The a-verbs are a class of verbs whose stem combines a biconsonantal root (like √TAN) with a suffixal -a: tana-. These verbs often (but not always) have an inherently “continuous” aspect, like ala- “grow” or fara- “hunt”. This class of verbs has less need to distinguish an instant action (“I hit him”) from an ongoing action (“I am hitting him”), and thus the a-verbs did not have distinct aorist and present tenses in Common Eldarin, using the present suffix -ā for both. As Tolkien described them in the Quenya Verbal System (QVS) of the 1940s:
-ā verbs. Several verbs with an inherently continuative sense, such as gal- “grow,” spar “hunt, pursue”; skor “look out for, expect, wait for,” did not anciently form true aorists but were inflected from an infinitive base golā, sparā, skorā etc. Hence Q ola- “grow” [with side note: cf. ol-, oli- regular = “become”]; fara- “hunt”; hora “wait for”; mena “be making for, on way to” (PE22/113).
Tolkien described this class of verbs again in Common Eldarin: Verb Structure from the 1950s:
The vowel ā, originally accented, which indicated “duration” of the action or process. It thus became the tense-vowel of the “continuous presents” of verbs not inherently durative: as in mātā́ “is eating”. But it also frequently appeared as an addition to the base of verbs of inherently durative or static sense: as galā “grows”, mela “loves”. The latter is probably its older function before the elaboration of a tense-system. Verbs of this type, or that preserved this formation (by no means all verbs of static or durative sense show ā in the later languages) could not form a distinct “continuous present” — except by analytical devices arising later.
The same is the case with some English verbs like “know, love” which have only one form for aorist and present: as “I know now, all wise men know”, contrasted with “the sun is rising now, the sun rises every morning”.
Examples of ā-verbs that probably go back to Eldarin. galā “grow (of plants)”; pharā, sparā “hunt, pursue”; skorā “look out for, watch for, await”; olā “become, come into being, turn into (another state)”; melā “love”; ndilā “love, be devoted to” (PE22/134).
In “modern” Quenya, however, these verbs might use aorist vs. present forms to distinguish habitual activity (aorist) from current activity (present): “I hunt (usually) in the forest, but today I am hunting in the mountains”: faran (senyave) i tauresse, mal síra fárean i orontissen. This present tense suffix -ea was borrowed from weak verbs (PE22/164). Tolkien mentioned this adoption of present forms in QVS, using an earlier suffix (-lya) for the continuative present or “long imperfect” tense:
Since it was sometimes desirable to distinguish be[tween] “I hunt” (habitual) and “I am (on this occasion engaged in) hunting”, the latter could be expressed by faralya, the “long imperfect”. Thus Orome tauresse fara: “Orome hunts in forests”, general statement; Sinar Orome i·tauresse faralye “today O. is hunting in the forest”. But some verbs make a strong present, so ōla- “is growing”: aldar olar sana nóresse “trees grow in that land”; but i·aldar hinna ólar “the tree is still growing” (PE22/116).
The normal a-verb conjugation in Late Notes on Verb Structure from 1969 (PE22/164) was given as:
- Stem: fara- “to hunt”.
- Aorist: fara “hunts”.
- Present: fárea “is hunting”.
- Past: farane “hunted”.
- Perfect: afárie “has hunted”.
- Future: faruva “will hunt”.
These notes also gave an alternate “strong” present form fára similar to the one from QVS described above, but immediately above these conjugations Tolkien wrote something to the effect of “make Q. ea as present tense invade other forms” (the exact words are hard to make out). Thus it seems likely these “strong presents” were archaic, replaced by the ea-present from other derived verbs. Tolkien also indicated the possibility of strong past forms for a-verbs derived directly form the root: fara → past farne, ala → past alde (< *alnē). But these likewise do not seem to be the norm, and weak pasts like farane appear much more frequently for a-verbs in the corpus.
The net result is that despite their independent origins, the a-verb conjugation became essentially the same as the weak conjugation, with the exception of the occasional (archaic?) strong present and past forms like fára and farne.
Conceptual Development: In the 1910s and 1920s, dictionary entries for basic verbs typically added the stem vowel at the end of stem: ᴱQ. pere- (QL/73), ᴱQ. liri- (QL/54), ᴱQ. lopo- (QL/56), ᴱQ. lutu- (QL/57). It would therefore be impossible to distinguish “a-verbs” from basic verbs whose base vowel is simply a, such as: ᴱQ. kala- “shine”. This makes it very unlikely that a-verbs were a special “durative” verb class in the earliest conceptual period, especially since the imperfect verb tense was not connected to the vowel a in Early Qenya.
The durative a-verbs were established by the mid-1930s, however. Tolkien mentioned them in Quendian & Common Eldarin Verbal Structure from 1936:
In addition many bases of simple √TAL form made verbs of a different sort, employing a fixed vocalic suffix (ū or ā̆) after the base, as √KEL: kelu “flow, well up”; √GAL: galā “grow”. These were usually intransitive (not always). The ā-type described states or actions necessarily occupying a (continuous) stretch of time, as Q ’alā- “grow”; ksarā “yearn, long for” (PE22/98).
This verb class was mentioned pretty regularly in documents after that point: in Quenya Verbal System from the 1940s (PE22/113, 116), Common Eldarin: Verb Structure from the 1950s (PE22/134) and Late Notes on Verb Structure from 1969 (PE22/151, 163).
Tolkien’s use of the term “a-verb” is not quite as straightforward as presented here, however. He sometimes used this term to describe formative and talat-stem verbs that used ă in their ancient aorist inflections (PE22/136). To completely follow Tolkien’s terminology we would need to distinguish ă-verbs (formative and talat-stem) from ā-verbs (durative verbs as described in this entry). However, since the formative and talat-stem verbs have already have their own terminology, I use the term a-verb for this class to better match the term u-verbs that are verbs derived from primitive roots + u.