Subjunctive

The subjunctive mood is used to express wishes, desires, or outcomes that are dependent on certain conditions being met. In modern English, modal verbs or if-statements are often used to convey the subjunctive mood. For example, 'it might rain later' or 'if I had studied more, I would have passed the exam'. However, in Old English it is more common for the form of the verb to change. Subjunctive forms of verbs still occasionally occur in modern English, for example, 'If I were fluent in Old English' is expressing a statement that is not a fact (it is an imagined situation) using a different form of the verb 'to be' than the expected first person past 'If I was...'.

Old English Subjunctives

In Old English, almost every verb has a subjunctive form. These forms are most often used when something is expressed that is contrary to fact (such as a desire or condition) or where the speaker doesn't want to state something as a fact (when reporting something that was said, for example.) The subjunctive is often used with mental verbs, such as 'þencan - to think'; with verbs of ordering and requesting, such as 'beodan - to order'; and verbs and adjectives of appropriateness, such as 'gedafenian - to be fitting'.

There is one subjunctive form of a verb for singular and one for plural. The singular subjunctive form is the root of the verb with -e added, and the plural form is the root of the verb with -en- added. Examine the sentences below, 'Gif heo to Rome fare - If she would travel to Rome' and 'Þæt ge þa sang hieren - That ye might hear the song'.

Gif
Conjunction
 
heo
Subject
 
to Rome
Indirect
Object
fere
Subjunctive
Verb

Þæt
Conjunction
 
ge
Subject
 
þa song
Direct
Object
hieren
Subjunctive
Verb

In first person present singular and first and third person past it can be hard to distinguish a subjunctive form from the usual indicative -e ending. For example, examine the verb 'sittan - to sit' in the following sentences: 'Swylc swa ic æt swæsendum sitte mid minum ealdormannum - As if I were to sit at the feast with my nobles.' (subjunctive) and 'Ic æt swæsendum sitte mid minum ealdormannum - I sit at the feast with my nobles' (indicative). Sentences opening with adverbs like 'swylc swa - such as/as if', 'gif - if', 'butan - unless' or 'þeah - though/although' are usually expressing a condition, and we would expect a subjunctive form to be used, so in these cases the context usually makes it clear that a condition or a counterfactual statement is being made.

Swylc swa
Adverb
 
ic
Subject
Pronoun
æt
Prep.
 
swæsendum
Indirect
Object
sitte
Subjunctive
Verb
mid
Conj.
 
minum
Possessive
Pronoun
ealdormannum
Indirect
Object

Similarly, a subjunctive is required after the use of the verb 'willian - to wish', as this is expressing a desire. For example, examine the sentence, 'Alexander wolde þæt his mærþa wæren maran þonne Ercoles - Alexander wished that his fame might be greater than Hercules''.

Alexander
Subject
 
wolde
Irregular
Verb
ðæt
Conj.
 
his
Possessive
 
mærþa
Object
 
wæren
Subjunctive
Verb
maran
Adjective
 
þonne
Prep.
 
Ercoles
Object
 

However, there are also places where a subjunctive is used when no desire or condition is expressed. For example, it is often found when reporting something that was said, or following a verb of command. In many cases it is appropriate to translate these sentences with modal verbs such as 'should/would/could/might' in modern English, but sometimes the normal indicative form is fine. Examine the sentence below: 'Odda het ðæt he to him come' which uses the singular subjunctive come with it's -e ending, and is perhaps best translated 'Odda ordered that he should come to him'.

Odda
Subject
het
Verb
þæt
Conjunction
he
Subject
to him
Indirect Obj.
come
Subjunctive Verb

Whilst almost all subjunctives are formed with the addition of -e (singular) and -en (plural) to the root of the verb, the verb 'beon' has its own subjunctive forms in both present and past. These are listed in the table below. Note that these forms also end in -e (sie and wære) and -en (sien and wæren) like other subjunctives, and so should be easy to spot. It is worth learning to recognise these forms of 'beon' as they are some of the most commonly encountered verbs.

Present Tense Past Tense
Indicative 1st Person Singular Ic eom Ic wæs
Indicative 2nd Person Singular Þu eart Þu wære
Indicative 3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo is He/Hit/Heo wæs
Indicative Plural We/Ge/Hie sind We/Ge/Hie wæron
Subjunctive Singular Sie Wære
Subjunctive Plural Sien Wæren
Present Tense Past Tense
Indicative 1st Person Singular Ic drince Ic dranc
Indicative 2nd Person Singular Þu drincst Þu drunce
Indicative 3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo drincþ He/Hit/Heo dranc
Indicative Plural We/Ge/Hie drincaþ We/Ge/Hie druncon
Subjunctive Singular Drince Drincen
Subjunctive Plural Drunce Druncen
Present Tense Past Tense
Indicative 1st Person Singular Ic helpe Ic healp
Indicative 2nd Person Singular Þu hilpst Þu helpe
Indicative 3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo hilpþ He/Hit/Heo healp
Indicative Plural We/Ge/Hie helpaþ We/Ge/Hie hulpon
Subjunctive Singular Helpe Helpen
Subjunctive Plural Hulpe Hulpen
Present Tense Past Tense
Indicative 1st Person Singular Ic lufie Ic lufode
Indicative 2nd Person Singular Þu lufast Þu lufodest
Indicative 3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo lufaþ He/Hit/Heo lufode
Indicative Plural We/Ge/Hie lufiaþ We/Ge/Hie lufodon
Subjunctive Singular Lufie Lufode
Subjunctive Plural Lufien Lofoden
Present Tense Past Tense
Indicative 1st Person Singular Ic hæbbe Ic hæfde
Indicative 2nd Person Singular Þu hæfst Þu hæfdest
Indicative 3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo hæfþ He/Hit/Heo hæfde
Indicative Plural We/Ge/Hie habbaþ We/Ge/Hie hæfdon
Subjunctive Singular Hæbbe Hæfde
Subjunctive Plural Hæbben Hæfden
Present Tense Past Tense
Indicative 1st Person Singular Ic ga Ic eode
Indicative 2nd Person Singular Þu gæst Þu eodest
Indicative 3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo gæþ He/Hit/Heo eode
Indicative Plural We/Ge/Hie gaþ We/Ge/Hie eodon
Subjunctive Singular Ga Eode
Subjunctive Plural Gan Eoden
Present Tense Past Tense
Indicative 1st Person Singular Ic cume Ic com
Indicative 2nd Person Singular Þu cymest Þu come
Indicative 3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo cymeþ He/Hit/Heo com
Indicative Plural We/Ge/Hie cumaþ We/Ge/Hie comon
Subjunctive Singular Cume Come
Subjunctive Plural Cumen Comen

You can practice the subjunctive below, and can hide the table above if you feel confident recognising subjunctive forms of the verb 'to be'.

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