The history of Old English and its development.
In 409 AD the last Roman legion left British shores, and in fifty years
the Islands became a victim of invaders. Germanic tribes from Southern
Scandinavia and Northern Germany, pushed from their densely populated
homelands, looked for a new land to settle. At that time the British
Isles were inhabited by the Celts and remaining Roman colonists, who
failed to organize any resistance against Germanic intruders, and so had
to let them settle here. This is how the Old English language was born.
Celtic tribes crossed the Channel and starting to settle in Britain
already in the 7th century BC. The very word “Britain” seems to be the
name given by the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the island, accepted by
first Indo-Europeans. The Celts quickly spread over the island, and only
in the north still existed non-Indo-European peoples which are sometimes
called “Picts” (the name given by Romans). Picts lived in Scotland and
on Shetland Islands and represented the most ancient population of the
Isles, the origin of which is unknown. Picts do not seem to leave any
features of their language to Indo-European population of Britain – the
famous Irish and Welsh initial mutations of consonants can be the only
sign of the substratum left by unknown nations of Britain. At the time
the Celts reached Britain they spoke the common language, close to
Gaulish in France. But later, when Celtic tribes occupied Ireland,
Northern England, Wales, their tongues were divided according to tribal
divisions. These languages will later become Welsh, Irish Gaelic,
Cornish, but from that time no signs remained, because the Celts did not
invent writing yet. Not much is left from Celtic languages in English.
Though many place names and names for rivers are surely Celtic (like Usk
– from Celtic *usce “water”, or Avon – from *awin “river”), the
morphology and phonetics are untouched by the Celtic influence. Some
linguists state that the word down comes from Celtic *dun “down”; other
examples of Celtic influence in place names are tne following:
cothair (a fortress) – Carnarvon
uisge (water) – Exe, Usk, Esk
dun, dum (a hill) – Dumbarton, Dumfries, Dunedin
llan (church) – Llandaff, Llandovery, Llandudno
coil (forest) – Kilbrook, Killiemore
kil (church) – Kilbride, Kilmacolm
ceann (cape) – Kebadre, Kingussie
inis (island) – Innisfail
inver (mountain) – Inverness, Inverurie
bail (house) – Ballantrae, Ballyshannon,
and, certainly, the word whiskey which means the same as Irish uisge
“water”. But this borrowing took place much later.
In the 1st century AD first Roman colonists begin to penetrate in
Britain; Roman legions built roads, camps, founded towns and castles.
But still they did not manage to assimilate the Celts, maybe because
they lived apart from each other and did not mix. Tens of Latin words in
Britain together with many towns, places and hills named by Romans make
up the Roman heritage in the Old English. Such cities as Dorchester,
Winchester, Lancaster, words like camp, castra, many terms of the
Christian religion and several words denoting armaments were borrowed at
that time by Britons, and automatically were transferred into the Old
English, or Anglo-Saxon language already when there was no Romans in the
In 449 the legendary leaders of two Germanic tribes, Hengist and Horsa,
achieved British shores on their ships. The Anglo-Saxon conquest,
however, lasted for several centuries, and all this period Celtic
aborigines moved farther and farther to the west of the island until
they manage to fortify in mountainous Wales, in Corwall, and preserved
their kingdoms in Scotland. Germanic tribes killed Celtic population,
destroyed Celtic and former Roman towns and roads. In the 5th century
such cities as Durovern in Kent, Virocon, Trimontii, Camulodunum, were
abandoned by the population.
Angles settled around the present-day Noridge, and in Northern England;
Saxons, the most numerous of the tribes, occupied all Central England,
the south of the island and settled in London (Londinii at that time).
Jutes and Frises, who probably came to Britain a bit later, settled on
the island of White and in what is now Kent – the word Kent derives from
the name of the Celtic tribe Cantii. Soon all these tribes founded their
separate kingdoms, which was united after centuries of struggle only in
878 by Alfred, king of Wessex. Before that each of the tribes spoke its
language, they were similar to each other but had differences which
later became the dialectal peculiarities of Old English.
Now a little bit about the foreign influence in Old English. From the
6th century Christianity start activities in Britain, the Bible is
translated into Old English, and quite a lot of terms are borrowed from
Latin at that time: many bishops, missionaries and Pope’s officials come
from Rome. The next group of foreign loanwords were taken from
Scandinavian dialects, after the Vikings occupied much of the country in
the 9th – 11th centuries. Scandinavian languages were close relatives
with Old English, so the mutual influence was strong enough to develop
also the Old English morphology, strengthening its analytic processes.
Many words in the language were either changed to sound more
Scandinavian, or borrowed.
The Old English language, which has quite a lot of literature monuments,
came to the end after the Norman conquest in 1066. The new period was
called Middle English.
The Old English Substantive.
The substantive in Indo-European has always three main categories which
change its forms: the number, the case, the gender. It ias known that
the general trend of the Indo-European family is to decrease the number
of numbers, cases and genders from the Proto-Indo-European stage to
modern languages. Some groups are more conservative and therefore keep
many forms, preserving archaic language traits; some are more
progressive and lose forms or transform them very quickly. The Old
English language, as well as practically all Germanic tongues, is not
conservative at all: it generated quite a lot of analytic forms instead
of older inflections, and lost many other of them.
Of eight Proto-Indo-European cases, Old English keeps just four which
were inherited from the Common Germanic language. In fact, several of
original Indo-European noun cases were weak enough to be lost
practically in all branches of the family, coinciding with other,
stronger cases. The ablative case often was assimilated by the genitive
(in Greek, Slavic, Baltic, and Germanic), locative usually merged with
dative (Italic, Celtic, Greek), and so did the instrumental case. That
is how four cases appeared in Germanic and later in Old English –
nominative, genitive, accusative and dative. These four were the most
ancient and therefore stable in the system of the Indo-European
The problem of the Old English instrumental case is rather strange –
this case arises quite all of a sudden among Germanic tongues and in
some forms is used quite regularly (like in demonstrative pronouns). In
Gothic the traces of instrumental and locative though can be found, but
are considered as not more than relics. But the Old English must have
“recalled” this archaic instrumental, which existed, however, not for
too long and disappeared already in the 10th century, even before the
Norman conquest and transformation of the English language into its
As for other cases, here is a little pattern of their usage in the Old
1. Genitive – expresses the possessive menaing: whose? of what?
Also after the expression meaning full of , free of , worthy of , guilty
2. Dative – expresses the object towards which the action is directed.
After the after the verbs like “say to smb”, “send smb”, “give to smb”;
“known to smb”, “necessary for smth / smb”, “close to smb”, “peculiar
Also in the expressions like from the enemy, against the wind, on the
3. Accusative – expresses the object immediately affected by the action
(what?), the direct object.
Three genders were strong enough, and only northern dialects could
sometimes lose their distinction. But in fact the lose of genders in
Middle English happened due to the drop of the case inflections, when
words could no longer be distinguished by its endings. As for the
numbers, the Old English noun completely lost the dual, which was
preserved only in personal pronouns (see later).
All Old English nouns were divided into strong and weak ones, the same
as verbs in Germanic. While the first had a branched declension, special
endings for different numbers and cases, the weak declension was
represented by nouns which were already starting to lose their
declension system. The majority of noun stems in Old English should be
referred to the strong type. Here are the tables for each stems with
some comments – the best way of explaining the grammar.
Nom. HYPERLINK “stan.wav” stan (stone) scip (ship) ban (bone)
reced (house) nieten (ox)
Gen. stanes scipes banes recedes
Dat. stane scipe bane recede
Acc. stan scip ban
Nom. stanas scipu ban reced
Gen. stana scipa bana receda
Dat. stanum scipum banum recedum
Acc. stanas scipu ban reced
This type of stems derived from masculine and neuter noun o-stems in
Proto-Indo-European. First when I started studying Old English I was
irritated all the time because I couldn’t get why normal Indo-European
o-stems are called a-stems in all books on Old English. I found it a
silly and unforgivable mistake until I understood that in Germanic the
Indo-European short o became a, and therefore the stem marker was also
changed the same way. So the first word here, stan, is masculine, the
rest are neuter. The only difference in declension is the plural
nominative-accusative, where neuter words lost their endings or have -u,
while masculine preserved -as.
A little peculiarity of those words who have the sound [ae] in the stem
and say farewell to it in the plural:
Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
N HYPERLINK “daeg.wav” daeg (day) dagas faet (vessel) fatu
G daeges daga faetes fata
D daege dagum faete fatum
A daeg dagas faet fatu
Examples of a-stems: earm (an arm), eorl, helm (a helmet), hring (a
ring), muth (a mouth); neuter ones – dor (a gate), hof (a courtyard),
geoc (a yoke), word, deor (an animal), bearn (a child), gear (a year).
N hrycg (back) here (army) ende (end) cynn (kind) rice (realm)
G hrycges heriges endes cynnes rices
D hrycge herige ende cynne rice
A hrycg here ende cynn
N hrycgeas herigeas endas cynn riciu
G hrycgea herigea enda cynna ricea
D hrycgium herigum endum cynnum ricium
A hrycgeas herigeas endas cynn riciu
Again the descendant of Indo-European jo-stem type, known only in
masculine and neuter. In fact it is a subbranch of o-stems, complicated
by the i before the ending: like Latin lupus and filius. Examples of
this type: masculine – wecg (a wedge), bocere (a scholar), fiscere (a
fisher); neuter – net, bed, wite (a punishment).
Masc. Neut. Masc. Neut.
N bearu (wood) bealu (evil) bearwas bealu (-o)
G bearwes bealwes bearwa bealwa
D bearwe bealwe bearwum bealwum
A bearu (-o) bealu (-o) bearwas bealu (-o)
Just to mention. This is one more peculiarity of good old a-stems with
the touch of w in declension. Interesting that the majority of this kind
of stems make abstract nouns. Examples: masculine – snaw (snow), theaw
(a custom); neuter – searu (armour), treow (a tree), cnew (a knee)
N swathu (trace) for (journey) tigol (brick)
G swathe fore tigole
D swathe fore tigole
A swathe fore tigole
N swatha fora tigola
G swatha fora tigola
D swathum forum tigolum
A swatha fora tigola
Another major group of Old English nouns consists only of feminine
nouns. Funny but in Indo-European they are called a-stems. But Germanic
turned vowels sometimes upside down, and this long a became long o.
However, practically no word of this type ends in -o, which was lost or
transformed. The special variants of o-stems are jo- and wo-stems which
have practically the same declension but with the corresponding sounds
between the root and the ending.
Examples of o-stems: caru (care), sceamu (shame), onswaru (worry), lufu
(love), lar (an instruction), sorg (sorrow), thrag (a season), ides (a
Examples of jo-stems: sibb (peace), ecg (a blade), secg (a sword), hild
(a fight), aex (an axe).
Examples of wo-stems: beadu (a battle), nearu (need), laes (a beam).
N sige (victory) hyll (hill) sife (sieve)
G siges hylles sifes
D sige hylle sife
A sige hyll sife
N sigeas hyllas sifu
G sigea hylla sifa
D sigum hyllum sifum
A sigeas hyllas sifu
The tribes and nations were usually of this very type, and were used
always in plural: Engle (the Angles), Seaxe (the Saxons), Mierce (the
Mercians), Northymbre (the Northumbrians), Dene (the Danish)
G Dena (Miercna, Seaxna)
N hyd (hide) hyde, hyda
G hyde hyda
D hyde hydum
A hyd hyde, hyda
This kind of stems included all three genders and derived from the same
type of Indo-European stems, frequent also in other branches and
languages of the family.
Examples: masculine – mere (a sea), mete (food), dael (a part), giest (a
guest), drync (a drink); neuter – spere (a spear); feminine – cwen (a
woman), wiht (a thing).
N sunu (son)feld (field) duru (door) hand (hand)
G suna felda dura handa
D suna felda dura handa
A sunu feld duru hand
N suna felda dura handa
G suna felda dura handa
D sunum feldum durum handum
A suna felda dura handa
They can be either masculine or feminine. Here it is seen clearly how
Old English lost its final -s in endings: Gothic had sunus and handus,
while Old English has already sunu and hand respectively. Interesting
that dropping final consonants is also a general trend of almost all
Indo-European languages. Ancient tongues still keep them everywhere –
Greek, Latin, Gothic, Old Prussian, Sanskrit, Old Irish; but later, no
matter where a language is situated and what processes it undergoes,
final consonants (namely -s, -t, often -m, -n) disappear, remaining
nowadays only in the two Baltic languages and in New Greek.
Examples: masculine – wudu (wood), medu (honey), weald (forest), sumor
(a summer); fem. – nosu (a nose), flor (a floor).
The other type of nouns according to their declension was the group of
Weak nouns, derived from n-nouns is Common Germanic. Their declension is
simple and stable, having special endings:
Masc. Fem. Neut.
N nama (name) cwene (woman) eage (eye)
G naman cwenan eagan
D naman cwenan eagan
A naman cwenan eage
N naman cwenan eagan
G namena cwenena eagena
D namum cwenum eagum
A naman cwenan eagan
Examples: masc. – guma (a man), wita (a wizard), steorra (a star), mona
(the Moon), dema (a judge); fem. – eorthe (Earth), heorte (a heart),
sunne (Sun); neut. – eare (an ear).
And now the last one which is interesting due to its special Germanic
structure. I am speaking about the root-stems which according to
Germanic laws of Ablaut, change the root vowel during the declension. In
Modern English such words still exist, and we all know them: goose –
geese, tooth – teeth, foot – feet, mouse – mice etc. At school they were
a nightmare for me, now they are an Old English grammar. Besides, in Old
English time they were far more numerous in the language.
N mann fot (foot) toth (tooth) | hnutu (nut) boc (book) gos
(goose) mus (mouse) burg (burg)
G mannes fotes tothes | hnute boce
gose muse burge
D menn fet teth | hnyte
bec ges mys byrig
A mann fot toth | hnutu
bok gos mus burg
N menn fet teth | hnyte
bec ges mys byrig
G manna fota totha | hnuta
boca gosa musa burga
D mannum fotum tothum | hnutum bocum
gosum musum burgum
A menn fet teth | hnyte
bec ges mys byrig
The general rule is the so-called i-mutation, which changes the vowel.
The conversion table looks as follows and never fails – it is
universally right both for verbs and nouns. The table of i-mutation
changes remains above.
Examples: fem. – wifman (a woman), ac (an oak), gat (a goat), broc
(breeches), wloh (seam), dung (a dungeon), furh (a furrow), sulh (a
plough), grut (gruel), lus (a louse), thrul (a basket), ea (water), niht
(a night), mae’gth (a girl), scrud (clothes).
у, jу, wу, i -stems).
Masculine Neutral Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative – -as – -u (-) – -a
Genitive -es -a -es -a -e -a
Dative -e -um -e -um -e -um
Accustive – -as – -u (-) -e -a
Weak declension u-stems
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative – -an – -a
Genitive -an -ena -a -a
Dative -an -um -a -um
Accustive -an -an – -a
The Old English Adjective.
In all historical Indo-European languages adjectives possess practically
the same morphological features as the nouns, the the sequence of these
two parts of speech is an ordinary thing in Indo-European. However, the
Nostratic theory (the one which unites Altaic, Uralic, Semitic,
Dravidian and Indo-European language families into one Nostratic
super-family, once speaking a common Proto-Nostratic language)
represented by Illych-Svitych and many other famous linguists, states
that adjectives in this Proto-Nostratic tongue were morphologically
closer to the verbs than to the nouns.
This theory is quite interesting, because even in Proto-Indo-European, a
language which was spoken much later than Proto-Nostratic, there are
some proofs of the former predicative function of the adjectives. In
other families of the super-family this function is even more clear. In
Altaic languages, and also in Korean and Japanese, which are originally
Altaic, the adjective plays the part of the predicate, and in Korean,
for example, the majority of adjectives are predicative. It means that
though they always denote the quality of the noun, they act the same way
as verbs which denote action. Adjective “red” is actually translated
from Japanese as “to be red”, and the sentence Bara-wa utsukusii will
mean “the rose is beautiful”, while bara is “a rose”, -wa is the
nominative marker, and utsukusii is “to be beautiful”. So no verb here,
and the adjective is a predicate. This structure is typical for many
Altaic languages, and probably was normal for Proto-Nostratic as well.
The Proto-Indo-European language gives us some stems which are hard to
denote whether they used to mean an adjective or a verb. Some later
branches reflect such stems as verbs, but other made them adjectives. So
it was the Proto-Indo-European epoch where adjectives as the part of
speech began to transform from a verbal one to a nominal one. And all
Indo-European branches already show the close similarity of the
structure of adjectives and nouns in the language. So does the Old
English language, where adjective is one of the nominal parts of speech.
As well as the noun, the adjective can be declined in case, gender and
number. Moreover, the instrumental case which was discussed before was
preserved in adjectives much stronger than in nouns. Adjectives must
follow sequence with nouns which they define – thet is why the same
adjective can be masculine, neuter and feminine and therefore be
declined in two different types: one for masculine and neuter, the other
for feminine nouns. The declension is more or less simple, it looks much
like the nominal system of declension, though there are several
important differences. Interesting to know that one-syllable adjectives
(“monosyllabic”) have different declension than two-syllable ones
(“disyllabic”). See for yourselves:
Masc. Neut. Fem.
N blaec (black) blaec blacu
G blaces blaces blaecre
D blacum blacum blaecre
A blaecne blaec blace
I blace blace –
N blace blacu blaca
G blacra blacra blacra
D blacum blacum blacum
A blace blacu blaca
Here “I” means that very instrumental case, answering the question (by
what? with whom? with the help of what?).
Masc. Neut. Fem.
N eadig (happy) eadig eadigu
G eadiges eadiges eadigre
D eadigum eadigum eadigre
A eadigne eadig eadige
I eadige eadige
N eadige eadigu eadiga
G eadigra eadigra eadigra
D eadigum eadigum eadigum
A eadige eadigu eadigu
So not many new endings: for accusative singular we have -ne, and for
genitive plural -ra, which cannot be met in the declension of nouns. The
difference between monosyllabic and disyllabic is the accusative plural
feminine ending -a / -u. That’s all.
ja, jo-stems (swete – sweet)
Masc. Neut. Fem. Masc. Neut. Fem.
N swete swete swetu swete swetu sweta
G swetes swetes swetre swetra swetra swetra
D swetum swetum swetre swetum swetum swetum
A swetne swete swete swete swetu sweta
I swete swete –
Masc. Neut. Fem.
N nearu (narrow) nearu nearu
G nearwes nearwes nearore
D nearwum nearwum nearore
A nearone nearu nearwe
I nearwe nearwe
N nearwe nearu nearwa
G nearora nearora nearora
D nearwum nearwum nearwum
A nearwe nearu nearwa
Actually, some can just omit all those examples – the adjectival
declension is the same as a whole for all stems, as concerns the strong
type. In general, the endings look the following way, with very few
varieties (note that “-” means the null ending):
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, the rule
is as simple as that.
Thus if you say “a black tree” that will be blaec treow (strong), and “a
black eye” will sound blace eage. Here is the weak declension example
(blaca – black):
Masc. Neut. Fem.
N blaca blace blace blacan
G blacan blacan blacan blaecra
D blacan blacan blacan blacum
A blacan blace blacan blacan
Weak declension has a single plural for all genders, which is pleasant
for those who don’t want to remeber too many forms. In general, the weak
declension is much easier.
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 (absolutive, comparative, superlative) – though some
languages also had the so-called “equalitative” grade; the special
suffices for forming comparatives and absolutives; suppletive stems for
several certain adjectives.
The suffices we are used to see in Modern English, those -er and -est in
weak, weaker, the weakest, are the direct descendants of the Old English
ones. At that time they sounded as -ra and -est. See the examples:
earm (poor) – earmra – earmost
blaec (black) – blaecra – blacost
Many adjectives changed the root vowel – another example of the Germanic
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 another stem, which is called “suppletive” in linguistics.
Many of them are still seen in today’s English:
god (good) – betera – betst (or selra – selest)
yfel (bad) – wiersa – wierest
micel (much) – mara – maest
lytel (little) – lae’ssa – lae’st
fear (far) – fierra – fierrest, fyrrest
neah (near) – nearra – niehst, nyhst
ae’r (early) – ae’rra – ae’rest
fore (before) – furthra – fyrest (first)
Now you see what the word “first” means – just the superlative degree
from the adjective “before, forward”. The same is with niehst from neah
(near) which is now “next”.
Old English affixation for adjectives:
1. -ede (group “adjective stem + substantive stem”) – micelheafdede
2. -ihte (from substantives with mutation) – thirnihte (thorny)
3. -ig (from substantives with mutation) – halig (holy), mistig
4. -en, -in (with mutation) – gylden (golden), wyllen (wollen)
5. -isc (nationality) – Englisc, Welisc, mennisc (human)
6. -sum (from stems of verbs, adjectives, substantives) – sibbsum
(peaceful), hiersum (obedient)
7. -feald (from stems of numerals, adjectives) – thriefeald
8. -full (from abstract substantive stems) – sorgfull (sorrowful)
9. -leas (from verbal and nominal stems) – slaepleas (sleepless)
10. -lic (from substantive and adjective stems) – eorthlic (earthly)
11. -weard (from adjective, substantive, adverb stems) – inneweard
(internal), hamweard (homeward)
The Old English Pronoun.
Pronouns were the only part of speech in Old English which preserved the
dual number in declension, but only this makes them more archaic than
the rest parts of speech. Most of pronouns are declined in numnber, case
and gender, in plural the majority have only one form for all genders.
We will touch each group of Old English pronouns and comment on them.
Through the last 1500 years min became mine, ge turned into you (ye as a
colloquial variant). But changes are still significant: the 2nd person
singular pronouns disappeared from the language, remaining only in
poetic speech and in some dialects in the north of England. This is
really a strange feature – I can hardly recall any other Indo-European
language which lacks the special pronoun for the 2nd person singular
(French tu, German du, Russian ty etc.). The polite form replaced the
colloquial one, maybe due to the English traditional “ladies and
gentlemen” customs. Another extreme exists in Irish Gaelic, which has no
polite form of personal pronoun, and you turn to your close friend the
same way as you spoke with a prime minister – the familiar word,
translated into French as tu. It can sound normal for English, but
really funny for Slavic, Baltic, German people who make a thorough
distinction between speaking to a friend and to a stranger
2. Demonstrative pronouns (‘I’ means the instrumental case)
3. Interrogative pronouns
N hwa hwaet
G hwaes hwaes
D hwae’m hwae’m
A hwone hwaet
I – hwy, hwi
These pronouns, which actually mean the masculine and the neuter
varieties of the same pronoun, derive from Proto-Indo-European *kwis,
with *kw becoming hw in Germanic languages. In Gothic the combination hw
was considered as one sound which is another proof that the
Indo-European the labiovelar sound kw was a single sound with some
Later Germanic languages changed the sound in a different way: in
Norwegian it remained as hv, in German turned into w (as in wer ‘who’,
was ‘what’), in English finally changed into wh pronounced in most cases
[w], but somewhere also like [h] or [hw].
Interesting that the instrumental of the word hwaet, once being a
pronoun form, later became the word why in English. So ‘why?’ is
originally an instrumental case of the interrogative pronoun.
Other interrogative pronouns, or adverbs, as they are sometimes called,
include the following, all beginning with hw:
hwilc ‘which?’ – is declined as the strong adjective (see HYPERLINK “”
\l “4” adjectives above)
hwonne ‘when?’ – this and following are not declined, naturally
4. Other kinds of pronouns
They include definite, indefinite, negative and relative, all typical
for Indo-European languages. All of them still exist in Modern English,
and all of them are given here:
gehwa (every) – declined the same way as hwa
swilc (such) – all declined like strong adjectives
se ylca (the same) – declined like a weak adjective
ae’nig (any) – both behave the same way as strong adjectives
nan, nae’nig (no, none) – declined like strong adjectives
the (which, that)
sethe (which, that) – they are not declined
In Proto-Indo-European and in many ancient Indo-European languages there
was a special kind of declension calleed pronominal, using only by
pronouns and opposed to the one used by nouns, adjectives and numerals.
Old English lost it, and its pronouns use all the same endings as the
nouns and adjectives. Maybe the only inflection which remembers the
Proto-language times, is the neuter nominative -t in hwaet and thaet,
the ancient ending for inanimate (inactive) nouns and pronouns.
The Old English Numeral.
It is obvious that all Indo-European languages have the general trend of
from the synthetic (or inflectional) stage to the analytic one. At least
for the latest 1,000 years this trend could be observed in all branches
of the family. The level of this analitization process in each single
language can be estimated by several features, their presence or absence
in the language. One of them is for sure the declension of the numerals.
In Proto-Indo-European all numerals, both cardinal and ordinal, were
declined, as they derived on a very ancient stage from nouns or
adjectives, originally being a declined part of speech. There are still
language groups within the family with decline their numerals: among
them, Slavic and Baltic are the most typical samples. They practically
did not suffer any influence of the analytic processes. But all other
groups seem to have been influenced somehow. Ancient Italic and Hellenic
languages left the declension only for the first four cardinal pronouns
(from 1 to 4), the same with ancient Celtic.
The Old English language preserves this system of declension only for
three numerals. It is therefore much easier to learn, though not for
English speakers I guess – Modern English lacks declension at all.
Here is the list of the cardinal numerals:
Ordinal numerals use the suffix -ta or -tha, etymologically a common
Indo-European one (*-to-).
The Old English Adverb.
Adverbs can be either primary (original adverbs) or derive from the
adjectives. In fact, adverbs appeared in the language rather late, and
eraly Proto-Indo-European 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 thew primary adverbs emerged.
In Old English the basic primary adverbs were the following ones:
Secondary adverbs originated from the instrumental singular of the
neuter adjectives of strong declension. They all add the suffix -e: wide
(widely), deope (deeply), faeste (fast), hearde (hard). Another major
sugroup of them used the suffixes -lic, -lice from more complexed
adjectives: bealdlice (boldly), freondlice (in a friendly way).
Adverbs, as well as adjectives, had their degrees of comparison:
wide – widor – widost (widely – more widely – most widely)
long – leng (long – longer)
feorr (far) – fierr
softe (softly) – seft
eathe (easily) – ieth
wel (well) – betre – best
yfele (badly) – wiers, wyrs – wierst
micele (much) – mare – mae’st
The Old English Verb.
Old English system had strong and weak verbs: the ones which used the
ancient Germanic type of conjugation (the Ablaut), and the ones which
just added endings to their past and participle forms. Strong verbs make
the clear majority. According to the traditional division, which is
taken form Gothic and is accepted by modern linguistics, all strong
verbs are distinguished between seven classes, each having its
peculiarities in conjugation and in the stem structure. It is easy to
define which verb is which class, so you will not swear trying to
identify the type of conjugation of this or that verb (unlike the
situation with the substantives).
Here is the table which is composed for you to see the root vowels of
all strong verb classes. Except the VII class, they all have exact stem
vowels for all four main forms:
Now let us see what Old English strong verbs of all those seven classes
looked like and what were their main four forms. I should mention that
besides the vowel changes in the stem, verbal forms also changed stem
consonants very often. The rule of such changes is not mentioned
practically in any books on the Old English language, though there is
some. See for yourselves this little chart where the samples of strong
verb classes are given with their four forms:
Infinitive, Past singular, Past plural, Participle II (or Past
writan (to write), wrat, writon, writen
snipan (to cut), snath, snidon, sniden
Other examples: belifan (stay), clifan (cling), ygripan (clutch),
bitan (bite), slitan (slit), besmitan (dirty), gewitan (go), blican
(glitter), sican (sigh), stigan (mount), scinan (shine), arisan (arise),
beodan (to offer), bead, budon, boden
ceosan (to choose), ceas, curon, coren
Other examples: creopan (creep), cleofan (cleave), fleotan (fleet),
geotan (pour), greotan (weep), neotan (enjoy), sceotan (shoot), leogan
(lie), breowan (brew), dreosan (fall), freosan (freeze), forleosan
III a) a nasal consonant
drincan (to drink), dranc, druncon, druncen
Other: swindan (vanish), onginnan (begin), sinnan (reflect), winnan
(work), gelimpan (happen), swimman (swim).
III b) l + a consonant
helpan (to help), healp, hulpon, holpen
Other: delfan (delve), swelgan (swallow), sweltan (die), bellan
(bark), melcan (milk).
III c) r, h + a consonant
steorfan (to die), stearf, sturfon, storfen
weorthan (to become), wearth, wurdon, worden
feohtan (to fight), feaht, fuhton, fohten
More: ceorfan (carve), hweorfan (turn), weorpan (throw), beorgan
(conceal), beorcan (bark).
stelan (to steal), stae’l, stae’lon, stolen
beran (to bear), bae’r, bae’ron, boren
More: cwelan (die), helan (conceal), teran (tear), brecan (break).
tredan (to tread), trae’d, trae’don, treden
cwethan (to say), cwae’th, cwae’don, cweden
More: metan (measure), swefan (sleep), wefan (weave), sprecan (to
speak), wrecan (persecute), lesan (gather), etan (eat), wesan (be).
faran (to go), for, foron, faren
More: galan (sing), grafan (dig), hladan (lade), wadan (walk),
dragan (drag), gnagan (gnaw), bacan (bake), scacan (shake), wascan
hatan (to call), het, heton, haten
feallan (to fall), feoll, feollon, feallen
cneawan (to know), cneow, cneowon, cnawen
More: blondan (blend), ondrae’dan (fear), lacan (jump), scadan
(divide), fealdan (fold), healdan (hold), sponnan (span), beatan (beat),
blowan (flourish), hlowan (low), spowan (flourish), mawan (mow), sawan
(sow), rawan (turn).
So the rule from the table above is observed carefully. The VII class
was made especially for those verbs which did not fit into any of the
six classes. In fact the verbs of the VII class are irregular and cannot
be explained by a certain exact rule, though they are quite numerous in
Examining verbs of Old English comparing to those of Modern English it
is easy to catch the point of transformation. Not only the ending -an in
the infinitive has dropped, but the stems were subject to many changes
some of which are not hard to find. For example, the long i in the stem
gives i with an open syllable in the modern language (writan > write,
scinan > shine). The same can be said about a, which nowadays is a in
open syllables pronounced [ae] (hladan > lade). The initial combination
sc turns to sh; the open e was transformed into ea practically
everywhere (sprecan > speak, tredan > tread, etc.). Such laws of
transformation which you can gather into a small table help to recreate
the Old word from a Modern English one in case you do not have a
dictionary in hand, and therefore are important for reconstruction of
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. Weak verbs are divided into
three classes which had only slight differences though. They did have
the three forms – the infinitive, the past tense, the participle II.
Here is the table.
Inf. Past PP
deman (to judge), demde, demed
hieran (to hear), hierde, hiered
nerian (to save), nerede, nered
styrian (to stir), styrede, styred
fremman (to commit), fremede, fremed
cnyssan (to push), cnysede, cnysed
When the suffix is preceded by a voiceless consonant the ending
changes a little bit:
cepan (to keep), cepte, cept / ceped
gretan (to greet), grette, gret / greted
If the verb stem ends in consonant plus d or t:
sendan (to send), sende, send / sended
restan (to rest), reste, rest / rested
sellan (to give), sealde, seald
tellan (to tell), tealde, teald
cwellan (to kill), cwealde, cweald
tae’can (to teach), tahte, taht
rae’can (to reach), rahte, raht
bycgan (to buy), bohte, boht
secan (to seek), sohte, soht
wyrcan (to work), worhte, worht
thencan (to think), thohte, thoht
bringan (to bring), brohte, broht
Other examples of the I class weak verbs just for your interest: berian
(beat), derian (harm), erian (plough), ferian (go), herian (praise),
gremman (be angry), wennan (accustom), clynnan (sound), dynnan
(resound), hlynnan (roar), hrissan (tremble), sceththan (harm), wecgean
(move), feran (go), lae’ran (teach), draefan (drive), fysan (hurry),
drygean (dry), hiepan (heap), metan (to meet), wyscean (wish), byldan
(build), wendan (turn), efstan (hurry). All these are regular.
macian (to make), macode, macod
lufian (to love), lufode, lufod
hopian (to hope), hopode, hopod
Tis class makes quite a small group of verbs, all of them having -o-
before the past endings. Other samples: lofian (praise), stician
(pierce), eardian (dwell), sceawian (look), weorthian (honour), wundrian
(wonder), faestnian (fasten), maersian (glorify).
habban (to have), haefde, haefd
libban (to live), lifde, lifd
secgan (to say), saegde, saegd
hycgan (to think), hogde, hogod
threagan (to threaten), threade, thread
smeagan (to think), smeade, smead
freogan (to free), freode, freod
feogan (to hate), feode, feod
Old English verbs are conjugated having two tenses – the Present tense
and the Past tense, and three moods – indicative, subjunctive, and
imperative. Of these, only the subjunctive mood has disappeared in the
English language, acquiring an analytic construction instead of
inflections; and the imperative mood has coincided with the infinitive
form (to write – write!). In the Old English period they all looked
The common table of the verb conjugation is given below. Here you should
notice that the Present tense has the conjugation for all three moods,
while the Past tense – for only two moods (no imperative in the Past
tense, naturally). Some more explanation should be given about the stem
In fact all verbal forms were generated in Old English from three verb
stems, and each verb had its own three ones: the Infinitive stem, the
Past Singular stem, the Past Plural stem. For the verb writan, for
example, those three stems are: writ- (infinitive without the ending
-an), wrat- (the Past singular), writ- (the Past plural without the
ending -on). The table below explains where to use this or that stem.
Additionally, the participles (Participle I and Participle II) are
formed by the suffix -ende to the Infinitive stem (participle I), or the
prefix ge- + the Past Plural stem + the ending -en (Participle II).
Tired of the theory? Here is the preactice. We give several examples of
the typical verbs – first strong, then weak, then irregular.
Class I strong – writan (to write)
Ind. Subj. Imper. ¦ Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 write – ¦ wrat
2 writest write writ ¦ write } write
3 writeth – ¦ wrat
Pl. writath writen 2 writath ¦ writon writen
writan I writende II gewriten
Class II weak – lufian (to love)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 lufie – lufode
2 lufast }lufie lufa lufodest } lufode
3 lufath – lufode
Pl. lufiath lufien 2 lufiath lufodon lufoden
I lufiende II gelufod
Class III strong – bindan (to bind)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 binde – ¦ band, bond
2 bindest } binde bind ¦ bunde } bunde
3 bindeth – ¦ band, bond
Pl. bindath binden bindath ¦ bundon bunden
bindan I bindende II gebunden
Class V strong – seon (to see)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 seo – seah
2 siehst } seo seoh sawe } sawe,
3 siehth – seah saege
Pl. seoth seon 2 seoth sawon sawen
I seonde II gesewen, gesegen
Class VII strong – fon (to catch)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 fo – feng
2 fehst } fo foh fenge } fenge
3 fehth – feng
Pl. foth fon 2 foth fengon fengen
I fonde II gefangen, gefongen
Class III weak – secgan (to say)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 secge – saegde
2 saegst }secge saege saegdest }saegde
3 saegth – saegde
Pl. secgath secgen 2 secgath saegdon saegden
I secgende II gesaegd
Class III weak – libban (to live)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 libbe – lifde
2 liofast }libbe liofa lifdest } lifde
3 liofath – lifde
Pl. libbath libben 2 libbath lifdon lifden
I libbende II gelifd
A special group is made by the so-called Present-Preterite verbs,
which are conjugated combining two varieties of the usual verb
conjugation: strong and weak. These verbs, at all not more than seven,
are nowadays called modal verbs in English.
Present-Preterite verbs have their Present tense forms generated from
the Strong Past, and the Past tense, instead, looks like the Present
Tense of the Weak verbs. The verbs we present here are the following:
witan (to know), cunnan (can), thurfan (to need), dearan (to dare),
munan (to remember), sculan (shall), magan (may).
Present of witan (= strong Past)
Ind. Subj. Imp.
Sg. 1 wat –
2 wast } wite wite
3 wat –
Pl. witon 2 witen witath
Past (= Weak)
Sg.1 wisse, wiste
2 wissest, wistest } wisse, wiste
3 wisse, wiste
Pl. wisson, wiston wissen, wisten
Participles: I witende, II witen, gewiten
Ind. Subj. Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 cann cuthe
2 canst } cunne cuthest } cuthe
3 cann cuthe
Pl. cunnon cunnen cuthon cuthen
Sg. 1 thearf thorfte
2 thearft } thurfe thorftest } thorfte
3 thearf thorfte
Pl. thurfon thurfen thorfton thorften
Sg. 1 maeg meahte mihte, mihten
2 meaht } maege meahtest
3 maeg meahte
Pl. magon maegen meahton
The main difference of verbs of this type in modern English is their
expressing modality, i.e. possibility, obligation, necessity. They do
not require the particle to before the infinitive which follows them. In
Old English in general no verb requires this particle before the
infinitive. In fact, this to before the infinitive form meant the
preposition of direction.
And now finally a few irregular verbs, which used several different
stems for their tenses. These verbs are very important in Old English
and are met very often in the texts: wesan (to be), beon (to be), gan
(to go), don (to do), willan (will). Mind that there was no Future tense
in the Old English language, and the future action was expressed by the
Present forms, just sometimes using verbs of modality, willan (lit. “to
wish to do”) or sculan (lit. “to have to do”).
wesan (to be) – has got only the Present tense forms, uses the verb beon
in the Past
Ind. Subj. Imp.
Sg.1 eom –
2 eart } sie, sy wes
3 is –
Pl. sind sien, syn 2 wesath
beon (to be)
Ind. Subj. Imp.
Sg. 1 beo –
2 bist }beo beo
3 bith –
Pl. beoth beon 2 beoth
Sg. 1 waes
2 waere } waere
Pl. waeron waeren
Participle I is beonde (being).
gan (to go)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 ga – eode
2 gae’st } ga ga eodest } eode
3 gae’th – eode
Pl. gath 2 gan gath eodon eoden
I gande, gangende II gegan
So there were in fact two verbs meaning ‘to be’, and both were
colloquial. In Middle English, however, the verb wesan replaced fully
the forms of beon, and the words beo (I am), bist (thou art) fell out of
use. The Past tense forms was and were are also derivatives from wesan.
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 perfective constructions. The example Hie geweorc geworhten
haefdon ‘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.
Verb syntax includes a number of suffices and prefixes which can be met
in Old English texts and especially in poetry:
1. -s- (from substantive or adjective stems) – mae’rsian (to announce;
from mae’re – famous)
2. -laec- – nealaecan (to approach)
3. -ett- – bliccettan (to sparkle)
1. a- = out of, from – arisan (arise), awakan (awake), aberan
2. be- = over, around, by – began (go around), bethencan (think over),
3. for- = destruction or loss – fordon (destroy), forweorthan (perish)
4. mis- = negation or bad quality – mislician (displease)
5. of- = reinfors – ofslean (kill), ofteon (take away)
6. on- = change or separation – onbindan (unbind), onlucan (unlock)
7. to- = destruction – tobrecan (break)
The Old English Auxiliary Words.
These traditionally include prepositions, conjunctions, different
interjections. All Indo-European languages have this system of auxiliary
parts of speech, though there are languages which lack some of them.
Japanese, for example, has no prepositions, and the service function in
the sentence belongs to postpositive words which have cases, the same as
nouns. Korean does not use any conjunctions, replacing them by about 50
different kinds of verbal adverbs. As for Chinese, it simply does not
make any distinction in the sentence between basic and auxiliary words.
Most of Old English prepositions are easily recognizable:
Primary: of (of, out of), aet (to), fram (from), to (to), with
(against), in, of, mid (with), on (on, at), be (by, near, to, because
of, about), thurh (through), under, ofer (over), aefter (after), bufan
(above), ut (out).
Secondary: beforan (before), butan (without), benorthan (north of), etc.
aet means ‘to’ and with means ‘against’. In Germanic all prepositions
divided into those who used nouns in dative, accusative or genitive. But
in the Old English period this distinction begins to disappear, and only
some of the prepositions use dative (mid, butan, sometimes on, in) or
genitive (fram, ut, aefter).
Conjunctions included the following:
Primary: and / ond (and) , ac (but), gif (if), or.
Secondary: aegther ge… ge (both… and…, either … or…), hwonne
(when), tha (when), thonne (when), theah (though), thaette (that), aer
(before), swa… swa… (so… as…).
And a few interjections: ia (yes), wa (woe!, wow!), hwaet (there!
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