Old English/Word Formation

The Old English language provides many ways to produce new words from old, either by compounding existing words together or by altering the meaning of existing words with prefixes or suffixes, some of which will be familiar to you from their Modern English forms.

Nouns formed with suffixes


- forms nouns such as folgaþ, "retinue", from folgian, "to follow"; or huntaþ, "hunting", from huntian, "to hunt". These nouns are always masculine.

-dōm (= MnE "-dom", as in "wisdom", "kingdom") forms nouns such as hlāforddōm, "dominion, lordship", from hlāford, "lord"; or hāliġdōm, "holiness", from hāliġ, "holy". Nouns ending in -dōm are all masculine.

-end forms nouns from verbs; an X-end is one who does X: for example feohtend, "fighter, warrior", from feohtan, "to fight"; or lufiend, "lover", from lufian, "to love". Such nouns are masculine.

-ere (= MnE "-er") forms nouns from verbs in the same way as -end, e.g. dēmere, "judge" from dēman, "to judge"; or lēogere, "liar", from lēogan, "to lie". Such nouns are always masculine.

-estre is the female equivalent of ere; for example lufestre, "(female) lover"; or hearpestre, "(female) harpist". Such nouns are grammatically feminine as they are in meaning.

-hād (= MnE "-hood" as in "childhood"). X-hād is the state or condition of being X: for example prēosthād, "priesthood", from prēost, "priest"; or druncenhād, "drunkenness", from druncen, "drunk". Nouns ending in -hād are all masculine.

-nes (= MnE "-ness") forms nouns from adjectives, e.g. beorhtnes, "brightness", from beorht, "bright"; or glædnes, "gladness", from glæd, "glad". Nouns ending in -nes are always feminine.

- is similar to -, for example fiscoþ, "fishing", from fiscian, "to fish". Nouns ending in - are masculine.

-scipe (= MnE "ship", as in "friendship") is similar to -dōm and -hād; for example ƿinescipe, "friendship", from ƿine, "friend"; or snotorscipe, "prudence, sagacity", from snotor, "wise". Nouns ending in -scipe are all masculine.

-ung (= MnE "-ing") forms nouns from verbs, e.g. huntung, "hunting", from huntian, "to hunt"; or cēapung, "business, trade", from cēapian, "to buy, to trade". Nouns ending in -ung are always feminine.

Nouns formed with prefixes


mis- (= MnE "mis-", as in "misdeed") gives a pejorative sense to a noun, as in misƿeorc, "evil deed", from ƿeorc, "deed".

un- (= MnE "un-") can either give a negative sense to a noun, as in unfriþ, "hostility", from friþ, "peace"; or it can give a pejorative sense to a noun, as in ungild, "an unjust or excessive tax" from gild, "tax, payment"; or unrǣd, "bad advice, folly", from rǣd, "advice".

Adjectives formed with suffixes


-en (= MnE "-en" as in "golden") together with i-mutation of the stem, forms an adjective from a noun denoting a material, for example the adjective ǣcen, "made of oak", from the noun āc, "oak".

-feald (= MnE "-fold") creates an adjective from a quantity, e.g. seofonfeald, "sevenfold"; maniġfeald, "manifold".

-full (= MnE "-ful") e.g. foreþancfull, "prudent", from foreþanc, "forethought"; or eġefull, "terrifying" from eġe, "fear".

- (= MnE "-y") forms adjectives from nouns, as in grǣdiġ, "greedy, from grǣd, "greed"; or ƿlitiġ, "beautiful", from ƿlit, "appearance, shape, form".

-iht, applied to a noun X produces an adjective meaning "having the quality of X", for example sandiht, "sandy", from sand; or þorniht, "thorny", from þorn.

-isc (= MnE "-ish") produces an adjective from a location or nationality , for example Rōmānisc, "Roman"; or Fresisc, "Fresian".

-lēas (= MnE "-less") forms a privative adjective from a noun, e.g. drēamlēas, "sad", from drēam, "joy"; or ellenlēas, "cowardly, courageless", from ellen, "courage".

-liċ (= MnE -"ly") forms adjectives either from nouns, e.g. fēondliċ, "hostile", from fēond, "enemy"; or from adjectives, as in cūþliċ, "certain, evident", from cūþ, "known".

-ol forms adjectives from verbs, e.g. sƿicol, "deceitful", from sƿician, "to deceive"; or hatol, "odious, hated, hateful" from hatian, "to hate".

-sum (= MnE "-some" as in "troublesome") forms adjectives from nouns, as in friþsum, "peaceful", from friþ, "peace"; or ƿynsum, "pleasant, delightful", from ƿyn, "joy".

-ƿeardes (= MnE "-ward", as in "downward") forms an adjective from a direction, as in norþƿeard, "northward".

Adjectives formed with prefixes


æl- (= MnE "al(l)-") intensifies an adjective: for example ælcræftiġ, "omnipotent, almighty", from cræftiġ, "powerful, skillful".

or- forms privative adjectives from nouns, for example: ordǣle, "having no part in a thing", from dǣl, "share or part"; or orgilde, "unpaid for", from gild, "payment".

un- (= MnE "un-") reverses the meaning of an adjective, as in undēop, "shallow" from dēop, "deep"; or unmōdiġ, "cowardly", from mōdiġ, "brave, noble".

Adverbs formed with suffixes


-e forms adverbs from adjectives, as in balde, "boldly", from bald, "bold"; or frōde, "wisely, prudently", from frōd, "wise".

-līċe forms adverbs from adjectives, as in blīþelīċe, "gladly", from blīþe, "happy"; or from nouns, as in ȝēarlíce, "yearly", from ȝēar, "year".

-unga also forms adverbs from adjectives, as in nīƿunga, "anew", from nīƿe, "new".

Verbs formed with prefixes


ā- somtimes has the sense of "forth, away", as in ā-drīfan, "to drive away", from drīfan, to drive; or ā-faran, "to depart" from faran, "to go". Very often, however, this prefix seems to have no particular meaning, and does not change the meaning of the verb it's attached to.

be- often seems to have no particular meaning. Sometimes it can imply removal or deprivation, as in beceorfan, "to cut off", from ceorfan, "to cut", or bedǣlan, "deprive", from dǣlan, "to divide". Sometimes it has the sense of "around, about", as in befaran, "to go around, to surround" from faran, "to go"; or beflēogan, "to fly about".

for- prefixed to a verb often gives it the sense of "to destruction", as in fordōn, "to destroy", from dōn, "to do"; or forfaran, "to perish", from faran, "to go". Where the verb already has this sense, it intensifies it, as in forbeornan, "to be destroyed by burning", from beornan, "to burn up". Sometimes it can give a verb a general bad sense, as in forhycgan, "despise", from hycgan, "to think".

on- can have a negative sense, as in ondōn, "to undo, open", from dōn, "to do"; or onbindan, "to untie", from bindan, "to tie". Often, however, it seems to do nothing to the verb at all.

ȝe- can give a verb the sense of success or completion: for example ȝeƿinnan, "to win, to achieve victory over" from ƿinnan, "to fight"; or ȝeacsian, "to find out by asking", from acsian, "to ask". It is because of this perfective sense that ȝe- is so often prefixed to past participles. However, sometimes when it is prefixed to a verb it hardly makes any difference to its meaning.

- as a prefix to a verb usually gives it a sense of separation, as in tōdōn, "to separate, divide", from dōn, "to do"; or tōfaran, "to go off in different directions", from faran, "to go".

ƿiþ- has the sense of "against", and so forms verbs such as ƿiþdrīfan, "to repel", from drīfan, "to drive"; or ƿiþsprecan, "to speak against, denounce, revile", from sprecan, "to speak".

ymb- has the sense of "around"; so we get verbs such as ymbscīnan, "to surround with light", from scīnan, "to shine"; or ymbbindan, "to bind around", from bindan, "to bind".

Compound nouns


Compound nouns can be formed:

  • By compounding two nouns, as in gūþdēaþ, "death in battle", literally "war-death".
  • By compounding an adjective and a noun, as in nēahbūend, "neighbour", from nēah, "nigh", and būend, "dweller".
  • By compounding an adverb and a noun, as in ūtgang, "exit", from ūt, "out", and gang, "going, journey".

Note that it is important to remove declensional suffixes before using them non-finally in a compound noun. For example, if used alone, the word "nama" - "name", ends in the "-a" declensional suffix. However, compounds such as "nambōc" - "name book", must strip the declensional suffix before using that component.

Compound nouns 'could not' be formed using merely a naked verb stem. Verb stems must have productive suffixes, such as -ung, applied to them, to convert them into a noun, before they could be incorporated in nouns. Incidentally, agent nouns formed productively from verbs using the "-a" suffix (same meaning as Modern English "-er" suffix), would then be stripped of the "-a" when used in non-final compound components, for example "cumlīðness" - "hospitality, comer-kindness". This stripped form looked exactly like the naked verb stem, but it has the meaning of an agent, rather than merely the meaning of the verb stem.

Compound adjectives


Compound adjectives can be formed:

  • By compounding a noun and an adjective, as in lofȝeorn, "eager for praise", literally "praise-eager".
  • By compounding an adjective with another adjective, as in ƿīdbrād, "widespread, ample", from ƿīd, "wide" and brād, "broad".
  • By compounding an adverb with an adjective, for example forþġeorn, "eager to go forth", literally "forth-eager".
  • By compounding an adjective with a noun, as in forhtmōd, "frightened", from forht, "fearful" and mōd, "mind, spirit".