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Theme 8. The Old English Morphology


Of eight Proto-Indo-European cases, Old English noun kept just four: Nominative, Genitive, Dative, and Accusative cases. All Old English nouns were divided as to being either strong or weak. While the first category had a branched declension (), special endings for different numbers and cases, the weak declension was represented by nouns which had already begun to lose their declensional system. Examine an example of declension of a strong noun:

Singular Plural

Nom. stán (stone) Nom. stánas
Gen. stánes Gen. stána

Dat. stáne Dat. stánum

Acc. stán Acc. stánas


Such a weaknouns as nama (name) is more simple and stable in declension:

Sg. Pl.
N nama (name) N naman
G naman G namena
D naman D namum
A naman A naman


There was another group of nouns that according to Germanic laws of ablaut changed the root vowel during declension. In Modern English such words still exist: goose - geese, tooth - teeth, foot - feet, mouse - mice etc. In Old English time they were far more numerous in the language.


The general rule is the so-called i-mutation, which changes the vowel.


Nouns were declined due to their stem (a-stem, ja-stem, wa-stem, i-stem, etc.), the stem was defined not on the basis of Old English, but historically. For example, stán has an a-stem, but the words scip (ship) and múþ (a mouth) has the same stem, because scip got developed from P.Gmc. skipan, while múþ from P.Gmc. munthaz. The Old English ende (end) belongs to ja-stem developed from P.Gmc. andja.


As well as the noun, the Old English adjective can be declined in case, gender and number. Moreover, the instrumental case was preserved. Adjectives must follow sequence with nouns which they define - that is why the same adjective can be masculine, neuter and feminine. The declension is more or less simple; it looks much like the nominal system of declension. As for weak adjectives, they also exist in the language. The thing is that one need not learn by heart which adjective is which type - strong or weak, as you should do with the nouns. If you have a weak noun as a subject, its attributive adjective will be weak as well. So - a strong adjective for a strong noun, a weak adjective for a weak noun. Thus if you say "a black tree" that will be blæc tréow (strong), and "a black eye" will sound blace éage.

The last thing to be said about the adjectives is the degrees of comparison. Again, the traditional Indo-European structure is preserved here: three degrees (absolute, comparative, superlative) formed with the help of suffixes -ra and -est: earm (poor) - earmra earmost, blæc (black) - blæcra blacost.

Many adjectives changed the root vowel - another example of the Germanic ablaut:

eald (old) - ieldra - ieldest
strong - strengra - strengest
long - lengra - lengest
geong (young) - gingra - gingest

The most widespread and widely used adjectives always had their degrees formed from a different stem. Many of them are still seen in today's English:

gód (good) - betera - betst (or sélra - sélest)
yfel (bad) - wiersa - wierest
micel (much) - mára - máést
lýtel (little) - læ'ssa - læ'st
fear (far) - fierra - fierrest, fyrrest
néah (near) - néarra - níehst, nýhst
fore (before) - furþra - fyrest (first)


Old English Verbs are divided into two groups strong and weak ones. All strong verbs are distinguished between seven classes, each having its peculiarities in conjugation and in the stem structure.

Infinitive í éo i eo e e e a different
Past singular á éa a ea ea æ æ ó é, eo,éo
Past plural i u u u u æ' æ' ó é, eo, éo
Participle II i o u o o o e a a, á, ea

See the examples:

Iwrítan (to write), wrát, writon, writen
IIbéodan (to offer), béad, budon, boden
IIIa) i + a nasal cons.: drincan (to drink), dranc, druncon, druncen
b) r, h + a cons.: steorfan (to die), stearf, sturfon, storfen

c) l + a cons.: helpan (to help), healp, hulpon, holpen
IV stelan (to steal), stæ'l, stæ'lon, stolen
V tredan (to tread), træ'd, træ'don, treden
VIfaran (to go), fór, fóron, faren
VIIhátan (to call), hét, héton, háten
feallan (to fall), feoll, feollon, feallen
cnéawan (to know), cnéow, cnéowon, cnáwen

Weak verbs in Old English (today's English regular verbs) were conjugated in a simpler way than the strong ones, and did not use the ablaut interchanges of the vowel stems. They did have the three forms - the infinitive, the past tense, the participle II.

Past - de Past Participle - ed déman (to judge), démde,


Past - te Past Participle - ed cépan (to keep), cépte, cépt /

céped (When the suffix is

preceded by a voiceless



Past - de,te Past Participle d, t tellan (to tell), tealde,

teald bringan (to bring),

bróhte, bróht (Irregular)

Old English verbs had three moods - indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. Syntactically, the language had only two main tenses - the Present and the Past. No progressive (or Continuous) tenses were used; they were invented only in the Early Middle English period. Such complex tenses as modern Future in the Past, Future Perfect Continuous did not exist either. However, some analytic construction were in use, and first of all the perfect constructions. The example Hie geweorc geworhten hæfdon - 'they have build a fortress' shows the exact Perfect tense, but at that time it was not the tense really, just a participle construction showing that the action has been done. Seldom you can also find such past constructions, which later became the Past Perfect Tense.


Old English Adverbscan be either primary (original adverbs) or they can derive from adjectives. In fact, adverbs appeared in the language rather late, and early Proto-Indo-Europeans did not use them, but later some auxiliary nouns and pronouns losing their declension started to play the role of adverbial modifiers. That's how primary adverbs emerged:

þa (then)
þonne (then)
þǽr (there)
hér (here)


hider (hither)
sóna (soon)
oft (often)
eft (again)
swá (so)


Secondary adverbs originated from the instrumental singular of the neuter adjectives of strong declension. They all add the suffix -e: wide (widely), déope (deeply), fæste (fast), hearde (hard). Another major subgroup of them used the suffixes -líc, -líce from more complex adjectives: bealdlíce (boldly), freondlíce (in a friendly way).


The Old English language preserves the system of declension only for three numerals: án (1), twá (2), þríe (3) in case and gender. Mainly according to Old English texts ordinal numerals were used with the demonstrative pronoun þá (that) before them. This is where the definite article in 'the first', 'the third' comes from. To say "the 22nd", for example, you should combine the following: either twá and twenigoþa (two and twentieth), or óþer éac twentigum (second with twenty). So the order is different from Modern English, but instead closer to Modern German where "the 22nd" sounds like zwei und zwanzig (two and twenty).


New Old English words were created in four main ways:

A. Determinative compounding: Common to all Germanic languages, this kind of compounding forms new words by bringing together two normally independent nouns: e.g., earhring (earring); bocstaef (book-staff, i.e., letter); or an adjective and a noun, e.g., middangeard (middle yard, i.e., earth); federhoma (feather coat, i.e., plumage); banlocan (bone locker, i.e., body). Many of these words make up unique poetic vocabulary of OE literature, especially in metaphorical constructions known as kennings: e.g., hronrad (whale road, or sea).

B. Repetitive compounding: bringing together words that are very nearly identical, or that complement and reinforce each other for specific effect. Thus, holtwudu (wood-wood, forest); gangelwaefre (going about one, swift moving one, in OE reserved as the word for spider; flutterby which was transposed in Modern English into butterfly).

C. Noun-adjective formations: graesgrene (grass green); lofgeorn (praise eager); goldhroden (gold adorned). In Modern English, this form of compounding is revived in such phrases as king-emperor or fighter-bomber.

D. Prefix formations: like in other Germanic languages it is the most common way of creating new words. OE had many prefixes that derived from prepositions and that altered the meaning of words in special ways. The word blōd (blood) became blōdig (bloody), and blind became blindlīce (blindly).


Word Order.Words in an Old English sentence appeared in a different order from those in Modern English. In Modern English the girl helped the boy, and the boy helped the girl have different meanings which are communicated by the word order. In Old English these meanings were communicated by the endings of each word, which changed according to the job it did in the sentence. Thus Old English word order was relatively free.


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 1843

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