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The plural preterite of strong verbs

The plural preterite of strong(/irregular) verbs is formed by attaching the suffix /-ən/ to the preterite stem. If the latter ends in a centring diphthong, the consonant /n/ shows up between the stem and the suffix. Whatever the historical source of this /n/ may be, synchronically speaking such preterite stems have a plural allomorph ending in /-n/.


Strong(/irregular) verbs have three base allomorphs, viz. the present tense stem, the past tense stem, and the past participle (see Strong and other irregular verbs). We might want to account for the formal relation between the past tense stem and the past participle on the one hand and the present tense stem on the other by means of morpho-lexical processes. This, however, would hardly make sense, since the relevant processes would be highly verb-specific. Besides, the processes are unproductive and do not increase in scope. The allomorphs, therefore, are best considered to be forms in their own right.

The plural of the preterite is formed by attaching the suffix -en /-ən/ to the preterite stem. So, naam /na:m/, the preterite form of nimm(e) /nɪm/ to take, is namen /na:m+ən/ took in the plural. When the stem ends in a vowel, a homorganic glide inserts itself between the stem and the suffix (see The resolution of hiatus between a monophthong and a following vowel). So, bleau /bljo:/, the preterite stem of bliuw(e) /blju:/ to stay, is bleauwen /bljo:+ən/ [bljo:wən] stayed in the plural, with an inserted /w/.

Preterite stems ending in a centring diphthong, however, behave differently in this respect. This is likely to be due to the vowel schwa, which is too 'underspecified' to be able to trigger the insertion of a glide of a specific quality (see Schwa). When a noun ending in such a diphthong is pluralized − also with the suffix -en /-ən/ −, the schwa portion of the stem deletes, which paves the way for homorganic glide insertion (see The resolution of hiatus between a centring diphthong and a followin g vowel). Thus, the plural of brea /brɪə/ rye bread is breaen /brɪə+ən/ [brɪ.jən]. Preterite stems ending in a centring diphthong, however, behave differently, as shown below:

Table 1
Examples of the behaviour of preterite stems ending in a centring diphthong in plural forms
hie /hiə/ (of haww(e) to have) ~ hienen /hiənən/ had
woe /vuə/ (of woll(e) to want) ~ woenen /vuənən/ wanted
bleau /bløə/ (of bliuw(e) to stay) ~ bleaunen /bløənən/ stayed
The consonant /n/ shows up between the stem and the suffix. Whatever the historical source of this /n/ may be, synchronically speaking the preterite stems at hand have an allomorph in /-n/.

The relation between base form and allomorph might be expressed as follows:

Base form-plural allomorph relation

Figure 1

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Since there are no regular verb stems ending in a centring diphthong, as a strong past participle ends in /-(ə)n/, /...ə/V cannot but denote the preterite stem of a strong(/irregular) verb.

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There are twelve verbs with a stem ending in -iuw (which shows considerable variation as to its pronunciation):

Example 1

biuw(e) to boast, to brag (less common)
bliuw(e) to stay
driuw(e) to float, to drift
giuw(e) to hurry about (less common)
kliuw(e) to climb; to cleave
piuw(e) to dawdle over one's food (less common)
priuw(e) to taste
riuw(e) to thread, to string
skriuw(e) to write
triuw(e) to push
wiuw(e) to wave
wriuw(e) to rub, to polish

These verbs have a preterite stem ending in -eau. If the underlying representation of the latter is /-øə/, there must have been a reanalysis, for some speakers at least, to the effect that the plural allomorph has become the new, and now the only, preterite stem. So, the plural preterite form bleaunen /bløə+n+ən/ stayed has become /bløən+ən/. The new preterite stem bleaun /bløən/ yields a fully regular paradigm. The resulting singular preterite forms then are ik bleaun I stayed, do bleaunst you stayed (with a nasalized vowel sequence), hy bleaun he stayed.

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Some preterite stems ending in the falling diphthong /aj/ have a plural allomorph in /-n/ as well. Thus, lei /laj/ and sei /saj/ − the preterite stems of lizz(e) to lay; to lie and sizz(e) to say, respectively − have the plural forms leinen /lajn+ən/ and seinen /sajn+ən/, alongside the expected forms leien /laj+ən/ and seien /saj+ən/ (with a glide inserted between stem and suffix).

Plural preterite forms like hienen /hiənən/ had, woenen /vuənən/ wanted, and bleaunen /bløənən/ stayed are subject to another kind of variation: they may also be realized without final /-n/, as hiene /hiənə/, woene /vuənə/, and bleaune /bløənə/, respectively. Unlike what is the case in Dutch, deletion of /-n/ in the word-final sequence /-ən/ does not occur in Frisian. Therefore, the ending -e /-ə/ of bleaune etc. is to be looked upon as a purely morphologically conditioned allomorph of the plural preterite suffix -en /-ən/. The relation between base form and allomorph can be expressed as follows:

Base plural form-plural allomorph relation

Figure 2

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The base plural form contains the preterite stem allomorph in /...ən/ of the base form-plural allomorph relation above.

The condition is an expression of the fact that regular plural preterite forms, like rûnen /run+ən/ walked, went (from rinn(e) /rɪn/ to walk, to go) and ferlearen /fərlɪər+ən/ lost (from ferliez(e) /fər+liəz/ to lose), do not have the allomorphs *rûne /runə/ and *ferleare /fərlɪərə/.

There is thus an interdependency here between stem allomorphy (hie ~ hien, woe ~ woen, bleau ~ bleaun) and suffix allomorphy (-en ~ -e). The difference between the two is that the stem allomorphy is a general feature of Frisian verbal morphology, whereas the suffix allomorphy is a dialectal matter. For reasons of distancing from Dutch, the plural preterite forms in -e are more or less promoted in Standard Frisian; their actual use, however, seems to be receding in scope.

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See Visser (1989) for a synchronic and Breuker (1993) for a diachronic account oft these forms.

  • Breuker, Philippus Hillebrand1993Oer ûntstean en ferrin fan de doetiidsmeartalútgong -neTydskrift foar Fryske Taalkunde814-26
  • Visser, Willem1989Oer it ynfoegen fan -n- by sterke tiidwurdenTydskrift foar Fryske Taalkunde573-92