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- Following the convention in historical linguistics, this article marks unattested reconstructed words with an asterisk.
The so-called preterite-present verbs are a small group of anomalous verbs in the Germanic languages in which the present tense shows the form of the strong preterite.
The reflex of the Proto-Indo-European perfect aspect in Germanic, is generally a past tense (the Germanic strong preterite). The perfect of Indo-European originally signified a current state of being rather than any particular tense; in the sense that the preterite-present verbs are non-past and still largely signify current states (temporalized as present tense), they constitute a partial retention of the originally non-past perfect of Indo-European. For example, Proto-Indo-European *woida originally meant "I see, I am a witness", a meaning which developed in Greek oida and Vedic veda, as well as in Gothic wait to the meaning "I know". The original semantic notion of "seeing" is preserved in Latin vīdī 'I saw' (probably an old root aorist). Compare Polish widzieć (to see) and wiedzieć (to know).
Preterite-presents in Proto-Germanic
The known verbs in Proto-Germanic (PGmc):
|*kunnana||"know (how to)", later "can"||III||kann||kunþa|
|*skulana||"must", later "shall"||IV||skal||skulda|
|*magana||"can", later "may"||VI||mag||mahta|
|*mōtana||"may", later "must"||VI||mōt||mōsta|
The present tense has the form of a vocalic (strong) preterite, with vowel-alternation between singular and plural. A new weak preterite is formed with a dental suffix. The root shape of the preterite (in zero-grade) serves as the basis for the infinitive and past passive participle, thus Gothic inf. witan and past participle witans; this contrasts with all other Germanic verb types in which the basis for those forms is the present stem.
|Gothic||Old English||German||Dutch||Old Norse||Icelandic||Danish||Swedish|
|present 1st & 3rd sg||wait||wāt||weiß||weet||veit||veit||ved||vet|
|present 3rd pl||witun||witon||wissen||weten||vitu||vita||ved||(veta)*|
|preterite 1st & 3rd sg||wissa||wisse||wusste||wist||vissa/vissi||vissi||vidste||visste|
|*(Plural forms have been lost in modern central Swedish, but are retained in some dialects.)|
**(Actually, not the past participle but the supine.)
For the most part, the personal endings of the strong preterite are used for the present tense. In fact, in West Germanic the endings of the present tense of preterite-present verbs represent the original IE perfect endings better than that subgroup's strong preterite verbs do: the expected PGmc strong preterite 2 sg. form ending in -t was retained rather than replaced by the endings -e or -i elsewhere adopted for strong preterites in West Germanic.
The endings of the preterite (except for *kunnana) are the same as the endings of the first weak class.
In modern English, preterite-present verbs are identifiable by the absence of an -s suffix on the 3rd person singular present tense form. Compare. for instance, he can with he sings (pret. he sang); the present paradigm of can is thus parallel with the past tense of a strong verb. In modern German there is also an ablaut shift between singular ich kann (I can) and plural wir können (we can). In the older stages of the Germanic languages (Old English, Middle High German) the past tense of strong verbs also showed different ablaut grades in singular and plural.
Many of the preterite-present verbs function as modal verbs (auxiliaries which are followed by a bare infinitive, without "to") and indeed most of the traditional modal verbs are preterite-presents. Examples are English must and shall/should, German dürfen (may), sollen (ought), mögen (like), and müssen (must). The early history of will (German wollen) is more complicated, as it goes back to an Indo-European optative, but the result in the modern languages is likewise a preterite-present paradigm.