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General categories

Frisian verbs may morphologically vary in form. In this topic, a general overview will be given of the various categories that are relevant with respect to verbal inflection. The categories are of a different nature. Firstly, we have abstract semantic notions. Tense and mood are relevant for Frisian. Most important is tense, since it is expressed most directly on the verb: the formal difference between ik pak I get and ik pakte I got expresses a difference of tense, i.e. we have an opposition here between the simple present and the simple past. The future is not expressed morphologically but analytically.

Of the instances of mood, only the indicative and the imperative are still alive as a morphological category; the subjunctive is obsolete in the present-day language. Aspect and voice do not receive a direct morphological translation in Frisian.

By means of agreement the verbal form expresses features of the context. The notions number and person should be mentioned in this respect: the difference between the forms pakte and pakten is a difference in number, i.e. singular versus plural. The difference between pakte and paktest is between persons. The latter typically points at the second person (singular), whereas the form pakte represents the first or the third person singular.

Finally, in this general topic the various relevant morphological categories of the verb should be dealt with. We have finite and non-finite forms, the latter to be divided in infinitives (two forms) and participles (present and past). Moreover, the form of the categories is dependent on the inflectional class to which the verb belongs. Frisian has two classes of weak verbs. In addition, many verbs inflect irregularly.

In this topic, some general features of these various verbal categories will be dealt with.


Tense locates a situation or action in time with respect to some other time, for instance the time of speaking or writing. In Frisian, tense is morphologically expressed on the finite verb, either a lexical verb or an auxiliary. Only two tenses are available: present and past. In regular verbs tense is expressed by way of suffixation, for instance ik pak I take (present tense) versus ik pakte I take-PRET I took (past tense). In irregular verbs also the device of vowel change is used. An example is ik rin I walk (present tense) versus ik rûn I walked (past tense). In contradistinction to e.g. French, the future cannot be expressed morphologically: the auxiliary sille will must be invoked.


Old Frisian once had the subjunctive morphologically expressed in a special suffixal paradigm of finite forms, but this way of marking collapsed after the Middle Ages and is completely obsolete nowadays.

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Alternatives for the subjunctive

The lack of a subjunctive form may cause problems in translations from Dutch, where this archaic form is not completely obsolete. Alternatives in Frisian are the modal verbs meie may and litte let, but also the imperative and even simply the indicative. See for a discussion of this problem Tamminga (1973:20-23) and Tamminga (1985:37).

What is left of the category mood is the indicative, plus a special morphological marking of the imperative. The form of the imperative is similar to the stem of strong verbs and weak verbs of class I; for class II, the infinitive is identical. However, in all verbal classes the imperative is also similar to the form of the first person singular present tense of the indicative. That the first person singular seems to be the driving force for building the form of the imperative - at least nowadays - might be distilled from some irregular verbs that display different stems for infinitive and first person singular present tense. An example is sjen to see; to look. The first person is ik sjoch I see, and accordingly, the imperative is sjoch! see!. (Although one can encounter sjen! see! in 19th century texts). Another indication for the first person form being basic is offered by some irregular class II verbs. For instance, the first person of the verb krije to get is ik krij, and the imperative is krij!. The verb feie to sweep displays the same pattern: its first person is ik fei, the imperative is fei!. There is, on the other hand, also one example which contradicts this tendency. It is the imperative form wês of the verb wêze to be. It has a completey different form for the first person, i.e. (ik) bin (I) am.

In Frisian, the imperative form may be used in a special construction, the Imperativus-pro-Infinitivo.

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Imperative and tense

In the normal case, the imperative implies that the action is performed in the future, after uttering the sentence with the imperative. There are cases, however, that the action has taken place in the past. Morphologically, a past tense form is selected in such cases. An example is given below:

Example 1

Master wiisde dy deis de Grinzer stasjons op 'e kaart oan. Naam dy mar leaver goed yn je op
schoolmaster pointed that day-SUFF the Groningen-SUFF stations on the map to. Take.IMP.PRET those but rather good in you up
The schoolmaster pointed out the stations in the province of Groningen on the map. Better take these in thoroughly!

Preterite forms of strong verbs are the best candidates to be used as past imperatives. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is extremely marginal. Therefore, such forms will not be mentioned in our verbal paradigms. For the phenomenon of past imperatives in Frisian, see Wolf (2003). See also Mastop (2005:66-83). Quotes with the preterite of the verb litte let from the Frisian literature can be found in Hoekstra (2001).

A curious preterite form is sei, clearly related to the verb sizze to say. Its use is specialized in that it calls for attention or is used as an utterance of astonishment: hence it should be categorized as an interjection (see also the entry in Veen (1984-2011)). The regular imperative of the verb sizze is sis.

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Imperative and agreement

Usually, a sentence with an the imperative does not display an overt subject (a), but this possibility is optional in Frisian (b):

Example 2

a. Lis dat boek del!
lay that book down
Put down that book!
b. Lis do dat boek del
lay you that book down
Put down that book!

Hoekema (1985) observes that in the speech of the younger generation the imperative form in sentences like (2b) tends to be replaced by the form of the present tense indicative, thereby agreeing with the subject. We then get:

Example 3

Leisto dat boek del!
lay.2SG.PRES you.2SG that book down
Put that book down!

In such a sentence, the special form of the imperative is absent; only the semantics remains intact. The origin of this use is to be found in Dutch, where the form of the finite verb of the second person singular in the present tense is similar to the stem of the verb in case of subject inversion. And hence this inverted form, i.e. Dutch leg, is also similar to the form of the Dutch imperative. The similarity with Dutch might be the reason why in Frisian some people select the finite form instead of the imperative form.

[+]Voice and aspect

In some languages voice is a morphological category. In such languages differences between active, passive or middle voice are expressed by affixation. Compare for instance Latin amo I love with amor I am loved. Or, for a Germanic language, see the s-form in Danish, as in zebraen jages af løvenzebra-the chase-PASS from lion-thethe zebra is chased by the lion. In Frisian, however, no such kind of morphological marking is available. Instead, passive is construed analytically, with an auxiliary and the lexical verb as a past participle. Thus from the active a-sentence we get the passive b-variety:

Example 4

a. De slachter slachtet de ko
The butcher slaughters the cow
b. De ko wurdt troch de slachter slachte
the cow is by the butcher slaughtered
The cow is slaughtered by the butcher

Instead of the passive auxiliary wurde, the auxiliary wêze is used in perfect tenses:

Example 5

De ko is troch de slachter slachte
the cow is by the butcher slaughtered
The cow has been slaughtered by the butcher

This can, however, be considered an elliptic construction, as in north-eastern dialects the real passive auxiliary wurde pops up again in the form of the participle wurden (or the dialectical form woarn):

Example 6

De ko is troch de slachter slachte wurden
the cow is by the butcher slaughtered been
The cow has been slaughtered by the butcher

In a comparable way as the passive, the middle voice or "medium" is expressed syntactically:

Example 7

Dy ko slachtet maklik
that cow slaughters easily
That cow slaughters easily

Aspect is a grammatical category that refers to a way of looking at the time of a situation or action, for instance its duration, completion or repetition. In contrast to a language like Russian, aspect is not expressed in the Frisian system of verbal inflection. Instead, there are other means available of convey that aspect, for instance by way of an auxiliary. Thus from ik haw lêzen I have read it may be concluded that the act of reading has been finished, and that we have perfect aspect here. Perfect aspect may also be inherent in certain verbal particles, for instance in

Example 8

Boukje yt in apel op
Boukje eats an apple up
Boukje eats an apple

There are also special constructions for durative (progressive) aspect, as in

Example 9

Boukje is in apel oan it iten
Boukje is an apple on it eat
Boukje is eating an apple

or with the help of a positional verb, as in

Example 10

Boukje sit in apel te iten
Boukje sits an apple to eat
Boukje is eating an apple

See the part on syntax for more information about this construction.


Inflection may also be dependent on the syntactic context, especially since the finite verb is involved in an agreement relation with the subject of the sentence. One of the components of agreement with the subject is number: the singularity or plurality of the subject is reflected in the form of the finite verb. Compare hja glimket she smile.3SG.PRES she smiles with hja glimkje they smile.3PL.PRS they smile. Both verbal forms are in the present tense and third person, and both superficially have an identical subject. Their verbal endings differ, however, and it is exactly this difference in number that allows us to infer that the first example has female singular personal pronoun (English she) and that in the second example the plural third person pronoun is involved (cf. English they). Another example is the past tense of one of the two weak verb classes. The verb bakke to bake has as forms of the past tense bakte and bakten. The first is inherently singular, and the latter is plural. Plurality is expressed by the element -n.


In addition to number, the finite verb also expresses differences in grammatical person, at least as far as the singular is concerned. So, with the verb glimkje to smile the present singular displays the forms glimkje, glimkest and glimket. These forms represent the first, second and third person, respectively. The distinction is roughly based on a discourse situation. The first person is the speaker, the second person is the adressee, and the third person represents the rest (i.e. everyone or everything that is talked about). This can be applied to the singular as well as to the plural. With respect to personal pronouns we then get the well-known oppositions ik I versus wy we, in the first person, or do you (singular) versus jimme you (plural). The distinction in grammatical persons is not only relevant for finite verbs and personal pronouns, but also for reflexive and possessive pronouns. With respect to verbal inflection a further thing should be noted. The polite personal pronoun jo you (polite), although semantically singular, always takes a plural ending of the finite verb: it is not *jo glimkest you.POL smile.2SG.PRES or even *jo glimket you.POL smile.3SG.PRES, but jo glimkje you.SG.POL smile.PL.PRES you smile.


Non-finite forms of the verb usually cannot occur alone, they need an auxiliary. A past participle, for instance, takes a perfect auxiliary of one of the verbs hawwe to have and wêze to be, or the passive auxiliary wurde to be: the participle slein hit in an example like de man ... slein the man ... hit takes the third person singular present auxiliary forms hat has, is is or wurdt is. Infinitives may take a modal verb as auxiliary, for instance in

Example 11

de man kin/mei slaanthe man can/may hit
the man can/may hit

Auxiliaries can form quite complex structures. Further information can be found in the part on syntax.

[+]Finite verb

It could be argued that a Frisian verb always bears an inflectional element. (As a consequence of such a view, in those few cases which are superficially equal to the stem, it should be assumed that a zero suffix is at play). A first division should be made between the finite and non-finite verb forms. The latter consist of infinitives and past and present participles. The finite verb is the locus for tense, number and person. Tense is either past or present, and number is singular or plural. There are three grammatical persons, both in the plural and in the singular. It is also the finite verb that carries the morphology for the imperative mood. If the Verb Phrase (VP) only counts one (i.e. lexical) verb, than this verb is always finite. If there are more verbs, than one of the auxiliaries is finite. Thus, in hy bak-t he bakes we have only one verb, which is automatically finite. The finiteness is centered in the suffix -t, which expresses the present tense, the singular and the third person at the same time. The latter is in agreement with the subject hy he, which is also inherently singular and a pronoun of the third person. In hy hat bakt he has baked the verbal complex consists of two verbs. Now, the form bakt is a past participle, indicated by the suffix -t. This participle needs an auxiliary, which is hawwe to have. As the sentence needs a finite verb, the auxiliary takes on this role. The tense is present, and the finite verb has to agree in number and person with the subject. The verbal form of the verb hawwe that reflects the features of present, singular and third person, is hat.


The Frisian infinitive is special when compared to its Westgermanic sisters, which have no ending (English) or only one (viz. -en in German and Dutch). In Frisian, the infinitive may end in -e or in -en. These forms are dubbed here "infinitive I" and "infinitive II", but one also finds "verbal" vs. "nominal", or "ordinary" vs. "gerundial". Their distribution is a complicated matter. Roughly stated, the infinitive ending in -e depends on modal verbs, as in hy kin sjong-e he can sing, and it can be found when the infinitive is governed by the causative or permissive auxiliary verb litte to let, for example in hy lit har in ferske sjong-e he lets her a song sing-INF he lets her sing a song.

In other contexts, we find the ending -en, for instance after perception verbs as in ik hear him sjong-en I hear him sing. It also occurs as complement of the verbs bliuwe to remain, gean to go, komme to come and hawwe have. This can be illustrated by the following examples:

Example 12

a. Ik bliuw sitten/*sitte
I remain sit-INF
I remain sitting
b. Ik gean sitten/*sitte
I go sit-INF
I sit down
c. Dêr komt er oan rinnen/*rinne
there comes-he on walk-INF
There he comes walking
d. Hy hat it boek op 'e tafel lizzen
he has the book on the table lie-INF
His book is lying on the table

Furthermore, -en is obligatory in nominal contexts. An important one is after the verbal particle (historically a preposition) te to, as in hy besiket te sjongen/*sjonge he tries to sing. There are several types of infinitives with te to. On this issue, see types of to-infinitival clauses.

Other nominal contexts are after an article, usually the neuter definite article it (cf. it sjongen/*sjonge the.N sing-INF the singing, but also (rarely) the indefinite article in (cf. in sjongen/*sjonge, dat ... a sing-INF that a singing that ...) and the negative article, as gjin sjongen/*sjonge no sing-INF no singing. A frequent verbal construction with the verb embedded in a nominal form is the so-called "oan it"-construction, as in

Example 13

De klasse is oan it sjongen
the class is on it sing-INF
the class is singing

The nominal verb is preceded here by the preposition oan on. The whole construction always entails durative aspect.

Other typical nominal contexts are possessive pronouns, for example syn sjongen/*sjonge his singing. With a demonstrative pronoun, it is again the neuter variant that is selected: dat sjongen/*sjonge.

Only one small category of verbs is not involved in this dichotomy. Monosyllabic verbs, for instance sjen to see or gean to go, always end in -n, and do not display an infinitival form ending in -e. Compare an infinitive I context like ik lit him gean I let him go with a potential infinitive II in ik sjoch him gean I see him go.

The difference between -e and -en, and the availability of a suffix for nominal contexts in particular, is a returning issue in Frisian grammar. For transposition to a noun from the perspective of word formation, see -en. For various syntactic nominal constructions, see complementation of infinitival Noun Phrases (NPs).

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Halbertsma (1865:409-425) is the first treatment of the two infinitival endings. The best description can be found in Hoekstra (1997:1-18). He also gives a short overview of older literature. The two infinitives can also be found in varieties with a Frisian substratum, as the mixed dialects of most Frisian towns and the rural settlement area of It Bildt. On the infinitives in these dialects: Hoekstra (2002). The infinitives in West-Fries, nowadays considered to be a dialect of Dutch, are studied in a series of publications by Eric Hoekstra. Among these are Hoekstra (1994), Hoekstra (2000) and Hoekstra (2012). The latter also provides a good historical background of the difference. These substratum effects are an indication that the existence of both infininitival endings is a stable feature within Frisian grammar. Bergstra (2017) provides data that this might be changing, however, possibly under Dutch influence. In the same publication she also gives an analysis from a minimalistic perspective.

[+]Past participle

A striking feature of the Frisian past participle - at least when compared to Dutch or German - is the lack of a prefix, cf. Dutch and German ge-. Thus Dutch gepakt caught is Frisian pakt. Frisian past participles show a suffix, though. Its form depends on the type of verb class. Class I weak verbs have a dental /t/ or /d/, and class II verbs end in a schwa. The past participle of strong verbs historically has the suffix -en, as in fallen fall.PP fallen. In many cases, the schwa of -en has disappeared, and final -n was integrated in the stem syllable. Examples are n walk.PP walked and n give.PP given. For further formal details, see strong verbs. Past participles are used in the passive construction; in that case the auxiliary is wurde to be or wêze to be, as has been mentioned above. Past participles are also used to refer to a situation in the past, where the normal English translation would be with a simple past, for example

Example 14

Hy hat dat ferske songen
he has that song sung
He sang that song

The past participle may easily be used as an adjective, for instance in de songen psalms the sung psalms the psalms that have been sung.

[+]Present participle

The Frisian present participle is formed with the help of the suffix -end, also -ende. If connected with verbal complements, the present participle is not quite frequent in the spoken language. In the following examples, the a-sentence is unusual, although not ungrammatical. However, a formulation like the b-sentence is far more common:

Example 15

a. Tafels en stuollen omreagjend, stode er ta it restaurant út
tables and chairs over.push.PRESP, rushed-he to the restaurant out
He rushed out of the restaurant, pushing over tables and chairs
b. Wylst er tafels en stuollen omreage, stode er ta it restaurant út
while-he tables and chairs over.push.PRET, rushed-he to the restaurant out
While pushing over tables and chairs, he rushed out of the restaurant
Example 16

a. de op in goede namme lizzende sirurch
the on a good name lie.PRESP surgeon
the well-reputed surgeon
b. de sirurch, dy't op in goede namme lei
the surgeon that on a good name lay
The surgeon that had a good reputation

However, as a bare verb the present participle is certainly not unusual, as in:

Example 17

sjong-ende kaam er de trep del
sing.PRESP came-he the stairs down
he came downstairs singing

An example of the present participle in its verbal use is:

Example 18

wy binne rinn-ende
we are walk.PRS.PTCP
we are walking (and we are not cycling, or travelling by car)

An example of adjectival use is de sjong-ende speurder the singing detective. In Frisian, present participles are also frequently used adverbially in their function of intensifiers of adjectives, for instance in stjerrende wier die.PRESP true quite true or kritende djoer cry.PRS.PTCP expensive terribly expensive.

The Frisian present participle may be the input for derivations with the suffixes -wei and -erwize. Both result in adverbs. It should be noted that, in contrast to Dutch, Frisian present participles do not easily take a suffix -e to refer to persons. Thus Dutch hoogstbiedende cannot easily be translated as Frisian ?heechstbiedende.

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Frisian once had a historical proces of deleting a word-final /d/ after /n/. This deletion also affected some present participles, especially if acting as lexicalized adjectives. For instance, present-day adjectives as hoeden cautious, mijen careful or razen furious once started their lives as present participles regularly ending in /nd/. For further details, see word-final clusters of a nasal and an obstruent.

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The use of the Frisian present participle is discussed in Hoekstra (1991). Schippers (1965) investigates the statistics of the various uses of the present participle in the work of two important Frisian writers, Reinder Brolsma and Ulbe van Houten. The number of present participles with Brolsma is four times higher, and, hence, Schippers calls attention for its stilistic effect. For its use of the present participle as intensifier, see Van der Kuip (2011). The resistence to suffixation with -e to denote persons is pointed out by De Haan and Hoekstra (1993:19-21). In their article they also discuss alternative formulations.

[+]Inflectional classes

Frisian verbal inflection is also dependent on the type of verb involved. The main distinction is between regular inflection (the so-called weak verbs) and irregular inflection. Regular verbs keep their stem intact; the expression of features like tense and agreement is done by way of suffixation. With irregular verbs we observe stem alternations. For tradionally strong verbs this is the way of marking the preterite, for instance.

Within the Germanic languages, Frisian is rather peculiar in that it has two weak classes at its disposal. What is traditionally called class I has an infinitive ending -e, where the infinitives of class II show the suffix -je. The paradigm of class I resembles the weak verbs of related languages. For instance, it has a preterite suffix with a dental consonant, in the Frisian case -de or -te. The paradigm of class II is rather different. Weak verbs will be dealt with in the topic on weak verbs.

Strong verbs are the most important category of irregular inflection. Usually, such verbs have a different vowel in their preterite and/or past participle, and moreover, this participle is ending in -en. An example is falle-foel-fallen fall.INF-fall-PRET-fall.PP to fall. Another important group of irregular verbs has its irregularity in the present tense, notably as a result of earlier phonological processes. An example is the singular present of the verb meitsje to make, which consists of the forms meitsje make.1SG.PRS, makkest make.2SG.PRS and makket make.3SG.PRS. Again, we see variation in the stem, i.e. what superficially appears as meits- and mak-. Also irregular is a small group of modal verbs which lack a suffix -t for the third person singular present tense. So we get hy wol he wants, and not *hy wolt.

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