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definition - Germanic_strong_verb

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Germanic strong verb


In the Germanic languages, a strong verb is one which marks its past tense by means of changes to the stem vowel (ablaut). The majority of the remaining verbs form the past tense by means of a dental suffix (e.g. -ed in English), and are known as weak verbs. (A third, much smaller, class comprises the preterite-present verbs, which are continued in the English auxiliary verbs, e.g. can/could, shall/should, may/might, must.) In modern English, strong verbs are verbs such as sing, sang, sung or drive, drove, driven, as opposed to weak verbs such as open, opened, opened or hit, hit, hit. The "strong" vs. "weak" terminology was coined by the German linguist Jacob Grimm, and the terms "strong verb" and "weak verb" are direct translations of the original German terms "starkes Verb" and "schwaches Verb".

In Proto-Germanic, strong and weak verbs were clearly distinguished from each other in their conjugation, and the strong verbs were grouped into seven coherent classes. Originally, the strong verbs were largely regular, and in most cases all of the principal parts of a strong verb could be reliably predicted from the infinitive. This system was continued largely intact in Old English and the other older historical Germanic languages, e.g. Gothic, Old High German and Old Norse. The coherency of this system is still present in modern German and some of the other conservative modern Germanic languages. For example, in German, strong verbs are consistently marked with a past participle in -en, while weak verbs have a past participle in -t. In English, however, the original strong/weak distinction has almost completely fallen apart, replaced by a distinction between "regular" and "irregular" verbs (which include the old strong verbs, but many formerly weak verbs as well). (As an example, the verb hold, held, held continues a strong verb, whereas tell, told, told and lead, led, led continue weak verbs, but to a modern speaker the distinction between the two types appears arbitrary.)



As an example of the conjugation of a strong verb, we may take the Old English class 2 verb bēodan, "to command" (cf. English "bid").

This has the following forms:

Infinitive Supine Present Indicative Present Subjunctive Past Indicative Past Subjunctive Imperative mood Past participle
bēodan tō bēodenne

ic bēode
þū bīetst
hē bīett
wē bēodað
gē bēodað
hīe bēodað

ic bēode
þū bēode
hē bēode
wē bēoden
gē bēoden
hīe bēoden

ic bēad
þū bude
hē bēad
wē budon
gē budon
hīe budon

ic bude
þū bude
hē bude
wē buden
gē buden
hīe buden


bēodað!, bēode gē!


While the inflections are more or less regular, the vowel changes in the stem are not predictable without an understanding of the Indo-European ablaut system, and students have to learn the principal parts by heart: bēodan, bīett, bēad, budon, boden. The five principal parts are:

  1. The infinitive: bēodan. The same vowel is used through most of the present tense.
  2. The present tense 3rd singular: bīett. The same vowel is used in the 2nd singular.
  3. The preterite 1st singular (from the PIE (Proto-Indo-European language) perfect): bēad, which is identical to the 3rd singular.
  4. The preterite plural: budon. The same vowel is used in the 2nd singular.
  5. The past participle (from the PIE verbal noun): boden. This vowel is used only in the participle.

Strictly speaking, in this verb ablaut causes only a threefold distinction: parts 1 and 2 are from the e-grade, part 3 from the o-grade, and parts 4 and 5 from the zero grade. The other two distinctions are caused by different kinds of regressive metaphony: part 2, when it is distinct at all, is always derived from part 1 by Umlaut. In some verbs, part 5 is a discrete ablaut grade, but in this class 2 verb it is derived from part 4 by an a-mutation.

  Verb classes

Six different ablaut sequences (German: Ablautreihe) exist in the Germanic languages. These are referred to as the six classes in which the strong verbs can be subdivided.

In PIE there were already several possible ablaut sequences in the verb conjugation. The Germanic verb is based on the following four patterns. (For orientation, the numbers of the Germanic principal parts and verb classes are included in this table, but the vowels are those of the unattested but reconstructed PIE).


(Parts 1&2)

Perfect singular

(Part 3)

Perfect plural

(Part 4)

Verbal noun / past participle

(Part 5)

Class Inspired into Germanic
Standard Pattern e o zero zero Classes 1–3
Substitution of
zero grade
e o ē zero Class 4
e o ē e Class 5
Predominant a-vowel a ō ō a Class 6

The standard pattern of PIE is best represented in Germanic by class 3. Classes 1 & 2 have also developed out of this pattern, but here the ablaut vowel was followed by a semivowel (i/j and u/v respectively) which later combined with it to form a diphthong. The PIE variations from which Germanic classes 4 & 5 evolved contain consonant structures which were partly or wholly incompatible with the zero grade, and thus the e-grade and lengthened e-grade were substituted in one or both of the zero grade positions. Thus classes 1-5 are all easily explicable as having developed logically from a single basic pattern.

Class 6 is more problematic. It is a controversial question whether the earlier phases of PIE had an a-vowel at all. At any rate, most occurrences of an /a/ in late PIE are associated with an earlier laryngeal h2. Opinions still vary about how exactly this worked, but it is conceivable, for example, that the present stem could have experienced the shift h2e → a. If this is so, then class 6 may also be a variation on the standard pattern.

In addition to the six ablaut sequences, Germanic originally had reduplicating verbs, which in the West and North Germanic languages have lost their reduplication and simplified into a relatively coherent group which may be thought of as a seventh class. However, some verbs, most notably the ri-verbs, retained at least partial reduplication in some languages. In Gothic, reduplication remained in full.

The Anglo-Saxon scholar Henry Sweet gave names to the seven classes (the "drive conjugation", the "choose conjugation" etc), but normally they are simply referred to by numbers.

  General developments

Before looking at the seven classes individually it is helpful to consider first the general developments which affected all of them. The following phonological changes are relevant for the discussion of the ablaut system:

From PIE to Germanic

  • General sound shifts: o > a ; ei > ī ; oi > ai ; ou > au.
  • Elimination of the zero grade before liquids by insertion of u.
  • The development of grammatischer Wechsel (variations in the consonant following the ablaut vowel) caused by Verner's law.
  • Umlaut - the fronting of the ablaut vowel e to i, caused by i, ī or j in the following syllable. This affects the 2nd and 3rd persons singular of the present tense in classes 2, 3b, 4 and 5.
  • Wandel - the same effect as Umlaut, but caused by a nasal or other front consonant in post-vocalic position. This affects the whole of the present stem (including the infinitive) of some verbs in class 3a, and of a few verbs in class 2.

From Germanic to Gothic

  • Merger of i and e: e > i in all environments
  • High vowel lowering before r, h: i > e (spelled <ai>), u > o (spelled <au>)
  • ī was spelled <ei>

From Germanic to the north and west Germanic dialects

  • Extension of umlaut to back vowels, causing it to apply also to verbs of class 6.
  • a-mutation (sometimes wrongly called a-umlaut) - the movement of the ablaut vowel towards the back of the mouth caused by an a in the following syllable. This affects the participle, which had the suffix -an. An intervening nasal + consonant blocked this.

From Germanic to Old English

  • General sound shifts: ai > ā ; eu > ēo ; au > ēa
  • Breaking before certain consonants: a > ea ; e > eo
  • "West Saxon Palatalisation": i > ie after g

From Old English to Modern English

From Germanic to Old High German

  • General sound shifts: ai > ei ; au > ou
  • Sound shift e > i before u
  • Old High German monophthongization: ei > ē before Germanic r, h and w; ou > ō before Germanic dentals (þ, đ, t, n, l, s, z, r) and h

From Old High German to Modern German

  • General sound shifts: io > ī (spelled <ie>) ; ou > au
  • MHG diphthongisation: ī > ai (spelled <ei>), ū > au, ȳ > ɔy (spelled <eu> or <äu>)
  • vowel lengthening in early modern times: i > ī (spelled <ie>) before a single consonant.

From Germanic to early Middle Dutch

  • General sound shifts: ai > ē ; au > ō, eu > io > ie, ē2 > ie, ō > ue (usually spelled <oe>)
  • Sound shifts u > o, ū > ȳ
  • Lengthening of vowels in open syllables: e > ē, o > ō, a > ā, but not written. i is lengthened to ē.

From Middle Dutch to Modern Dutch

  • Diphthongisation of long high vowels: ī > ei (spelled <ij>), ȳ > œy (spelled <ui>)
  • Monophthongisation of opening diphthongs: ie > i (still spelled <ie>), ue > u (spelled <oe>)

From early Modern Dutch to Afrikaans

  • The distinction between strong and weak verbs has been lost in Afrikaans, as all verbs now follow the weak pattern. For example the ancestral Dutch hij heeft gezongen has become hy het gesing ("he sang/has sung/had sung). "He sings" is hy sing; there is no change in vowel sound and it follows the same pattern as hy werk (he works), hy het gewerk (he worked/has worked/had worked). Afrikaans has even lost the inflection that distinguishes the present from the infinitive form of the verb in Dutch.

Other changes in the general shape of the verbs:

  • Between PIE and Germanic the verbal noun was adapted as a past participle for the new Germanic synthetic tenses. The emphatic prefix ge- came to be used (but neither exclusively nor invariably) as a marker of the participle. In English this prefix disappeared again in the Middle Ages.
  • The development of weak verbs in Germanic meant that the strong verb system ceased to be productive. Practically all new verbs were weak. Gradually many strong verbs became weak, so that the total number of strong verbs in the languages was constantly decreasing. In English, this process has gone further than it has in German or Dutch; one example is the verb to help which used to be conjugated holp-holpen. The reverse phenomenon, whereby a weak verb thus becomes strong by analogy, is rather rare. Some verbs, which might be termed "semi-strong", have formed a weak preterite but retained the strong participle, or rarely vice versa. This type of verb is most common in Dutch:
lachen lachte (formerly loech) gelachen ("to laugh")
vragen vroeg (formerly vraagde) gevraagd ("to ask")
  • 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. This leads to anomalous forms. Thus the six big classes lost their cohesion. Again, this process is furthest advanced in English. The reverse process whereby anomalies are eliminated and subgroups reunited by the force of analogy is called "levelling", and can be seen at various points in the history of the verb classes.
  • In the later Middle Ages, all three languages 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, or 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.

  Class 1

Class 1, Sweet's "drive conjugation", represents all verbs in which the IE Ablaut-vowel was followed by an i. This combination is effectively a diphthong in PIE, or in the zero-grade, a simple i. Regular vowel shifts in Germanic change ei > ī and oi > ai. Metaphony does not affect class 1. Compare with Latin venio ("I come"): infinitive venire, perfect active indicative vēni, and future active participle venturus.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European réydʰ- réydʰiti reróydʰe reridʰń̥d ridʰó-
Proto Germanic rīdaną rīdidi raid ridun ridanaz
Old English rīdan rītt rād ridon riden
Old Saxon rīdan rīdit rēd ridun giridan
Old High German rītan rītit reit ritun giritan
Old Norse ríða ríðr reið riðu riðinn
Gothic dreiban dreibiþ draif dribun dribans

In Old English, Germanic ai becomes ā.

  • rīdan rītt rād ridon riden ("to ride")
  • wrītan wrītt wrāt writon writen ("to write")
  • scīnan scīnt scān scinon scinen ("to shine")

Modern English has experienced a diphthongisation of ī (though it is still spelled with an i) and a shift ā > ō. The modern preterite is taken from the old preterite singular, and in the case of "shine", the past participle has also assimilated to the preterite singular.

  • ride rode ridden
  • write wrote written
  • shine shone shone

Class 1 verbs in modern English (excluding derived verbs such as abide and override) are bide, bite, chide, drive, hide, ride, rise, shine, shrive, smite, stride, strike, strive, thrive, write. However, note that, although these verbs have uniformity in their infinitive vowel, they no longer form a coherent class in further inflected forms – for example, bite (bit, bitten), ride (rode, ridden), shine (shone, shone), and strike (struck, struck/stricken, with struck and stricken used in different meanings) all show different patterns from one another – but bide, drive, ride, rise, smite, stride, strive, write do form a (more or less) coherent subclass. Most of these verbs are descended from Old English class 1 verbs. However:

  • The French loan-word strive (albeit descended from a Frankish class 1 verb) is class 1 by analogy to drive.
  • Similarly, thrive is a class 1 verb formed by analogy to drive, its Old English ancestor being weak and descended from Old Norse þrífa (itself a class 1 strong verb, meaning "to grasp").
  • hide is a class 1 verb whose Old English ancestor, hȳdan, was weak.

In addition, writhe is an English class 1 verb that has class 1 forms (wrothe, writhen) only in archaic usage.

For the principal parts of all English strong verbs see: Wiktionary appendix: Irregular English verbs.

In Old High German, Germanic ai becomes ei, and then by OHG monophthongisation it becomes ē before a velar consonant. Thus Old High German has two subclasses, depending on the vowel in the preterite singular:

  • 1a rītan rītu reit ritum giritan ("to ride")
  • 1b līhan līhu lēh ligum giligan ("to loan" - note grammatischer Wechsel.)

Like English, Modern German diphthongises the ī (spelling it ei). The modern language takes its preterite from the old preterite plural, so the distinction between the two subclasses disappears. However a new subdivision arises because the i of the past tense forms is lengthened to ie before a single consonant. As it happens, reiten and leihen serve as examples of this too, but many OHG 1a verbs are in the modern long vowel group.

  • (short vowel) reiten ritt geritten ("to ride")
  • (long vowel) leihen lieh geliehen ("to loan")

Class 1 verbs in modern German are:

  • with short vowels: beißen, bleichen, gleichen, gleiten, greifen, leiden, pfeifen, reißen, reiten, scheißen, schleichen, schleifen, schleißen, schmeißen, schneiden, schreiten, spleißen, streichen, streiten, weichen (also the originally weak verb kneifen by analogy)
  • with vowel lengthening: bleiben, gedeihen, leihen, meiden, reiben, scheiden, scheinen, schreiben, schreien, schweigen, speien, steigen, treiben, verzeihen, weisen (also the originally weak verb preisen by analogy).

In Dutch, class 1 has remained very regular, and follows the pattern:

  • grijpen greep gegrepen

Class 1 verbs in Dutch are bezwijken, bijten, blijken, blijven, drijven, glijden, grijpen, hijsen, kijken, knijpen, krijgen, lijden, lijken, mijden, prijzen, rijden, rijzen, schijnen, schijten, schrijden, schrijven, slijpen, slijten, smijten, spijten, splijten, stijgen, strijden, strijken, verdwijnen, vermijden, wijken, wijzen, wrijven, zwijgen.

In Gothic:

  • dreiban draif dribun dribans

  Class 2

Class 2, Sweet's "choose conjugation", represents all verbs in which the IE Ablaut-vowel was followed by a u. In PIE it is therefore very similar to class 1. A regular vowel shift in Germanic changes ou > au. In two separate metaphonic processes, the present singular (part 2) is umlauted (eu > iu) because of an i in the inflection and the u in the past participle (part 5) is assimilated to the a in the inflection (u > o). A small number of verbs form a subgroup with ū in parts 1 and 2, for reasons which have not been entirely explained; this anomalous form may originate in Proto-Indo-European.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European préws- préwsiti peprówse peprusń̥d prusó-
Proto Germanic freusaną friusidi fraus fruzun fruzanaz
Old English frēosan frīest frēas fruron froren
Old Saxon friosan friusit frōs frurun gifroran
Old High German friosan friusit frōs frurun gifroran
Old Norse frsa frýss fraus frusu frosinn
Gothic liugan liugiþ laug lugun lugans
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European  ?  ?  ?  ?  ?
Proto Germanic lūkaną lūkidi lauk lukun lukanaz
Old English lūcan lȳ lēac lucon locen
Old Saxon lūkan lūkit lōk lukun gilokan
Old High German lūhhan lūhhit lōh luhhun gilohhan
Old Norse lúka lýkr lauk luku lokinn
Gothic lūkan lūkiþ lauk lukun lukans

In Old English, Germanic eu becomes ēo.

An Old English example with the present stem in ū:

  • scūfan scŷfþ scēaf scufon scofen ("to shove")

In Modern English, this is a small group characterised by the o vowel of the participle being assimilated to the preterite:

  • choose chose chosen
  • fly flew flown

Class 2 verbs in Modern English are choose, cleave, dive (AE), fly, freeze, which do not form a coherent class, as each verb has different irregularities from each other verb.

In Old High German, the usual pattern is:

  • biogan biugu boug bugum gibogan ("to bend")

An Old High German example with present stem in ū:

  • sūfan siufu souf sufum gisofan ("to drink")

An example with wandel affecting the whole of the present stem.

  • briuwan briuwu brou brūwum gibrūwan ("to brew")

A small group sometimes called class 2b has Old High German monophthongisation in the preterite singular:

  • biotan biutu bōt butum gibotan ("to offer")

Regular shifts on the way to Modern German change io > ie and ou > o. The modern preterite is based on the OHG preterite singular:

  • biegen bog gebogen ("to bend")
  • schieben schob geschoben ("to shove")
  • saugen sog gesogen ("to suck")

Class 2 verbs in Modern German are: biegen, bieten, fliegen, fliehen, fließen, frieren, genießen, gießen, klieben, kriechen, riechen, schieben, schießen, schließen, sprießen, stieben, verlieren, ziehen; with ū-present: saufen, saugen.

Two anomalous class 2 verbs in modern German are lügen ("to tell a lie") and trügen ("to deceive"). This no doubt arises from a desire to disambiguate Middle High German liegen from ligen (class 5), which would have sounded the same in Early Modern German. Trügen would have followed in its wake, because the two words form a common rhyming collocation.

In Dutch, class 2 follows the patterns

  • bedriegen bedroog bedrogen ("to deceive")
  • sluiten sloot gesloten ("to shut")

The present stem in ui represents the old ū-present, but interestingly this subgroup has grown, as a number of class 2 verbs which originally did not have ū-presents have taken the ui by analogy. Class 2 verbs in modern Dutch are: bedriegen, bieden, genieten, gieten, kiezen, liegen, schieten, verliezen, vliegen, vriezen; with ū-present: buigen, druipen, duiken, fluiten, kruipen, ruiken, schuilen, schuiven, sluiten, snuiven, spuiten, stuiven, zuigen, zuipen.

In Old Norse the past participle and plural present stem were subject to change due to assimilation.

In Gothic:

  • biudan bauþ budun budans
  • lūkan lauk lukun lukans

  Class 3

Class 3, Sweet's "bind conjugation", represents all verbs in which the IE Ablaut-vowel was followed by a nasal (n) or a liquid (r/l) and another consonant. 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.[1] So the combinations are:

  • With nasals (class 3a): CVnC, CVnn, CVmC, CVmm
  • With liquids (class 3b): CVlC, CVll, CVrC, CVhC

In the zero-grade forms, the nasal or liquid became a syllabic sonorant in PIE, transcribed as a circle below the letter. In Germanic, these syllabic nasals and liquids were not used, so a u vowel was added in compensation:  > ul. Umlaut causes a shift e > i in the present singular, but in the case of the nasals, this shift takes place throughout the present stem: this is referred to as wandel - the same effect as umlaut, but triggered by the nasal consonant. The preterite singular shows the standard Germanic vowel shift o > a. In the participle, ul becomes ol through metaphony but only with the liquid, as the metaphony is blocked by the nasal.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto-Indo-European éndʰ- éndʰiti bʰebʰóndʰe bʰebʰdʰń̥d dʰó-
Proto Germanic bindaną bindidi band bundun bundanaz
Old English bindan bindeþ band bundon bunden
Old Saxon bindan bindit band bundun bundan
Old High German bintan bintit bant buntun buntan
Old Norse binda bindr batt bundu bundinn
Gothic bindan bindiþ band bundun bundans
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European wért- wértiti wewórte wewtń̥d wtó-
Proto Germanic werþaną wirþidi wa wurdun wurdanaz
Old English weorþan wierþeþ wea wurdon worden
Old Saxon werthan wirthit warth wurdun giwordan
Old High German werdan wirdit ward wurtun giwortan
Old Norse verða verðr va urðu orðinn
Gothic wairþan wairþiþ wa waurþun waurþans

In Old English, class 3a is little changed from Germanic.

  • drincan drinceþ dranc druncon druncen ("to drink")
  • bindan bindeþ band bundon bunden ("to bind")

Class 3b experiences a diphthongisation called "Brechung" in preterite singular (a > ea); before r and h this also affects the present stem (e > eo).

  • helpan hilpþ healp hulpon holpen ("to help")
  • delfan dilfþ dealf dulfon dolfen ("to dig, delve")
  • sweltan swilt swealt swulton swolten ("to die, swelt")
  • ceorfan cierfþ cearf curfon corfen ("to cut, carve")
  • feohtan fieht feaht fuhton fohten ("to fight")

West Saxon palatal diphthongization causes i > ie after g:

  • gieldan gieldeþ geald guldon golden ("to pay, yield")

Three verbs have an anomalous æ in preterite singular: berstan ("to burst"), bregdan ("to pull"), frignan ("to ask").

  • berstan birst bærst burston borsten

In Modern English, this class is fairly large. This class is still relatively regular: the preterite is mostly formed from the OE preterite singular, occasionally from the preterite plural.

  • drink drank drunk(en)
  • sing sang sung

However, there are some anomalies. The class 3 verbs in modern English are:

  • With nasal: begin, bind, cling, drink, find, fling, grind, ring, run, shrink, sing, sink, sling, slink, spin, spring, sting, stink, string, swing, swim, win, wind, wring
  • With ll: swell
  • With original "Germanic h": fight

English fling does not go back to Old English, and may be a loan-word from Norse. It seems to have adopted class 3 forms by analogy with cling etc. Similarly ring, string.

In Old High German, class 3 has its vowels unchanged from Germanic:

  • bindan bindu band bundum gibundan
  • helfan hilfu half hulfum giholfan

Modern German takes the preterite from the OHG preterite singular.

  • binden band gebunden
  • helfen (hilf) half geholfen

However, the o of the 3b participle has been passed by analogy to some 3a verbs, and also to the preterite of some verbs of both groups:

  • beginnen begann begonnen
  • bergen barg geborgen ("to rescue")
  • quellen quoll gequollen ("to well up")

Class 3 verbs in modern German

  • 3a regular (i-a-u): binden, dringen, finden, gelingen, klingen, ringen, schlingen, schwinden, schwingen, singen, sinken, springen, stinken, trinken, zwingen
  • 3a with substitution of o in participle (i-a-o): beginnen, gewinnen, rinnen, schwimmen
  • 3a with substitution of o in preterite and participle (i-o-o): glimmen, klimmen
  • 3b regular (e-a-o): befehlen, bergen; bersten, gelten, helfen, schelten, sterben, verderben, werben, werden, werfen
  • 3b with substitution of o in preterite (e-o-o): dreschen, fechten, flechten, quellen, schmelzen, schwellen

In Dutch, class 3a and the bulk of 3b have taken the vowel of the participle for the preterite. However, a small group of 3b verbs have developed a preterite in ie, perhaps by analogy with class 7. This gives the patterns:

  • binden bond gebonden
  • bergen borg geborgen ("to store")
  • helpen hielp geholpen

A small number of verbs of other classes have taken the forms of class 3b by analogy. Class 3 verbs in modern Dutch are:

  • 3a: beginnen, binden, blinken, dringen, drinken, dwingen, glimmen, klimmen, klinken, schrikken, springen, stinken, verzinnen, vinden, winnen, wringen, zingen, zinken.
  • original 3b: bergen, gelden, schelden, smelten, vechten, zwellen.
  • 3b by analogy (original class in brackets): schenken, scheren (4), treffen(4), trekken (6), wegen, zenden (3a), zwemmen (3a).
  • 3b with preterite in ie: bederven, helpen, sterven, werpen, zwerven.

In Old Norse, numerous sound changes have resulted in this class fragmenting into 15 or so subclasses.

In Gothic:

  • bindan band bundun bundans
  • hilpan halp hulpun hulpans
  • bairgan barg baurgun baurgans

  Class 4

Class 4, Sweet's "Bear conjugation", represents all verbs in which the ablaut vowel was followed by a single nasal or liquid. The zero-grade in the participle becomes a u in Germanic, but, outside of Gothic, changes to o by a-mutation; as a single nasal is not enough to block this mutation, subgroups do not form in the Germanic class 4 as they do in class 3.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European ér- ériti bʰebʰóre bʰebʰērń̥d ó-
Proto Germanic beraną biridi bar bērun buranaz
Old English beran bi bær bǣron boren
Old Saxon beran birit bar bārun giboran
Old High German beran birit bar bārun giboran
Old Norse bera berr bar báru borinn
Gothic bairan bairiþ bar bērun baurans

In Old English, the general pattern is:

  • beran bierþ bær bǣron boren ("to bear")
  • brecan bricþ bræc brǣcon brocen ("to break")

With West Saxon palatal diphthongization (after c, g):

  • scieran scear scēaron scoren ("to shear")

The verb come is anomalous in all the West Germanic languages because it originally began with qu-, and the subsequent loss of the w sound coloured the vowel of the present stem.

  • cuman cymþ cōm cōmon cumen ("to come")

Also anomalous:

  • niman nimþ nōm nōmon numen ("to take")

In Modern English, regular class 4 verbs have all kept the –n in the participle, though eliminating the medial e after r, this class exhibits near homogeneity of vowel pattern:

  • break broke broken

Class 4 verbs in English are bear, break, get, shear, speak, steal, swear, tear, tread, wake, weave; and without the -n and of irregular vowel progression: come. Get, speak, tread and weave were originally of class 5, wake and swear were originally class 6.

Although the verb to be is suppletive and highly irregular, its preterite follows the pattern of a class 4 strong verb, with grammatischer Wechsel, and in English and Dutch this verb has retained the singular/plural distinction of both ablaut grade and consonant in the modern languages. Old English: wæs/wǣron, English: was/were. For full paradigms and historical explanations see Indo-European copula.

In Old High German, the pattern is:

  • neman nimu nam nāmum ginoman ("to take")

In Modern German the preterite is based on the preterite singular. As the only difference between the historical classes 3b and 4 was the preterite plural, these two classes are now identical.

  • nehmen nahm genommen ("to take")

Kommen still has the anomalous o in the present stem (although some dialects still pronounce this as kemmen.)

  • kommen kam gekommen ("to come")

Class 4 verbs in modern German: brechen, gebären, nehmen, schrecken, sprechen, stechen, stehlen, treffen; anomalous: kommen.

The preterite of sein ("to be") is Old High German: was/wârum, but levelled in modern German: war/waren.

In Dutch, class 4 and 5 verbs still show the distinction in vowel between the preterite singular and plural: ik nam ("I took") has the plural wij namen (not *nammen), that is, the 'short' vowel [ɑ] of the singular is replaced by the 'long' [a] in the plural. (Note the relationship of consonant doubling to vowel length, which is explained at Dutch orthography). The pattern is therefore:

  • breken brak (braken) gebroken ("to break")

In the case of komen, the w is retained in the preterite.

  • komen kwam (kwamen) gekomen ("to come")

Class 4 verbs in Dutch are: bevelen, breken, nemen, spreken, steken, stelen; and anomalous: komen.

The preterite of wezen/zijn ("to be") still shows both (quantitative) ablaut and grammatischer Wechsel between the singular and plural: was/waren.

In Gothic:

  • qiman qam qēmun qumans
  • brikan brak brēkun brukans

  Class 5

Class 5, Sweet's "give conjugation", represents all verbs in which the IE Ablaut-vowel was followed by a single consonant other than a nasal or a liquid. This class is originally similar to class 4 except in the participle. There is also a small subgroup called "j-presents" which show umlaut throughout the whole of the present stem.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European lés- lésiti lelóse lelēsń̥d lesó-
Proto Germanic lesaną lisidi las lēzun lezanaz
Old English lesan li læs lǣron leren
Old Saxon lesan lisit las lārun gileran
Old High German lesan lisit las lārun gileran
Old Norse lesa less las lásu lesinn
Gothic lisan lisiþ las lēsun lisans

In Old English the preterite is in æ/ǣ, as in class 4.

  • sprecan spricþ spræc sprǣcon sprecen ("to speak")
  • cweþan cwiþþ cwæþ cwǣdon cweden ("to say", cf. "bequeath", archaic past "quoth")

With West Saxon palatal diphthongization (after c, g)

  • giefan geaf gēafon giefen ("to give")

With j-presents

Contracted, anomalous:

  • sēon sihþ seah sāwon sewen ("to see")

In Modern English this group has lost all group cohesion.

  • eat ate eaten
  • give gave given
  • lie lay lain
  • see saw seen
  • sit sat sat

Class 5 verbs in Modern English: bid, eat, give, lie (= lie down), see, sit. Get, speak, tread, weave are now class 4.

In Old High German this group is relatively uniform. The model is geban, or for the j-presents, bitten.

  • geban gibu gab gābum gigeban ("to give")
  • bitten bat bātum gibetan ("to ask")

In Modern German this group is little changed from Old High German:

  • geben (gib) gab gegeben
  • bitten bat gebeten

The verb essen ("to eat") had a past participle giezzan in OHG; in MHG this became geezzen which was contracted to gezzen and then re-prefixed to gegezzen:

  • essen (iss) aß gegessen

Class 5 verbs in modern German: essen, geben, genesen, geschehen, lesen, messen, sehen, treten, vergessen; with j-presents, bitten, liegen, sitzen.

In Dutch, class 5 is much as in German, except that the preterite retains the vowel length distinction which we also observed in class 4 above.

  • geven gaf (gaven) gegeven
  • bidden bad (baden) gebeden
  • eten at (aten) gegeten

zien ("to see") has experienced a loss of the original /h/, with a resulting assimilation of the stem vowel to the vowel of the inflection, and shows Grammatischer Wechsel between this original /h/ and a /g/ in the preterite:

  • zien, zag (zagen), gezien

Class 5 verbs in Dutch: eten, geven, genezen, lezen, meten, treden, vergeten; anomalous: zien; with j-presents: bidden, liggen, zitten.

In Gothic:

  • giban gaf gēbun gibans
  • saiƕan saƕ sēƕun saiƕans

  Class 6

Class 6, Sweet's "shake conjugation", represents all verbs in which the Proto-Germanic vowel was *a. PIE sources of this vowel included *h2e, *o, and a laryngeal between consonants.[2] Possibly in some cases the a may be an example of the a-grade of ablaut, though this is controversial. Like class 5, this class too has j-presents. Compare with Latin facio ("I do"): infinitive facere, indicative active perfect singular fēci, perfect passive participle factus.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European h₂él- h₂éliti h₂eh₂óle h₂eh₂lń̥d h₂eló-
Proto Germanic alaną alidi ōl ōlun alanaz
Old English alan æ ōl ōlon alen
Old Saxon dragan dregit drōg drōgun gidragan
Old High German tragan tregit truog truogun gitragan
Old Norse ala ell ól ólu alinn
Gothic alan aliþ ōl ōlun alans

In Old English

  • scacan scæcþ scōc scōcon scacen ("to shake")
  • faran færþ fōr fōron faren ("to travel, fare")
  • sacan sæcþ sōc sōcon sacen ("to quarrel")


  • slēan sliehþ slōg slōgon slægen ("to strike, slay")

With j-presents (and other anomalies)

  • hebban hōf hōfon hafen ("to raise, heave")
  • scieppan scōp scōpon scapen ("to create, shape")
  • swerian swōr swōron sworen ("to swear")

The verb "to stand" has an anomalous loss of its -n- in the preterite:

  • standan stent stōd stōdon standen

In Modern English, shake, take and forsake come closest to the original vowel sequence. The consonant anomaly in stand is still visible, and is extended to the participle.

  • shake shook shaken
  • stand stood stood

Class 6 verbs in modern English: draw, forsake, lade, shake, shape, shave, slay, stand, take. (Like most other classes in Modern English, this class has lost cohesion and now forms principal parts according to many different patterns.) Swear is now class 4. The adjective graven was originally a past participle of the now obsolete verb grave. Note that lade, shape, shave are now weak outside of their optionally strong past participle forms (laden, shapen, and shaven, respectively).

In Old High German the preterite is marked by the diphthong uo:

  • graban grebit gruob gruobum gigraban ("to dig, grave")

With j-present:

  • heffen huob huobum gihaban ("to heave")

In Modern German the uo is monophthongised to a u.

  • graben gräbt grub gegraben

However, the j-presents have instead taken an o in the preterite and participle, perhaps by analogy with class 2.

  • heben hob gehoben

Class 6 verbs in modern German: fahren, graben, laden, schaffen, schlagen, tragen, waschen; also backen, fragen, though these are usually weak nowadays; with j-present: heben, schwören. The past tense and participle of stehen (stand, older stund, gestanden), which derive from a lost verb *standen, also belong to this class.

In Dutch, the regular class 6 verbs are close to German:

  • graven groef gegraven

However the three j-presents have taken the vowel ie in the preterite, and have chosen three separate paths in the participle:

  • scheppen schiep geschapen
  • heffen hief geheven
  • zweren zwoer gezworen ("to swear an oath")

Class 6 verbs in Dutch are: dragen, graven, slaan, varen, and with j-present: heffen, scheppen, zweren; also "semi-strong" (i.e. with a strong preterite but a weak participle) jagen, vragen.

In Gothic:

  • faran fōr fōrun farans

  Class 7

Class 7, Sweet's "fall conjugation", is not based on an Indo-European ablaut sequence as such; rather, it is the class showing reduplication in Gothic and irregular ablaut patterning in the other branches. The place of reduplication in the Germanic preterite is a debated topic. One view is that class 7 represents all the verbs of classes 1 to 6 that were once characterized by reduplication in the preterite. Another view is that all strong preterites from all classes, as the reflexes of the reduplicating IE perfect, originally showed reduplication, but haplological processes eliminated the reduplicating syllable in nearly all verbs; however, those verbs whose present and preterite stem did not show a marked contrast in ablaut would therefore not have shown sufficient contrast without a preterite marker, so reduplication was originally retained in those verbs, which are the verbs categorized as class 7.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European léh₁d- léh₁diti lelóh₁de lelh₁dń̥d leh₁dó-
Proto Germanic lētaną lētidi lelōt lelōtun lētanaz
Old English lǣtan lǣtt lēt lēton lǣten
Old Saxon lātan lātit lēt lētun gilātan
Old High German lāzan lāzit liaz liazun gilāzan
Old Norse láta lætr lét létu látinn
Gothic lētan lētiþ lailōt lailōtun lētans
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Proto Indo-European séh₁- séh₁iti sesóh₁e sesh₁ń̥d seh₁ó-
Proto Germanic sēaną sēidi sezō sezōun sēanaz
Old English sāwan sǣ sēow sēowon sāwen
Old Saxon sāian sāit (sāida) (sāidun)  ?
Old High German sāen sāit (sāita) (sāitun)  ?
Old Norse sá sær søri, seri søru, seru sáinn
Gothic saian sai saisō saisōun saians

This situation did not last. East Germanic (Gothic) alone retained reduplication as the marker of the strong preterite in the verbs of class 7. Four examples from Gothic will illustrate this here. In each case the infinitive and the preterite singular are given, with the reduplication in bold print:

  • falþan faífalþ faífalþ-un falþ-ans ("to fold")
  • slēpan saíslēp saíslēp-un slēp-ans ("to sleep")
  • háitan haíháit haíháit-un háit-ans ("to be called" - German "heißen")
  • lētan laílōt laílōt-un lēt-ans ("to let")

Class 7 in Gothic was divided into two types: those with vocalic alternation in the root and those with no alternation. The root vowel for the nonablauting type could be a(:), ái, áu, e, or o. The patterns that showed vocalic alternation between present and preterite stem were only e ~ o and ai ~ o; note that the o-vowel occurs on precisely the same forms that have reduplication, making it a redundant marking.

Outside Gothic, the retained reduplication of class 7 was itself eventually eliminated, although dialects of Old English and Old Norse do show a few relics:

  • OE hātan ht ("to call")
  • OE rēdan reord ("to advise" - German "raten")
  • OE lācan leolc ("to move about, leap")
  • ON seri ("to sow", with rhotacism)
  • ON róa reri ("to row")
  • ON snúa sneri ("to turn")

Aside from these remnants, North and West Germanic eliminated reduplication in class 7, with the result that these verbs show only a limited variation of vowels, and have enough homogeneity to make it useful to see them as a single class. The principal characteristics of class 7 in West Germanic are:

  • Different vowels are possible in the present stem, depending on the original reduplicating class.
  • The vowel of the present stem recurs in the participle.
  • There is no distinction between preterite singular and plural.
  • Only two vowels are possible in the preterite, and the class divides into two subclasses according to these.
  • For the first subclass (7a below), North and West Germanic introduced ē2 in the preterite to differentiate what would have been identical root shapes. There is no clear consensus on the source of underlying *eu in the preterite of class 7b or its apparent ablaut relationship with the present.

In Old English the pattern is as follows:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Class 7a x x + umlaut ē ē x
Class 7b x x + umlaut ēo ēo x

Examples of class 7a:

  • hātan hǣtt hēt hēton hāten ("to call")
  • slǣpan slǣpþ slēp slēpon slǣpen ("to sleep")

Two verbs of class 7a have contracted present stems and grammatischer Wechsel:

  • fōn fēhþ fēng fēngon fangen ("to seize", cf. "fang")
  • hōn hēhþ hēng hēngon hangen ("to hang")

Examples of class 7b:

  • feallan fielþ fēoll fēollon feallen ("to fall")
  • healdan hielt hēold hēoldon healden ("to hold")
  • cnāwan cnǣwþ cnēow cnēowon cnāwen ("to know")
  • grōwan grēwþ grēow grēowon grōwen ("to grow")
  • hlēapan hlīepþ hlēop hlēopon hlēapen ("to run, leap")

In Modern English this class has lost its homogeneity:

  • fall fell fallen
  • hang hung hung (Note that, in the transitive sense of hanging someone by the neck, hang usually has regular weak conjugation)
  • hold held held (the original past participle is preserved in the adjective beholden)
  • throw threw thrown

The following modern English verbs descend from class 7 verbs, and have not been given weak-verb endings: beat, blow, fall, hew, grow, hang, hold, know, throw.

In Old High German we find the same two groups, though they do not correspond exactly to those of Old English:

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Class 7a x x + umlaut ia ia x
Class 7b x x + umlaut io io x

Class 7a follows the pattern:

  • haltan hialt hialtum gihaltan ("to hold, halt")

Class 7b follows the pattern:

  • loufan liof liofum giloufan ("to run")

In Modern German this class follows the uniform pattern x-ie-x:

  • halten (hält) hielt gehalten ("to hold, halt")
  • laufen (läuft) lief gelaufen ("to run")

However the two anomalous verbs have formed new present stems, eliminated grammatischer Wechsel and shortened the vowel in the preterite:

  • fangen (fängt) fing gefangen ("to catch")
  • hängen (hängt) hing gehangen ("to hang")

Class 7 verbs in modern German are: blasen, braten, fallen, halten, heißen, lassen, laufen, raten, rufen, schlafen, stoßen; anomalous: fangen, hängen. The past tense and participle of German gehen, ging gegangen, derive from a lost verb *gangen which belongs to this class.

In both Middle and Modern Dutch this class is very similar to German:

  • lopen liep gelopen
  • hangen hing gehangen

The verb "to hold" displays the Dutch phenomenon that in the letter combination -old- the L disappears and the vowel diphthongises in compensation:

  • houden hield gehouden

Class 7 verbs in Dutch are: blazen, laten, lopen, raden*, roepen, slapen, stoten*, vallen; anomalous: hangen, vangen, gaan, houden. (The verbs with * are nowadays mostly semi-strong: raden raadde geraden and stoten stootte gestoten)

In older Dutch grammars e.g. the one by Brill, the class was subdivided into:

class 7
/ɑn/ - /ɪn/ - /ɑn/
vangen - ving - gevangen
class 8
/a/ - /i/ - /a/
slapen - sliep - geslapen
class 9
/o/ - /i/ - /o/
lopen - liep - gelopen
class 10
e(i) - ie - e(i)

This class is now extinct, its only relic being the verb uitscheiden - scheed uit - uitgescheiden


  1. ^ Ringe, Don. 2006. A Linguistic History of English. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanlic. P.226, 243. Examples: *brestaną "to burst", *þreskaną "to thresh" *fehtaną "to fight". All but one have a nasal or a liquid in front of the vowel.
  2. ^ Examples: *aka- < *h2ego- ("to drive"), *mala- < *molh2o- ("to grind"), *habja- ("to lift") < *kh2pio- ("to seize"). See Ringe 2006, p.188.


  • Alfred Bammesberger, Der Aufbau des germanischen Verbalsystems, Heidelberg 1986.
  • Cornelius van Bree, Historische grammatica van het Nederlands, Dordrecht 1987.
  • W. G. Brill, Nederlandsche spraakleer; ten gebruike bij inrichtingen van hooger onderwijs, Leiden 1871
  • Frans van Coetsem, Ablaut and Reduplication in the Germanic Verb (=Indogermanische Bibliothek. vol 3), Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 1993, ISBN 3-8253-4267-0.
  • Jerzy Kuryłowicz and Manfred Mayrhofer, Indogermanische Grammatik, Heidelberg 1968/9.
  • Marcin Krygier, The Disintegration of the English Strong Verb System, Frankfurt c.1994.
  • Richard Hogg, A Grammar of Old English, Oxford 1992.
  • Wilhelm Braune, revised by Walther Mitzka, Althochdeutsche Grammatik, Tübingen 1961.
  • Donald Ringe, From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, Oxford 2006.


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