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Grammatical categories of verbs in Old Germanic Languages and Old English


The main grammatical categories of verbs were: person, number, tense, voice and mood.

Person and number. Verbs had three persons: 1st, 2nd, 3rd. The ending for each person also indicated number, tense, mood and voice. It is assumed that in Old Germanic (Common Germanic) there were three numbers: singular, plural and dual, which were preserved in some Gothic verbal forms, however, they were not already fixed in Old English.

Tense. Proto-Indo-European aspectual forms were reconsidered as the tense ones. Thus, in Old Germanic languages, including Old English, there were two tense forms: Present (Presence) and Past (Preterit). The Past forms are based on Indo-European Perfect forms (for singular) and aorist (for Plural). In Old English they rendered a past action, the same form was implemented to indicate Modern English Present Perfect, Past Perfect, Past Simple and Past Progressive Tenses.

The Present tense also had several functions. It indicated:

1) the action that coincides with the moment of speaking (Present Progressive): E.g. ic cweþe on wordum. – “I am saying with words”.

2) permanent action: E.g. Sume gað on twam fotum sume on feower fotum. Sume fleoð mid fyðerum sume on flodum. – “Some go on two feet, some on four, some fly with wigs (feathers), and some swim in water”.

3) indicated a future action: E.g. Ic lufige tō dæǯ oððe tō merǯen. – I will love today or tomorrow.

Mood. There were three moods in Old Germanic and Old English inclusive: indicative, optative and imperative. Indo-European conjunctive was not recorded.

Indicative expressed a real action and had a rich system of personal endings. The differentiation of indicative and optative was possible by means of verbal stem, since suffix –i- was added to the stem in order to form optative. It can be illustrated by Gothic examples: hait-am ‘we name’, hait-a-i-ma ‘we would name’. Optative expressed wish, that is why is was used to express future or some functions of imperative. Imperative did not have tense forms, i.e. tense was not differentiated. Some of imperative endings coincided with indicative, e.g. the forms of the 1st and 2nd persons plural. Singular was formed from the stem and required no ending.

Voice. The category of voice in Germanic languages was represented by active and medio-passive voices, the latter was well preserved only in Gothic. In Old English it belonged to the disappearing categories. Some Old English verbs contained medio-passive meaning, as e.g. the verb ‘hātan’ ‘to be named’, which literary meant ‘to name itself’.

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