4. Present Perfect and Past Participles
ne of the more challenging aspects to the German student presents itself in the present perfect and more specifically the form of the past participle. Some of these past participles have a t, while others end in an n (with or without a vowel change), while still others have a t and a vowel change. It can get rather confusing. This section will then examine the different kinds of past participles in English and German as well as the evolution and change of some past participial forms in the history of English.
The Weak Verbs (t-verbs)
This class is by far the most-represented class of verb in English and German. You might know them as "regular" verbs. The characteristic of the weak verb in English (as well as in Old English) is the presence of a d (in various forms) on the end of the past participle. Examples are as follows:
love → has loved
This Germanic innovation occurs in Old English in two different forms: -ed and -od. The difference between the two forms is beyond the scope of this guide, but the common element is the d that signifies the weak past participle. Examples of each weak ending are as follows:
hīeran 'to hear' → (ge)hīered
On the other hand, the weak ending in German is not d but rather t, but the two sounds are nearly identical as they are pronounced in the same area of the mouth (see Sound Correspondences). As in English, when the verb stem ends with a sound that is similar to t/d, a "filler" e is inserted between the verb stem and the weak ending for ease of pronunciation.
hören → hat gehört
The nice aspect of weak verbs in English, Old English and German is that most weak verbs in English and Old English are also weak in German. When in doubt, look to see what the English verb is and choose accordingly for its German equivalent. The odds are in your favor that the German verb will also be weak.
The Strong Verbs (n-verbs)
Popularly known as "irregular" verbs, these verbs are the older class in the language and feature not a t but rather an n in the past participle. Other characteristics include a vowel change that sometimes occurs in the past participle (but always in the Simple Past). Additionally, almost all verbs that have a stem-vowel change in the present tense (see Stem-Vowel Changing Verbs) are strong verbs.
This class of verbs also exists in English, and many of the same verbs that are strong in English are also strong in German and sometimes follow the same vowel change pattern. Some of the more common ones are listed here (note the different format of this table; the same format will be used for each table in this section):
However, some of these verbs underwent changes in the history of English. The first change is the dropping of the en from some past participles, although the en sometimes shows up when the past participle is used as an adjective, e.g. "I have drunk the water" vs. "He is drunk(en)". (If you suspect that an English verb is strong but has no en, add en to the end of it and see what comparable forms there are in German.) Below are some Old English participles that are nearly the same as their Modern German counterparts:
1The Modern English meaning for the German "fahren" is given. The German cognate (treiben) has undergone a slight meaning change but is a strong verb as in English. The past participle is getrieben.
The last three verbs (brechen, essen and fahren) all have stem-vowel changes in the present tense (see Stem-Vowel Changing Verbs). In fact, if the verb in question has a stem-vowel change in the present tense, it will almost always be a strong verb. The only exceptions to this pattern are the modal verbs, which will be discussed as Mixed Weak Verbs, and the verb wissen.
The following verbs are some of the most commonly used verbs in the languages.
2The past participle is derived from the second infinitive and still survives in the simple past of the Modern English verb (was).
A fact about the languages, however, makes the picture a bit muddier. All new verbs that are loaned into the language are automatically assigned the weak ending (d in English and t in German), but verbs that were strong verbs are also undergoing this change (they are becoming weak verbs). A significant number of English verbs have changed from strong to weak, but the changes in German are happening more slowly.
3The change to a weak verb has not yet affected the past participle. The simple past form (backte) and the growing absence of a stem-vowel change in the present tense indicate that this verb will eventually travel the same path as the English bake.
One final note concerning the strong verbs: Remember that your textbook as well as a good dictionary should have a table of strong verbs. When you are unsure of a past participial form, consult this table. If your verb is not in that list, assume that it is a weak verb. You'll most likely be correct.
The Mixed Weak Verbs
This small class of verbs in English and German feature a combination of features from the previous two classes. They take the stem change that is characteristic of the strong verbs as well as the t from the weak verbs. In Modern English and German there are only a handful of these verbs left, but Old English had a rather rich class of these verbs.
5The English verb is mixed weak, whereas the German verb is simply weak.
The Old English verbs had the sound [x], represented by <h> in these verbs. Just think of the old pronunciation of these forms of the verb, which are very close to the pronunciations of the forms of the German verbs.
Other mixed weak verbs in Modern English include buy (bought) and teach (taught).
Modal Verbs and Other Preterite-Present Verbs
The six modal verbs in German are also classified as mixed weak verbs, as their past participles end with t and have a vowel change. The strange vowel changes and the absence of two specific endings in the present tense (the circles around the e and t in the verb ending chart) are explained by the fact that these verbs were at one time strong verbs; hence these verbs are called Preterite-Present Verbs. These old strong simple past forms have acquired present tense meanings, and the rest of the principal parts were filled by weak forms. (More will be said in the Simple Past section.)
The following chart is a bit different from the previous ones in that the meanings of the cognates are given. The modal verbs have undergone extensive changes in meaning through the centuries, e.g., the use of can versus may in contemporary English.
The past participles of the German modal verbs (the first six in the chart) are rarely used. The simple past is preferred when a modal verb is used with an infinitive. In fact, the structure is completely different when this combination (modal plus infinitive) is used in the present perfect (the so-called Double Infinitive: Ich habe ihn sehen können). The Old English forms, on the other hand, are disputed, as they almost never occur in manuscripts. The Old English page on Verbix gives strong past participles, whereas Mitchell and Robinson supply no past participles of these verbs (52). Perhaps they were used even less often in Old English as they are in Modern German.
Mixed weak verbs are also listed in the strong verb charts of your textbook or dictionary.
(Old English forms from Mitchell and Robinson 35-52, 152-158)
The Comparison of Verb Forms is viewed best with Internet Explorer 6 or higher with a minimum resolution of 800×600.