Introduction to Strong Verbs

In addition to Weak Verbs and Irregular Verbs, Old English also has a category of verbs called Strong Verbs. Unlike Weak Verbs, which form their past tense by adding a -d or -t before the suffix, Strong Verbs form their past tense by changing their root vowel. For example, examine the verb 'drincan' in the following sentences: 'He drincþ of ðæm wine - He drinks the wine' and 'He dranc of ðæm wine - He drank the wine'.

He
Subject
drincþ
Verb
of
Prep.
ðæm
Demon.
wine
Dative

He
Subject
dranc
Verb
of
Prep.
ðæm
Demon.
wine
Dative

There are seven classes of Strong Verb, each with a specific signature root and conjugation pattern. So Class I verbs always have an (i + consonant) in the root, for example, 'bitan - to bite' or 'writan - to write', and they always follow the vowel change pattern i - a - i. We'll explore how these conjugation paterns work for each class in the individual topics of this module.

Class Root Signature Example Change Pattern
I i + consonant Writan i - a - i
II eo/u + consonant Beodan, Brucan eo/u - ea - u
III vowel + l/r/h/n + consonant Helpan, Weorpan, Feohtan, Findan i - a - u, eo/e - ea - u
IV e + l/r/m Beran, Stelan e - æ - æ
V e + consonant (not l/r/m/n) Sprecan e - æ - æ
VI a + consonant or e/ie + double consnant Wascan, Hliehhan a - o - o
VII a/o/ea/æ/e + consonant Hatan, Rædan ea - eo - eo

Many verbs in modern English are descendents of these Old English strong verbs and have retained these conjugation patterns, for example, 'sing/sang' or 'give/gave'. Luckily, Strong Verbs in the present tense generally follow the same conjugations as for Weak Verbs. Compare the following conjugations for the weak verb 'hieran - to hear' and strong verb 'singan - to sing' in the present tense.

Present Tense of Hieran and Singan
Hieran Singan
1st Person Singular Ic hiere Ic singe
2nd Person Singular Þu hierst Þu singst
3rd Person Singular He/heo/hit hierþ He/Heo/Hit singþ
Plural We/Ge/Hie hieraþ We/Ge/Hie singaþ

As you can see, the endings are the same in the present tense. The table below shows the same two verbs, but this time in the past tense. Notice the vowel change in the root of the verb and the endings added to the 2nd singular and plural of singan.

Past Tense of Hieran and Singan
Hierde Singan
1st Person Singular Ic hierde Ic sang
2nd Person Singular Þu hierdest Þu sunge
3rd Person Singular He/heo/hit hierde He/heo/hit sang
Plural We/ge/hie hierdon We/ge/hie sungon

Verbs which follow the same pattern of vowel changes are grouped into classes. In Old English, there are seven classes of Strong Verb, each identifiable by regular changes to vowels in the root verb, and each with its own conjugation pattern. Some of these patterns like 'sing/sang/sung' have survived into modern English but some of them can be harder to recognise. Let's explore Strong Verbs class by class.

Return to Adverbs, Conjunctions, and Prepositions Overview Continue to Strong Verbs Pronunciation Guide