Cases, Inflection, and Pronouns

<to do: add introduction to parts of speech and the concept of inflected languages>

<to do: concepts of person, number>

Cases and Inflection

Consider the following sentence: "The girl saw the dog". How can you tell that this sentence does not mean that the dog is seeing the girl? The answer is obvious to an English speaker. "Girl" comes before the verb, and "dog" comes after it, and this arrangement tells us that the "girl" is performing the action of verb, and the "dog" is receiving the action. We say that the one who is performing the action of the verb is the "subject" of the verb. So "girl" is the "subject" of "saw". The dog, however, is the "object" of the verb, since it's the object of the action. And in English, we generally show these functions -- subject and object -- by position relative to the verb. The subject of the verb tends to come before the verb, the object tends to come after it.

But position isn't the only way we show which word is the subject and object of a verb. Now consider this sentence: "Him I like, them I despise". Obviously this sentence has an usual arrangement for rhetorical purposes, but how can you tell who is doing what to whom? Even though English grammar shows grammatical relationship between words in a sentence mainly by position, in many instances a change in the word itself provides you additional help. The word "him", although it comes first in the sentence, is not the subject because its form -- "him" instead of "he" -- is not the one used to indicate that it's the subject of the verb. We use the form "he" to show that. Furthermore, the word "I" is the form we use when the first person is subject of the verb. Hence, the words "he" and "I" change their forms as their grammatical function in the sentence changes. The change in form of a word to show grammatical functions is called "inflection".

The English personal pronouns change quite a lot to show you how they're being used in the sentence. Watch.

                          FORM            FUNCTION

                          I               subject
                          me              object (something is
                                          being done to it)
                          my              possessor (it owns
First Person Pronoun
                          we              subject
                          us              object
                          our             possessor

                          you             subject
                          you             object
                          your            possessor
Second Person Pronoun
                          you             subject
                          you             object
                          your            possessor

                          he,she,it       subject
                          him,her,it      object
                          his,her,its     possessor
Third Person Pronoun
                          they            subject
                          them            object
                          their           possessor

This inflection (change of form to show grammatical function) in the pronouns is very useful for helping us to understand each other -- although, as you can see, the second person pronoun "you, etc" doesn't inflect nearly so much as the first and third. The plural forms are even identical to the singular forms. We can still get by.

In English, inflection is rather limited, and we rely on position mainly to tell us what the words in the sentence are doing to each other. The only grammatical functions that involve a change in form for all nouns is the possessive case and the plural forms, where we attach an "-s" to the end of the word. (In written English we even include an apostrophe "'" mark to help us see the difference between a pluralized noun and a noun that's in the possessive case.) For example

            SINGULAR                          PLURAL

     apple           subject         apples          subject
     apple           object          apples          object
     apple's         possessor       apples'         possessor

Watch how we combine position with inflection in English to make sense to one another. As you can see, position is the principal guide.

"These apples' [plural, possessor] cores are hard, but apples [plural, subject] are usually soft. When you [singular, subject] buy apples [plural, object], you [singular, subject] should first pick up each apple [object, singular] and bounce it [singular, object] off the floor several times. Then check its [singular, possessor] skin. If it [singular, subject] is bruised, discretely put it [singular, object] back with the other apples [plural, object], making certain that no one [singular, subject] is watching you [singular, object]".

Unlike English, languages which rely primarily on inflection of words to show grammatical relationship are called "inflected" languages. Modern English, though it has some inflection, is not an inflected language. Old English, is more inflected than Modern English but less inflected than Latin. It relies partly on changes in the words themselves to indicate their grammatical function in a sentence, and partly on other things like word order.

The different grammatical functions a word can have in a sentence is called "case". In Modern English there are three recognizable different cases, that is grammatical functions, a word can have: the subjective case, the possessive case, and the objective case. So we say there are three cases in Modern English. In Old English there are four difference cases. Here are the Old English cases. (Don't try to memorize them all at once here. Just read through the list; there will be plenty of time to firm up your familiarity of them.)


           Nominative     (Subjective)
           Accusative     (Objective Case)
           Genitive       (Possessive Case)
           Dative         (Object of words like "to" or "for")

Compare this with the six cases that exist in Latin:


           Nominative     (Subjective)
           Accusative     (Objective Case)
           Genitive       (Possessive Case)
           Dative         (Object of words like "to" or "for")
           Ablative       (Adverbial Usages: "by", "with")
           Vocative       (Direct Address)

We'll look at the way these cases are used in Old English in the next part of this guide, although some of them won't be difficult at all: the nominative, genitive, and accusative cases are almost the same as their English counterparts. The dative will need some explanation. Before then, however, let's look at how an Old English word inflects to show all these different cases.

Let's look at some Modern English pronouns which inflect to show the three different cases. Do you remember "they, them, their"? The pronoun is inflecting through its different cases, but we can definitely spot a pattern of similarity among the three forms. There is a definite root of the word. The stem (that is, the part of the word that contains the meaning of the word) is "the-" to which then the endings "-y", "-m" and "-ir". So we could say that the word is inflecting by adding certain case endings to a stem. The stem contains the core of the meaning of the word, and the endings merely inflect or alter its grammar.


Personal Pronouns

So how does this work in Old English. Let's look again at the personal pronouns:

              MODERN ENGLISH  CASE            OLD ENGLISH

1st Person
Singular      I               Nominative      iċ
              me              Accusative      mē, meċ
              my (mine)       Genitive        mīn
              me              Dative          mē

Plural        we              Nominative      wē
              us              Accusative      ūs
              our             Genitive        ūre
              us              Dative          ūs

2nd Person
Singular      you  (thou)     Nominative      þū
              you  (thee)     Accusative      þē, þeċ
              your (thine)    Genitive        þīn
              you  (thee)     Dative          þē

Plural        you             Nominative      ġe
              you             Accusative      ēow
              your            Genitive        ēower
              you             Dative          ēow

3rd Person
Singular      he              Nominative      hē
              him             Accusative      hine
              his             Genitive        his
              him             Dative          him

              she             Nominative      hēo, hīo
              her             Accusative      hīe, hī
              her             Genitive        hire
              her             Dative          hire

              it              Nominative      hit
              it              Accusative      hit
              its             Genitive        his
              it              Dative          him

Plural        they            Nominative      hīe, hī
              them            Accusative      hīe, hī
              their           Genitive        hira, hiera, heora, hiora
              them            Dative          him, heom

You should have noticed that many of the Old English pronouns are exactly the same as their Modern English equivalents. Others, though their spelling is different, are pronounced in a similar way to the Modern English equivalent. For example, "ēow" is pronounced like Modern English "you".

Old English also has another type of personal pronoun which has not survived into Modern English. These pronouns cover the special case of two people, as in "we two went to the cinema" or "you two went to the cinema". These two phrases sound correct in Modern English. However, consider the phrase "they two went to the cinema". This does not sound correct. Similarly in Old English the dual pronouns can only be used for the first and second persons. Their forms are shown below:

              MODERN ENGLISH  CASE            OLD ENGLISH

1st Person
Dual          we two          Nominative      wit
                              Accusative      unc
                              Genitive        uncer
                              Dative          unc

2nd Person
Dual          you two         Nominative      ġit
                              Accusative      inc
                              Genitive        incer
                              Dative          inc


A language whose nouns show their grammatical function in the sentence by changes in the noun itself, and not by position, is called an inflected language. The different grammatical functions a language recognises are called cases. In Modern English, there are three cases. They are the subjective, the possessive, and the objective. In Old English there are four cases. They are the nominative, accusative, genitive and dative cases. In Latin, there are six: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative. Thus Old English is more inflected than Modern English, but less so than Latin.

Translation Of The Cases

Before considering nouns in more detail, I'm going to give you now is just the bare outline of how the cases can be translated into English. There will be plenty of time for further refinement in the future -- and we'll have to do some refinement -- but for the time being, these guide lines will get you well on your way.

Nominative Case

A noun in the nominative case is often the subject of a verb. For example, in the English sentence "The tree fell on my car", the "tree" is in the nominative case because it's the subject of the verb "fell". If this were an Old English (or Latin) sentence, the word tree would be in the nominative case form. The rule of thumb for now is that if you see a noun in the nominative case, try to translate it as the subject of the verb in its sentence.

Accusative Case

The noun which is directly affected by the action of a verb is put into the accusative case. In English we call this case the "direct object" which is a little more descriptive of its function. It's the direct object of some action. In the example above, the "ball" is in the accusative case because it's the direct object of George's action of giving. In Old English, therefore, the word for ball would have the characteristic accusative case ending attached to its stem. The accusative case is also used after some prepositions, but we'll look at that later.

Genitive Case

This case shows that one noun belongs to another noun. The noun which is the owner is put into the genitive case. Like this in English: "The car's door is open". "Door" is the nominative case because it's the thing which is open -- it's the subject of the verb "is" -- and the door belongs to the car, so "car's" is put into the genitive case. So for now, every time you see the genitive case, translate the noun with the English preposition "of" or use the genitive marker "'s". For example, if the Old English word dure (door) is in the genitive case, translate it either as "the door's" or "of the door".

Dative Case

The dative case shows that a noun is indirectly affected by the action of the sentence. Take for example, in the English sentence "George gave the ball to the man". George is the subject of "give" and the thing George is giving is the "ball". So the thing most directly affected by George's action is the ball. It's the direct recipient of the action. But George then gave the ball to the man, so the man is also being affected, but only indirectly. Therefore, the man is the "indirect object" of the action of the sentence. English can also indicate the indirect object simply by position: by putting the indirect object before the direct object. Like this: George gave the man the ball. In Old English, the word for "man" would be in the dative case, and so would have the dative case ending of the declension to which the word "man" belongs. So the form would be "guman". Again, a rough rule of thumb: when you see the dative case, try to translate it with the prepositions "to" or "for" and see which of the two makes the most sense.

So let's put all this together into a chart you can use when you're translating a Old English sentence. The sooner you've memorized this guidelines, the easier it'll be for you to work through Old English sentences:

the subject of a verb
the direct object of a verb or object of a preposition
use "of" or "-'s" ("-s'" for the plural)
use "to" or "for", or put the noun before the direct object

Tony Jebson <> 14th May 2001