The declension of OE adjectives

Old English declension

The nominal categories in OE

Grammatical structure of Old English

Evolution of the Grammatical Structure


Old English as any other Germanic language was in the main a synthetic or inflected type of language, which means that the grammatical relations between words were expressed by adding some inflexions to the stem of the word or by means of sound interchanges in the root, sometimes by suppletive formations. O.E. was rich in inflexions, the latter being characteristic of old English declension and conjugation. As to the inflexional system O.E. was characterized by the same inflexional type, which is peculiar to all other Germanic languages. The use of prefixes in forming grammatical forms was rare and was confined mainly to verbs. Suppletive forms were restricted to several pronouns, a few adjectives and a couple of verbs.

The parts of speech to be distinguished in OE were: the noun, the verb, the adjective, the adverb, the pronoun, the numeral, the preposition, the conjunction and the interjection. Inflected parts of speech possessed certain grammatical categories which are subdivided into nominal categories found in nominal parts of speech and verbal categories found chiefly in the finite forms of the verb.

The Old English declensionwas divided into 2 groups:

1. declension of nouns (nominal declension) is divided into 2 classes:

ü vowel declensions:

a-stem, o-stem, i-stem, u-stem

ü consonant declensions:

a. n, r, zu, l, rootdeclensions

2. declension of pronouns (pronominal declension):

ü pronominal declension proper ( ) it was represented by the declension of demonstrative pronouns, interrogative and the third person singular of the personal pronouns

ü the first and second persons of personal pronouns, the so-called archaic pronominal declension


The fact that personal pronoun of the 3d person belongs to the first group but not to the second is accounted for by origin of this pronoun. The thing is that this pronoun had originally been a demonstrative pronoun, thats why it stands apart from other personal pronouns. The primary demonstrative character of this pronoun is also seen in the fact that this pronoun distinguishes gender, while the pronouns of the 1st and the 2nd persons dont distinguish gender.

As compared with the declension of nouns and pronouns it stands by itself. The O.E. adjectives don not have their own inflexional type different from those of nouns and pronouns. The declension of adjectives represents the transitional type between nominal declension on the one hand, and pronominal on the other. The O.E. adjectives had two declensionsdistinguishing their two-fold use: strong and weak declensions:the so-called indefinite form which was declined after the strong declension of adjectives, and the definite form declined after the weak declension of adjectives. The strong or indefinite form of adjectives had a generalizing force, whereas the weakor definite form had an individualizing or limiting force. Thus, the strong form implied in itself the meaning of the indefinite article and the weak form that of the definite article.

Therefore when the noun was used without any article or with some indefinite pronoun, the strongform of the adjective was chosen. The strong form was also chosen when the adjective was used in the function of a predicative.

But if the noun was used with a demonstrative pronounwhich was commonly used as a definite article, the adjective had the weak form.

OE blæc stān (a black stone) the strong form

OE an ʒod månn (a good man) the strong form

but se blaca stān (the black stone) the weak form

se ʒoda månn (the good man) the weak form

The inflexional endings of these declensions originally corresponded to those of strong and weak nominal declension, i.e. strong declension or vowel declension, and weak or consonant declension. The strong declension, however, later assumed many of the pronominal forms. As a result thestrong declension of adj. became a mixed type reflecting in its forms, the declension of a-stem and o-stem of nouns as well as some inflexions of the pronominal declension proper.

Weak declension (or definite) of adjectives coincided with the declension of n-stem of nouns with the exception of genitive plural, which coincided with the strong declension of adj. The weak form was used when an adjective fulfilled the function of an attribute.

E.g. strong declension weak declension

The division of adjectives into strong and weak forms has been preserved in modern German languages: to a greater extent in the German language, to a less extent in Scandinavian languages.

As it has already been mentioned, the strong form of the adjective was declined after the a- and o-stems of nouns with peculiar pronominal endings in the Genitive case plural (-ra).

The weak form of the adjective was declined after the weak declension of nouns, viz. after the n-stems; in the Genitive plural we often find the ending -ra, the form being influenced by the strong declension of adjectives.

The declension of OE adjectives may be represented by the forms of the OE

adjective ʒōd (good).

The strong forms were declined as follows:

Masc. Ntr. Fem. Plural

Nom. ʒōd ʒōd ʒōd Masc. ʒōda

Acc. ʒōdne ʒōd ʒōde Fem. ʒōda Ntr.- ʒōd

Dat. ʒōdum ʒōdum ʒōdre ʒōdum

Gen. ʒōdes ʒōdes ʒōdre ʒōdra

Instr. ʒōde ʒōde

The weak forms were declined as follows:

Masc. Ntr. Fem. Plural

Nom. ʒōda ʒōde ʒōde ʒōda

Acc. ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdan

Dat. ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdum

Gen. ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdra (-ena)


  1. The Adjective. Degrees of comparison of adjectives as stylistic device

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