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Grammatical Categories of the Noun

430. Simplification of noun morphology affected the grammatical categories of the noun indifferent ways and to a varying degree.

The OE Gender, being a classifying feature (and not a grammatical category proper) disappeared together with other distinctive features of the noun declensions. (Division into genders played a certain role in the decay of the OE declension system: in Late OE and Early ME nouns were grouped into classes or types of declension according to gender instead of stems (see 427).

In the 11th and 12th c. the gender of nouns was deprived of its main formal support the weakened and levelled endings of adjectives and adjective pronouns ceased to indicate gender. Semantically gender was associated with the differentiation of sex and therefore the formal grouping into genders was smoothly and naturally superseded by a semantic division into inanimate and animate nouns, with a further subdivision of the latter into males and females.

In Chaucer's time gender is a lexical category, like in Mod E: nouns are referred to as he and she if they denote human beings, e. g.

She wolde wepe, if that she saw a mous,

Caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde (Chaucer)

She points here to a woman while it replaces the noun mous, which in OE was Fem. (She would weep, if she saw a mouse caught in a trap, if it was dead or it bled.)

431. The grammatical category of Case was preserved but underwent profound changes in Early ME.

The number of cases in the noun paradigm was reduced from four (distinguished in OE) to two in Late ME. The syncretism of cases was a slow process which went on step by step. As shown above ( 163 ff) even in OE the forms of the Nom. and Acc. were not distinguished in the pl, and in some classes they coincided also in the sg. In Early ME they fell together in both numbers.

In the strong declension the Dat. was sometimes marked by -e in the Southern dialects, though not in the North or in the Midlands; the form without the ending soon prevailed in all areas, and three OE cases, Nom., Acc. and Dat. fell together. Henceforth they can be called the Common case, as in present-day English.

Only the Gen. case was kept separate from the other forms, with more explicit formal distinctions in the singular than in the plural (see the Table in 429). In the 14th c. the ending -es of the Gen. sg had become almost universal, there being only several exceptions nouns which were preferably used in the uninflected form (names of relationships terminating in -r, some proper names, and some nouns in stereotyped phrases). In the pl the Gen. case had no special marker it was not distinguished from the Comm. case as the ending -(e)s through analogy, had extended to the Gen. either from the Comm. case pl or, perhaps, from the Gen. sg. This ending was generalised in the Northern dialects and in the Midlands (a survival of the OE Gen. pl form in -ena, ME -en(e), was used in Early ME only in the Southern districts). The formal distinction between cases in the pl was lost, except in the nouns which did not take -(e)s in the pl. Several nouns with a weak plural form in -en or with a vowel interchange, such as oxen or men, added the marker of the Gen. case -es to these forms: oxenes, mennes. In the 17th and 18th c. a new graphic marker of the Gen. case came into use: the apostrophe e. g. man's, children's: this device could be employed only in writing; in oral speech the forms remained homonymous (for the phonetic changes of the ending -es, see 435).

The gradual reduction of the case-system is shown in the following chart:

OE Early ME Late ME and NE
Nominative Common  
Accusative Common
Dative Dative
Genitive Genitive Genitive

432. The reduction in the number of cases was linked up with a change in the meanings and functions of the surviving forms.

The Comm. case, which resulted from the fusion of three OE cases assumed all the functions of the former Nom., Acc. and Dat., and also some functions of the Gen.

The ME Comm. case had a very general meaning, which was made more specific by the context: prepositions, the meaning of the verb- predicate, the word order. With the help of these means it could express various meanings formerly belonging to different cases. The following passages taken from three translations of the Bible give a general idea of the transition; they show how the OE Gen. and Dat. cases were replaced in ME and Early NE by prepositional phrases with the noun in the Comm. case.

OE translation of the Gospels (10th c.) Wyclif's translation (late I4th c.) King James' Bible (17th c.)
(Mt. V-3) Ēadiʒe synd pā ʒāstlican pearfan, forpām hyra ys heofena rice. (Gen.) Blessed be the pore in spirit, for the kingdom in heuenes is heren. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Mt. V-15) ðæt hit onlihte eallum ðam ðe on ðām hūse synd. (Dat.) that it geue ligt to all that ben in the hous. and it giueth light unto al that are in the house.

The replacement of the Dat. by prepositional phrases had been well prepared by its wide use in OE as a case commonly governed by prepositions.

The main function of the Acc. case to present the direct object was fulfilled in ME by the Comm. case; the noun was placed next to the verb, or else its relations with the predicate were apparent from the meaning of the transitive verb and the noun, e. g.

He knew the tavernes well in every town.

For catel hadde they ynogh and rente (Chaucer)

(He knew well the taverns in every town for they had enough wealth and income.)

433. The history of the Gen. case requires special consideration. Though it survived as a distinct form, its use became more limited: unlike OE it could not be employed in the function of an object to a verb or to an adjective (for its application in OE, see 154). In ME the Gen. case is used only attributively, to modify a noun, but even in this function it has a rival prepositional phrases, above all the phrases with the preposition of. The practice to express genitival relations by the of-phrase goes back to OE. It is not uncommon in Ælfric's writings (10th c.), but its regular use instead of the inflectional Gen. does not become established until the 12th c. The use of the of-phrase grew rapidly in the 13th and 14th c. In some texts there appears a certain differentiation between the synonyms: the inflectional Gen. is preferred with animate nouns, while the of-phrase is more widely used with inanimate ones. However, usage varies, as can be seen from the following examples from Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES:

Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre

(He was very worthy in his lord's campaigns)

He had maad ful many a manage

Of yonge wommen

(He made many marriages of young women)

And specially, from every shires ende,

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende.

(And especially from the end of every shire of England they went to Canterbury)

434. Various theories have been advanced to account for the restricted use of the Gen. case, particularly for the preference of the inflectional Gen. with "personal" nouns. It has been suggested that the tendency to use the inflectional Gen. with names of persons is a continuation of an old tradition pertaining to word order. It has been noticed that the original distinction between the use of the Gen. with different kind of nouns was not in form hut in position. The Gen. of personal nouns was placed before the governing noun, while the Gen. of other nouns was placed after it. The post-positive Gen. was later replaced by the of-phrase with the result that the of-phrase came to be preferred with inanimate nouns and the inflectional Gen.with personal (animate) ones.

Another theory attributes the wider use of the inflectional Gen. with animate nouns to the influence of a specific possessive construction containing a possessive pronoun: the painter'ys name, where 'ys is regarded as a shortened form of his lit. "the painter his name". It is assumed that the frequent use of these phrases may have reinforced the inflectional Gen., which could take the ending -is, -ys alongside -es and thus resembled the phrase with the pronoun his, in which the initial [h] could be dropped.

It may be added that the semantic differentiation between the prepositional phrase and the -s'-Gen. became more precise in the New period, each acquiring its own set of meanings, with only a few overlapping spheres. (It has been noticed though, that in present-day English the frequency of the 's-Gen. is growing again at the expense of the of-phrase.)

435. The other grammatical category of the noun, Number proved to be the most stable of all the nominal categories. The noun preserved the formal distinction of two numbers through all the historical periods. Increased variation in Early ME did not obliterate number distinctions. On the contrary, it showed that more uniform markers of the pl spread by analogy to different morphological classes of nouns, and thus strengthened the formal differentiation of number.

As seen from Table 1 in 429 the pl forms in ME show obvious traces of numerous OE noun declensions. Some of these traces have survived in later periods.

In Late ME the ending -es was the prevalent marker of nouns in the pl. In Early NE it extended to more nouns to the new words of the growing English vocabulary and to many words, which built their plural in a different way in ME or employed -es as one of the variant endings. The pl ending -es (as well as the ending -es of the Gen. case) underwent several phonetic changes: the voicing of fricatives and the loss of unstressed vowels in final syllables. The following examples show the development of the ME pl inflection -es in Early NE under different phonetic conditions:

Phonetic conditions ME NE
after a voiced consonant or a vowel[50] stones ['stɔ:nəs] > ['stounəz] > ['stounz] days [dais] > [deiz] stones days
alter a voiceless consonant bookes ['bo:kəs] > [bu:ks] > [buks] books
after sibilants and affricates [s, z, ʃ , ʧ, ʤ] dishes ['diʃəs] > ['diʃiz] dishes

436. The ME pl ending -en, used as a variant marker with some nouns (and as the main marker in the weak declension in the Southern dialects) lost its former productivity, so that in Standard Mod E it is found only in oxen, brethern, and children. (The two latter words originally did not belong to the weak declension: OE brōðor, a r-stem, built its plural by means of a root-vowel interchange; OE cild, an s-stem, took the ending -ru: cild cildru; -en was added to the old forms of the pl in ME; both words have two markers of the plural.)

The small group of ME nouns with homonymous forms of number (ME deer, hors, thing, see 164 and 428) has been further reduced to three "exceptions" in Mod E: deer, sheep and swine. The group of former root-stems has survived only as exceptions: man, tooth and the like.

(It must be noted that not all irregular forms in Mod E are traces of OE declensions; forms like data, nuclei, antennae have come from other languages together with the borrowed words.)

437. It follows that the majority of English nouns have preserved and even reinforced the formal distinction of Number in the Comm. case. Meanwhile they have practically lost these distinctions in the Gen. case, for Gen. has a distinct form in the pl only with nouns whose pl ending is not -es (see 429).

Despite the regular neutralisation of number distinctions in the Gen. case we can say that differentiation of Number in nouns has become more explicit and more precise. The functional load and the frequency of occurrence of the Comm. case are certainly much higher than those of the Gen.; therefore the regular formal distinction of Number in the Comm. case is more important than its neutralisation in the Gen. case.


  1. Causes of Grammatical Changes
  2. Decay of Declensions and Grammatical Categories
  3. Development of Nominal Grammatical Categories
  4. Development of Verbal Grammatical Categories
  5. Divide the words below into the correct categories.
  6. Grammatical Categories of the Finite Verb
  7. Grammatical Categories of the Verbals
  8. Grammatical Categories. The Use of Cases
  9. Grammatical meaning.
  10. Grammatical meaning.
  11. If the lexical meaning of the root morpheme and the lexico-grammatical meaning of the stem coincide the word is primary,


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Decay of Noun Declensions in Early Middle English | 

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