Germanic strong verb | strong verb classes

Strong verb classes

Germanic strong verbs are commonly divided into 7 classes, based on the type of vowel alternation. This is in turn based mostly on the type of consonants that follow the vowel. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Henry Sweet gave names to the seven classes:

I. The "drive" conjugation

II. The "choose" conjugation

III. The "bind" conjugation

IV. The "bear" conjugation

V. The "give" conjugation

VI. The "shake" conjugation

VII. The "fall" conjugation

However, they are normally referred to by numbers alone.

In Proto-Germanic, the common ancestor of the Germanic languages, the strong verbs were still mostly regular. The classes continued largely intact in Old English and the other older historical Germanic languages: Gothic, Old High German and Old Norse. However, idiosyncrasies of the phonological changes led to a growing number of subgroups. Also, once the ablaut system ceased to be productive, there was a decline in the speakers' awareness of the regularity of the system. That led to anomalous forms and the six big classes lost their cohesion. This process has advanced furthest in English, but in some other modern Germanic languages (such as German), the seven classes are still fairly well preserved and recognisable.

The reverse process in which anomalies are eliminated and subgroups reunited by the force of analogy is called "levelling", and it can be seen at various points in the history of the verb classes.

In the later Middle Ages, German, Dutch and English eliminated a great part of the old distinction between the vowels of the singular and plural preterite forms. The new uniform preterite could be based on the vowel of the old preterite singular, on the old plural, or sometimes on the participle. In English, the distinction remains in the verb "to be": I was, we were. In Dutch, it remains in the verbs of classes 4 & 5 but only in vowel length: ik brak (I broke - short a), wij braken (we broke - long ā). In German and Dutch it also remains in the present tense of the preterite presents. In Limburgish there is a little more left. E.g. the preterite of to help is (weer) hólpe for the plural but either (ich) halp or (ich) hólp for the singular.

In the process of development of English, numerous sound changes and analogical developments have fragmented the classes to the extent that most of them no longer have any coherence: only classes 1, 3 and 4 still have significant subclasses that follow uniform patterns.

For a treatment of the classes one at a time showing how the forms evolved in the various Germanic languages, one can consult an older version of this Wikipedia article.[2]

Before looking at the seven classes individually, the general developments that affected all of them will be noted. The following phonological changes that occurred between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic are relevant for the discussion of the ablaut system.

  • The development of grammatischer Wechsel as a result of Verner's law (the voicing of fricatives after an unstressed vowel). This created variations in the consonant following the ablaut vowel.
  • When the zero grade appears before l, r, m or n, the vowel u was inserted, effectively creating a new "u-grade".
  • oa (also oyai, owau).
  • ei when i, ī or j followed in the next syllable. This change is known as umlaut, and was extended to affect other vowels in most later languages.
  • eyī as a result of the above.
  • ei before m or n followed by another consonant. This had the effect of splitting class 3 into 3a and 3b.

For the purpose of explanation, the different verb forms can be grouped by the vowel they receive, and given a "principal part" number:

  1. All forms of the present tense, including the indicative mood, subjunctive mood, imperative mood, the infinitive and present participle.
  2. The singular forms of the past tense in the indicative mood.
  3. All other past tense forms, which includes the past dual and plural in the indicative mood, and all forms of the past subjunctive mood.
  4. The past participle, alone.

In West Germanic, the 2nd person singular past indicative deviates from this scheme and uses the vowel of Part 3. Its ending is also an -i of unclear origin, rather than the expected -t < PIE *-th₂e of North and East Germanic, which suggests that this state of affairs is an innovation.

Classes 1 to 6

The first 5 classes appear to continue the following PIE ablaut grades:

Class Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
1, 2, 3 e o zero
4 ē zero
5 e

Except for the apparent ē-grade in part 3 of classes 4 and 5, these are in fact straightforward survivals of the PIE situation.

The standard pattern of PIE is represented in Germanic by classes 1, 2 and 3, with the present (part 1) in the e-grade, past indicative singular (part 2) in the o-grade, and remaining past (part 3) and past participle (part 4) in the zero grade. The differences between classes 1, 2, and 3 arise from semivowels coming after the root vowel, as shown in the table below.

As can be seen, the e-grade in part 1 and o-grade in part 2 are shared by all of these five classes. The difference between them is in parts 3 and 4:

  • In classes 1 and 2, the semivowel following the vowel was converted in the zero grade into a full vowel.
  • In class 3 and the past participle of class 4, there was no semivowel but there were PIE syllabic resonants which developed in Germanic to u plus resonant; thus u became the Germanic sign of these parts. There is some evidence that this may have been the original behaviour of the past nonsingular / nonindicative of class 4 as well: to wit, preterite-presents whose roots have the class 4 shape show u outside the present indicative singular, such as *man- ~ *mun- "to remember", *skal- ~ *skul- "to owe".
  • In class 5, the zero grade of the past participle had probably been changed to e-grade already in PIE, because these verbs had combinations of consonants that were phonotactically illicit as a word-initial cluster, as they would be in the zero grade.
  • The *ē in part 3 of classes 4 and 5 is not in fact a PIE lengthened grade but arose in Germanic. Ringe suggests that it was analogically generalised from the inherited part 3 of the verb *etaną "to eat" before it had lost its reduplicant syllable, PIE *h1eh1d- regularly becoming Germanic *ēt-.

Class 6 appears in Germanic with the vowels a and ō. PIE sources of the a vowel included *h2e, *o, and a laryngeal between consonants;[3] possibly in some cases the a may be an example of the a-grade of ablaut, though the existence of such a grade is controversial. It is not clear exactly how the ō is to be derived from an earlier ablaut alternant in PIE, but believable sources include contraction of the reduplicant syllable in PIE *h2-initial verbs, or o-grades of verbs with interconsonantal laryngeal. In any event, within Germanic the resulting a ~ ō behaved as just another type of vowel alternation.

In Proto-Germanic, this resulted in the following vowel patterns:

Class Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Verb meaning Usual PIE origin
1 *rīdaną *raid *ridun *ridanaz to ride Vowel + y/i.
2a *freusaną *fraus *fruzun *fruzanaz to freeze Vowel + w/u.
2b *lūkaną *lauk *lukun *lukanaz to close, to shut Unknown.
3a *bindaną *band *bundun *bundanaz to bind Vowel + m or n + another consonant.
3b *werþaną *wa *wurdun *wurdanaz to become Vowel + l or r + another consonant.
4 *beraną *bar *bērun *buranaz to bear Vowel + l, r, m or n + no other consonant.
5 *lesaną *las *lēzun *lezanaz to gather Vowel + any consonant other than y, w, l, r, m or n.
6 *alaną *ōl *ōlun *alanaz to grow, to mature Vowel + a single consonant, if the present stem had a or o in late PIE.
  • Class 2b is of unknown origin, and does not seem to reflect any PIE ablaut pattern.
  • In class 3, there are also a few cases where the vowel is followed, at least in Proto-Germanic, by two consonants, neither of which is a nasal or a liquid.[4] Examples: *brestaną "to burst", *þreskaną "to thresh" *fehtaną "to fight". All but one have a nasal or a liquid in front of the vowel. This will have become syllabic and resulted regularly in u before the nasal or liquid, which was then metathesised on the analogy of the remaining principle parts. E.g. part 3 of *brestaną will have been *bʰr̥st- > *burst-, reformed to *brust-.
  • Similarly, class 6 includes some cases where the vowel is followed by two obstruents, like *wahsijaną "to grow".
  • In classes 5, 6 and 7, there is also a small subgroup called "j-presents". These form their present tense with an extra -j-, which causes umlaut in the present where possible. In West Germanic, it also causes the West Germanic gemination.

Class 7

The forms of class 7 were very different and did not neatly reflect the standard ablaut grades found in the first 5 classes. Instead of (or in addition to) vowel alternations, this class displayed reduplication of the first consonants of the stem in the past tense.

It is generally believed that reduplication was once a feature of all Proto-Indo-European perfect-aspect forms. It was then lost in most verbs by Proto-Germanic times due to haplology. However, verbs with vowels that did not fit in the existing pattern of alternation retained their reduplication. Class 7 is thus not really one class, but can be split into several subclasses based on the original structure of the root, much like the first 5 classes. The first three subclasses are parallel with classes 1 to 3 but with e replaced with a: 7a is parallel to class 1, class 7b to class 2, and class 7c to class 3.

The following is a general picture of the Proto-Germanic situation as reconstructed by Jay Jasanoff.[5] Earlier reconstructions of the 7th class were generally based mostly on Gothic evidence.

Subclass Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Verb meaning Root pattern
7a *haitaną *hegait *hegitun *haitanaz to call a + i
7b *hlaupaną
to leap
to push, to bump
a + u
7c *haldaną
to hold
to catch
a + l, r, m or n + another consonant (if no other consonant follows, the verb belongs to class 6)
7d *lētaną
to allow, to let
to sow
7e *blōtaną
to sacrifice
to grow

The situation sketched above did not survive intact into any of the Germanic languages. It was changed significantly, but rather differently in Gothic on one hand, and in the Northwest Germanic languages on the other.


Reduplication was retained in Gothic, with the vowel ai inserted. However, as in all other strong verbs, consonant alternations were almost entirely eliminated in favour of the voiceless alternants. The present and past singular stem was extended to the plural, leaving the reduplication as the only change in the stem between the two tenses. The vowel alternation was retained in a few class 7d verbs, but eliminated otherwise by generalising the present tense stem throughout the paradigm. The verb lētan "to allow" retained the past form lailōt with ablaut, while slēpan "to sleep" had the past tense form saislēp without it. The form saizlēp, with Verner-law alternation, is occasionally found as well, but it was apparently a relic formation with no other examples of alternation elsewhere.

Northwest Germanic

In the Northwest Germanic languages, which include all modern surviving Germanic languages, class 7 was drastically remodelled. Reduplication was almost eliminated, except for a few relics, and new ablaut patterns were introduced. Many attempts were made to explain this development. Jasanoff posits the following series of events within the history of Northwest Germanic:[5]

  1. Root-initial consonant clusters were transferred to the beginning of the reduplicating syllable, to preserve the same word onset across the paradigm. The clusters were simplified and reduced medially. (Compare Latin scindō ~ scicidī and spondeō ~ spopondī, which show the same development)
    *hlaupaną: *hehlaup, *hehlupun > *hlelaup, *hlelupun
    *stautaną: *stestaut, *stestutun > *stezaut, *stezutun
    *blōtaną: *beblōt, *beblutun > *blelōt, *blelutun
    *grōaną: *gegrō, *gegrōun > *grerō, *grerōun
    *swōganą: *sezwōg, *sezwōgun > *swewōg, *sweugun (English sough)
  2. Root compression:
    1. Based on the pattern of verbs such as singular *lelōt, *rerōd ~ plural *leltun, *rerdun, as well as verbs like singular *swewōg ~ plural *sweugun, the root vowel or diphthong was deleted in the past plural stem. The Germanic spirant law caused devoicing in certain consonants where applicable.
      *haitaną: *hegait, *hegitun > *hegait, *hehtun
      *bautaną: *bebaut, *bebutun > *bebaut, *beftun ("to beat")
      *hlaupaną: *hlelaup, *hlelupun > *hlelaup, *hlelpun
      *stautaną: *stezaut, *stezutun > *stezaut, *stestun
      *blōtaną: *blelōt, *blelutun > *blelōt, *bleltun
    2. In class 7c verbs, this resulted in consonant clusters that were not permissible (e.g. **hegldun); these clusters were simplified by dropping the root-initial consonant(s).
      *haldaną: *hegald, *heguldun > *hegald, *heldun
      *fanhaną: *febanh, *febungun > *febanh, *fengun
  3. The present plural stem of class 7c verbs no longer appeared to be reduplicated because of the above change, and was extended to the singular. This created what appeared to be a new form of ablaut, with a in the present and e in the past plural.
    *haldaną: *hegald, *heldun > *held, *heldun
    *fanhaną: *febanh, *fengun > *feng, *fengun
  4. This new form of ablaut was then extended to other classes, by alternating *a with *e in classes 7a and 7b, and *ā with *ē in class 7d (after Proto-Germanic *ē had become *ā in Northwest Germanic). In class 7a, this resulted in the vowel *ei, which soon merged with *ē (from Germanic *ē2).
    *haitaną: *hegait, *hehtun > *heit, *heitun > *hēt, *hētun
    *hlaupaną: *hlelaup, *hlelpun > *hleup, *hleupun
    *lātaną: *lelōt, *leltun > *lēt, *lētun
  5. It is at this point that North and West Germanic begin to diverge.
    • In West Germanic, class 7e took *eu as the past stem vowel, by analogy with existing verbs with initial *(s)w- such as *wōpijaną, *weup(un) and *swōganą, *swewg(un).
      *blōtaną: *blelōt(un) > *bleut(un)
      *hrōpaną: *hrerōp(un) > *hreup(un) ("to cry, roop")
      *grōaną: *grerō(un) > *greu, *gre(u)wun
    • In North Germanic, class 7e instead took *ē as the past stem vowel, probably by analogy with class 7c which also had a long stem vowel.
      *blōtaną: *blelōt(un) > *blēt(un)

Stages 4 and 5 were not quite complete by the time of the earliest written records. While most class 7 verbs had replaced reduplication with ablaut entirely, several vestigial remains of reduplication are found throughout the North and West Germanic languages. Various other changes occurred later in the individual languages. *e in class 7c was replaced by *ē (> ia) in Old High German and Old Dutch, but by *eu (> ēo) in Old English.

The following "Late Proto-Northwest-Germanic" can be reconstructed as descendants of the earlier Proto-Germanic forms given above. Note that ē became ā in Northwest Germanic.

Class Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
7a *haitaną *hēt *hētun *haitanaz
7b *hlaupaną *hleup *hleupun *hlaupanaz
7c *haldaną *held *heldun *haldanaz
7d *rādaną *rēd *rēdun *rādanaz
7e *blōtaną *bleut (West), *blēt (North) *bleutun (West), *blētun (North) *blōtanaz
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