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Today I realised for the first time that in the KJV Bible both thou wast and thou wert are used, and I was intrigued by the need to have two forms for the same person and number of the past tense simple in a language which generally has so few verb inflections.

While looking it up I found the confusing statement:

As verbs the difference between wast and wert is that wast is (archaic) second-person singular simple past tense indicative of be while wert is (archaic) second-person singular simple past tense of be (used with the pronoun "thou"). (Wikidiff)

It's even hilarious: A is different from B, because A = C while (!) B = C.

Leaving jokes aside, I also found this little reference on a site dedicated to Shakespeare:

wast - were - 2nd person singular, past tense - (RJ II.iv.74)

  • Thou wast never with me [Q wert]

wert - were - 2nd person singular, past tense - (2H4 III.ii.162)

  • I would thou wert a man’s tailor

Does anyone know what the real difference there is between the two? If there isn't any, then why two forms?

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1 Answer 1

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Wert is more likely to be subjunctive

In the King James Bible, as well as in some other texts, wert appears only in "subjunctive" contexts. Using the online KJV bible search engines at King James Bible Online and the University of Michigan Bible: King James Version -- Simple Searches shows that wert always occurs in a construction that licenses the subjunctive mood such as an if clause.

However, there is not always a difference: wert can also be found as an indicative form. Be in its history shows a multitude of forms that aren’t all strictly used for separate functions.

The forms wast and wert are both exceptions to the general pattern for the occurrence of the second-person singular suffix -st, which usually occurred only in the indicative mood of the present tense (for all verbs), and in the indicative mood of the past tense (for weak verbs: verbs with a dental suffix in the past tense). The subjunctive mood is regularly formed without -st in the second person singular, just as it is formed without -s or -th in the third person singular.

Therefore, the expected second-person singular past subjunctive form of be is thou were; and because were is not a weak verb, the Old English second-person singular past indicative did not have -st either.

The forms wast and wert come from irregular addition of the -(s)t suffix after the Old English period.

The Oxford English Dictionary says

As is usual for strong verbs, the 2nd singular past indicative in Old English has the same form as the singular past subjunctive (wǣre , Anglian wēre ; compare Old Saxon 2nd singular past indicative wāri ). By late Middle English, the form has become identical with the plural past indicative and subjunctive as well, except in varieties where there is levelling from the 3rd singular to the 2nd singular past indicative (chiefly in the north and the north midlands). Attempts to mark the form more clearly by attaching distinctive 2nd singular endings (either –st , the ending of the present indicative and the (weak) past indicative of regular verbs, or –t , the ending of preterite-present verbs (e.g. shalt ) and of present indicative art ) result (respectively) in Middle English wast , early modern English werst , and Middle English wert , all of which are continued in English regional varieties. Due to the general obsolescence of the distinctly marked 2nd singular in standard English, no canonical form for the category was established, with both wast and wert surviving in archaic and poetic use.

The form wert showed overlap both with indicative wast and with subjunctive were (and similarly, in the present, the form beest showed overlap with both indicative art and subjunctive be).

Goold Brown's "Grammar of English Grammars" from 1882, provides the following observations about the usage of wert, noting that some grammarians prescribed it as a subjunctive form in opposition to indicative wast, but that usage did not necessarily conform to that prescription:

(page 375):

OBS. 2.--Respecting the verb wert, it is not easy to determine whether it is most properly of the indicative mood only, or of the subjunctive mood only, or of both, or of neither. The regular and analogical form for the indicative, is "Thou wast;" and for the subjunctive, "If thou were." Brightland exhibits, "I was or were, Thou wast or wert, He was or were," without distinction of mood, for the three persons singular; and, for the plural, were only. Dr. Johnson gives us, for the indicative, "Thou wast, or wert;" with the remark, "Wert is properly of the conjunctive mood, and ought not to be used in the indicative."--Johnson's Gram., p. 8. In his conjunctive (or subjunctive) mood, he has, "Thou beest," and "Thou wert." So Milton wrote, "If thou beest he."--P. Lost, B. i, l. 84. Likewise Shakspeare: "If thou beest Stephano."--Tempest. This inflection of be is obsolete: all now say, "If thou be." But wert is still in use, to some extent, for both moods; being generally placed by the grammarians in the subjunctive only, but much oftener written for the indicative: as, "Whate'er thou art or wert."--Byron's Harold, Canto iv, st. 115. "O thou that wert so happy!"--Ib., st. 109. "Vainly wert thou wed."--Ib., st. 169.

OBS. 3.--Dr. Lowth gave to this verb, BE, that form of the subjunctive mood, which it now has in most of our grammars; appending to it the following examples and questions: "'Before the sun, Before the Heavens, thou wert.'--Milton. 'Remember what thou wert.'--Dryden. 'I knew thou wert not slow to hear.'--Addison. 'Thou who of old wert sent to Israel's court.'--Prior. 'All this thou wert.'--Pope. 'Thou, Stella, wert no longer young.'--Swift. Shall we, in deference to these great authorities," asks the Doctor, "allow wert to be the same with wast, and common to the indicative and [the] subjunctive mood? or rather abide by the practice of our best ancient writers; the propriety of the language, which requires, as far as may be, distinct forms, for different moods; and the analogy of formation in each mood; I was, thou wast; I were, thou wert? all which conspire to make wert peculiar to the subjunctive mood."--Lowth's Gram., p. 37; Churchill's, p. 251. I have before shown, that several of the "best ancient writers" did not inflect the verb were, but wrote "thou were;" and, surely, "the analogy of formation," requires that the subjunctive be not inflected. Hence "the propriety which requires distinct forms," requires not wert, in either mood. Why then should we make this contraction of the old indicative form werest, a solitary exception, by fixing it in the subjunctive only, and that in opposition to the best authorities that ever used it? It is worthier to take rank with its kindred beest, and be called an archaism.

OBS. 4.--The chief characteristical difference between the indicative and the subjunctive mood, is, that in the latter the verb is not inflected at all, in the different persons: IND. "Thou magnifiest his work." SUBJ. "Remember that thou magnify his work."--Job, xxxvi, 24. IND. "He cuts off, shuts up, and gathers together." SUBJ. "If he cut off, and shut up, or gather together, then who can hinder him?"--Job, xl, 10. There is also a difference of meaning. The Indicative, "If he was," admits the fact; the Subjunctive, "If he were," supposes that he was not. These moods may therefore be distinguished by the sense, even when their forms are alike: as, "Though it thundered, it did not rain."--"Though it thundered, he would not hear it." The indicative assumption here is, "Though it did thunder," or, "Though there was thunder;" the subjunctive, "Though it should thunder," or, "Though there were thunder." These senses are clearly different. Writers however are continually confounding these moods; some in one way, some in an other. [...]

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    Because thou wast and later thou wert both saw use as past indicative, while thou were and later thou wert both saw use for past subjunctive, we can be sure in this particular pair of cases exactly which of those two moods that Shakespeare happened to be using here. That makes it much easier: [...]
    – tchrist
    Jul 6, 2021 at 23:15
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    When Romeo uses wast twice in Thou wast never with me for anything when thou wast not there for the goose, we can be certain that that was a past indicative use because (1) wast was never used for subjunctive, and (2) this is in a clausal context that always took indicative. But when Falstaff says I would thou wert a man's tailor, that thou mightst mend him and make him fit to go, he is using wert in a clause governed by would (modern wish) and so we can be sure that he would have used a past subjunctive there.
    – tchrist
    Jul 6, 2021 at 23:16
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    Citing Lowth is a giveaway. It was almost certainly a dialectal variant (there were hundreds) that got caught up and used because it "sounded right" to some folks, while other words sounded right to others. The result was the mix of dialects and spelings we laughingly call "Middle English". There never was a standard, certainly never for spelling, and that's all we've got because ME was pre-printing. Jul 7, 2021 at 18:40
  • I'm glad you dug in and improved this answer. I learned a lot here. Jul 9, 2021 at 13:32

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