Студопедия — Old English Grammar
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Old English Grammar


Old English was a synthetic, or inflected type of language; it showed the relations between words and expressed other grammatical meanings mainly with the help of simple (synthetic) grammatical forms. In building grammatical forms OE employed grammatical endings, sound interchanges in the root, grammatical prefixes, and suppletive formation.

Grammatical endings, or inflections, were certainly the principal form-building means used: they were found in all the parts of speech that could change their form; they were usually used alone but could also occur in combination with other means.

Sound interchanges were employed on a more limited scale and were often combined with other form-building means, especially endings. Vowel interchanges were more common than interchanges of consonants.

The use of prefixes in grammatical forms was rare and was confined to verbs. Suppletive forms were restricted to several ptonouns, a few adjectives and a couple of verbs.

The parts of speech to be distinguished in OE are as follows: the noun, the adjective, the pronoun, the numeral (all referred to as nominal parts of speech), the verb, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection. Inflected parts of speech possessed certain grammatical categories displayed in formal and semantic correlations and oppositions of grammatical forms. Grammatical categories are usually subdivided into nominal categories, found in nominal parts of speech and verbal categories found chiefly in the finite verb.

We shall assume that there were five nominal grammatical categories in OE: number, case, gender, degrees of comparison, and the category of definiteness/indefiniteness. Each part of speech had its own peculiarities in the inventory of categories and the number of members within the category (categorial forms). The noun had only three grammatical categories: number, case and gender. The adjective had the maximum number of categories - five. The number of members in the same grammatical categories in different parts of speech did not necessarily coincide: thus the noun had four cases, Nominative, Genitive, Dative, and Accusative, whereas the adjective had five (the same four cases plus the Instrumental case). The personal pronouns of the 1st and 2nd person, unlike other psrts of speech, distinguished three numbers - singular, Plural and Dual.

sing. OE ic (NE I), dual wit ‘we two’, pl. we (NE we)

Verbal grammatical categories were not numerous: tense and mood - verbal categories proper - and number and person, showing agreement between the verb-predicate and the subject of the sentence.

The distiction of categorial forms by the noun and the verb was to a large extent determined by their division into morphological classes: declensions and conjugations.


It is the opinion of many scholars that the grammatical structure of the Old Germanic languages was, but for a few exceptions, similar to that of other Old Indo-European languages. They shared similar systems of the parts of speech, similar categories of the noun, the verb, etc.

The structure of the word is supposed to have been the same in all the Indo-European languages. Between the root and the ending, there were usually stem-building suffixes. For instance, the Gothic word sunus (E. son) consisted of three parts, the root sun-, the stem-buiding suffix -u-, and the ending of the nominative singular -s. Thus the stem of the word, sunu-, ended in the sound [u], and it is customary to speak in such cases of an u-stem. There were likewise o-stems, a-stems, n-stems, etc. The paradigm of a word, that is the system of its endings, often depended on its stem-building suffix. The number of stems containing no stem-building suffixes, so that the endings were added directly to the root (root-stems), was comparatively small.

Later on this clear-cut structure of the word was blurred, especially in the Germanic languages. The endings were often fused with the preceding suffixes, or they were lost altogether. For instance, the Russian word сын or the English son have preserved neither the ending of the nominative singular, nor the stem-building suffix. In the OE sunu ‘son’ the last ‘u’ was no longer felt as the stem-building suffix, but rather as an ending. Still, liguists have found it convenient to speak of the u-stem declension, o-stem declension, etc. even after the loss of the corresponding sounds.

Besides the features the Germanic languages shared with other members of the Indo-European family, they had certain peculiarities that marked them off as a separate branch. We shall dwell here only on the following two major features:

1. A special ‘weak’ conjugation of verbs,
2. A special ‘weak’ declension of adjectives.

1. The Modern English verbs write and want differ in the way they form the past tense. The former changes its root vowel (write - wrote), which is called ablaut in German and gradation in English. The latter adds a suffix (want-wanted). The ablaut verbs were called strong by Jacob Grimm, the others weak. Strong verbs, though typical of the Germanic languages, can be found in other branches as well. Cf. R. несу[нису] - нес[нес], Gr. leipo ‘I leave’ - leloipa ‘I have left’. But weak verbs, forming the past tense by adding dental suffix (i.e. a suffix containing the sounds [d] or [t]), are found nowhere else.

Naturally, linguists are interested in the origin of the dental suffix, the most essential feature of these verbs. So far opinions differ. One point of view is that the dental suffix is an outgrowth of the verb to do which seems to have been used as an auxiliary verb of the past tense (something like work did for worked). In the course of time this enclictic did is supposed to have debeloped into the past tense suffix -ed. Later the suffix is said to have spread to the past participle as well.

Another hypothesis is that the dental suffix first developed in the past participle. It might well happen, seeing that there are dental consonants in the participle suffixes of many Indo-European languages. Cf. R. разбит(ый), одет(ый), L. dictus ‘said’, lectus ‘read’, etc. According to this theory the dental suffix of the past tense is a later development on the analogy of the past participle.

2) A special ‘weak’ declension of adjectives will be discussed later on.

Old English nouns possessed the categories of number, case and gender. There were two numbers (singular and plural), four cases (nominative, genitive, dative and accusative) and three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter).

3.1. The expression of relationships: inflexions or element order and prepositions?

George Bernard Shaw based his play Androcles and the Lion on the story of the runaway slave who had the good fortune to encounter as his opponent in the Roman arena the very lion from whose paw he had removed a thorn while he was at liberty. The lion recognized him and embraced him in-stead of tearing him to pieces. Readers of today’s newspapers will not find it difficult to imagine the headline LIONESS KISSES MAN over the story and to interpret it as meaning “The lioness kissed the man”. The sentence can be described in different ways:…..
If we now write MAN KISSES LIONESS (“The man kissed the lioness”), the order is still SVO but the meaning has changed because the man is now the subject and the lioness the object. This change demonstrates the vital role played in MnE by what is called word-order or element order.

The Anglo-Saxon predecessor of the hypothetical newspaper man who produced the headline LIONESS KISSES MAN could have written

GUMAN LEO CYSSE with the orders SVO, OVS and OSV respectively, because in Old English many nouns change their subject or nominative form to an accusative form when they are used as direct object.

Thus MAN KISSES LIONESS could have appeared as

3.2. Types of declension

OE possessed several types of declension. They are usually denoted in grammar books by the last sound the stem-building suffix of the corresponding nouns is thought to have possessed in the common Indo-European language or its dialects. Hence such names as o-declension, a-declension, n-declension, etc. And although OE wulf (E. wolf) no longer contain any stem-building suffix, it is said to belong historically to the o-stem declension, as well as Latin lupus or Greek lukos.

It has become traditional to call the declensions of stems ending in a vowel - strong (o-, a-, i-, u-declensions), of n-stems - weak, and to designate all other declensions as minor (r-, nt-, s-, root-declensions).

We give here only the most common paradigms which have left certain traces in Modern English.

3.2.1. The o -stem declension.

It comprised very many OE nouns of the masculine and neuter genders and played the most important role in the history of English noun inflections.

Here is the paradigm of the OE nouns hund ‘dog’ (E. hound) and stan (E. stone), both masculine.

  Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. hund hundas stan stanas
Gen. hundes hunda stanes stana
Dat. hunde hundum stane stanum
Acc. hund hunas stan stanas

The ending -es of the Gen.Sing. has eventually developed into Modern English ‘s of the possessive case, and the ending -as of the Nom. and Acc.Pl. into the plural ending -(e)s of Modern English. Thus the two productive endings of Modern English nouns go down to the paradigm of the Old English masculine o-stems.

The neuter o-stems differed onlu in Nom. and Acc. Pl. where the usual ending was -u instead of -as. That unstressed -u ending regularly disappeared and the form of the plural became identical with that of the singular.

  Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. scip scipu word word
Gen. scipes scipa wordes worda
Dat. scipe scipum worde wordum
Acc. scip scipu word word

3.2.2. The n -stem declension.

The weak n -declension comprised many masculine and feminine nouns, but only two nouns of the neuter gender - OE eage (E. eye) and OE eare (E. ear).

Here is the paradigm of the OE oxa (E. ox) and nama (E. name), both masculine.

  Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nom. oxa oxan nama naman
Gen. oxan oxena naman namena
Dat. oxan oxum naman namum
Acc. oxan oxan naman naman

The ending -an was originally the stem-building suffix. Compare ox- en -a with the Russian им- ен -а, им- ен; сем- ен -а, сем- ян.

The Modern English plural ending -en in oxen is derived from OE -an in oxan of Nom. and Acc. Plural. The ending -an (ME -en) was later extended to some nouns of other declensions, e.g. children, brethren.

3.2.3. Root-stems.

The peculiarity of the root-stems was that they contained no stem-building suffixes, the endings being simply added to the root. In OE there existed a few masculine and feminine nouns of that type.

Here is the paradigm of the OE noun fot (E. foot).

  Singular Plural
Nom. fot fet
Gen. fotes fota
Dat. fet fotum
Acc. fot fet

It differs from the paradigm of the o-stems only in the Dat.Sing. and Nom. and Acc. Plural, where we find a different root vowel. The change [o>e] took place under the influence of the sound [i] (see ‘Palatal Mutation’) that had once been in the endings of those cases (Dat.Sing. fet < *foti and Nom., Acc. Pl. fet < Germ. *fotis). When the endings were later lost, the only difference between the singular and plural was the root vowel, and this difference has been retained in Modern English.

3.2.4. The s -stem declensions

This minor declension is of interest to us chiefly in connection with the form children.

In Russian there are a few s-stem nouns: небо - неб-ес-а, чудо - чуд-ес-а. IE [s] > Germ. [z] (Verner’s law). In West-Germanic [z] > [r] (rhotacism). Thus an IE s-stem became an r-stem in OE. Nouns of this declension were neuter and formed the plural in the following way:

lamb(root) + -r-(stem-building suffix) + -u(the ending of Nom. Plur.)

The noun child followed the same rule. Later it has acquired an additional plural ending -n by analogy with the n-stems. Hence children.

3.2.5. The r -stems.

In OE a few masculine and feminine nouns of relationship belonged to this type: fa der(E.father), bropor(E. brother), modor (E. mother), dohtor (E. daughter), sweostor (E. sister). These are probably the only Indo-European stems that have been preserved in Modern English.

As the endings of the o-stems were later extended to these nouns, there is no point in discussing their paradigms.


It is expedient to treat the OE personal proboubs of the first and second persons separatel because of their peculiarities.

1) They were the only words in OE whichdistinguished three numbers: singular, dual and plural.

2) Unlike the pronouns of the 3rd person they had no gender distictions.

3) Their paradigm contained more suppletive forms than other pronouns.


In Modern English adjectives are indeclinable, but in Old English as well as in other Germanic languages almost every adjective could be declined in two different ways, and this is how it must have come about.

Originally the Indo-European adjective seems not to have differed from the noun in its paradigm. This is corroborated by facts like the Russian добр молодец, добра молодца, добру молодцу, or the Latin amicus bonus, amicis bonis, etc. But later the declension of adjectives was in most cases separated from that of nouns, acquiring some pronominal inflections. In Russian, for instance, the declension of full adjectives is now almost entirely pronominal.

Cf. того красного стола, тому красному столу, etc.

Likewise, the paradigms of Germanic adjectives contained many pronominal endings. This pronominal declension is usually called strong. But apart from it there developed a new declension called weak or nominal and connected with the n-stems.

In Modern Russian there have remained some 10 n-stem nouns: племя - плем-ен-и, знамя - знам-ен-и, etc. In other Indo-European languages, particularly in the Germanic languages, that class of nouns was much more numerous. Many of them were derived from adjectives and denoted persons or things possessing the qualities indicated by the corresponding adjectives. Thus, the Latin proper name Cato (g. Catonis) meaning ‘the sly one’, was derived from the adjective catus ‘sly’, the Greek name Platon ‘the flat one’ from the adjective platys ‘flat’, etc. Their declension was therefore identical with the declension of n-stem nouns. Later, by analogy, this declension spread to almost all adjectives, so that each could be declined either according to the weak or according to the strong declension. The choice depended on the presence or absence of a demonstrative or possessive pronoun or a similar defining word before the adjective. This usage has been well preserved in Modern German. Cf. diese guten Manner ‘these good men’, where after the demonstrative diese the adjective has the -n suffix of the weak declension, and gute Manner ‘good men’, where, without the demonstrative, the adjective is strong. Owing to its connection with defining words, the weak declension is also called definite as opposed to the indefinite strong declension.

The terms ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ are also applied to adjectives. Which form of the adjective is used depends not on the type of noun with which it is used, but on how it is used.

The strong form is used when the adjective stands alone, e.g. ‘The man is old’ se mann is eald, or just with a noun, e.g. ‘old man’ ealde menn.

The weak form appears when the adjective follows a demonstrative, e.g. ‘that old man’ se ealda mann, or a possessive adjective, e.g. ‘m old friend’ min ealda freond. You can remember that the strong forms stand alone, while the weak forms need the support of a demonstrative or possessive pronoun.

Weak declension (with demonstrative or possessive pronoun)

  Singular     Plural
  Masc. Neut. Fem. All genders
Nom. tila tile tile tilan
Gen. tilan tilan tilan tilra, -ena
Dat. tilan tilan tilan tilum
Acc. tilan tile tilan tilum

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