6. Simple Past
s we have seen in the Present Perfect the verbs of English, Old English and German can be divided into three classes, depending on the form of the past participle. This section will further elaborate on these three classes in light of the simple past, the "one-word" past tense of the languages.
The Weak Verbs (t-verbs)
In English the weak verb has a form of ed in the simple past, which then makes it the same as the past participle. Examples include:
love → loved
Old English did indeed distinguish between the past participle and the simple past of a verb, but the endings are very similar: either -ede, -ode or simply -de. The difference between these endings is not important, but the presence of the d, which survives in Modern English practically unchanged, is the important factor.
hīeran → hīerde
German employs the ending te for the simple past of weak verbs. The ending is affixed to the stem of the verb. In Old English and in German, additional endings are added for person and number. These will be discussed in the Endings part of this page.
hören → hörte
The Strong Verbs (n-verbs): "He book a cake?"
The main feature of strong verbs in all three languages is the stem-vowel change as the only marker of a strong verb in the simple past. As with the past participles, there are patterns of stem-vowel changes that you should be able to recognize with practice. Below is a rough table of stem-vowel correspondences between Old English and Modern German; note that not all verbs will fall neatly into these categories and that his is by no means an official classification of the sound correspondences. Note that there are categories in addition to these.
1This category could actually be included in the previous category as the original vowel was æ; before r + consonant or l + consonant the vowel was "broken" to ea (Mitchell and Robinson 38). This also applies to the infinitives: e → eo (only before r + consonant).
The Mixed Weak Verbs
This small class of verbs displays the same characteristics as in the past participial form, namely a vowel change plus the -te ending in German and Old English (-t in Modern English). The stem vowel of the simple past form is the same as the stem vowel of the past participle.
Modal Verbs and Other Preterite-Present Verbs
The preterite-present verbs have acquired a mixed weak simple past form, as the old simple past, which was strong, was shifted to the present tense. The modal verbs are used quite often in the simple past, especially in German, where the simple past is favored over the present perfect.
As you can see in the chart, the forms of the Old English and German preterite-present verbs nearly coincide.
Endings in the Simple Past
The endings for person and number in the simple past in German is actually based on the chart presented in Present Tense Endings:
The first and third person singular forms do not have any ending, as indicated by the circled letters in the chart. In German this applies to every verb, whether weak, strong or mixed. For example, we have the simple past of a weak verb (legen) and of a strong verb (singen). The simple past stems are legte and sang, respectively.
Whereas in Modern English there is no additional ending on the simple past (apart from the ed for weak verbs), Old English had several ways of conjugating the verb in the simple past, which depended on whether the verb was weak or strong. There were two different sets of endings, one for the weak verbs and another for the strong verbs. The verb-ending chart above applies only to the singular forms of weak verbs in Old English. Here Old English deviates from the pattern prevalent in Modern German, as the latter does not have two different sets of endings for the simple past. Below is an Old English weak verb in the simple past.
Strong verbs, on the other hand, have a second simple past stem that is sometimes called the second preterite. The first preterite, which often corresponds to the simple past stem you find in the table of strong verbs, still applies to the first and third person singular of the verb, but the second preterite in Old English often had a different stem vowel. This second preterite was applied to the other forms in the simple past:
The major difference between the weak and strong verbs, beside the vowel change, is the lack of the -st ending for the second person singular.
The one verb in Modern English that still maintains two simple past forms is the verb be: I was and he was but you were. Below is the simple past conjugation of bēon in Old English:
Implications for Old English Modal Verbs in the Present Tense
And this is only the beginning of the places where Old English is more difficult than German. Another aspect of verb endings shows up in the Old English modal verbs. We have seen that the present tense forms of the modal verbs are the old strong simple past forms and we have in both German and Old English two stems (one for the singular, e.g., ich kann, and one for the plural, e.g., wir können). Consequently we should expect strong verb simple past endings in the present tense for Old English modal verbs and other preterite-present verbs. (The German endings in the simple past for the du-form and the plural forms are the same as in the present tense).
Part of our suspicion is correct. We do find that the endings plural forms of the Old English modal verbs correspond to the simple past endings, e.g, wē cunnon ('we can') and gē þurfon ('you pl. need'). However, the þū-form is a bit strange, as we find the present tense st or just a t where we would expect to find a vowel change plus e: þū canst or even þū scealt, the latter of which becomes thou shalt. The reasons behind such endings would require another guide even longer than this Comparison, but in this apsect the preterite-present verbs in Old English may be even more difficult than those in German.
(Old English forms from Mitchell and Robinson 35-52, 152-158)
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