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Origin of the Tense System

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As noted above, verbs are inflected for tense, mood, number, and person. They also have nominal forms, the infinitive and participles. Four forms of the bases are listed as the principal parts, as illustrated here by the Old High German forms of the verb 'to see': infinitive sehan, preterite 1/3 singularsah, preterite 1 plural sāhum, past participle gisehan. From these, presumably all forms of the verb can be identified or produced.

There are two major classes of verbs, as determined by their inflection for tense. The class in which the inflections for tense are indicated by a change of vowel in the base is called "strong," after a term introduced by Jacob Grimm; sehan, sah is an example. The other class, where differences of tense are indicated by a dental suffix, is called "weak," also after Grimm; because the same base is used throughout the preterite, only three principal parts are given, as for OE legan, legde, gilegd 'lay'. Both classes are inflected in two moods, indicative and subjunctive, which are distinguished by endings, as are also singular and plural number, first, second and third person. Verbs also have an imperative, and medio-passive forms have survived in the present of Gothic. Paradigms for these are given below.

In previous grammars the inflections have been related to those of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, as by Prokosch (1939:147-159). Since the discovery of Hittite, on the other hand, it has become clear that the Germanic inflections are continuations of the pattern in Proto-Indo-European; the more complex inflections in Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, on the other hand, are later developments in these dialects.

The Germanic verb system was formed when the early language still maintained characteristics of Active language structure. Active languages distinguish three classes of verbs: active/animate, stative/inanimate, and a small class of involuntary or impersonal verbs. Characteristic verbs of these classes were pointed out in 1897 by Delbrück, but he did not associate them with an earlier structural type (Gdr. 4:178-213, 417-478). Among active verbs he listed those for 'eat', 'bite', 'creep'; among stative verbs he listed those indicating joy, sorrow, satisfaction (cf. Lehmann 1993:218-223, 2002:77-81). The small class has three subsets: verbs referring to natural phenomena like raining; verbs referring to psychological states or conditions, like being disgusted; verbs referring to necessity, obligation or capability, like 'it is necessary'. Moreover, lacking a verb for 'have', the meaning was expressed in the proto-language with the pronoun in the dative and the third singular of the verb 'to be', as in Latin mihi est 'to me is = I have'.

When the tense system was introduced, the two large classes were combined to make up the Germanic conjugation, in which the preterite originally indicated a state, as do the Hittite preterite and originally the Greek and Sanskrit perfect. The impersonal verbs were the basis of the preterite-presents, so named because they arose from preterite forms but came to have present meaning.




[2] Both names correspond to R ‘repKauiuT, ‘apeBHne repMajmu* (to be distin- gmshed from Germans

[3] The Celts of Modern France and Spain had been subjected to strong Roman influence — “Romanised”, they spoke local varieties of Latin which gave rise to modern Romance languages.


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