Proto-Indo-European verb

Proto-Indo-European verb

The verbal system of the Proto-Indo-European language was a complex system that utilized multiple grammatical moods, voices, with words being conjugated according to number, and tense. The complex system of adding affixes to the base of a word (its Morpheme) allowed modifications to stems so that it could be a noun, verb or adjective. This system is clearly represented in Ancient Greek and Vedic Sanskrit, two of the most completely attested of the early daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European. Aside from the addition of affixes, vowels in the word could be modified, such as Indo-European ablaut. This is still visible in the Germanic languages (among others)—for example, the vowel in the English verb "to sing" varies according to the conjugation of the verb: "sing", "sang", and "sung".

Primary forms

Verbs have at least four moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive and optative, as well as possibly the injunctive, reconstructible from Vedic Sanskrit), two voices (active and mediopassive), as well as three persons (first, second and third) and three numbers (singular, dual and plural). Verbs are conjugated in at least three "tenses" (present, aorist, and perfect), which actually have primarily aspectual value. Indicative forms of the imperfect and (less likely) the pluperfect may have existed. Verbs were also marked by a highly developed system of participles, one for each combination of tense and mood, and an assorted array of verbal nouns and adjectival formations.

econdary forms

A number of secondary forms could be created, such as the causative, intensive and desiderative; technically these were part of the derivational system rather than the inflectional system, as they existed only for certain verbs and did not necessarily have completely predictable meanings (compare the remnants of causative constructions in English – "to fall" vs. "to fell", "to sit" vs. "to set", "to rise" vs. "to raise" and "to rear"). The above-mentioned verbal nouns and adjectives were likewise part of the derivational system (compare the formation of verbal nouns in English, using "-tion", "-ence", "-al", etc.), and it appears that the same originally applied to the different verb tenses. Some verbs in Ancient Greek still have perfect tenses with unpredictable meanings – from "histēmi" "I set, I cause to stand": "hestēka" "I am standing"; from "mimnēiskō" "I remind": "memnēmai" "I remember"; from "peithō" "I persuade": "pepoitha" "I trust" as well as "pepeika" "I have persuaded"; from "phūō" "I produce": "pephūka" "I am (by nature)".

The present tense in Ancient Greek and in Sanskrit is formed by the unpredictable addition of one of a number of suffixes (at least 10, in Sanskrit; at least 6, in Greek) to the verbal root; the aorist and perfect are likewise formed, in each case from their own set of suffixes (7 for the Sanskrit aorist, at least 3 for the Greek aorist), with little or no relation between the suffixes used in one tense and in another. (The perfect tense in Latin is likewise unpredictable, formed in one of at least six ways.) Sometimes more than one suffix can be applied to the same root, producing different present, aorist and/or perfect stems for the same verb, sometimes with the same meaning, sometimes with different meanings (see the above example with the Greek verb "peithō").

All of this suggests that the various tenses were originally independent lexical formations, similar to the way that verbal nouns in English are formed unpredictably from different suffixes, sometimes with two or more formations that may differ in meaning: "reference" vs. "referral", "transference" vs. "transferral" vs. "transfer", "recitation" vs. "recital", "delivery" vs. "deliverance" etc. (This is more understandable if one considers that the original meaning of these tenses was aspectual.) Only later, and gradually, were these various forms combined into a single set of inflectional paradigms. Vedic Sanskrit had still not completed the process, and even Ancient Greek has places where the old unorganized system still shows through. (As a result, verbs in Vedic Sanskrit have the appearance at first glance of a fantastically complex and disorganized system, with numerous redundancies combined with inexplicable holes. The system of PIE must have looked even more strongly like this.)

Proposed suffixes

The primary distinction in verbs between the different ways of forming the present tenses was between thematic (unicode|ō) classes, with a "thematic" vowel unicode|o or unicode|e before the endings, and athematic (unicode|mi) classes, with endings added directly to the root. The endings themselves differed somewhat, at the very least in the first-person singular, with the endings as indicated (unicode|ō vs. unicode|mi). Traditional accounts say that this is the only form where the endings differed, except for the presence or absence of the thematic vowel; but some newer researchers, e.g. Beekes (1995), have proposed a rather different set of thematic endings, based primarily on Greek and Lithuanian. These proposals are still controversial, however.

A third conjugation has been proposed in Jasanoff's unicode|h₂e-conjugation theory.

Tense meaning

The original meanings of the past tenses (aorist, perfect and imperfect) are often assumed to match their meanings in Greek. That is, the aorist represents a single action in the past, viewed as a discrete event; the imperfect represents a repeated past action or a past action viewed as extending over time, with the focus on some point in the middle of the action; and the perfect represents a present state resulting from a past action. This corresponds, approximately, to the English distinction between "I ate", "I was eating" and "I have eaten", respectively. (Note that the English "I have eaten" often has the meaning, or at least the strong implication, of "I am in the state resulting from having eaten", in other words "I am now full". Similarly, "I have sent the letter" means approximately "The letter is now (in the state of having been) sent". However, the Greek, and presumably PIE, perfect, more strongly emphasizes the "state" resulting from an action, rather than the action itself, and can shade into a present tense.)

Note that in Greek the difference between the present, aorist and perfect tenses when used outside of the indicative (that is, in the subjunctive, optative, imperative, infinitive and participles) is almost entirely one of grammatical aspect, not of tense. That is, the aorist refers to a simple action, the present to an ongoing action, and the perfect to a state resulting from a previous action. An aorist infinitive or imperative, for example, does "not" refer to a past action, and in fact for many verbs (e.g. "kill") would likely be more common than a present infinitive or imperative. (In some participial constructions, however, an aorist participle can have either a tensal or aspectual meaning.) It is assumed that this distinction of aspect was the original significance of the PIE "tenses", rather than any actual tense distinction, and that tense distinctions were originally indicated by means of adverbs, as in Chinese. However, it appears that by late PIE, the different tenses had already acquired a tensal meaning in particular contexts, as in Greek, and in later Indo-European languages this became dominant.

The meanings of the three tenses in the oldest Vedic Sanskrit, however, differs somewhat from their meanings in Greek, and thus it is not clear whether the PIE meanings corresponded exactly to the Greek meanings. In particular, the Vedic imperfect had a meaning that was close to the Greek aorist, and the Vedic aorist had a meaning that was close to the Greek perfect. Meanwhile, the Vedic perfect was often indistinguishable from a present tense (Whitney 1889). In the moods other than the indicative, the present, aorist and perfect were almost indistinguishable from each other. (The lack of semantic distinction between different grammatical forms in a literary language often indicates that some of these forms no longer existed in the spoken language of the time. In fact, in Classical Sanskrit, the subjunctive dropped out, as did all tenses of the optative and imperative other than the present; meanwhile, in the indicative the imperfect, aorist and perfect became largely interchangeable, and in later Classical Sanskrit, all three could be freely replaced by a participial construction. All of these developments appear to reflect changes in spoken Middle Indo-Aryan; among the past tenses, for example, only the aorist survived into early Middle Indo-Aryan, which was later displaced by a participial past tense.)

ee also

*Proto-Indo-European root
*Germanic strong verb
*Indo-European copula


*cite book| last=Beekes| first=Robert S. P.| authorlink=Robert S. P. Beekes| title=Comparative Indo-European Linguistics| location=Amsterdam| publisher=John Benjamins| year=1995| id=ISBN 90-272-2150-2
*cite book| last=Buck| first=Carl Darling| authorlink=Carl Darling Buck| title=Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin| publisher=University of Chicago Press| year=1933| id=ISBN 0226079317
*cite book| last=Jasanoff| first=Jay H.| title=Hittite and the Indo-European Verb| publisher=Oxford University Press| year=2003| id=ISBN 0-19-924905-9
*cite book| last=Sihler| first=Andrew L.| authorlink=Andrew L. Sihler| title=New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin| publisher=Oxford University Press| year=1995| id=ISBN 0-19-508345-8
*cite book| last=Watkins| first=Calvert| authorlink=Calvert Watkins| title=Indo-European Origins of the Celtic Verb| publisher=Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies| year=1969| id=ISBN 0-901282-24-3
*cite book | first=William Dwight | last=Whitney | authorlink=William Dwight Whitney | title=Sanskrit Grammar | publisher=Harvard University Press | year=1889 | id=ISBN 81-208-0621-2 (India), ISBN 0-486-43136-3 (Dover, US)

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