The conjugation of verbs in Old English was a complicated task. Unlike other Indo-European languages that generally moved on to regular methods of conjugation, Old English still retained a great number of verbs whose past and past participle forms operated by their own intricate and ancient rules. More so than modern English, which still contains traces of this process in exceptional words like sing, sang, sung or drive, drove, driven, however the practice was much more common at the time. Fortunately for the student of the language, by the point of time in which Old English became a productive literary language, a regularized system of verb conjugation had been developed and applied to about 80% of verbs in the language: the most active class of verbs by far. These verbs, which followed inflectional rules recognizable to modern English speakers, were called weak verbs. They're willingness to yield to regularized functions of conjugation is the reason for the terminology 'weak', with their unruly counterparts classified as 'strong'.

Principle Parts

The Old English weak verb is made up of three principle parts: the infitive, the first-person singular past tense, and the past participle. This is all the information one needs to accomplish a full conjugation of Old English verbs. At some point during the history of Germanic languages, and thus Old English by lineage, the complicated inflectional forms for all tenses but the past and present were dropped. The other tenses lost in the process were reconstructed through the use of auxiliary verbs until the original intricate temporal structure native to Indo-European languages was almost fully recovered. Thus, all one really needs to worry about is the infinitive, past, and past participle. The infinitive gives one information about present tense conjugation, the past information about the past (duh), and the past participle the last differentiating form used in certain auxiliary verb constructions.

The infintive forms of weak verbs always ended in -an. E.G. settan (appoint), hefigian (afflict), and láédan (lead). Before determining the first-person singular past tense, it must be noted that there were two 'versions' of weak verbs. The inflectional endings were very similar for both, but little differences in transitional vowels make it important to notice the distinction. Version I weak verbs precede the -an infinitive ending with a consonant; settan and láédan. Version II weak verbs precede the -an infinitive ending with a vowel; hefigian.

Just to make things that much more complicated (remember, these are the regular, nice verbs), there are also two variations within Version I weak verbs depending on whether the core syllable (the one with stress) is long or short. See Old English pronunciation for more info about this. Version I long verbs took the infinitive, cut off the -an to form a root stem, then attached a -de or -te suffix directly to that stem (whether it was -de or -te depended on whether the final consonant of the root was voiced or unvoiced; voiced endings to -de, unvoiced endings took -te). Version I short verbs took the same infinitive stem, then added an -e-, then added the -de ending. The past participle was slightly easier, take the same infinitive root for both short and long Version I verbs, add -ed. *Phew*! Version I verbs taken care of.

Version II verbs, ones with vowels before the -an infinitive ending, operated by the same rules as Version I short verbs with one important change. Instead of using an -e- infix for the past tense, and an -ed ending for the past participle, Version II verbs used an -o- infix (which replaces the offending pre-infinitive ending vowel), and an -od ending. So! In a summary that will hopefully be a little clearer:

Weak Version I long verbs
láéd-an --- láéd-de --- láéd-ed

Weak Version I short verbs
sett-an --- sett-e-de --- sett-ed

Weak Version II verbs
hefigi-an --- hefig-o-de --- hefig-od


Once the principle parts are understood and accounted for, conjugation is just a matter of applying the right endings. Some of these might look familiar, for example those familiar with modern English before the early 1700s will recognize the second-person personal ending, and those familiar with modern German will see an even more systematic parallel with that language's conjugation. Old English provided more information about person and number in verb endings than modern English allows, however pronouns were always written and spoken, there were never left out as in Romance languages.

Weak Version I Present

                LONG      SHORT
1 ic          | láéde | sette
2 þú          | láédst| settest
3 /héo/hit  | láédð | setteð
Pl.           | láédað| settað

Weak Version II Present

1  | hefigie
2  | hefigast
3  | hefigað
Pl.| hefigiað

Weak Version I Past

     LONG         SHORT
1  | láédde  | settede
2  | láéddest| settedest
3  | láédde  | settede
Pl.| láéddon | settedon

Weak Version II Past

1  | hefigode
2  | hefigodest
3  | hefigode
Pl.| hefigodon

This does not, of course, extend to the imperative or subjunctive moods, which are their own seperate topic under different rule systems. Nor does it matter for strong verbs, which are a significant and beastly minority of Old English verbs. Most of the time, though, these will be the inflections to look for.

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

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