pl.   lufiaþ    lufien    2 lufiaþ      lufodon    lufoden
   I lufiende  II gelufod

     Class III weak - secgan (to say)
         Pres.                                      Past
       Ind.         Subj.       Imp.         Ind.        Subj.
Sg.1 secge                   -              sægde
     2 sægst  }secge      sæge        sægdest  }sægde
     3 sægþ                  -               sægde
Pl.  secgaþ    secgen   2 secgaþ   sægdon     sægden
   I secgende  II gesægd

     Class III weak - libban (to live)
         Pres.                                Past
    Ind.          Subj.       Imp.         Ind.        Subj.
Sg.1 libbe                   -             lifde
     2 liofast  }libbe     liofa         lifdest    } lifde
     3 liofaþ                 -              lifde
Pl.   libbaþ    libben    2 libbaþ   lifdon       lifden
   I libbende  II gelifd

     Class III weak - habban (to have)
         Pres.                                 Past.
    Ind.           Subj.      Imp.          Ind.        Subj.
Sg.1 hæbbe                 -              hæfde
     2 hafast,  }hæbbe   hafa          hæfdest }hæfden
     3 hafaþ,                  -              hæfde
Pl.   habbaþ             2 habbaþ      hæfdon    hæfden
   I hæbbende  II gehæfd

A special group is made by the so-called Present-Preterite verbs, which are conjugated combining two varieties of the usual verb conjugation: strong and weak. These verbs, at all not more than seven, are nowadays called modal verbs in English.

Present-Preterite verbs have their Present tense forms generated from the Strong Past, and the Past tense, instead, looks like the Present Tense of the Weak verbs. The verbs we present here are the following: witan (to know), cunnan (can), þurfan (to need), dearan (to dare), munan (to remember), sculan (shall), magan (may).

              Present  of witan (= strong Past)
        Ind.        Subj.       Imp.
Sg.  1 wát                      -
     2 wast      } wite        wite
     3 wát                         -
Pl.    witon     2 witen      witaþ
              Past (= Weak)
        Ind.                         Subj.
Sg.1 wisse, wiste
     2 wissest, wistest  } wisse, wiste
     3 wisse, wiste
Pl.    wisson, wiston      wissen, wisten
    Participles: I witende, II witen, gewiten

     cunnan (can)
             Pres.                     Past
    Ind.             Subj.        Ind.         Subj.
Sg. 1 cann                     cúþe
      2 canst    } cunne     cúþest   } cúþe
      3 cann                     cúþe
Pl.   cunnon     cunnen    cúþon      cúþen

     þurfan (need)
Sg. 1 þearf                    þorfte
      2 þearft  } þurfe      þorftest   } þorfte
      3 þearf                    þorfte
Pl.    þurfon    þurfen     þorfton      þorften

     dearan (dare)
Sg. 1 dear                    dorste
      2 dearst   } durre    dorstest   } dorste
      3 dear                    dorste
Pl.    durron     durren   dorston       dorsten

     sculan (shall)
Sg. 1 sceal                   sceolde
      2 scealt   } scule     sceoldost  } sceolde
      3 sceall                  sceolde
Pl.   sculon                   sceoldon      sceolden

     munan (remember)
Sg. 1 man                     munde
      2 manst   } mune    mundest    } munde
      3 man                     munde
Pl.    munon     munen   mundon

     magan (may)
Sg. 1 mæg                    meahte       mihte, mihten
      2 meaht    } mæge  meahtest
      3 mæg                    meahte
Pl.   magon       mægen  meahton
The main difference of verbs of this type in modern English is their expressing modality, i.e. possibility, obligation, necessity. They do not require the particle to before the infinitive which follows them. In Old English in general no verb requires this particle before the infinitive. In fact, this to before the infinitive form meant the preposition of direction.

And now finally a few irregular verbs, which used several different stems for their tenses. These verbs are very important in Old English and are met very often in the texts: wesan (to be), béon (to be), gán (to go), dón (to do), willan (will). Mind that there was no Future tense in the Old English language, and the future action was expressed by the Present forms, just sometimes using verbs of modality, willan (lit. "to wish to do") or sculan (lit. "to have to do").

wesan (to be) - has got only the Present tense forms, uses the verb béon in the Past
        Ind.      Subj.      Imp.
Sg.1 eom     -
     2 eart  }  síe, sý     wes
     3 is          -
Pl. sind       síen, sýn  2 wesaþ

béon (to be)
        Ind.      Subj.    Imp.
Sg. 1 béo                  -
      2 bist    }béo      béo
      3 biþ                   -
Pl.   béoþ     béon    2 béoþ
    Ind.              Subj.
Sg. 1 wæs
      2 wære    } wære
      3 wæs
Pl.   wæron     wæren
    Participle I is béonde (being).

gán (to go)
      Pres.                                 Past
     Ind.         Subj.    Imp.        Ind.           Subj.
Sg.1 gá                      -           éode
     2 gæ'st  } gá         gá         éodest     } éode
     3 gæ'þ                  -           éode
Pl.   gáþ      2 gán      gáþ       éodon       éoden
  I gánde, gangende    II gegán

dón (to do)
      Pres.                                 Past
    Ind.        Subj.       Imp.      Ind.         Subj.
Sg. 1 dó                    -          dyde
      2 dést  } dó         dó       dydest     } dyde
      3 déþ                  -          dyde
Pl.   dóþ     dón       2 dóþ    dydon        dyden
  I dónde  II gedón

      Pres.                        Past
     Ind.      Subj.        Ind.         Subj.
Sg.1 wille                 wolde
     2 wilt  } wille       woldest  } wolde
     3 wile                 wolde
Pl.  willaþ  willen      woldon     wolden
      Participle I willende

So there were in fact two verbs meaning 'to be', and both were colloquial. In Middle English, however, the verb wesan replaced fully the forms of béon, and the words béo (I am), bist (thou art) fell out of use. The Past tense forms was and were are also derivatives from wesan.

A little bit more about Old English tenses. Syntactically, the language had only two main tenses - the Present and the Past. No progressive (or Continuous) tenses were used, they were invented only in the Early Middle English period. Such complex tenses as modern Future in the Past, Future Perfect Continuous did not exist either. However, some analytic construction were in use, and first of all the perfective constructions. The example Hie geweorc geworhten hæfdon 'they have build a fortress' shows the exact Perfect tense, but at that time it was not the tense really, just a participle construction showing that the action has been done. Seldom you can also find such Past constructions, which later became the Past Perfect Tense.

Now some practice examples for you to check your Old English:

Spræce Englisc tung - I speak English
Síehst þú þá duru? - Do you see the door?
Her comm se here into Escanceastre from Werham - Here came that army to Escancaster from Werham (mind that her is 'here' and here is 'an army')
Ond Asser biscop gefor æfter þæm - And Asser the bishop gone after those (i.e. has gone after them)
On þysum geare com micel sciphere hider ofer suþan of Lidwiccum, ond twegen eorlas mid, Ohtor ond Hroald - This year a large army came with ships south to Lidwich, and two earls together with them, Ohtor and Roald.

More examples will be seen in the Texts section of the present grammar.

Verb syntax includes a number of suffices and prefixes which can be met in Old English texts and especially in poetry:

  1. -s- (from substantive or adjective stems) - mæ'rsian (to announce; from mæ're - famous)
  2. -læc- - néálæcan (to approach)
  3. -ett- - bliccettan (to sparkle)
  1. á- = out of, from - árísan (arise), áwakan (awake), áberan (sustain)
  2. be- = over, around, by - begán (go around), beþencan (think over), behéafdian (behead)
  3. for- = destruction or loss - fordón (destroy), forweorþan (perish)
  4. mis- = negation or bad quality - mislícian (displease)
  5. of- = reinfors - ofsléan (kill), oftéon (take away)
  6. on- = change or separation - onbindan (unbind), onlúcan (unlock)
  7. - = destruction - tóbrecan (break)

Verbs are over, what a relief.

            § 9. The Old English Auxiliary Words.
These traditionally include prepositions, conjunctions, different particles and interjections. All Indo-European languages have this system of auxiliary parts of speech, though there are languages which lack some of them. Japanese, for example, has no prepositions, and the service function in the sentence belongs to postpositive words which have cases, the same as nouns. Korean does not use any conjunctions, replacing them by about 50 different kinds of verbal adverbs. As for Chinese, it simply does not make any distinction in the sentence between basic and auxiliary words.

Most of Old English prepositions are easily recognizable:
Primary: of (of, out of), æt (to), fram (from), (to), wiþ (against), in, of, mid (with), on (on, at), be (by, near, to, because of, about), þurh (through), under, ofer (over), æfter (after), bufan (above), út (out).
Secondary: beforan (before), bútan (without), benorþan (north of), etc.

Mind that æt means 'to' and wiþ means 'against'. In Germanic all prepositions divided into those who used nouns in dative, accusative or genitive. But in the Old English period this distinction begins to disappear, and only some of the prepositions use dative (mid, bútan, sometimes on, in) or genitive (fram, út, æfter).

Conjunctions included the following:

Primary: and / ond (and) , ac (but), gif (if), or.
Secondary: ægþer ge... ge (both... and..., either ... or...), hwonne (when), þa (when), þonne (when),  þéáh (though), þætte (that), ær (before), swá... swá... (so... as...).

And a few interjections: (yes), (woe!, wow!), hwæt (there! what!).

1. The history of Old English and its development.
2. The Old English Phonetics.
3. The Old English Substantive.
4. The Old English Adjective.
5. The Old English Pronoun.
6. The Old English Numeral.
7. The Old English Adverb.
8. The Old English Verb.
9. The Old English Auxiliary Words.
10. Old English dialects.
Appendix I: Texts.