Nouns and Adjectives I

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 recognizes 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. Because it is less inflected than Latin, some of the information about the function of a noun has to be given in some other way than case marking. In general, this is done by using word order, but this will be covered later. For now, let's just consider the cases and how they govern the inflections of nouns and adjectives.


Old English nouns show their different cases by infection: they add additional letters to the end of the basic form of the word. This basic form that does not change throughout a word's inflection is called the stem. There are, consequently, two parts of a Old English word that you must note: the stem and the case ending. The stem contains the meaning of the word and its gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter). The case ending will tell you (1) how the noun is being used in its sentence, and (2) whether the noun is singular or plural. Let's watch the Old English noun stān (stone) as it inflects through its different cases:

Singular Old English Approximate English Translation
Nominative stān stone
Accusative stān stone
Genitive stānes of the stone
Dative stāne to/for the stone
Plural Old English Approximate English Translation
Nominative stānas stones
Accusative stānas stones
Genitive stāna of the stones
Dative stānum to/for the stones

The stem of the Old English word is clearly visible. It's stān to which different endings are being attached. The case endings are:

Singular Plural
Nominative - -as
Accusative - -as
Genitive -es -a
Dative -e -um

There are many other nouns in Old English which follow this same pattern of case endings when they inflect, in fact some 35% of all Old English nouns follow this pattern. This pattern of endings is called the masculine a-declension. There are four other common declensional patterns in Old English, but a noun will belong to only one of them. Hence we can say that stan is a masculine a-declension noun.


All Old English nouns possess what is called "gender". That is, a noun will be masculine, feminine, or neuter. Don't confuse this kind of grammatical gender with biological gender. There is nothing biologically feminine about nouns which are grammatically feminine, nothing biologically masculine about nouns which are grammatically masculine, and nothing biologically neuter about nouns which are grammatically neuter. It's just that nouns have a feature which we call gender by convention. And this is a feature which cannot change in a noun. A noun may change its case or number, but a noun will never change its gender. This is a fixed feature, and you must be told what gender a noun is when you look it up in the dictionary. This is important to remember, because although the vast majority of a- declension nouns are masculine, not all of them are. You must memorise the gender of each noun as you would learn its meaning.

The other common declensions are called:

Singular Neuter a- Feminine o- Weak Masculine -n Weak Feminine -n
Approx % of nouns 25 25 9 5
Nominative scip "ship" giefu "gift" guma "man" tunge "tongue"
Accusative scip giefe guman tungan
Genitive scipes giefe guman tungan
Dative scipe giefe guman tungan
Plural Neuter a- Feminine o- Weak Masculine -n Weak Feminine -n
Nominative scipu giefa guman tungan
Accusative scipu giefa guman tungan
Genitive scipa giefa gumena tungena
Dative scipum giefum gumum tungum

As for the masculine a-declension, the endings are clearly visible, and are summarised in the table below:

Singular Neuter a- Feminine o- Weak Masculine -n Weak Feminine -n
Nominative - -u -a -e
Accusative - -e -an -an
Genitive -es -e -an -an
Dative -e -e -an -an
Plural Neuter a- Feminine o- Weak Masculine -n Weak Feminine -n
Nominative -u -a -an -an
Accusative -u -a -an -an
Genitive -a -a -ena -ena
Dative -um -um -um -um

It should be noted that the tables above are a highly simplified representation of the other four noun classes. These will be covered in more detail in later chapters.


An Old English noun has two parts which you must note: it has a stem, which contains the noun's basic meaning and its gender; and it also has a case ending which tells you the noun's case and its number. A pattern of endings which are added to the end of a noun to show its grammatical function is called a declension. Each noun in Old English belongs to one declension.

The most common declensions are called the masculine a-, neuter a-, feminine o-, weak masculine -n and weak feminine -n declensions. There are a few other declensions, but these are uncommon and we can ignore them for the time being.


Now that we've had an introduction to nouns and adjectives, we can almost make complete phrases like "the old man" or "the good woman". The only thing we're missing are words like "the". Consider the following expressions:

                this man        that man
                these men       those men 

The words "this", "these", "that", and "those" are obviously telling you something more about "man" or "men ". They are indicating the spacial location "man" or "men " have relative to the speaker. When we say "this man" or the plural "these men", we are referring to the man or men which are nearby: "this man right here"; "these men right here". For the most part, when we say "that man" or "those men", we mean men which are some distance from us: "that man over there", or "those men over there". It would sound odd for someone to say "that man right here" or "these men way over there". So the words "this", "these", "that", and "those", are telling us more about the words they're attached to; that is, they qualify or modify their nouns. And we call words which modify other nouns "adjectives".

As you know, in Modern English adjectives hardly ever change their form to "agree" with the thing they're modifying.

                     "tall tree" and "tall trees"
                     "bad boys" and "bad girls"

Old English adjectives are different, and must change endings to show the different numbers, genders, and cases of the nouns they modify. But look again at the adjectives "this" and "that". When the nouns they modify become plural, the adjective itself changes form: from "this" to "these"; from "that" to "those". These two are the only adjectives in Modern English which change their forms to match a grammatical feature of the nouns they're modifying. They have slightly different forms to indicate a change in number of the nouns they modify.

So, these words are adjectives, since they qualify nouns, and since their main purpose is to "point out" the nouns, we call them "demonstrative adjectives" because they "point out" or "point to" (Latin "demonstrare"). This is very important to remember: these words are "demonstrative adjectives".

So let's start with the demonstrative se "that". Its forms are:

          Singular                                     Plural
          Masculine      Feminine       Neuter         All Genders

Nom. sē sēo, sīo þæt þā Acc. þone þā þæt þā Gen. þæs þǽre þæs þāra, þǽra Dat. þǽm þǽre þǽm, þām þǽm, þām Inst. þŷ, þon þǽre þŷ, þon þǽm

Another demonstrative þes "this" has the forms:

          Singular                                     Plural
          Masculine      Feminine       Neuter         All Genders

Nom. þes þēos þis þās Acc. þisne þās þis þās Gen. þisses þisse, þisre þisses þissa, þisra Dat. þissum þisse þissum þissum Inst. þŷ þŷs

The words this, an, that, and the all qualify their nouns in some way. It is worth looking at the different ways that they operate:

                     WHICH MAN?                 LOCATION

this man a unique man here that man a unique man somewhere else a man any old man - some men any old men - the man a unique man -

We now know how to say "this", "that", "these" and "those". But what about "the" or "a"? Unlike "this" or "that", these words don't specify a spacial relationship but say how specific a noun is. When we say "the man" we mean one particular man, but when we say "a man" we mean any man. Because of this "the" and "a" are often known as the definite article and the indefinite article respectively, but the group of words that includes "the", "a" and "some" are known as determiners. So, how do we say these in Old English?

Old English does not have a separate word for "the" (the definite article) so the demonstrative se in Old English serves a dual purpose. It can be used as the definite article (Modern English "the"), or it can be used as the demonstrative pronoun "that". Usually the sense is clear if you always translate se as "that".

In many places where today we would use "the", Old English omits it, so the phrase "feng to riċe" -- a favourite of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle -- translates as "succeded to the kingdom" (came to the throne).

There is one place where you need to be careful. In many places in Old Engish you will find phrases like "Æþelwulf ealdormann" or "Ælfred cyning". You could translate these as "Æþelwulf the ealdorman" and "Alfred the king", but it is more likely that the intent of these phrases is more like "Ealdormann (General) Æþelwulf" and "King Alfred".

The indefinite article is even rarer than the definite article, and when it does appear is generally more definite than in Modern English. Often the indefinite article is just omitted as in "on beorg" which translates as "onto a mountain", even though the word "a" is not there.

<to do: finish off discussion; "an" as "a certain"; "an" as "one">

Hwā is the interrogative "who?" or "what?". It can also be used as the indefinite "anyone, someone". Its forms are:

          Masc. & Fem.   Neuter

Nom. hwā hwæt Acc. hwone hwæt Gen. hwæs hwæs Dat. hwǽm, hwām hwǽm, hwām Inst. hwŷ hwŷ

<to do: examples of use of hwā>

Weak Nouns

When I showed the word stān inflecting throught its forms, I purposely chose a strong noun because these nouns show their inflectional endings more clearly. However, to start with it is easier to return to something simpler. That is: weak nouns. Consider the following:

                Weak            Weak            Weak
SINGULAR        Masculine -n    Feminine -n     Neuter -n

NOMINATIVE guma "man" tunge "tongue" eage "eye" ACCUSATIVE guman tungan eage GENITIVE guman tungan eagan DATIVE guman tungan eagan PLURAL NOMINATIVE guman tungan eagan ACCUSATIVE guman tungan eagan GENITIVE gumena tungena eagena DATIVE gumum tungum eagum

Looking at this table, it can be seen that the inflectional endings for all genders are very similar, generally the singular forms only differ in the Nominative Singular case. The Plural forms are the same for all genders. So we can get the following endings:

             Singular                             Plural
SINGULAR     Masculine    Feminine     Neuter     All Genders

NOMINATIVE -a -e -e -an ACCUSATIVE -an -an -e -an GENITIVE -an -an -an -ena DATIVE -an -an -an -um

The easiest way to learn this is to memorise the masculine case, and the following rules:

  1. Weak Feminine nouns differ only in the nominative singular form, and this ending is -e rather than -a
  2. Weak Neuter nouns differ only in the nominative and accusative singular forms, these ending are -e


Most adjectives can be declined strong or weak. Whether the strong or weak form is used is not governed by the noun with which it is used as you might expect. Instead, it is governed by how the adjective is used. There are three ways in which an adjective may be used:

  1. it may stand alone -- for example "The man is old"
  2. it may qualify a noun -- for example "The old man"
  3. it may follow a demonstrative or possessive pronoun -- for example "My old friend" or "that old man"

In the first two cases, the strong form of the adjective is used. Only in the last case, when the adjective follows a pronoun, is the weak form used (remember that "the" is often omitted in Old English). Since weak adjectives are very similar to weak nouns, I'll consider these first.

Like nouns, adjectives also have a gender. The gender used for an adjective must agree (be the same as) with the gender of the noun being qualified. The forms of weak adjectives follow those for tila "good", as shown in the table below:

             Singular                             Plural
SINGULAR     Masculine    Feminine     Neuter     All Genders

NOMINATIVE tila "good" tile tile tilan ACCUSATIVE tilan tilan tile tilan GENITIVE tilan tilan tilan tilra, tilena DATIVE tilan tilan tilan tilum

That is, the inflectional endings are exactly as for weak nouns, with the addition of an alternative Genitive Plural ending -ra (which is generally preferred to tilena).

Looking at the endings, you will see that except for the Genitive Plural -ra, they are identical to the endings for weak nouns:

             Singular                             Plural
SINGULAR     Masculine    Feminine     Neuter     All Genders

NOMINATIVE -a -e -e -an ACCUSATIVE -an -an -e -an GENITIVE -an -an -an -ra, -ena DATIVE -an -an -an -um

So, to fully learn the weak declension we must add one more rule:

  1. Weak Genitive Plural adjectives use the ending -ra or -ena (in Early West Saxon).

Strong Adjectives

Returning now to strong adjectives, the table below shows the ending for the three genders.

SINGULAR        Masculine a-     Neuter a-     Feminine o-

NOMINATIVE til til tilu ACCUSATIVE tilne til tile GENITIVE tiles tiles tilre DATIVE tilum tilum tilre PLURAL NOMINATIVE tile tilu tile, -a ACCUSATIVE tile tilu tile, -a GENITIVE tilra tilra tilra DATIVE tilum tilum tilum

Nouns and Pronouns in Action

In Modern English, determiners (words like "the", "that", "my" and "an") precede adjectives (words like "old", "young" and "short") which in turn precede the noun that they are modifying. So, we say things like "The old man", "A young woman", "That ferocious dog" but we don't say things like "man old the", or "old the man". Old English generally follows this rule and says, for example, "se gōd man", "þes eald man", etc.

In a few cases, Modern English doesn't follow this determiner - adjective - noun rule. These exceptions are usually to do with words that quantify the noun. The modifier "all" usually precedes the determiner, so we have "all these old men" not "these all old men". Similarly, the modifier "both" precedes the determiner -- "both the ugly girls" not "the both ugly girls". However, numbers follow the determiner -- "the nine cats" not "nine the cats". In both these cases, Old English has the same exceptions as Modern English, so we would say "ealle þā ealde menn" and "bēġen þā unfæġer maedenes".

One place where Old English doesn't follow Modern English word order is when more than one adjective modifies a noun. In Modern English both precede the noun. For example, "the old, fat man". In Old English the second adjective may follow the noun or both -- joined by "and" -- may follow the noun. For example, "the bright, sharp sword" could be written in Old English as "sē beorht cēne sweord", "sē beorht sweord cēne" or "sē sweord beorht ond cēne". The last form "the sword, bright and keen" can also appear in Modern English, usually in a poetic or rhetorical context. Likewise in Old English, it is usually found in a poetic context, where it is not uncommon to also find single adjective following their noun.

Another place where Old Engish order differs from Modern English is when using descriptive titles like "King", "Abbot" or "General". In Modern English these precede the noun -- "King Arthur", "General Smith" -- but in Old Engish they follow the noun. So we would say "Ælfred cyning" and "Æthelwold ealdorman".

In all phrases like this, the determiners, adjectives and nouns (or pronouns) must agree in case, number and gender. What do I mean by this? Consider the phrase "all the old men". In this phrase, "men" is plural and masculine so when we translate this into Old English, the masculine plural forms of all these words must be used. Similarly, if for example "all the old men" are the direct object of a verb, then all these words must be translated in the accusative case.


<to do>

<to do: now do stuff where NP is object of verb; examples in accusative case; examples in dative case>

<intro to prepositions; use of "on"; use of "to"; use of "of">

More Nouns

Returning for a moment to nouns, have a look at these two neuter a- nouns, and see how their endings run:


NOMINATIVE      scip "ship"     word "word"
ACCUSATIVE      scip            word
GENITIVE        scipes          wordes
DATIVE          scipe           worde


NOMINATIVE      scipu           word
ACCUSATIVE      scipu           word
GENITIVE        scipa           worda
DATIVE          scipum          wordum

Notice that they differ in the Nominative and Accusative plural. Why is this so? Unfortunately, to understand this, we need a reasonably lengthy discussion of Phonology, which will be discussed in the next chapter, so let's leave it there for the moment. I'll return to these words when I have covered the required terminology.


<to do: add 10 weak nouns>

Tony Jebson <> 16th May 2001