(wheee, just one more time)

The Old English verb was beastly. Complicated irregularities in conjugation, hard-to-predict sound changes, multiple systems to contend with; all quite alot of bother. One point to salvage from all this unpleasantness is that alot of Old English verbs were actually derivatives. The language tended less toward creating new words for related action concepts than deriving them through a series of functional prefixes (although not to quite the same extent as prepositional-derivation-happy modern German). By knowing some base roots and understanding the use of prefixes and suffixes to add meaning, one can gain a much broader comprehension of Old English verbs than in a language where unique words were more commonly invented.

It is necessary to understand that many prefixes in Old English matched up with independent prepositions. This did not mean that the prefix and the preposition were related. In fact, many times they had totally different meanings. Prefixes that changed meaning instead of grammatic tense were always attached to the word they modified. This is the easiest way of telling the difference between a phoneme being used as a prepositional modifier and a phoneme being used as a mutational prefix.

Loss and Destruction Derivations
Old English made use of the prefix for- to indicate a quality of loss or destruction. It was generally used for creational verbs or verbs indicating something positive being done; thus indicating the negative. The meaning sometimes matched exactly with the use of a ne negative modifier (a prepositional, detached modifier) and the two could be used interchangeably. It did not cause sound changes in most cases. Qualities of the verb like strength and version remained the same. Examples:

  • gieldan (yield) to forgieldan (forfeit)
  • dón (make) to fordón (destroy)
  • weorðan (become) to forweorðan (perish)
  • bærnan (burn) to forbærnan (be consumed by burning)

Apartness Derivatives
To indicate the meaning of coming asunder or apart, Old English added the prefix tó-. This was different from the preposition , which was usually also preficing a verb, but seperately. There are some exceptions in which it was attached to the verb without giving an apartness meaning that must be memorized. The adverbial tó- prefix was differentiated from the apartness tó- prefix by stress, the root syllable would keep its stress for apartness prefices, but lose it to the first syllable for adverbial prefixes. This is not marked in writing. Examples:

  • feallan (fall) to tófeallan (fall apart)
  • scufan (shove) to tóscufan (push apart)
  • drífan (drive) to tódrífan (drive apart, disperse)

Intensive, Surrounding, Preventative and Transitive Derivations
Yes, as the title suggests, Old English made pretty thorough use of the prefix be-. The least common method was as a mark of intensification, somewhat the equivalent of the modern English verbal preposition 'up', as in swelgan (swallow) to beswelgan (swallow up). More usually, it created a sense of around, about, or over in a verb. In a few verbs with negative preventative counterparts, it played the roll of opposition. Finally, for verbs that normally took no objects, it converted them from intransitive to transitive.

  • séon (see) to beséon (look around)
  • rídan (ride) to berídan (ride around)
  • sprecan (speak) to besprecan (speak about)
  • hádian (ordain) to behádian (unfrock)
  • þencan (think) to beþencan (consider)

Movement Away Derivative
Directly descended from the Germanic prefix or-, the Old English prefix á- indicated general movement away, onward, or outward from a movemental verb. In verbs already indicating such movement, it served as an intensive.

  • scufan (shove) to áscufan (shove away)
  • beran (carry) to áberan (remove)
  • sendan (send) to ásendan (dispatch)

Collective Derivation
Cletus the Foetus was kind enough to inform me of a very important prefix I'd not had information on, the collective or instantive prefix ge-. It was used whenver things came together as a result of the verb, with parallels to the German prefix ge- (not when it's used to form the past participle) and Latin con-. He noted an interesting observation that this prefix survived into modern speech, transitioning through the Middle English y- to finally be used in rural English with the present participle and adjectives. His examples included "I'm a-coming," and "she's all a-flutter." Old English examples were:

  • bringan (bring) to gebringan (bring together)
  • cyrran (change) to gecyrran (convert)
Since most sound changes occurred in Old English because of the presence of something in the syllable after, there aren't nearly as many sound changes associated wtih verbal prefixes as with suffixes for nouns and adjectives. The verb quality almost never changed either, so at least if there was irregularity one would be dealing with the same irregularity as the root verb.


Marckwardt, Albert H. Old English Language and Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 1972.

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