Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Inflectional Variations in West Germanic Weak Class 3 Verbs

The conjugation of the Old English verb libban “to live” is enough to give pause to any new student of the language. Depending on the case and number, the verb is formed as some variation of either libb- or lif-, with both variants providing valid forms for different case/number/mood combinations. Consider the following present and preterit indicative forms:

Similar inconsistencies are found in all four of the Old English Weak Class 3 verbs: habban, libban, secgan, and hycgan. The primary difficulty of these verbs lies in the fact that different endings are formed with a geminated consonant, a fricative, or (in the case of secgan and hycgan) a palatalized fricative. While these distributions can seem random, they are entirely predictable once the sound changes that produced them are understood. For the purposes of this note, I will begin by following the changes which produced libban, and then apply them to the other verbs in this class.

Most of the forms of libban can be explained by two sound changes: West Germanic gemination, and the devoicing in Old English of the fricative ƀ to f. By the former, when a consonant appeared between a short vowel and a j, the consonant geminated (effectively doubled in length: thus the geminate kk would be pronounced like the ck-c in Modern English black cat). Represented abstractly, the change was: Proto-Germanic SV+C+j > West Germanic SV+CC. This sound change was especially productive in Proto-Germanic Class III Weak Verbs, since they formed most present endings with an *-(i)j- infix (Ringe 256).

The result of this shift was Proto-Germanic *lib(i)janą > West Germanic *libb(i)an. But not all forms of *libb(i)an would have geminated, since *lib(i)janą had at least three inflections where the present stem vowel was formed with *-ai- rather than *-ja-: the second and third person singular *libaisi and *libaiþi, and the second person plural *libaiþ. Referring again to the present forms of Old English libban, we see that these are exactly the forms lacking gemination.[1]

The presence of gemination in these inflections of Old Saxon libbian is likely a result of normalization, resulting in uniform gemination of the present. If we accept this, we find that the inflection of the Old English forms is perfectly predictable: an -(i)j- in a Proto-Germanic inflection will always produce gemination in the corresponding inflection of Old English, while its absence will result in the ungeminated form, accounting for other regular sound changes. In West Germanic this was intervocalic b fricativized to ƀ.

As Old English developed from West Germanic, ƀ was devoiced to f (Fortson 359). This shift affected only the non-geminated forms of *libb(i)an (primarily preterit forms), accounting for the -bb-/-f- variation present in the conjugation of Old English libban. The following table shows reconstructed Proto-Germanic forms along with their Old English and Old Saxon descendants. Note that, as mentioned above, an *-(i)j- infix in the Proto-Germanic[2] form will correspond to gemination in the Old English form, while Old Saxon geminates all present forms.

The inflection of OE habban follows libban. Accounting for the palatalization of geminate -gg- to -cg-,[3] the variations of secgan and hycgan are also perfectly predictable:

Works Cited
Fortson, Benjamin W. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
Ringe, Don. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford Univ. Press, 2008.

[1] Note the alternate OE present plural leofaþ < PGM 2p. pl. *libaiþ.
[2] All Proto-Germanic forms follow Ringe’s reconstructions. See Ringe 256-68.
[3] Compare PGM *agjō > OE ecg, OS eggia.

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