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Old English Grammar.

  1. General survey of the Old English grammatical system.
  2. The noun: a) gender; b) case; c) number.
  3. The adjective: a) declension of adjectives; b) degrees of comparison.
  4. The pronoun, its types.
  5. The verbal system: a) general characteristics;

b) the finite forms of the verb;

c) non-finite forms of the verb;

d) morphological classification of verbs.

1. OE was a synthetic language. In building grammatical forms OE employed grammatical endings, sound interchanges in the root, grammatical prefixes and suppletive forms.

Grammatical endings were found in all the parts of speech that could change their form. Usually they were used alone but could also be found in combination with other form-building means. Sound interchanges were used on a more limited scale and often were combined with other form-building means, especially endings. Prefixes in form-building were rather rare and were a characteristic feature of the verb paradigm. Suppletive forms were restricted to several pronouns, a few adjectives and a couple of verbs.

The parts of speech in OE were the following: the noun, the adjective, the pronoun, the numeral (nominal parts of speech), the verb, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection.

Grammatical categories are usually subdivided into nominal categories, found in nominal parts of speech, and verbal categories, found chiefly in the finite verb. There were 5 nominal categories in OE: number, case, gender, degrees of comparison and the category of definiteness/indefiniteness.

The noun had three grammatical categories: number, gender and case. As for declensions they are regarded as a sort of morphological classification. The adjective had five categories: number, gender, case, degrees of comparison and declensions. The number of forms within one and the same grammatical category in different parts of speech did not coincide, e.g. the noun had 4 cases (Nominative, Genitive, Dative and Accusative) whereas the adjective had 5 cases (the same plus Instrumental); the personal pronouns of the 1st and 2nd person distinguished three numbers – singular, plural and dual.

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Besides, there were 3 kinds of declensions – noun, pronoun and adjective. They had the same grammatical categories, the main difference lay in the quantity of the categorical forms of number (3 number-forms in personal pronouns) and case (4 case-forms in nouns and 5 case-forms in personal pronouns and adjectives).

Verbal categories were: tense, mood (verbal categories proper) and number and person (showed agreement between the verb-predicate and the subject of the sentence).



2. The OE noun formed its paradigm by the opposition of three genders, two numbers and four cases. Thus, the noun had about twenty-four word-forms.

The most remarkable feature of OE nouns was their system of declensions, the general number of which exceeded twenty-five. The system of noun declensions was a sort of morphological classification based on a number of distinctions: the stem-suffix, the gender of nouns, the phonetic structure of the word, phonetic changes in the final syllables. According to the traditional view, there were two main declensions – strong and weak – differing in the final sound of the stem. The strong declension, or vowel declension, included nouns with vocalic stems (ending in [-a-, -o-, -u-, -i-:]) and the weak, or consonant, declension included nouns with [-n-], [-r-] and [-s-] stems. In rare cases the new form was constructed by adding the ending directly to the root (root-stem declension). There were also minor types.

The category of gender included three main forms: masculine, feminine and neuter. All nouns, no matter whether they denoted human being, inanimate things or abstract notions belonged to one of the three genders. There was no logical connection between the lexical meaning of the noun and its grammatical gender, e.g.


masculine: sunu (son), fæder (father), cyninʒ (king), hlāf (bread), stān (stone), hrōf (roof), fær (fear), nama (name),etc.;

feminine:mōdor (mother), dohter (daughter), cwēn (queen), tunge (tongue), meolc (milk), trywðu (truth), hunting (hunting), lufu (love), etc.;

neuter:hors (horse), mæʒden (maiden), ēaʒe (eye), scip (ship), mōd (mood), riht (right), etc.


The natural gender of the person might even contradict its grammatical gender (wifman– woman was declined as a masculine noun, some nouns denoting animals – as neuter: cicen – chicken, hors – horse).

The noun had 4 cases: Nominative, Genitive, Dative and Accusative.

The Nominative was the naming form of a substantive. Being independent of the other words in the sentence the noun in the Nominative case could be the subject of the sentence or the predicative.

The Genitive case expressed belonging, it was often used in combination with adjectives meaning "full (of something)", "worthy (of something)", "free (from something)", "guilty (of something)", etc. A noun in the Genitive case usually was an object, an attribute and sometimes an adverbial modifier in the sentence.

The Dative case expressed the object towards which the action was directed. It was often found in combination with verbs “say”, “send”, “give” and with the adjectives meaning “known”, “necessary”, “close”, “peculiar”. This case was often associated with prepositions. The OE Dative had absorbed an earlier Instrumental case, its syntactic function being that of an object or occasionally of an adverbial modifier.

The Accusative case expressed the subject immediately affected by the action. The Accusative was also associated with prepositions. The Accusative could also denote duration. In the sentence it could act as a direct object or an adverbial modifier.

The category of number consisted of two members, singular and plural.

In the prehistoric period of the development of the English language each case had an ending typical of its uninflected form. However, due to various phonetic and semantic changes different cases began to develop similar endings which resulted in the homonymity of case-forms in Old English. Formally there were 24 grammatical forms of the noun, but in fact only 9 endings were distinguished, the rest coincided. The existence of different endings of nouns grammatically alike and homonymous endings of nouns grammatically different testifies to a certain inadequacy of the morphological devices of the Old English noun. Evidently, the noun paradigm needed to be rearranged and to develop new means to denote the grammatical meanings formerly denoted morphologically.

3. The Old English adjective had the categories of number, gender and case. Adjectives had three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), two numbers (singular and plural) and five cases (Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative and Instrumental).

Table 5

Number Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Nom. ʒōd (good) ʒōd ʒōd
Gen. ʒōdes ʒōdre
Dat. ʒōdum ʒōdre
Acc. ʒōdne ʒōd ʒōde
Instr. ʒōde  
Plural Nom., Acc. ʒōde ʒōd ʒōda
Gen. ʒōdra
Dat. ʒōdum


The weak declension of adjectives had the same endings as the weak declension of substantives. The only difference was found in the genitive plural, where adjectives had –ra, e.g. ʒōdra.

The characteristic feature of the Old English adjectives is that most of them could be declined in two ways: according to the strong or weak declension. The formal differences between the declensions were similar to those of nouns. Most adjectives could be declined in both ways. The choice of the declension depended upon the syntactical function of the adjective, the degree of comparison and the presence of noun determiners. The adjective had a strong form when it was the predicative or the attribute without determiners. The weak form was used when the adjective was preceded by a demonstrative pronoun or the Genitive case of personal pronouns. Anyway, there were certain exceptions: some adjectives were always declined strong, while several others were always weak: adjectives in the superlative and the comparative degrees, ordinal numerals, the adjective ‘same’.

Degrees of comparison was the only grammatical category in adjectives to survive throughout the history of the language. In building the degrees of comparison suffixation was the most productive means. Both suffixation and the use of suppletive forms can be traced back to Common Germanic. The use of vowel interchange is a feature which is typical of the English language only and was acquired by the language in the prehistoric period of its development. Sometimes root vowel gradation is the result of palatal mutation.

Suppletive forms are also treated as irregular because they have no Comparative or Superlative of their own, these forms were borrowed from other roots. The Comparative and Superlative of such adjectives are considered to be defective because they have no Positive of their own.


Table 6

Degrees of comparison Means of form-building Positive Comparative Superlative NE
Suffixation heard soft wēriʒ heardra softra wēriʒra heardost softest wēriʒost brave soft weary
Suffixation and vowel interchange sceort stranʒ feor scyrtra strenʒra fyrra, fierre scyrtest strenʒest fyrrest, fierrest short strong far
Suppletion ʒōd yfel micel, mycel lytel betra wyrsa māra læssa betst wyrrest, wyrst mæst læst good wicked large little



4. In Old English pronouns fell under the same main classes as modern pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative and indefinite. Some linguists also distinguish possessive and relative pronouns, others say that possessive, relative and reflexive pronouns were not fully developed and were not always distinctly separated from the four main classes.

The system of declension of the pronoun was not the same for all the classes. It had at least two subsystems that should be singled out: the declension of personal pronouns on the one hand and the declension of all the other pronouns. The grammatical categories of the subsystems were the same (gender, number, case) but the number of forms composing those categories was different.

Old English personal pronouns like Old English nouns had three categories: number, gender, case. Three genders could be distinguished in the 3rd person singular: masculine, feminine and neuter. The rest of the forms were indifferent to gender.

The category of number differed from that of the noun as in the first and second person three categorical forms could be found: singular, dual and plural, e.g.:

Sg. Ic (I)Dual wit (two of us)Pl. we (we).

In Old English there were four cases in the personal pronoun paradigm: Nominative, Genintive, Dative and Accusative. The paradigm of Old English personal pronouns was built up by suppletive forms and the homonimity was not great. It could be found only in the Dative and Accusative cases. In Old English personal pronouns began to lose some of their distinctions: the forms of the Dative Case of the pronouns of the 1st and 2nd persons were frequently used instead of the Accusative. The Genitive case of personal pronouns had two main applications: it could be an object, but more frequently it was used as an attribute or a noun determiner.


Table 7

number сase singular dual plural
First person
Nominative Genitive Dative Accusative ic min mē mec, mē wit uncer unc unc wē ūser, ūre ūs ūsic, ūs
Second person
Nominative Genitive Dative Accusative Þū Þin Þē Þec, þē ʒit incer inc incit ʒē ēower ēow ēowic, ēow
Third person
singular plural
M F N All genders
Nominative Genitive Dative Accusative hē hēo, hīo hit his hire, hiere his him hire, hiere him hine hīe, hī, hỹ hit hīe, hī, hỹ, hēo hira, heora, hiera, hyra him, heom hīe, hī, hỹ, hēo


There were two demonstrative pronouns in Old English: the prototype of NE that which distinguished three genders in the singular and had one form for all the genders in the plural, and the prototype of this with the same subdivisions. They were declined like adjectives according to a five-case system. Demonstrative pronouns were often used as noun determiners and through the agreement with the noun, indicated its number, gender and case.

Interrogative pronouns – hwā, Masculine and Feminine, and hwæt, Neuter, had a five-case paradigm (NE who, what). The Instrumental Case of hwæt ws used as a separate interrogative word hwy (NE why).

Indefinite pronouns were numerous: ān and its derivative ænig (NE one, any); nān (NE none); nānÞinʒ (NE nothing); nāwiht/nōwiht/nōht (NE nothing, not); hwæt-hwuʒu (NE something), etc.

All Old English pronouns were declined almost alike. They expressed the grammatical categories of gender (masculine, feminine and neuter), number (singular and plural) and case, which was built up by five categorical forms: the Nominative, the Genitive, the Dative, the Accusative and the Instrumental, different from the Dative only in the singular. The paradigms of nouns and personal pronouns and the paradigm of all the other pronouns differed in the number of categorical forms composing the categories of number and case. The personal pronoununlike the rest of the pronouns and the noun possessed three categorical forms composing the category of number. All the otherpronounsunlike the personal pronoun and the noun had five cases.

5. The verb-system in OE was represented by finite and non-finite forms, or verbals (Infinitive, Participle). The verb had few grammatical categories but it fell into numerous morphological classes. All the forms of the verb were synthetic, as analytical forms were only beginning to appear. The verb-predicate agreed with the subject of the sentence in number and person. Its specifically verbal categories were mood and tense.

The finite and non-finite forms differed more than they do today because the verbals were not conjugated like verbs but were declined like nouns or adjectives, so they had mainly nominal characteristics, e.g. the infinitive had two cases, the Common and the Dative.

Table 8

Common case Dative case
writan (to write) to writenne (so that I shall write)
cepan (to keep) to cepenne (so that I shall keep)
drincan (to drink) to drincenne (so that I shall drink)


The Infinitive in the Common case was widely used in different syntactical functions, and in the Dative case it was used mainly as an adverbial modifier of purpose, e.g.


Ic gā tō drincenne. (I go to drink)

The declension of the Participle resembled that of the adjective with the excepion of the category of tense which was a typically verbal category, e.g. wrītende(Present tense) – writen (Past Tense); cēpende (Present Tense) – cēpt (Past Tense); drincende (Present Tense) – drunken (Past Tense).

Finite verbs had two numbers: singular and plural, e.g.


Infinitive Present Tense singular Present Tense plural

willan (to want) wille (I want) willaþ (we want)

deman (to judge) deme (I judge) demaþ (we judge).

The category of person was made up of three forms. Person was distinguished in the singular of the Indicative mood only. In the Past tense the 1st and 3rd persons of the Indicative mood coincided, only the 2nd person had a distinct form. In the Subjunctive the person-forms were not distinguished.


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