English Second Aorist Forms

August 25, 2010

Well, not technically! English has no aorist, let alone a second aorist, but some English verbs exhibit a parallel phenomenon. Here’s a quick review of the Greek second aorist, and then an extended illustration from English.

There are some Greek verb forms that are not formed from the same root as other forms that are treated as the same word. The root and stem of many (perhaps most) words are the same. But some words have different stems for different tense-forms.
In most cases, the stem will either be: the same in all forms; or different in the present, but the same in other forms; or different in the second aorist and the same in other forms. For example, λύω uses the same root/stem across the board: λυ–. That is why it serves as the “paradigm verb” in most textbooks. On the other hand, γινώσκω in the present uses the stem γινωσκ-, but all other forms use the stem γνω– (which is the same as the root, *γνω). The third common pattern is seen in ἄγω: the present stem is ἀγ– (as is the future, perfect, etc.), but the second aorist stem is ἀγαγ–.

With suppletive forms, words that were originally unrelated etymologically, came to be used as different forms of the same word. For example, the word λέγω is the present form of the word which means “I am saying/speaking, I say/speak,” but the future form is not λέγσω*, but ἐρῶ. The aorist form used for λέγω is not ἔλεγσα*, but εἶπον. These three forms were originally three different Greek words that were only used in certain forms (λέγω in present, ἐρῶ in the future, and εἶπον in the aorist). Eventually they came to be used as if they were different forms of the same word.

The most common words that have multiple roots that were originally unrelated are as follows.

  • λέγω (I say) has three roots: *λεγ- (pres.), *ἐρ- (fut., pf., aor. pas.), and *ἰπ- (aor. act.)
  • ἔρχομαι (I come/go) has two roots: *ἐρχ (pres.) and *ἐλευθ (fut., aor., pf.)
  • ἐσθίω (I eat) has two roots: *ἐσθι (pres.) and *φαγ (fut. and aor.)
  • ὁράω (I see) has three roots: *ὁρα (pres., pf.), *ὀπ (fut., aor. pas.), and *ϝιδ (aor. act.)
  • οἶδα (I know) has three roots: *ϝορα (pres.), *ὀπ (fut., aor.), and *ϝιδ (aor. of εἶδον; technically this is a synonym, not a suppletive form, but it is usually treated the same way.)
  • φέρω (I carry): *φερ (pres.), *οἰ (fut.), *ἐνεκ (aor., pf.)

Less common NT words with suppletive forms include:

  • αἱρέω (I choose; ≠ αἶρω): *αἱρε (pres., fut., pf. m/p, aor. pas.) and *ϝελ (aor. act.)
  • πάσχω (I suffer): *παθ (pres., aor.) and *πενθ (pf.)
  • τρέχω (I run): *θρεχ (pres.) and *δραμ (aor.)

The same thing happens in English!

Go (present) and went (past) are not etymologically related. English used to have a past tense of go (= eode, Anglo-Saxon, and yode in Middle Eng.). It also had a present tense of went (= wend). We now use go and went as if they were present and past tenses of the same word. (There are other English words that have similar histories, but this is one of the more common ones.)

To see some of this firsthand, browse through the following diachronic sampling of older stages of the English language. If you read carefully, you can make sufficient sense of all these examples even though they are usually from Middle English texts (there are a few from the early stages of Modern English as well, and even a few 19th century examples). These examples all come from the Oxford English Dictionary (compact edition, unabridged; Oxford Univ. Press, 1971).

s.v. “yode, yede”

v. Obs. Past tense of Go v. (= went, went away, proceeded, took his course)

‣ Selected examples [date] {pg. col. in OED}

  • Trevisa Higden (Rolls) IV.397. [1387] {61a}
    A lampe .. in þat hevene .. þat ȝede a doun westward as it were þe sonne
  • Hampole Pr. Consc. 4851 [1340] {61b}
    Þat day, þat Loth yhed out of Sodome
  • Ellis Orig. Lett. Ser. 1.1.244 [1524] {61b}
    Saing if he yode awaye she must neds do for her self
  • Ld. Bernes Huon. clxiii.636 [1533] {61b}
    He issued out of the gate and yode towards the tentes of his enemyes
  • Spenser F. Q. 1.x.53 [1590] {61b}
  • Such one, as that same mighty man of God, that bloud-red billowes .. disparted with his rod, Till that his army dry-foot through them yod
  • Glasgerian 46 in Fuvniv. & Hales Percy Folio 1.250 [1650] {61b}
    He did not kisse that Lady gay when he came nor when he youd
  • Scott Marm. III.xxxi [1808] {61b}
    In other place than forth he yode, Returned Lord Marmion

s.v. “wend”

“The original forms of the [past tense] and [past participle] are respectively wende and wended, wend, but the forms wente, went appear beside these from 1200, and latterly become the more usual; in the [reflexive] and [intransitive] senses went finally replaced the older preterites [i.e., past tenses] belonging to go, and from c 1500 is most naturally regarded as the [past tense] of that verb, while wend was provided with the new form wended.

  • Chaucer, Prol. 21 [c 1386] {315c}
    In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay Ready to wenden on my pilgrymage
  • Hist. K. Boccus & Sydrache X j b [?1510] {316a}
    When the soule at the ende Shal out fro the body wende
  • Scott, Ivanhoe xx [1819] {316a}
    Wend on your way, in the name of God and St. Dunstan
  • Chev. Assigne 161 [c 1430] {316a}
    And whenne drowȝe to the þe nyȝte he wendethe to bedde
  • Fairfax Tasso xii. xxxii [1600] {316a}
    Downe from the tree I came in haste, And tooke thee vp and on my journey wend
  • Caryle Fr. Rev. 1.1.ii. [1837] {316a}
    The Merovingian Kings, slowly wending on their bullock-carts through the streets of Paris
  • Shelley Sonn. Dante 4 [1816] {316b}
    Ascend A magic ship, whose charmed sails should fly With wind at will where’re our thoughts might wend
  • Scott Kenilw. xxiii [1821] {316b}
    Adieu, and may the blessing of God wend with you!
  • G. Head Forest Scenes of N. Amer. 109 [1829] {316b}
    We wended our way down the ravine
  • Sladen Poetry of Exiles (2d ed.) 1.27 [1885] {316b}
    Pleasant it was to wend his way back to familiar Kent
  • Maury Phys. Geog. viii §394 [1860] {316b}
    On the Australian side, an ice-bearing current is found wending its way from the Antarctic regions.

‣ Notes on several Old English characters used above

Ȝ ȝ = yogh, a g sound (can actually have several different sounds [e.g., y or ch] depending on the time it was written; this varies from Old English to Middle English, with some internal variations.)

Þ þ = thorn, a th sound
(See the delightful lyric on these letters by Catherine Faber at http://www.echoschildren.org/NonCDlyrics/Yogh.html.)

Although the word wend is archaic in modern English, it is still used, though primarily in poetic contexts (or by authors who are deliberately stretching for variety—perhaps enabled by a thesaurus!). As one example of modern English poetry, the word wend appears in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (19th C.).


by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book 1


On the great streams the ships may go
About men’s business to and fro.
But I, the egg-shell pinnace, sleep
On crystal waters ankle-deep:
I, whose diminutive design,
Of sweeter cedar, pithier pine,
Is fashioned on so frail a mould,
A hand may launch, a hand withhold:
I, rather, with the leaping trout
Wind, among lilies, in and out;
I, the unnamed, inviolate,
Green, rustic rivers, navigate;
My dipping paddle scarcely shakes
The berry in the bramble-brakes;
Still forth on my green way I wend
Beside the cottage garden-end;
And by the nested angler fare,
And take the lovers unaware.

By willow wood and water-wheel
Speedily fleets my touching keel;
By all retired and shady spots
Where prosper dim forget-me-nots;
By meadows where at afternoon
The growing maidens troop in June
To loose their girdles on the grass.
Ah! speedier than before the glass
The backward toilet goes; and swift
As swallows quiver, robe and shift
And the rough country stockings lie
Around each young divinity.
When, following the recondite brook,
Sudden upon this scene I look,
And light with unfamiliar face
On chaste Diana’s bathing-place,
Loud ring the hills about and all
The shallows are abandoned. . . .

2 responses to English Second Aorist Forms

  1. I’ve never felt that “first” and “second” were appropriate terms referring to the standardized and surviving traditional morphological paradigms, since the surviving traditional paradigms were chronologically first. Our designation of the corresponding English paradigms as “strong” and “weak” seems somewhat more accurate. One ought perhaps to note that, just as ἀφίημι is coming to be an omega verb ἀφίω in NT Koine, older forms like the “strong” aorist middle ἠγρόμην seen in Homer became the “weak” ἠγέρθην in Classical Attic, or the “strong” ἐγενόμην in NT Koine is already becoming the weak ἐγενήθην.

    I’m somewhat skeptical of *ϝελ as the root of ἑλ- in εἱλόμην, although I’ve seen that in reference works, including Smyth. Ordinarily the rough breathing reflects an earlier sigma rather than a digamma, whereas the evanescing digamma seems rather to result in a vowel with smooth breathing. But I don’t know if anything can be proven in that regard.

    • I’ve always treated “first” and “second” as designating alternate morphologies rather than indications of priority. That is, there are two ways to form an aorist, first x, second y. So far as I’m concerned, they would be theoretically reversible–though that would cause havoc in the reference works! So I’m content to stick with the traditional designation, though recognizing that some also use weak/strong for similar purposes. I do wonder how much weak/strong communicate to students, however.