I'd like to know whether any deep reason exists why conjugations for ich and er,sie,es are the same.

  • Excellent question. The keyword is preterite-presents.
    – Chris
    Oct 7, 2014 at 19:02
  • @Chris Just understood that the same thing is in English=) Oct 7, 2014 at 19:08

1 Answer 1


Most of the modal verbs are so-called preterite-presents (Präteritopräsentien). A demonstrative example is the German verb wissen (though commonly not counted as modal). "Regular" verbs have an -e ending in the first person singular present and a -t ending in the third person singular present.

ich gehe, er geht.

However, the verb wissen has

ich weiß, er weiß

without the expected endings. The reason for this is that once the current present forms of wissen were past forms. You might know that in past tense of strong verbs, the first person und third person singular have no endings; e.g. in

ich ging, er ging.

So the current present tense of the preterite-presents were past tense forms in Indo-European or early Germanic times.
Coming back to the verb wissen, we can notice that this German verb is related to the latin verb videre, to see. So ich weiß once had the meaning of ich sah/habe gesehen. If you have seen something, then you know it. So it was possible for the past tense form to gain a present tense meaning.
Most of the other modal verbs have a similar history with a tense shift.

Additionally, you might notice that the modal verbs of the English language take no -s in the present tense third person singular (he can, not he cans). The reason for this is the same: These present tense forms once were past tense forms.

I have simplified things here: I have treated current forms like ich weiß as if they were the forms as found in older stages of languages. That's of course not true, but there have been several sound changes. However, these sound changes were regular so that the first person and third person forms evolved parallelly to yield ich weiß and er weiß.

  • that's awesome. Thanks! If only grammar books for mere mortals were of such kind... Oct 7, 2014 at 19:23
  • This is awesome, indeed. Where did you learn this?
    – user6191
    Oct 7, 2014 at 19:44
  • @Grantwalzer: Preterite-presents are/should be treated in every major book of historical linguistics of German or English (or Indo-European languages in general).
    – Chris
    Oct 7, 2014 at 19:49
  • @Grantwalzer: It is on Wikipedia, and one just has to remember a beautiful word like Präteritopräsentia.
    – Veredomon
    Oct 7, 2014 at 20:46
  • @Veredomon Your comment makes "Präteritopräsentia/en" appear like an everyday, easy-to-remember word, which it isn't. And that it's on Wikipedia doesn't answer my question in any way.
    – user6191
    Oct 7, 2014 at 23:52

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