Verbs: Tense

Latin verb endings carry information about the time of an action (tense) as well as the duration of an action (aspect). The modern languages inherit this robust verb system, although all languages have simplified the Latin endings to some degree. The examples below assume familiarity with person-number endings. Romance verb forms are normally classed according to their tense/aspect and their mood. The mood will be held constant these examples - only the basic indicative mood will be used in order to draw attention to the verb’s tenses.

Stems, Thematic Vowels & Conjugations

Latin verbs build their endings out of multiple parts. The first component is the verb’s stem, which is the part that carries its meaning: Vulgar Latin *parabol-asti you talked has a stem *parabol- talk and an ending -asti that gives grammatical information about the verb. When the verb stem changes, the meaning of the verb changes: *parabol-asti you talked but *cant-asti you sang. When the verb endings change, it is the grammatical use of the verb that changes: *parabol-as you talk, *parabol-asti you talked, *parabol-ai I talked. Unlike English verb stems, which often have no endings, Latin and Romance stems are abstract units that attach grammatical endings when they are used in actual speech: Vulgar Latin *tu parabol-as but not just *tu parabol- for you speak.

The next important component is the thematic vowel, which allows verbs to be classified according to the vowel found after the verb stem. Every Latin verb has one of four possible thematic vowels: the vowel a, the vowel e, the vowel i and a zero vowel or unstressed vowel ĕ. The rest of the verb endings follow this vowel: Vulgar Latin *parabolare to speak has a stem *parabol- and a thematic vowel -a-, while *finire to finish has a stem *fin- and a thematic -i-. Important contrasts and similarities between the verbs appear once tense endings are applied: Vulgar Latin *parabol-a-s you speak has a thematic vowel -a- and a second-person singular -s, while *fin-i-s you finish has a thematic -i- but the same second-person singular ending -s.

Vulgar Latin verbs may be cited by their infinitives, since these relate to no specific person or number but still show the thematic vowel of the verb. Verbs with thematic -a- have an infinitive -are and belong to the first conjugation (I). Verbs with the thematic vowel -e- have an infinitive -ere and belong to the second conjugation (II). Verbs with the unstressed vowel -ĕ- and infinitive -ĕre form the third conjugation (III). Finally, verbs with thematic -i- and an infinitive -ire fall in the fourth conjugation (IV).

First conjugation Second conjugation Third conjugation Fourth conjugation
-are -ere -ĕre -ire

The four-way distinction between Latin conjugations survives in Italian and, to some extent, in French, Catalan, Occitan, Romanian and Romansh. Iberian languages merged the awkward conjugation III into IV or II, depending on the verb and the language: *vincĕre to win becomes Spanish vencer (II) and Portuguese vencer (II), but *dicĕre to say turns into Spanish decir (III) and Portuguese dizer (II). Sardinian conflates conjugations II and III, shuffling -ere verbs into the unstressed -ĕre conjugation: Vulgar Latin *potere to be able becomes Sardinian pòdere. In all languages, conjugations II and III come to look more alike, tending towards thematic -e-.

First Conjugation Second Conjugation Third Conjugation Fourth Conjugation
Latin -are -ere -ĕre -ire
Italian -are -ere -ĕre -ire
Sardinian -are -ĕre -ĕre -ire
Catalan -ar -er -re -ir
French -er -oir -re -ir
Romansch -ar -air -er -ir
Romanian* -a -ea -e -i
Spanish -ar -er/-ir -er/-ir -ir
Portuguese -ar -er/-ir -er/-ir -ir

*Romanian has no -r in its normal “short infinitive”.

The class or conjugation of a Romance verb is easily determined from its infinitive. Therefore, this guide follows the lead of many reference materials and instructors in referring to verb conjugations by their associated infinitive, such as “French -er verbs” instead of “verbs in French that descend from a Latin verb with a thematic vowel a”.

Present Tense

The present tense is used for ongoing and habitual actions in the present: Romanian lucrez means I work or I am working. In addition, the Romance present marks an action that will happen soon: Spanish mañana trabajo I am working / will work tomorrow. All Romance languages inherit the Latin present tense for this purpose, which is built from a verb stem, a thematic vowel and present-tense endings: Latin *fabul-a-s, Old Spanish fablas you speak. The six present endings for each verb correspond to the six person-number combinations.

In Central and Eastern Romance, including Occitan, Catalan, French, Italian, Romanian and Romansh, some –ire verbs take an augment between the verb stem and the ending: Italian finire to finish has forms like finisco I finish and finiscono they finish rather than *fino and *finono. A number of common -ir verbs do not take the augment in these languages: Italian dorme (dormire), Romanian doarme (dormi) for he sleeps (to sleep). Rhaeto-Romansh adds this augment to the present indicative of many -ar verbs as well: ins sperescha (sperar) for one hopes (to hope).

All languages have "irregular" verbs in the present, especially -ere, -ĕre and -ire verbs. These irregular present forms often preserve a Latin feature lost in the formation of regular verbs: Latin *venio I come becomes Portuguese venho, Italian vengo, Sardinian venzo rather than the expected *veno.

Many languages have altered the pronunciation of stressed vowels o and e within the verb stem. This results in a set of stem-changing verbs, in which the singular and third-person plural stems have one vowel (often a diphthong), but first plural and second plural stems have a different vowel: Spanish pierdes you lose versus perdemos we lose and perder to lose, or Italian vuole he wants versus volete all of you want and the infinitive volere. Verbs with similar stem changes in Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan, French and Italian include *morire to die and *potere to be able. Such radical-changing verbs are particularly prevalent in Ibero-Romance.

The tables section includes a comparison of verbs in the present tense in many Romance languages.

Simple Past (Preterit)

The Latin verb can also take a set of endings for single events that were completed in the past. In Classical Latin, this historic past is constructed by adding a thematic vowel, -v- and the tense ending to the verb’s stem: am-a-v-i I loved, fin-i-v-imus we finished and so on. Vulgar Latin prefers shorter endings, which begin to resemble the past tense forms in the modern languages: Vulgar Latin *am-a-i I loved, *fin-i-mus we finished and the like.

*fabul-a-sti you spoke > Portuguese falaste, Asturian falasti, Old Spanish fablaste
*parabol-a-i I spoke > Catalan parlí, French parlai, Italian parlai
*parabol-a-runt they spoke > French parlèrent, Occitan parlèron, Italian parlarono

The preterit presents many irregular or unexpected forms, especially from -ĕre verbs. A number of Latin verbs have unique past stems, including some that insert -s- before the ending or change a vowel in the stem. These irregular verbs include basic vocabulary items.

Latin dic-s-i I said > Italian dissi, Portuguese disse, Romanian zisei
Latin inclu-s-i I included > Italian inclusi, French inclus, Romanian inclusei
Latin fec-i I did > Italian feci, Portuguese fiz, French fis
Latin fu-erunt they were > Italian furono, Spanish fueron, French furent, Romanian fură

In most of Central and Eastern Romance, this simple past is relegated to literary use: French je parlai I spoke appears in print but not in conversation, where j’ai parlé (literally I have spoken) is heard instead. French, Romansh, Standard Italian, Romanian (but not Aromanian) and Sardinian all limit themselves to this kind of helping verb construction (similar to English they have done) to talk about one-time events in the past.

The tables section compares verbs in the past tense across many Romance languages.

Ongoing Past (Imperfect)

Latin verb endings can also refer to a continuous or habitual past action. The Latin imperfect is formed with a verb stem, the thematic vowel, an imperfect marker -ba- and a series of endings similar to the present tense suffixes: *am-a-ba-s you used to love / were loving, *fin-i-ba-s you were finishing / used to finish. Although often called a tense, the imperfect differs from the simple past in its aspect: imperfect endings mark an ongoing action, while the preterit indicates a one-time event.

Vulgar Latin *cantabant in latinu they were singing in Latin > Italian cantavano in latino, Spanish cantaban en latín
Vulgar Latin *cantarunt in latinu they sang in Latin > Italian cantarono in latino, Spanish cantaron en latín

Many languages preserve the lengthy Latin imperfect quite faithfully, often changing -b- to -v-: Italian amava, Portuguese amava, Asturian amaba mean (s)he used to love. Some languages do away with the middle -b- entirely: Romanian credea, Medieval Italian credea versus Modern Italian credeva for he used to believe.

Languages without medial -b- typically have a sequence of vowels beginning in -i- or -ai-: Sardinian tue amaias (amare), French tu aimais (aimer) for you were loving (to love). Iberian languages (including Catalan and Occitan) cut both ways, keeping -b- in -ar verbs but dropping it in -er and -ir verbs: Vulgar Latin *fabl-a-b-amus alongside Portuguese falávamos we used to speak, but *part-i-b-amus versus Portuguese partíamos we used to depart.

=*tenebat he was holding > Italian teneva, Romansh teneva, Romanian ținea, Sardinian tenìat, French il tenait, Spanish tenía
*teneba I was holding > Italian tenevo, Romansh teneva, Romanian țineam, Sardinian tenìo, French je tenais, Spanish tenía

Imperfect verbs are often used alongside simple past tense verbs. In particular, the imperfect can be used to narrate background events which are interrupted by simple past actions: Italian ascoltava musica quando telefonai, Portuguese escutava música quando telefonei he was listening (imperfect) to music when I called (simple past).

Unlike the Romance preterit, the imperfect is relatively free of irregularities. The Romance verb tables compare verbs in the imperfect across many languages at once.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos in Lisbon, Portugal

The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (“Monument of the Discoveries”) in Lisbon. The Portuguese verb explorar has preterit forms like exploraram (“they explored”) and imperfect forms like exploravam (“they used to explore”).

Future

Many Romance languages use a set of verb endings to mark that an action will take place in the future. Latin originally formed the future tense by adding a thematic vowel, -b- and a series of endings to the verb stem: am-a-b-o I will love, am-a-b-is you will love (amare to love). This way of marking the future does not survive in the modern languages.

In Standard Italian and Western Romance languages, the future tense is built upon the infinitive. Vulgar Latin speakers placed forms of the verb *abere to have after the infinitive, and these eventually turned into verb endings. Vulgar Latin *fabulare a(be)s (literally to speak you have) becomes Old Spanish fablarás you will speak, *abere abio I have to have turns into Italian avrò I will have, and *parabolare abetis you all have to speak produces Occitan parlaretz all of you will speak. The derivation is still clearly seen in Portuguese when the infinitive and *abere are split by an object pronoun: *fablare te abemus (literally to speak to you we have) falar-te-emos we will speak to you.

Future tense endings are limited to Western Romance. Romanian, Romansh, Sardinian, and Southern Italian do not share this feature. Romanian speakers may introduce a present subjunctive verb with o să to express the future: o să mergi you will go. Sardinian builds constructions out of Latin *abere ad to have to or *debere ought alongside an infinitive: Sardinian des faeddare or as a faeddare for you will speak. Romansh often uses the construction vegnir ad to come to with an infinitive for future actions: el vegn ad esser he will be.

Romance speakers also have ways of referring to the near future. These include the present tense endings as well as constructions with helping verbs like to go: Italian parliamo domani we’ll speak tomorrow (literally we speak tomorrow), vado a parlare I’m going to speak (literally I go to speak).

The verb tables list verbs in the future tense in many Romance languages at once.

Non-finite forms

All Romance languages have some verb forms that do not indicate person and number. Three common forms are the infinitive (like English to do), the past participle (like done) and the gerund (like doing).

All Romance languages have infinitives. As discussed previously, languages inherit the thematic vowel system of Latin. This system gives modern languages three or four verb classes differentiated by a recurring vowel a, e or i after the verb stem. The infinitive ending -r(e) is added to the stem and thematic vowel: *fabul-a-re, Old Spanish fablar, Portuguese falar for to speak, but *pot-e-re, Italian potere, Spanish poder for to be able.

Some Romance languages have inflected infinitives or personal infinitives, which actually do carry information about the person and number of the subject: Portuguese para falarmos, Sardinian pro faeddaremus for us to speak. Such infinitives in languages like Galician, Portuguese, Sardinian, Old Leonese and Old Neapolitan have often been a topic of scholarly research.

The past participle forms a completed adjective out of the verb. The Vulgar Latin masculine forms are *-atu, *-etu, *-utu and *-itu depending on the verb’s thematic vowel: *amatu, Galician amado, Italian amato for loved (*amare to love), but *servitu, Italian servito, Galician servido for served (*servire to serve). Many languages have worn away the characteristic -t- within the past participle, at least in the masculine: Romansh amà, French aimé, Andalusian & Caribbean Spanish amao loved (masculine) versus Romansh amada, French aimée, Andalusian & Caribbean Spanish amá loved (feminine).

These past participles can act as adjectives to describe nouns, but they also play a key role in perfect and passive constructions in all languages: Romanian avem vorbit we spoke / have spoken, French il a chanté he sang / has sung, Spanish fue escrito it was written.

The present participle *-nte forms an ongoing adjective from a verb. All languages have words derived from this Latin participle, but only some use it productively to create new adjectives: Italian un’idea interessante (interessare) an interesting idea (to interest), vocabolario parlante (parlare) speaking/conversational vocabulary (to speak).

The Vulgar Latin gerund is built with the thematic vowel plus an ending *-ndu: *fablandu, Portuguese falando for speaking, or *credendu, Italian credendo for believing. This verb form may introduce an ongoing or surrounding action: Italian parlando latino, il gruppo domanda... speaking Latin, the group asks... The present participle has fallen into disuse in some languages (like Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian), and in others the gerund and present participle have become identical (as in French and Catalan). The Italian and Iberian gerund is used with a helping verb in a progressive construction much like English she is doing: Italian Maria sta parlando latino Mary is [in the process of] speaking Latin, but French never has *Marie est parlant latin.

The Romance verb tables include examples of non-finite verbs in many Romance languages.

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