Old English/Adjectives

What are adjectives? They are words used to describe either nouns or pronouns. Like nouns and pronouns, they are declined according to number, gender, and case; and their number, gender, and case must always agree with the noun or pronoun that they are modifying. In addition, adjectives are also declined in either of two ways: strong or weak. This is governed by certain factors, for which see the section on the question "Strong or Weak?" below.

Strong DeclensionEdit

Adjectives in Old English agree with the noun they describe in case, gender, and number. There are several variations on the general declension, but overall, adjectives decline thus:

Singular
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative - - -(u)
Accusative -ne - -e
Genitive -es -es -re
Dative -um -um -re
Instrumental -e -e -re

Notice that the genitive, dative, and instrumental feminine are all -re, the masculine and neuter genetive are both "-es", and masculine and neuter dative are both "-um", and masculine and neuter instrumental are both "-e". Also, the neuter adjective adds no ending in the nominative/accusative case, just like neuter nouns themselves. Basically, you can see that the adjective ending will roughly correspond to the article ending (þæs and -es, þǣm and -um, þǣre and -re', etc.).

Here's an example:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative gōd gōd gōd
Accusative gōd-ne gōd gōd-e
Genitive gōd-es gōd-es gōd-re
Dative gōd-um gōd-um gōd-re
Instrumental gōd-e gōd-e gōd-re

In the plural, we find:

Plural
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative -e -(u) -e
Accusative -e -(u) -e
Genitive -ra -ra -ra
Dative/Instrumental -um -um -um

Notice that genitive and dative are the same in all genders, respectively, in the plural. Note also the instrumental is exactly the same as the dative. Note that -a is found in the nominative and accusative plural for the feminine declension in a few early texts, but -e was present for most of the idiomatic Old English corpus. -an is often found instead of -um in late Old English. In late Old English, the declension had become uniform across genders, including neuter, taking -e in nominative and accusative.

Here's an example of the plural:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative gōd-e gōd gōd-e
Accusative gōd-e gōd gōd-e
Genitive gōd-ra gōd-ra gōd-ra
Dative/Instrumental gōd-um gōd-um gōd-um

Adjectives with æ in the stemEdit

If an adjective has a monosyllabic stem and has æ for its vowel, and the æ is followed by a single consonant, as in the words "glæd" ("glad") and "blæc" ("black), then an extra rule comes into play: the æ changes to an a whenever the adjective acquires a suffix which begins with a vowel.

For example, here is the strong declension of "glæd".

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: glæd - "glad"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative glæd glad-e glæd glad-u glad-u glad-e
Accusative glæd-ne glad-e glæd glad-u glad-e glad-e
Genitive glad-es glædra glades glæd-ra glæd-re glæd-ra
Dative glad-um glad-um glad-um glad-um glæd-re glad-um
Instrumental glad-e glad-um glad-e glad-um glæd-re glad-um

There is no need to supply the weak declension, since in the weak declension every suffix begins with a vowel, hence all forms take the "glad-" version.

Adjectives with -ƿEdit

We shall give ġearu ("ready") as an example of this type of adjective. Here is the strong declension:

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: gearu 'ready'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative ġearu ġearƿ-e ġearu ġearu ġearu ġearƿ-e
Accusative ġearo-ne ġearƿ-e ġearu ġearu ġearƿ-e ġearƿ-e
Genitive ġearƿ-es ġearora ġearƿ-es ġearo-ra ġearo-re ġearo-ra
Dative ġearƿ-um ġearƿ-um ġearƿ-um ġearƿ-um ġearo-re ġearƿ-um
Instrumental ġearƿ-e ġearƿ-um ġearƿ-e ġearƿ-um ġearo-re ġearƿ-um

This again can be explained in terms of a few simple rules:

  • Where the ordinary strong declension has no suffix, -ƿ adjectives end in -u. In these words, this is an inherent part of the stem, and not a declensional suffix.
  • Where the ordinary strong declension has a suffix beginning with a consonant, -ƿ adjectives have an o followed by the appropriate suffix.
  • Where the ordinary strong declension has a suffix beginning with a vowel, -ƿ adjectives have a ƿ followed by the appropriate suffix.
  • -ƿ words do not take an additional -u in feminine singular nominative, and neuter plural nominative and accusative

There is no need to give the weak declension, since in the weak declension every number and case has a suffix beginning with a vowel; -ƿ adjectives will therefore uniformly precede this suffix with a ƿ.

Adjectives with -eEdit

Adjectives such as sƿēte ("sweet") follow a very simple rule: the e at the end is displaced by any suffix, but stays where it is if there is no suffix. Hence the strong declension looks like this:

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: sƿēt "sweet"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative sƿēte sƿēt-e sƿēte sƿēt-u sƿēt-u sƿēt-e
Accusative sƿēt-ne sƿēt-e sƿēte sƿēt-u sƿēt-e sƿēt-e
Genitive sƿēt-es sƿēt-ra sƿēt-es sƿēt-ra sƿēt-re sƿēt-ra
Dative sƿēt-um sƿēt-um sƿēt-um sƿēt-um sƿēt-re sƿēt-um
Instrumental sƿēt-e sƿēt-um sƿēt-e sƿēt-um sƿēt-re sƿēt-um

Again, there is no real need to give the weak declension. You can easily predict it based on the stated rule.

Weak DeclensionEdit

Here's the singular weak declension:

Singular
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative -a -e -e
Accusative -an -e -an
Genitive -an -an -an
Dative -an -an -an
Instrumental -an -an -an

Notice that the weak declension is much more uniform and simple than the strong declension. Notice also that it is exactly the same as the weak noun declension.

Here's an example of the singular:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative gōd-a gōd-e gōd-e
Accusative gōd-an gōd-e gōd-an
Genitive gōd-an gōd-an gōd-an
Dative gōd-an gōd-an gōd-an
Instrumental gōd-an gōd-an gōd-an

Here's the plural weak declension:

Plural
Case All genders
Nominative -an
Accusative -an
Genitive -ena
Dative -um
Instrumental -um

Notice again that: It is simpler than the strong declension; it is exactly the same as the weak noun declension; and it is exactly the same for all genders.

Here's an example of a weak plural adjective:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case All genders
Nominative gōd-an
Accusative gōd-an
Genitive gōd-ena
Dative gōd-um
Instrumental gōd-um

Strong or Weak?Edit

You can tell when to use the strong or weak declension of adjectives.

An adjective would be declined weak if:

  1. That particular adjective was always declined weak (like most ordinal numbers ("forma" ("first"), "þridda" ("third"), and so forth), and all comparative adjectives: "betera" - "better", "lengra" - "longer", "māra" - "larger, more"
  2. It was preceded by the definitive article ("sē/sēo/þæt" and all its declined forms), either of the demonstratives ("sē/sēo/þæt" and all its declined forms and "þes/þis/þēos" and all its declined forms), or any possessive personal pronoun (mīn, þīn, sīn) - unless the adjective was one of the few adjectives that were always declined strong, like ōðer - "second"
  3. It was used in a nickname and came after the personal name it modified (for more info see: Old English/Titles and Nicknames
  4. It was used in direct address, for example, "lēofan menn" - "(O,) dear people"

In all other cases, the adjective was declined strong, including if it came after a linking verb:

  • Iċ eom miċel - "I am great"
  • Þā ƿihta ƿǣron fǣtte - "The creatures were fat").

Comparatives and SuperlativesEdit

The comparative and superlative forms are like Modern English "more" and "most", as is "more intelligent" and "most intelligent" or "better" and "best".

In Old English, all comparative adjectives were declined according to the weak declension - no matter what. The comparative degree was usually formed with the suffix "-ra" (the "a" being the weak masculine singular ending - so it should be replaced by other grammatical endings when it is declined). The superlative degree ("most") was usually formed by adding the suffix "-ost/-est" to an adjective; but like the normal positive degree, it was sometimes declined weak and sometimes declined strong (see the Strong or Weak? section above for more information). For example:

  • ƿīs ("wise") - ƿīsra ("wiser") - ƿīsost ("wisest")
  • cræftiġ ("crafty, skilled") - cræftiġra ("craftier, more skilled") - cræftigost ("craftiest, most skilled")
  • hefiġ ("heavy, important") - hefiġra (""heavier, more important") - hefigost ("heaviest, most important")

The superlative adjective mostly take the weak declension however for the nominative, accusative and the neuter case can take the strong. [1]

Some common adjectives undergo i-mutation in the comparative and superlative, and have -est instead of -ost as the superlative suffix. Examples are:

  • eald ("old") - ieldra ("older") - ieldest ("oldest") (Note the same mutation in archaic Modern English "elder"/"eldest".)
  • ġeong ("young") - ġingra ("younger") - ġingrest ("youngest")
  • hēah ("high") - hīerra ("higher") - hīehst ("highest")
  • strang ("strong") - strengra ("stronger") - strengest ("strongest")
  • lang ("long") - lengra ("longer") - lengest ("longest")

Some adjectives formed their comparative and superlative degrees irregularly, and need to be memorized:

  • gōd ("good") - betera ("better") - betst ("best")
  • yfel ("bad, evil") - ƿirsa ("worse") - ƿirst ("worst")
  • lytel ("little, small") - læssa ("smaller, less") - læst
  • miċel ("much, great") - māra ("more, greater") - mǣst ("most, greatest")

Adjectives and CasesEdit

Sometimes adjectives in Old English can govern cases, like prepositions. We do a similar thing in Modern English, but we usually use prepositions instead of cases; for example, the adjective "full" can be followed by the preposition "of", plus whatever something is "full of" - "The swimming pool was full of slime".

Adjectives Governing the DativeEdit

  • Ġelīċ - like, similar to
    • Hē þūhte ȝelīċ hunde - "He seemed similar to a dog"
  • Midsprecende - speaking on behalf of
    • þū þe ƿǣre midsprecende þǣm Hǣlende - "you who were speaking on behalf of the Lord"

Adjectives Governing the GenitiveEdit

  • Full - full (of)
    • Þæt fæt ƿæs full ƿæteres - "The container was full of water"

FootnotesEdit

  1. Joseph Wright's Old English Grammar, 221