Although Middle English has more inflections than Modern English, if you look back at the Old English inflections, you’ll see that the system is relatively simple. There are, of course, irregular verbs, but for the most part, verbs in the present tense add the following endings to the stem:
- — e in the first person singular (I sende)
- — est in the second person singular (thou sendest)
- — eth in the third person singular (she sendeth)
- — en in all plural forms (we/ye/they senden)
- The ending — eth can also indicate the singular imperative: ‘trusteth wel’ (HF 66).
With the past tense, it is necessary to begin by making a distinction, which still applies in Modern English, between strong and weak verbs. Strong verbs form the past tense by changing their stem (I sing, I sang; you throw, you threw), while weak verbs add a suffix to the stem (I wish, I wished; you laugh, you laughed). In the past tense in Middle English, strong verbs change their stems (sing becomes sang or song) and add –e in the second person singular (thou songe), and –en in the plural (they songen). Weak verbs add –de or –te, so here becomes herde and fele becomes felte; the second person singular takes the ending –st (thou herdest) and plural forms take –n (they felten).
This table shows the conjugations for the weak verb hopen, the strong verb binden, and for ben the verb ‘to be’:
Notice that the past participle of both strong and weak verbs can add a y- prefix.
Certain verbs often appear as impersonal constructions, using the third person neuter singular verb with the object form of the personal pronoun. These are usually translated into a more direct form: hym thynketh, ‘It seems to him’ or ‘he thought’ (MT 3615); hem leste, ‘it pleased him’ (MT3421); me reweth, ‘I regret’ (MT3462), literally: ‘it rues [saddens] me’).
Here are a few commonly used constructions:
- — him liketh (it pleases him)
- — him list (it pleases him, he wants)
- — us nedeth (we need; it is lacking to us)
- — us moste (it is necessary for us; we must)
- — it remembreth me (I remember)
Sometimes personal pronouns and verbs are merged into a single word: hast thow, ‘have you?’, becomes hastow (MT 3534); and likewise in the negative: ne wiste, ‘did not know’ becomes nyste (MT 3414); ne wolde, ‘did not wish’, becomes nolde (MT 3122).