More precisely, apart from modal verbs, is "wissen" the only non-modal verb that uses the same form for the 1st and 3rd person singular in Präsens? I can't think of any other verb that does this and I couldn't find any info online. If this were the case, it would be kind of curious I think.

  • Wissen is sometimes considered a modal verb. See e.g. canoo.net/services/OnlineGrammar/InflectionRules/FRegeln-V/…
    – Janka
    Jul 5, 2019 at 20:10
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    Wikipedia : Auch das Verb wissen weist diese Besonderheit auf (ich weiß – er weiß), zählt aber nicht zu den Modalverben. Nach ihrer Bildungsart werden wissen und die Modalverben (außer wollen) unter der Bezeichnung Präteritopräsentia zusammengefasst.
    – TaW
    Jul 6, 2019 at 11:17
  • Oh, so "wollen" doesn't belong to preterito-present verbs apparently, interesting...
    – Tommaso F.
    Jul 7, 2019 at 13:58

1 Answer 1


I suppose you wouldn't be satisfied with a simple "yes", so a bit of context: I'm not sure how much you have thought about the conjugation of wissen (and of the modal verbs dürfen, müssen, etc.), so you might have already observed that their present indicative is formed like the strong verb preterite. Compare:

  • sang, sangst, sang - sangen, sangt, sangen
  • weiß, weißt, weiß - wissen, wisst, wissen

This is no coincidence. The behaviour is known as "preterito-present". In a nutshell, some Indo-Germanic perfect forms were - very early on - re-interpreted as present forms as their meaning changed and/or as they were fit into a new, evolving temporal system. For instance, wiȥȥen - generally assumed to be the oldest preterito-present there is - used to mean something like "having observed" (which points to a past action), but then increasingly assumed the meaning "know" (which points to the resulting, present state). So, essentially, the perfect forms continued to be used but they were now, in fact, present tense forms. (Not all of the other preterito-present verbs had such a change in meaning, but all of them shared that (past) action vs. (present) result ambiguity.)

For reasons that would go way beyond the scope of this reply, the (morphological) status as a preterito-present verb, beginning in Old High German, increasingly coincided with the (semanto-syntactic) property of being a modal verb, to an extent that at some point, the preterito-present full verbs lost their preterito-present property - wissen happens to be the only one that survived. And that is how we ended up with the status quo.

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    English also has Preterite-present verbs, exactly like German, cf. he/she can/will/must/shall/may. They are all modal verbs, though.
    – mach
    Jul 6, 2019 at 6:33
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    Thank you, that was very exhaustive and interesting. I'm surprised that in the few grammar books I've had this is not stressed that much. I just remember one day I noticed something strange about wissen, but I supposed that there were other non-modal verbs behaving the same way. After a while I didn't find any, so... here I am with this question!
    – Tommaso F.
    Jul 6, 2019 at 10:25
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    So "dürfen" = "having been granted permission to", "wollen" = "having decided to", etc.? " Jul 6, 2019 at 14:05
  • @mach not all of them are modals. English has also an archaic verb to wit, which is a direct cognate with wissen. It is also considered to be a Preterite-present verb and it has also an irregular to wit, but I wot, he wot, yet you wit
    – hvertous
    Jun 2, 2023 at 19:22
  • @mach to add more context, I first met this verb used in a novel of Arthur Conan Doyle "Sir Nigel", where the author tries to imitate archaic speech. So here you have it
    – hvertous
    Jun 2, 2023 at 19:24

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