Grammar: Nouns - Pronouns - Articles - Adjectives - Numbers - Verbs - Participles - Adverbs - Conjunctions - Prepositions - Interjections - Appositives - Word Formation -
Nouns are words which indicate a person, place, animal, thing, or idea, like "thing", "rabbit", "Samuel", and "Buddhism" in Modern English.
In Old English they have 3 genders (masculine, neuter, feminine), 2 numbers (singular, plural), and 5 cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental). Note that the so-called "genders" were purely grammatical genders - they very often did not correspond to natural gender. For example the word ƿīf - "woman" is actually of the neuter (grammatical) gender, not the feminine (natural gender).
In Old English, nouns were inflected (they changed how they were written and spoken) to add little bits of extra information to communicate their function within the sentence and the number of the noun (whether singular or plural). Although learning a language with three different genders might seem hard, it isn't really very hard - it can easily enough be done if you just make sure to memorize nouns along with their definitive articles, because the definitive articles for each grammatical gender are unique. For example, don't just remember the word "ġiefu" - remember "sēo ġiefu", so you'll always know it's a feminine noun - you can easily just not say the article if you don't need to; on the other hand, if you don't know the gender of a noun, it might be annoying.
Nouns were the essential element to a noun phrase (either a noun or a pronoun had to be in a noun phrase), which is an important part of most sentences. Also in the noun phrase you could put noun modifiers, like numbers, adjectives (words that describe, like "cool" or "special"), articles ("the" or "a/an), and demonstratives ("this" and "that"). All those other words within a noun phrase had to have the same number, grammatical gender, and case as the noun that they were modifying. In addition, most adjectives (but not most numerals) could either be declined strong or weak depending on what other words were used with them. For more information on adjective declension, please see the page about Old English adjectives.
Nouns are divided into two main categories of declension in Old English: the so called "Strong" and "Weak" nouns. There are other minor declension groups, as well; but most nouns fall into these two classifications. If a noun belongs to a particular declension group, it can usually only be declined that way. Occasionally, you can decline an Old English noun one of several ways. Whether or not a noun is weak or strong does not affect whether or not the modifiers (adjectives) used with it are declined weak or strong.
Which declension a noun takes must be memorized along with the noun itself. Often, the noun itself may give clues as to which declension it takes, but not always.
The strong noun paradigm declines for case, gender and singular/plural.
|Nominative||--||-as||--||-u / --||-u / --||-a, -e|
|Accusative||--||-as||--||-u / --||-e||-a, -e|
We should consider a few different word stem patterns which affect how a noun is declined:
- The -e in feminine plural is only found in late Old English
- The -an in dative plural is a late Old English feature
- -u was often written as -o in Anglian dialects
- If a word ends in a long vowel, it usually "swallows" up the short vowel of any declensional suffix, except the u of -um, which remains intact. For example: rā (roebuck) becomes rān in genitive singular, instead of rāan. However, you would still have rāum in dative plural.
- If word has one syllable, and the first stressed syllable of a word (almost always the first syllable excluding most short prefixes) has a short vowel, and ends in the consonant, then the word may take all expected declensional suffixes in a straightforward manner. Note that this type of strong neuter nouns also take -u in the nominative and accusative plural. E.g. you say "sċipu" for "ships". Likewise, this kind of strong feminine noun takes -u in the nominative singular, e.g. you say "ġiefu" for "gift". Note that such a syllable, which has a short vowel and ends in a single consonant, is called a light syllable.
- If the word has one syllable, and either has a long vowel and ends with a consonant, or ends in two consonants, the word is declined in a straightforward manner, and takes the expected declensional suffixes, except that such strong neuter and strong feminine words do not take the -u in nominative and accusative plural, and nominative singular, respectively. For example, you should not write "þingu" to mean "things" - instead omit the declensional -u suffix, and write "þing". Likewise, do not write "strǣtu" to mean "street" (strong feminine noun) - write instead "strǣt" in the nominative singular. Note that a syllable which either contains a long vowel, or ends in two consonants, is called a "heavy" syllable.
- If the word has two syllables, and the first syllable is heavy, and the second syllable is light, then the vowel of the second syllable is omitted before any declensional suffixes, and the suffix is added as expected, including the -u for neuter and feminine nouns.
- If the word has two syllables, and the final syllable is heavy, then the declensional suffix is added, but -u is not added to neuter and feminine nouns. For example, one writes "ƿoruld" - "world", instead of "ƿoruldu" (which would be incorrect). Likewise, one writes "hēorēdes" - "a household's", instead of "hēordes" - which would be wrong. NOTE HOWEVER, that the second vowel had become short or altogether omitted in Late West Saxon, and one does find, "hīrd" and derived forms.
- If the word has two syllables, and the first syllable is light, and the second syllable is light, then -u suffix of strong neuter and feminine declensions might be added, or might not be added, according to dialect (potentially, the usage of -u in such situations may be associated with Anglian dialects). However, the second short vowel of the word, would not be omitted. For example, both "ƿæteru" and "ƿæter" ("waters") are present in historical Old English.
- NOTE: Many feminine nouns with any length end in -u or -þu. This was often a productive noun suffix (e.g. it could be used to create nouns), instead of a grammatical declensional suffix, so the comments made above about the strong neuter and feminine -u declensional suffix, do not apply. The -þu/-u noun suffixes were usually treated as indeclinable (e.g. you would find -u as the ending in all cases and numbers of the word), but was by some writers declined according to the strong feminine declension (in which case, the -u suffix was conflated with the declensional -u suffix, and was replaced by -e in the same instances).
Here are the strong neuter and feminine declensions:
|Nominative||stān||stān-as||sċip / þing||sċip-u / þing||ġief-u / sorg||ġief-a / sorg-a, -e|
|Accusative||stān||stān-as||sċip / þing||sċip-u / þing||ġief-e / sorg-e||ġief-a / sorg-a, -e|
|Genitive||stān-es||stān-a||sċip-es / þing-es||sċip-a / þing-a||ġief-e / sorg-e||ġief-a / sorg-a|
|Dative||stān-e||stān-um||sċip-e / þing-e||sċip-um / þing-um||ġief-e / sorg-e||ġief-um / sorg-um|
Some masculine and some feminine nouns belong to the u-declension. They were either light and two-syllabled (like "sunu"), or heady and one-syllabled (like "hand").
They had the same endings for both genders, but slightly different endings depending of stem structure (see the explanation for strong neuter and feminine nouns in strong nouns). Here are two examples of this declension:
Other nouns in this category are feld - field (masc.), ƿeald - forest, wood (masc.), and sunu - son (masc.)
Nouns whose stem ended in -u or -o (the two were interchangeable) would turn this -u/o to a -ƿ- before a vowel of a grammatical suffix. For example:
|searu (neut.) - device, machine|
Note that this applied to the other genders, as well. There are quite a few nouns like this, and it is fairly easy to remember that their stem ends with -u/o, so I won't list them here. But do make sure you don't confuse nouns like this with u-nouns (see above) or strong feminine nouns with the grammatical ending -u.
A small handful of nouns in Old English take the i-mutation in parts of their declension. This is for historical reasons, which are not delved into here. Some of these nouns actually have survived into Modern English with their i-mutation in the plural, for example "goose" and "geese", "mouse" and "mice", "louse" and "lice", and "man" and "men". All i-mutation nouns in Old English are either masculine or feminine. Here is an example of the declension:
|Nominative||mann||menn||bōc, hnutu||bēċ, hnyte|
|Accusative||mann||menn||bōc, hnutu||bēċ, hnyte|
|Genitive||mannes||manna||bēċ, hnyte||bōca, hnuta|
|Dative||menn||mannum||bēċ, hnyte||bōcum, hnutum|
As you can see, the i-mutation affects the stem vowels in singular dative and genitive, and plural nominative and accusative. Other masculine i-mutation nouns with their i-mutated forms are:
- frēond (frīend) - "friend"
- fēond (fīend) - "fiend", "enemy"
- fōt (fēt) - "foot"
- tōþ (tēþ) - "tooth"
Other feminine i-mutation nous with their i-mutated forms are:
- mūs (mȳs) - "mouse"
- lūs (lȳs) - "louse"
- burg (byriġ) - "city"
- āc (ǣċ) - "oak tree"
- gāt (gǣt) - "goat"
- gōs (gēs) - goose
Note that sometimes these usually i-mutated nouns were declined just like other strong nouns.
The weak paradigm is more simplified and has less variation between the genders and cases.
Note that the plural weak declension is the same for all genders.
There are very many other weak masculine and feminine nouns, so they aren't listed here; but there is only one other weak neuter noun, and that is ēare - "ear".
Make sure not to confuse weak feminine nouns with some strong masculine or neuter nouns that end with -e.
Some nouns are indeclinable, or can optionally be treated as indeclinable. This means that they do not change at all according to case or number, but words that modify them, such as adjectives, still do; and verbs that they are used with also still change according to number.
One large category of such nouns are feminine nouns ending in -o/-u, such as lengu - "length" and strengu - "strength". Sometimes these nouns had weak feminine equivalents that were otherwise identical. Also, country names borrowed from Latin, often ending in "-a", could usually optionally be treated as indeclinable. There are a few more indeclinable nouns, which should be memorized as you go.
In Old English, as in Modern English, nouns could sometimes be used similarly to an adjective to modify another noun. These are called appositives. One example of appositives in Modern English is in titles: "Queen Elizabeth", "Brother John", "General Schwartzkopf", where "Queen", "Brother", and "General" are all nouns used to modify other nouns.
To get a better understanding of how appositives were used in Old English, see the appositives page.