Old English Grammar and Grammar Generally


Grammatical Properties of NOUNS:


All nouns have…





[Dual: two and only two]



Gender (“type”)

“Grammatical gender” rarely has anything to do sex, or manliness or girliness


It is a grammatical category:


“The boat, she is sinking”


Nouns have a single gender, which does not change




Neuter (“neither”)

[Common (“either”)]


For human beings natural gender and grammatical gender usually match up, but:


OE cild “child” neuter

OE wifmann “woman” masculine

German Mädchen and Fraulein, “girl,” neuter

Irish cailín “girl” masculine

Irish stail “stallion” is feminine


For non-humans, grammatical gender bears no logical connection to biological gender



Case (“form”)


In an inflected language, every noun (and noun-friend: Pronoun, Adjective) can appear in one of a variety of forms, or cases, which reflect the noun’s role in a given sentence.


For Indo-European languages, these cases are expressed through a variety of inflectional suffixes, or endings.  What exactly these suffixes look like depends on a number of factors, including the noun’s gender and class (another set of types).  But the different CASES all express the same grammatical function.


For Old English, there are 5 cases (reduced from PIE’s 8):


Nominative (“naming”)


Subject or subject complement (subject “filler”)


Tommy eats a lot.”


Se Tommy eateþ mycel.


Tommy is king.”


Se Tommy is se cyning.



Accusative (“hitting”)


Direct object: the thing that is hit (or receives any other action from the verb


“Pooh loves honey.”


Se Pooh lufiaþ þone hunig.


Grendel eats Danes.”


Se Grendel eteþ þa Denas.


“They eat Grendel.”


Þa etaþ þone Grendel.


“They eat him.”


Þa etaþ him.


“He eats them.”


He eteþ þa.




Also used for the object of certain prepositions, usually expressing motion towards


Grendel went into the hall.”


Grendel eode in þone sele.


“He charged towards them.”


He geierneþ to þa.



Dative (“giving”)


Indirect object: the person to whom something is given, shown, told, etc.  Can usually be expressed with “to” or “for”


“Kanga gives Roo hugs.”


“Kanga gives hugs to Roo.”


Seo Kanga gifeþ þam Roo þa fæþmas.


Gifeþ þa fæþmas seo Kanga þam Roo.


Fæþmas þam Roo gifeþ seo Kanga.


“Kanga made a scarf for Roo.”


Seo Kanga macode þæt hrægl þam Roo.


Also used for the object of certain prepositions


Grendel lives in a swamp


Se Grendel lifaþ in þam more.


Genitive (“what type?” “whose?”)

Possessive (who owns it): “of” case


Tigger’s tail is striped”


Se tægl þæs Tiggeres is gestripode.



Tigger’s bouncing has become a problem.”


Seo hlypung Tiggeres eaforðe gewearð.



“Pooh is a bear of very little brain.”


Se Pooh beoð an bera swiþe lytles brægnes


“The book’s ending is sad.”


Seo geendung þæs boces geomor is.


“The ending of the book is brief.”




by means of what?


“Pooh rescued Piglet with his umbrella.”




“Beowulf gave Grendel’s head to Hrothgar with a spear.”





PRONOUNS (“in place of a noun”)


All the same categories as a noun (person, number, gender)


The most inflected forms in OE and Modern English

The paradigm has hardly changed at all  (in Modern English, the Accusative and the Instrumental have been completely lost: absorbed into Dative)


OE Personal Pronoun


ADJECTIVES (“additions”)


Adjectives modify or describe nouns


“The bloody spear”


“The sick dog”


“The rotten cheese”


Adjectives are just like nouns, except they can change gender

every adjective can be Masculine, Feminine, or Neuter

which means each every adjective will have three separate sets of inflectional endings


Adjectives must agree in number, gender, and case with the noun they modify


“Cruel Unferth gave the sick dog some rotten cheese before hitting its mangy head with the butt of the bloody spear.”





Person (“actor’s mask”)

The doer of the verb (hence the subject of the sentence)


First (I or We)

Second (You, sing or pl)

Third (He, She, It or They)


Inflected languages have different forms of the verb, depending on the PERSON


In many highly inflected languages, this means that a subject of a sentence does not need to be stated, because it is implied in the verb form itself



amo, “I love”

amas, “you (sg) love”

amat, “he, she, it loves”

amamus, “we love”

amatis, “you (pl) love”

amant, “they love”


In Modern English, there is only one inflectional affix which differentiates person, for the third person singular (and this is only in the present tense)


Old English has a much more complicated verbal system, but not nearly as complex as Latin or Romance language.  In prose, the subject is almost always stated.








Tense (“time”)




[other languages have distinct forms for things like





Future Perfect

Old and Modern English express all these forms periphrastically]


Mood (“mode” “way”)


Indicative (“showing”)

Statements of fact


Imperative (“commanding”)

Issuing commands


Subjunctive (“subjoined,” “subordinate,” “underneath”)

A wide variety of statement types, which are not facts, such as

wishes (“I wish I were…”)

hypotheticals (If only I were…”)

exhortations (Let us go!)

mild commands


Old English had clearly inflected subjunctive; Modern English retains vesatgies of it (as above), but pormarily expresses subjunctives through “modal” (“moodal") auxiliaries:

may, might, would, should, could




Active (subject is doer)

“John hits the ball”


Passive (subject is done; only possible with transitive verbs)

“John is hit by the ball”


In Old and Modern English, passive voice is only expressed periphrastically




Old English Particulars



A variety of different noun CLASSES, which have different inflectional endings

Named after their Primitive Germanic stems (so they don’t seem to make much sense)


Masculine A-stem nouns:


Most important, because this is where ModEng got her analogical inflectional endings


Genitive singular:  es > s > 's

(the apostrophe stands for the missing ‘e’)

          wulfes toð


Masculine Nom/Acc plural –as > s


Analogy has extended this pattern, which used to only apply to one class and one gender, to almost every single English noun; anything which doesn’t conform is now known as “irregular”


Neuter A-stems (long stem):

Have ZERO plural

Origin of “deer,” “sheep”

(“fish” in OE is A-stem: fisc, fiscas/fixas)


Feminine O-stems

Feminine nouns have own sets of endings, on own patterns

Have all been analogically converted to A-stem pattern

Remnant: Lady day ladybug ladybird

(OED says gen was hlafdigan)




N-stem: Weak Nouns



Weak noun chart


oxen (children; brethren)



mutated plurals

*-i for Dat sing; *-iz for plural

i-mutation and the ending dropped

Foot, goose, mouse, louse, man

Lost: book/beech; freond/frynd; cow/cy (kine)



Marked by an R in the plural

cild, pl. cildru > children



Familial relationships






se, seo, þæt                  “that”

þes, þeos, þis                “this”


Highly inflected; acts like article to reveal information about nouns (gender, case, number)


Not really an article

Nor was the indefinite originally

Mod Eng a/an > OE ane “one,” “a certain”




Must agree in number, case, and gender with NOUN to which it refers


In OE there are two completely different sets of endings, which any ADJ can take


Weak vs. Strong


Simple; not very inflected

Used when adjective has “help”

Demonstrative, numeral, possessive

Other inflectional information makes the case of the noun clear, so its less essential for the ADJ to express this information



clearer inflectional endings

more distinct forms

Used when ADJ is all by itself, or just with the noun


Comparative / Superlative

ra, –ost

every single ADJ

(regardless of syllables)


Some irregular



god / betra / betst


little / less / least

but also analogical littler and littlest


neah / nearra / nyhst



Form ADJ from NOUNS

add –lic

Eorðlic, heofonlic



(Adjectives in LY)


Adverbs: modify adj., verbs, or adverbs

Add –e

deop > deope

fast > faste


ModEng adverb affix ly is derived from “–lic-e

Not all –ly are adverbs, nor do all adverbs need “-ly

Quick, fast, slow, hard




Weak verbs:

addition of dental suffix to show past tense

Can be realized as –d or –t


Some with vowel changes (but still dental suffix)

Buy / bought / bought

Think / thought / thought

(the vowel change here is actually the result of i-mutation in the present tense, but not in the past)


Strong Verbs:

Show past tense through internal vowel change:

ablaut, vowel gradation


7 regular patterns (Verb Classes), which often don’t appear regular because of other vowel changes going on


Many strong verbs remain:

drink, drank, drunk

rise, rose, risen

choose, chose, chosen

Many have given over to analogy



Preterit-present verbs

Funky conjugation

Have become modal auxiliaries, though in OE had lexical meaning

Magan: “be able” (may, might)

Sculan: “must” ( > shall, should)

Cunnan: “know (how to)” ( > can, could)


Anomalous verbs


                   Verb “to be”

highly irregular, as always


                             Two complete present tenses:


wesan: eom, is, eart

beon: beo, bist, biþ


                   Gan: “go” + eode

                             (went < wendan)


                   Willan: “want to”



Periphrastic forms

          To express perfect tense and passive voice


Impersonal verbs

          No subject:

                   Seems to me

                   Pleases me

                   Thirsts me