5+1 on both sides of the Channel

5-1English verbs are strange, for a European language. In the present tense, nearly all forms are the same: I see, you see, we see, you (guys) see and they see. But just when you start thinking that the present tense is a conjugation-free zone, you get the shock of she·he·it sees, with an s tacked on. Not much of a surprise perhaps, because it’s a pretty basic fact about English grammar, but still: if you didn’t know it already, you wouldn’t see it coming.

This type of conjugation is exceptional. Most European languages are much more ornate in this department – check out Spanish or Czech, if you want to see more typical examples. The Scandinavian languages, on the other hand, so close to English in several ways, have gone one better. In Danish, for instance, all six forms are identical: the verb se (see) conjugates, or rather doesn’t, as jeg ser, du ser, hun·han ser, vi ser, I ser, de ser.

But if English is strange here, it’s not unique. At least one other European language also has five identical forms and one that’s different, and it’s a language you are not unlikely to have at least some familiarity with: French. Or to be more exact: everyday spoken French.

Written French looks like a typical European language, similar to Spanish and their common ancestor, Latin, with lots of verbal endings. Let’s take the word for ‘see’ again: je vois, tu vois, elle·il voit, nous voyons, vous voyez, elles·ils voient. That’s five different forms; only vois does double duty. But in spoken French, you will typically hear this: /je voi/, /tu voi/, /el·i voi/, /on voi/, /vou voyé/, /el·i voi/. Voilà: only the second person pronoun vous, which is plural, polite or both, commands a different form compared to the other five. Colloquial French, like standard English, has a 5+1 conjugation pattern.

Not always, granted. It isn’t true for all verbs, it’s not always true when the verb is followed by a vowel and even in informal French, the form nous voyons (pronounced /voyon/) can still be used for ‘we see’, alongside on voit (/on voi/). But if you want to summarise what French verbs are like in the present tense (and in the imparfait or past tense as well), ‘5+1’ is a fair approximation. Which is a far cry from what French grammar books would have us believe.

By the way, if you know of another language, European or not, that in its written standard or in some colloquial form has a 5+1 conjugation paradigm (or 6+1, 7+1 et cetera), please do let me know!

5 thoughts on “5+1 on both sides of the Channel

  1. How about Dutch, with a 3+3 in the past tense, and a 1½+1½+3 in the present tense (of most verbs, but some irregular verbs have other distributions, e.g. 1½+½+1+3 in the present tense of zijn and hebben, or 2+½+½+3 in the present tense of kunnen). This is not counting the 2S-V (u), which behaves different from 2S-T (jij)*.

    Regular werken (work):
    1S ik werk
    2S (T) jij werkt / werk jij
    2S (V) u werkt (also: werkt u)
    3S hij/zij/het werkt
    1/2/3P wij/jullie/zij werken

    Irregular zijn (be)
    1S ik ben
    2S (T) jij bent / ben jij
    2S (V) u bent (also: bent u)
    3S hij/zij/het is
    1/2/3P wij/jullie/zij zijn

    Irregular kunnen (can, be able to)
    1S ik kan
    2S (T) jij kunt / kun jij
    2S (V) u kunt (also: kunt u)
    3S hij/zij/het kan
    1/2/3P wij/jullie/zij kunnen

    * I use T and V as shorthand for the distinction between ‘informal’ vs. ‘polite’ personal pronouns.


  2. Gaston,

    I know of no other language that has simple conjugations like Engligh. All you have to memorise is the infinitive, the past tense and the past participle for irregular verbs. The only truly irregular verb is “to be.” Regular verbs just use “ed” as a suffix for the past tense and the past participle. For the future tense we use “will” as an auxiliary verb and for the conditional we use “would.” Compare that to the tables of conjugations in Romance, Slavic and Germanic languages. Hebrew has masculine and feminine verb forms.

    You’ve got to admire the simplicity of English. No genders in nouns, no according adjectives with noun genders. What more could you want. Er, spelling reform maybe?


  3. Hi Gaston,

    Thanks for this insightful essay. You are on to something when you point out that actual pronounced language differs from the written/official one and is often quite simpler. This happens, I suspect in all languages. I can’t mention another case of the 5+1 conjugation, but I think you ought to point out in your request for other examples that people should think about what they really say, not what’s taught or written down on paper. The problem is that often these forms are stigmatized as not being “correct”.


    Sent from Surface


    • Thanks Bill. As per your suggestion, I’ve added a few words to the last paragraph, because you’re right: any kind of conjugation can occur either in the written standard, such as in English, or in some spoken colloquial form, as in French. I do think that when it comes to the abyss between the written and spoken language, French is on the extreme side. I don’t know of any other modern European language, with the possible exception of some Celtic languages, that is similarly divided. I’ve heard gossip to the effect that Tibetan is similar in this respect, but I know less about Tibetan than about the love life of salamanders.


      • Scottish Gaelic conjugated very simply. I’m not a grammarian, but verbs overwhelmingly don’t change for person or number. All verbs seem to be the same on this respect, regular or otherwise. So one of the two verbs ‘to be’ (not the copula, the other one) goes tha mi, tha thu, tha e/i, tha sinn, tha sibh, tha iad in the present, tha becomes bha in the past and bidh in the future/habitual. The only exception is the imperfect/conditional which is synthetic in the first person, but nowhere else so bhithinn, bhiodh tu, bhiodh e/e, bhiothamaid, bhiodh sibh bhiodh iad (though the 1st person plural form here though standard isn’t universal) By contrast Irish is much more complicated which lots of synthetic forms especially the further south you go.


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