The Non-Surviving Preterite-Present Verbs in English

The Demise of *dugan, munan, *-nugan, *þurfan, and unnan

by Anna Wojtyś (Author)
©2017 Monographs 258 Pages


Based on four historical corpora, the book is a comprehensive study of the demise of five preterite-present verbs in English. It offers a detailed description of their distribution in Old and Middle English. The subsequent comparison of the forms and uses of the preterite-presents in the two periods allows the author to suggest the reasons for their elimination from the language. The discussion focuses on phonological and morphological changes the verbs underwent as well as on the syntactic structures they appeared in. Yet, the study does not ignore factors of extra-linguistic nature such as genres in which the verbs were frequently found and the potential rivalry with other items of native and foreign origin.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • List of tables
  • Preface
  • Chapter one: Introduction: preterite-present verbs
  • 1.1 Preliminary remarks
  • 1.2 Preterite-present verbs
  • 1.3 Non-surviving preterite-present verbs in English
  • 1.4 Present study
  • 1.4.1 Scope
  • 1.4.2 Aims
  • 1.4.3 Database
  • 1.4.4 Editorial conventions
  • 1.5 Literature on preterite-present verbs
  • Chapter two: Preterite-presents in Indo-European and Germanic
  • 2.1 Introduction
  • 2.2 Proto-Germanic
  • 2.3 Old Germanic languages
  • 2.4 Later fates of preterite-presents
  • 2.5 Preterite-presents in Germanic languages: similarities and differences
  • 2.6 Modality
  • Chapter three: *-nugan and *dugan
  • 3.1 Preliminary remarks
  • 3.2 *-nugan: an introduction
  • 3.2.1 Origin and classification
  • 3.2.2 *-nugan in English
  • 3.3 Old English data
  • 3.4 *-nugan: conclusions
  • 3.5 *Dugan: an introduction
  • 3.5.1 Origin and classification
  • 3.5.2 *Dugan in English
  • 3.6 Old English uses
  • 3.6.1 Morphological issues
  • 3.6.2 Contexts of use
  • 3.6.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 3.7 Middle English uses
  • 3.7.1 Morphological issues
  • 3.7.2 Contexts of use
  • 3.7.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 3.8 *Dugan: conclusions
  • Chapter four: Unnan
  • 4.1 Preliminary remarks
  • 4.2 Unnan: an introduction
  • 4.2.1 Origin and classification
  • 4.2.2 Unnan in English
  • 4.3 Old English uses
  • 4.3.1 Morphological issues
  • 4.3.2 Contexts of use
  • 4.3.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 4.4 Middle English uses
  • 4.4.1 Morphological issues
  • 4.4.2 Contexts of use
  • 4.4.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 4.5 Unnan: conclusions
  • Chapter five: *Þurfan
  • 5.1 Preliminary remarks
  • 5.2 *Þurfan: an introduction
  • 5.2.1 Origin and classification
  • 5.2.2 *Þurfan in English
  • 5.3 Old English uses
  • 5.3.1 Morphological issues
  • 5.3.2 Contexts of use
  • 5.3.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 5.4 Middle English uses
  • 5.4.1 Morphological issues
  • 5.4.2 Contexts of use
  • 5.4.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 5.5 *Þurfan: conclusions
  • Chapter six: Munan
  • 6.1 Preliminary remarks
  • 6.2 Munan: an introduction
  • 6.2.1 Origin and classification
  • 6.2.2 Munan in English
  • 6.3 Old English uses
  • 6.3.1 Morphological issues
  • 6.3.2 Contexts of use
  • 6.3.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 6.4 Middle English uses
  • 6.4.1 Morphological issues
  • 6.4.2 Contexts of use
  • 6.4.3 Meaning and synonyms
  • 6.5 Munan: conclusions
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • Index of subjects
  • Series index

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Dictionaries and corpora:

ASD - An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Bosworth — Toller

ASD-S - Supplement to An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

BNC - British National Corpus

CMEPV - Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse

DOE - Dictionary of Old English

DOEC - Dictionary of Old English Corpus

HD - Harpers’ Latin Dictionary

HTE - Historical Thesaurus of English

LAEME - A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English

MEC - The Middle English Compendium

MED - Middle English Dictionary

MED-S - A Middle-English Dictionary by Stratmann

MEMT - Middle English Medical Texts

OED - Oxford English Dictionary

TOE - A Thesaurus of Old English


Da - Danish

Du - Dutch

E - English

Go - Gothic

L - Latin

Lith. - Lithuanian

MHG - Middle High German

OE - Old English

OFris - Old Frisian

OHG - Old High German

OIcel - Old Icelandic

ON - Old Norse

OS - Old Saxon

(P)Gmc - (Proto-)Germanic

(P)IE - (Proto-)Indo-European ← 9 | 10 →

Sk - Sanskrit

Sw - Swedish


adj. - adjective

adv. - adverb

def. art. - definite article

MS(S) - manuscript(s)

n. - noun

PDE - Present-Day English

pl - plural

pple - participle

pres. - present

pron. - pronoun

sg - singular

subj. - subjunctive

v. - verb

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List of tables

Table 1. The attestations of preterite-present verbs in Old Germanic languages in the past

Table 2. Preterite-present verbs in Old West Germanic

Table 3. Preterite-present verbs in North Germanic

Table 4. Preterite-present verbs in West Germanic

Table 5. Syntactic structures containing *dugan in Old English

Table 6. The attestations of *dugan in Middle English

Table 7. Syntactic structures containing *dugan in Middle English

Table 8. The attestations of unnan in Middle English

Table 9. The attestations of *þurfan in Middle English

Table 10. The attestations of munan in Middle English

Table 11. The attestations of munan as a content verb and an auxiliary in Middle English

Table 12. The attestations of non-surviving preterite-present verbs in the corpora used

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One of the most notable changes in the English grammatical system was the reduction of the so-called preterite-present verbs. Comprising 12 members in Old English, the class narrowed down to merely six items that acquired the status of modal verbs. The aim of the present study is twofold, namely, (1) to analyse the behaviour and fates of the verbs *dugan, munan, *-nugan, *þurfan, and unnan, which were eliminated in mediaeval English and (2) to establish the causes of that process.

Chapter one serves as an introduction presenting the class of preterite-presents and their treatment in linguistic literature. Chapter two describes the development of such verbs from Proto-Indo-European through Proto-Germanic to the present-day Germanic languages, focusing on the lost items and the status of those preterite-presents which survived. Chapters three to six contain separate analyses of each of the five verbs in Old and Middle English, an account of their distribution, and a presentation of potential factors responsible for their loss from English. The study closes with the section of conclusions outlining the reasons behind the demise of each verb. An attempt is made there to reveal potential general tendencies that might have influenced the loss of these verbs.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jerzy Wełna for kindling my passion for the history of English and supporting me in my efforts ever since. His suggestions and comments were invaluable throughout the process of writing this book. I want to thank two of my friends and colleagues, Marta Sylwanowicz and Joanna Esquibel, for their constant support and many helpful remarks on the shape of this research. I am also grateful to Kousuke Kaita for supplying me with the materials essential for the analysis as well as Jarich Hoekstra, Anna Just, Małgorzata Kłos, and Ewa Majewska for the verification of the Germanic material presented in chapter two. Last but not least, I thank my friends and family for their encouragement and understanding.

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Chapter one: Introduction: preterite-present verbs

1.1 Preliminary remarks

The study aims at suggesting reasons for the demise of the preterite-present verbs which were eliminated from English in the mediaeval period. Of the group of 12 verbs in Old English, six disappeared: *dugan ‘avail’, munan ‘remember’, *-nugan ‘suffice’, *þurfan ‘need’, unnan ‘grant’, and witan ‘know’, while the remaining verbs developed into modal auxiliaries. Thus, one of the main questions is whether it is possible to establish a single cause underlying the elimination of these verbs, or whether the loss of each requires a separate explanation.

1.2 Preterite-present verbs

The term “preterite-present” verbs is used with reference to the group of verbs in Germanic languages that originated from unreduplicated IE perfects1 (Prokosch 1939: 187–188) and were stative in meaning (Ringe 2006: 153). The plausible development is typically illustrated with PGmc wait ‘to know’, which comes from the PIE root *wid-, also attested in the Latin verb vidēre ‘to see’. The past action of seeing, ‘I have seen’, was presumably reanalyzed as the present state, ‘I know’ (Hogg — Fulk 2011: 299). Thus, the present tense forms of preterite-presents are analogous to the preterite forms of strong verbs. The supposedly originally missing preterite forms are a secondary development caused by the need to correct the paradigm of the verbs perceived as defective (Guchman et al. 1966: 409). The new forms were formed following the productive pattern used by weak verbs, i.e. via the attachment of the dental suffix in a voiced (d) or voiceless (t) variant.

In fact, it is by no means obvious that preterite-present verbs ought to be treated as a separate group in early English. Already in Old English the behaviour of these verbs was not stable and there is no telling whether they were recognized as belonging to a separate group (Colman 1992: 241). Also, the fact that some of them developed into modal verbs cannot be treated as a clue since a few that were lost had never showed any tendency towards modality. Additionally, not all modal verbs in English come from preterite-presents, the best example being the verb will, which shows that modals could develop also from verbs ← 15 | 16 → belonging to other classes. The traditional grouping of several verbs under the label of preterite-present is done on the basis of their common origin2 and a purely morphological factor, i.e. the attachment of the past tense endings in the present tense. Some authors, e.g., Lightfoot (2009: 30), focus on only one morphological feature saying that preterite-presents “were distinct in that they never had any inflection for the third person singular”. Obviously, the lack of the third person singular ending was not the only difference between the inflectional pattern of preterite-presents and other verbs, another one being, for instance, the attachment of -on as a present plural ending although it was typically associated with the preterite, yet it is of major importance in the post-Old English period, when changes affecting endings make the absence of 3sg present tense -th (later -s) the most conspicuous difference in verbal patterns. This explains the fact that in linguistic literature preterite-presents are viewed separately from strong and weak verbs, often under labels such as “minor groups” (Sievers 1903: 346, Wright 1908: 273) or “irregular verbs” (Smith 2009: 120)3.

Due to the presence of reflexes of ablaut and the -en marking for the past participle, most historical grammars treat preterite-presents like strong verbs, dividing them into classes on the basis of ablaut gradation:

(1) Class I āgan ‘possess’, wītan ‘know’
Class II *dugan ‘avail’
Class III *durran ‘dare’, cunnan ‘know how’, *þurfan ‘need’, unnan ‘grant’
Class IV munan remember’, *-nugan ‘suffice’, *sculan ‘shall’
Class V magan ‘can’
Class VI *mōtan ‘be allowed/obliged’

Such classification poses two types of difficulties: diachronic and synchronic. The first one follows from the disputable origin of some of the items. The verb āgan, for instance, which is assigned to class I by, e.g., Prokosch (1939: 189) and Campbell (1959: 343), according to Hogg — Fulk (2011: 305–306) ought to belong to class VII since they reject the hypothesis of *-ai- of the present singular replacing the original *-i- of the plural and assume that *-ai- is reflected in both numbers because the structure of the verb was “comparable to PGmc *xaitanan > OE hātan”. ← 16 | 17 → Also, *magan, which is put into class V by Hogg — Fulk (2011: 303), represents an ‘uncertain class’ for Campbell (1959: 345–346) because it can be classified neither into any of the first five classes, since “the root appears to have had I-E a (not o)”, nor into the last two, “as these have past tenses in ō, ē, or ēo”. Interestingly, Sievers (1903: 350) also assigns *magan to class V, although in Brunner’s (1965: 351) version of that grammar, the verb is described as “Mit unsicherer Zuteilung”. Mincoff (1972: 167) calls it “irregular” and claims it should belong to class VI, the assignment rejected by Smith (2009: 121), who, like Campbell, believes that the verb “is not possible to classify”. Furthermore, vowel alternations in preterite-presents often disagree with the ones expected from Old English strong verbs belonging to a given class. Yet again one of the challenging items is āgan, which does not show the expected vowel alternation for verbs of class I but has the same vowel throughout the paradigm: āgan – āh – āgon – āgen (cf. Colman 1992: 249). Another problematic verb, *-nugan, is put in class V by Sievers (1903: 350)4 and Wright (1908: 275) but for, e.g., Hogg — Fulk (2011: 303–304) it belongs to class IV, even though they admit that “[t]he plural stem -nug- does not end in a resonant, the way verb stems of class 4 usually do”. Thus, it seems that any categorization into classes would seem controversial.

In sources related to the historical syntax of English, preterite-present verbs are classified on the basis of their function and later development rather than their origin and forms. Accordingly, in Mitchell (1985: 415) and Denison (1993: 295), for instance, preterite-presents such as cunnan, *durran, magan, *mōtan, sculan, and *þurfan, are listed among “modal” verbs5. To those Mitchell adds āgan, which is treated by Denison as “a marginal modal” due to its different syntactic properties. Note that this list of verbs includes only one non-surviving preterite-present, i.e. *þurfan, since others behaved like lexical verbs and are thus treated as “non-modal” (Denison 1993: 296). Warner (1993: 94–95) agrees with Denison about the different status of āgan but complements the list with uton ‘let us’. He provides this item under the heading “preterite-present”, as does Los (2015: 104), who claims that “[t]he preterite present verbs used to have more members that just the modals: the semi modal dearr ‘dare’, the invariant form uton ‘let’s’, and others”. The presence of uton on the list of preterite-present verbs is quite surprising. Although the item derives from the verb gewítan (cf. OED, †ute v.) it is not usually listed together with other preterite-presents presumably because of its different status as an “interjectional form” (ASD, witon, wuton, uton). ← 17 | 18 →


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
History of English Mediaeval English Historical morphology Historical corpora Word obsolescence Modal verbs
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 258 pp., 12 b/w tab.

Biographical notes

Anna Wojtyś (Author)

Anna Wojtyś is Assistant Professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw. Her research interests focus on the history of English. She is the author of numerous articles, mainly on historical morphology, and a monograph on the past participle marking in mediaeval English.


Title: The Non-Surviving Preterite-Present Verbs in English