Weak verbs

[download pdf]

Background and phonology

Formation

Weak verbs represent a group of younger but very numerous Germanic verbs, mostly derived from other parts of speech or from strong verbs. Unlike their strong counterparts, which form their preterites and often their past participles by way of vowel gradation (sing – sang – sung), these verbs instead use a dental suffix to form their preterites and past participles (walk – walked – walked). In Old Norse, this suffix has the basic form -ði. Since the personal endings of the verb are added to this element, however, the i is often lost; furthermore, depending on the phonological context, the ð will sometimes show up as d or t.

Thematic vowels

If you have read my write-up on noun classes, or at least its first few paragraphs, you are familiar with the concept of the thematic vowel: a sound that historically separated root from inflectional ending, and that is different for each of the noun classes. Just as this variation in thematic vowels serves as the justification for the conventional system of noun classes, so also three different thematic vowels form the basis of the three weak verb classes. Class 1 is made up of i/j-stems, class 2 contains a-stems, and class 3 represents i-stems. Far from being merely a historical grouping, this thematic background has had profound phonological effects on the audible and visible forms of the Old Norse and Modern Icelandic weak verbs. Most importantly, the thematic vowel is still visible in many present-tense forms of all three classes. In addition, it has caused sound changes in various parts of the conjugation. To understand the development from thematic vowel to medieval pronunciation and orthography, we need to be familiar with a series of phonological phenomena, the most important of which is front mutation.

NB that there is no consistent numbering, or even categorization, of the weak verb classes among grammarians. Noreen orders them by productivity and splits the i/j-stems into two (long and short stems), yielding 1) a-stems; 2) short i/j-stems; 3) long i/j-stems; 4) i-stems. Sweet and Hall likewise separate out long and short i/j-stems, but they furthermore understand i-stems as a subclass of the a-stems, yielding 1) short i/j-stems; 2a) a-stems; 2b) i-stems; 3) long i/j-stems. Valfells and Cathey number the classes in order of ascending difficulty: 1) a-stems; 2) i-stems; 3) i/j-stems; they group members of the i-stems with i-mutation in the present tense (see below) under the i/j-stems. Barnes combines i-stems and long i/j-stems into a single class 3; thus 1) short i/j-stems; 2) a-stems; 3) i-stems and long i/j-stems. The present numbering follows that used in Gordon.

Front mutation

Unlike Modern English, which has central vowels like those in bird and the second vowel of pollen, early Norse (ninth to twelfth centuries) by some definitions had an essentially binary distinction between front and back vowels:

The above image is a vowel chart or vowel diagram: constituting a schematic display of the mouth, it charts whether a sound is produced with the mouth wide open (low in the diagram) or fairly close (high in the diagram), as well as whether the raised part of the tongue is more towards the front of the organ (left side of the diagram) or towards the back (right-hand side). Although it is customary to use phonemic notation in vowel diagrams, I have chosen to use the graphemes of Old Norse in the above representation, i.e. the letters as they were written. All these sounds had long counterparts which I have left out to avoid chaos, but I have written in æ and œ because they are the only vowels whose spelling (in the standard here represented) differs from their short counterparts beyond the addition of an acute accent. Remember: these letters represent reconstructed early Old Norse, not Modern Icelandic or even fourteenth-century Icelandic.

Front mutation (most commonly specified as i-mutation) is a sound change that took place at an early stage of the Old Norse language (c. 600–900) where an /i/ or /j/ in one syllable caused a back vowel in the preceding syllable to be fronted. Like labial mutation, this is an anticipatory process: because the speaker knows she will have to raise the tip of her tongue to pronounce the following /i/ or /j/, she began to position her tongue ahead of time, thereby altering the realization of the preceding vowel. Generally, this meant that a given back vowel would be pronounced with the same qualities as before (e.g. close and rounded in the case of /u/), but with the front or tip rather than the back of the tongue raised (i.e. /y/ in the case of /u/). In the early Old Norse vowel system, this affected diphthongs as well as monophthongs:

Class 1 weak verbs have -i/j- as their thematic vowel. That is, the stem was historically followed by precisely the sound that tended to bring a preceding vowel forward in articulation. Accordingly, front mutation is a prominent phenomenon in this class. By contrast, the class 2 thematic is a back vowel, which never causes front mutation, so class 2 is not affected by it at all. The i of class 3 actually postdates the fronting process: for most of its members it had been e (i.e. /e/) in early Norse, and this class is therefore generally exempt from front mutation. However, some verbs (which we may classify as “type b”) have a different history and do display front mutation, so that they behave largely like long-stemmed members of class 1.

i-deletion

i-deletion in the context of weak verbs is a straightforward law stating the following:

Paradigms

Class 1: i/j-stems

telja “count” (active voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek tel 1pl vér teljum 1sg ek telja 1pl vér telim
2sg þú telr 2pl ér telið 2sg þú telir 2pl ér telið
3sg hann telr 3pl þeir telja 3sg hann teli 3pl þeir teli
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek talða 1pl vér tǫlðum 1sg ek telða 1pl vér telðim
2sg þú talðir 2pl ér tǫlðuð 2sg þú telðir 2pl ér telðið
3sg hann talði 3pl þeir tǫlðu 3sg hann telði 3pl þeir telði
past participle m. talðr f. tǫlð n. talit
imperative 2sg tel 1pl teljum 2pl telið
teljask “be counted” (middle voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek teljumk 1pl vér teljumk 1sg ek teljumk 1pl vér telimk
2sg þú telsk 2pl ér telizk 2sg þú telisk 2pl ér telizk
3sg hann telsk 3pl þeir teljask 3sg hann telisk 3pl þeir telisk
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek tǫlðumk 1pl vér tǫlðumk 1sg ek telðumk 1pl vér telðimk
2sg þú talðisk 2pl þú tǫlðuzk 2sg þú telðisk 2pl ér telðizk
3sg hann talðisk 3pl þeir tǫlðusk 3sg hann telðisk 3pl þeir telðisk
past participle m. f. n. talizk
imperative 2sg telsk 1pl teljumk 2pl telizk
heyra “hear” (active voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek heyri 1pl vér heyrum 1sg ek heyra 1pl vér heyrim
2sg þú heyrir 2pl ér heyrið 2sg þú heyrir 2pl ér heyrið
3sg hann heyrir 3pl þeir heyra 3sg hann heyri 3pl þeir heyri
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek heyrða 1pl vér heyrðum 1sg ek heyrða 1pl vér heyrðim
2sg þú heyrðir 2pl ér heyrðuð 2sg þú heyrðir 2pl ér heyrðið
3sg hann heyrði 3pl þeir heyrðu 3sg hann heyrði 3pl þeir heyrði
past participle m. heyrðr f. heyrð n. heyrt
imperative 2sg heyr 1pl heyrum 2pl heyrið
heyrask “be heard” (middle voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek heyrumk 1pl vér heyrumk 1sg ek heyrumk 1pl vér heyrimk
2sg þú heyrisk 2pl ér heyrizk 2sg þú heyrisk 2pl ér heyrizk
3sg hann heyrisk 3pl þeir heyrask 3sg hann heyrisk 3pl þeir heyrisk
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek heyrðumk 1pl vér heyrðumk 1sg ek heyrðumk 1pl vér heyrðimk
2sg þú heyrðisk 2pl þú heyrðuzk 2sg þú heyrðisk 2pl ér heyrðizk
3sg hann heyrðisk 3pl þeir heyrðusk 3sg hann heyrðisk 3pl þeir heyrðisk
past participle m. f. n. heyrzk
imperative 2sg heyrsk 1pl heyrumk 2pl heyrizk

The two paradigms telja “count” and heyra “hear” represent the two subtypes of class 1 weak verbs. The phonological difference between the two is that telja is short-stemmed while heyra is based on a long stem. As noted in my explanation of the noun classes, a short stem is one whose root syllable has either a short monophthong vowel followed by no more than one consonant or a long vowel or diphthong followed by no consonant at all; any other combination is long. Short stems of class 1 show the effects of front mutation everywhere except in the preterite indicative and the past participle: the present form telr (from the short stem tel-i/j-) becomes talði in the preterite, taliðr in the participle. In all short stems of this type, the remainder of the paradigm, including the preterite subjunctive, has a front vowel. In addition, the thematic vowel in these verbs shows up in present-tense forms as -j- before a back vowel (i.e. in teljum(k) and telja(sk)). Heyra (heyr-i/j-) represents the long stems, which have front mutation throughout the paradigm, including the preterite indicative. In the long stems, the thematic vowel never surfaces as -j-; instead, it shows up as -i- across the present tense system except where displaced by a following vowel (thus cf. heyri and tel, heyrir and telr).

Both subtypes of class 1 are common, the long stems being especially numerous. Although these verbs must have front vowels in their stems, they do not have a monopoly on them; the other classes likewise have verbs with this property.

Class 2: a-stems

kalla “call” (active voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek kalla 1pl vér kǫllum 1sg ek kalla 1pl vér kallim
2sg þú kallar 2pl ér kallið 2sg þú kallir 2pl ér kallið
3sg hann kallar 3pl þeir kalla 3sg hann kalli 3pl þeir kalli
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek kallaða 1pl vér kǫlluðum 1sg ek kallaða 1pl vér kallaðim
2sg þú kallaðir 2pl ér kǫlluðuð 2sg þú kallaðir 2pl ér kallaðið
3sg hann kallaði 3pl þeir kǫlluðu 3sg hann kallaði 3pl þeir kallaði
past participle m. kallaðr f. kǫlluð n. kallat
imperative 2sg kalla 1pl kǫllum 2pl kallið
kallask “be called” (middle voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek kǫllumk 1pl vér kǫllumk 1sg ek kǫllumk 1pl vér kallimk
2sg þú kallask 2pl ér kallizk 2sg þú kallisk 2pl ér kallizk
3sg hann kallask 3pl þeir kallask 3sg hann kallisk 3pl þeir kallisk
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek kǫlluðumk 1pl vér kǫlluðumk 1sg ek kǫlluðumk 1pl vér kallaðimk
2sg þú kallaðisk 2pl þú kǫlluðuzk 2sg þú kallaðisk 2pl ér kallaðizk
3sg hann kallaðisk 3pl þeir kǫlluðusk 3sg hann kallaðisk 3pl þeir kallaðisk
past participle m. f. n. kallazk
imperative 2sg kallask 1pl kǫllumk 2pl kallizk

The a-stems are the most numerous class, and the most straightforward. Their stem vowel is not given to front mutation, but a stem vowel a will show labial mutation (kallakǫllum). Characteristic of this class is that the thematic vowel -a- is visible across the paradigm except where affected by labial mutation or dropped in favour of a following vowel.

Class 3: i-stems

trúa “believe” (active voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek trúi 1pl vér trúum 1sg ek trúa 1pl vér trúim
2sg þú trúir 2pl ér trúið 2sg þú trúir 2pl ér trúið
3sg hann trúir 3pl þeir trúa 3sg hann trúi 3pl þeir trúi
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek trúða 1pl vér trúðum 1sg ek trýða 1pl vér trýðum
2sg þú trúðir 2pl ér trúðuð 2sg þú trýðir 2pl ér trýðið
3sg hann trúði 3pl þeir trúðu 3sg hann trýði 3pl þeir trýði
past participle m. trúaðr f. trúað n. trúat
imperative 2sg trú 1pl trúum 2pl trúið
trúask “be believed” (middle voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek trúumk 1pl vér trúumk 1sg ek trúumk 1pl vér trúimk
2sg þú trúisk 2pl ér trúizk 2sg þú trúisk 2pl ér trúizk
3sg hann trúisk 3pl þeir trúask 3sg hann trúisk 3pl þeir trúisk
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek trúðumk 1pl vér trúðumk 1sg ek trýðumk 1pl vér trýðimk
2sg þú trúðisk 2pl þú trúðuzk 2sg þú trýðisk 2pl ér trýðizk
3sg hann trúðisk 3pl þeir trúðusk 3sg hann trýðisk 3pl þeir trýðisk
past participle m. f. n. trúizk
imperative 2sg trúsk 1pl trúumk 2pl trúizk
segja “say” (active voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek segi 1pl vér segjum 1sg ek segja 1pl vér segim
2sg þú segir 2pl ér segið 2sg þú segir 2pl ér segið
3sg hann segir 3pl þeir segja 3sg hann segi 3pl þeir segi
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek sagða 1pl vér sǫgðum 1sg ek segða 1pl vér segðim
2sg þú sagðir 2pl ér sǫgðuð 2sg þú segðir 2pl ér segðið
3sg hann sagði 3pl þeir sǫgðu 3sg hann segði 3pl þeir segði
past participle m. sagðr f. sǫgð n. sagt
imperative 2sg seg 1pl segjum 2pl segið
segjask “be said” (middle voice)
present indicative present subjunctive
1sg ek segjumk 1pl vér segjumk 1sg ek segjumk 1pl vér segimk
2sg þú segisk 2pl ér segizk 2sg þú segisk 2pl ér segizk
3sg hann segisk 3pl þeir segjask 3sg hann segisk 3pl þeir segisk
preterite indicative preterite subjunctive
1sg ek segðumk 1pl vér segðumk 1sg ek segðumk 1pl vér segðimk
2sg þú segðisk 2pl ér segðisk 2sg þú segðisk 2pl ér segðizk
3sg hann segðisk 3pl þeir segðusk 3sg hann segðisk 3pl þeir segðisk
past participle m. f. n. segjazk
imperative 2sg segsk 1pl segjumk 2pl segizk

Class 3 has the thematic -i-, which is visible almost everywhere in the present tense system. This class is altogether small, but what members it has are mostly like trúa. The characteristics of this subtype (a) are that

By contrast, subtype (b), represented by segja, has

In other words, type (b) differs from the short stems of class 1 (telja) only in the appearance of the thematic vowel i in the present tense where in telja no thematic vowel is visible.

© Paul Langeslag 2011, 2013