What were the Important Grammatical Features of Old English?

In modern English, adjectives inflect to show comparison but they do not inflect to show variations in number, gender or case. In Old English, however, adjectives were subject to a two-fold declension: the strong declension and the weak declension.

When they were used with a noun preceded by a definite article or a syntactic equivalent of a definite article like a demonstrative or a possessive pronoun, they inflected in accordance with the rules of weak declension.

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The rule of strong declension had to be followed when adjectives were used with nouns which were not preceded by a definite article or its equivalent. So the adjective good had one morphological form in good man (god mann) but another morphological form in the good man (se goda mann).

In Modern English, the definite article operates like an indeclinable, i.e., it remains unchanged even if the headword is changed from the point of view of number, gender or case. In Old English, however, the use of the definite article was subject to an elaborate paradigm of declensions.

Gender:

Gender in Old English was not determined by considerations of sex. Nouns used for males were no doubt mostly masculine and, similarly, nouns used for females were mostly feminine but this rule was not always followed. For example, maegaden (girl) and wif (wife) were neuter and not feminine as one would expect them to be.

The word cild (child), which should have been masculine or feminine, was a neuter word. The word ciefes (concubine) was feminine but wifmann (woman) was masculine. Word for lifeless objects were not always neuter either. The word sunne (sun), for example, was feminine whereas mona (moon) and stan (stone) were masculine.

Case:

From the point of view of case, the grammar of Old English was much more simplified than the grammar of many classical languages of the Indo-European family. In classical languages like

Sanskrit and Latin, for example, there are eight cases in all: the nominative, the accusative, the dative, the ablative, the instrumental, the locative, the genitive and the vocative. In Old English, however, there were only four cases: the nominative, the accusative, the dative and the genitive.

The ablative, the locative and the instrumental were, in Old English, subsumed under the heading of the dative case. The form of a noun used for a vocative of direct address was the same as the one used for the nominative case.

Nouns:

What a student of modern English finds very cumbersome about Old English is its complicated conjugation of words. As Old English was a synthetic language, it was only to be expected that nouns should inflect to show case relations.

But what made the conjugation of words in Old English very complicated was the fact that not all nouns in Old English were conjugated alike. Nouns were broadly of two classes: weak nouns and strong nouns. Strong nouns were those whose stems ended in a vowel and weak nouns were those whose stems ended in a consonant.

Each of these two types had a number of sub-types and then there were nouns which were not included in either of the two types and had to be understood under the heading of minor declensions. Dependent words like adjectives and even articles had to inflect accordingly to show concord with the headword.

Personal Pronouns:

In Modern English, you are used for one person and also for more than one person. In Old English, however, you and you were used in the case of one person and ye and you in the case of more than one. The pronoun ye was the plural of thou, and you the plural of thee.

During the latter half of the Old English period, thou were used as the nominative and thee as the accusative form. Similarly, ye were used as the nominative and you as the accusative form. During the earlier days of Old English in England, however, eoiv “you” was the dative form (to you) and eowic, the accusative form of the second person plural pronoun.

Towards the end of the Old English period, eowic was dropped out of use and you started being used as the dative as well as the accusative form. Pronouns like him, her, me and we also have a similar history. In the early stages of Old English these four pronouns had a dative function. The accusative forms of these pronouns were hine, hie, mec, usic respectively.

These accusative forms disappeared sometime towards the end of the Middle English period and the dative forms performed both the dative and the accusative functions. In Modern English, he is used only for masculine objects but in Old English it was used for neuter objects as well.

Relative Pronouns:

In Modern English, who and which are used in questions and also as relative pronouns. In Old English these two pronouns (hiua and hivilc) were used as question words but not as relative pronouns. In place of a relative pronoun, Old English used e or the definite article se or the two together.

Adjectives:

Adjectives in Old English inflected for degree as they do in present-day English. The comparative form took the suffix -ra and the superlative form took the suffix -est (also -ost). The addition of the suffix often meant a modification of the vowel in the stem form of the adjective.

Not all adjectives conformed, however, to this convention for the formation of the comparative and the superlative form. The word “god” (good), for example, was used as an irregular adjective then as it is now. Its comparative form was bet (rci) and its superlative form was be (t)st. The word micel “much” had mara “more” as its comparative and most as its superlative form.

The device of periphrastic comparison, i.e., the use of more and most was seldom made. The use of this device became frequent during the Middle English period and thereafter because of the influence of Latin. During the Old English period comparison was indicated mostly by the indigenous device of inflexional suffixes.

Verbs:

In Old English, as in present-day English, verbs were of three types: strong verbs, weak verbs and anomalous verbs. Strong verbs were those in whose case the past tense form was indicated by a modification of the vowel in the stem form of the verb, weak verbs were those in the case of which the past tense was indicated by the addition of a suffix and anomalous verbs were those which did not belong to either of the two categories. What makes Old English different from Modern English from the point of view of verbs is the following:

(i) As Strang (1974:305) has pointed out, the strong verbs in Old English were the primary verbs in the sense that they were formed as verbs. The weak verbs were “secondary or derivative” in the sense that they were formed from other word classes. Some of the weak verbs were causative verbs formed from other primary verbs having a non-causative meaning.

(ii) Strong verbs were much larger in number in Old English than they are in present-day English. If the list of strong verbs given in the appendix of the Longman Dictionary of English is accurate, there are a little over 250 strong verbs in Modern English. It is difficult to specify the exact number of strong verbs in Old English but it can be inferred, nevertheless, that their number was significantly higher than their number now.

It may sound paradoxical but many of the strong verbs which were an integral part of the Old English vocabulary have since then been pushed out of use by the so-called weak verbs. Hrinan “touch”, ripan “grow dark”, wizan “fight” and rinan “rain” are some of the examples of strong verbs of this type.

(iii) Many verbs which operated as strong verbs during the Old English period changed into weak verbs with the passage of time. Verbs like birnan “burn”, helpan “help” and hliehhan “laugh” operated like strong (irregular) verbs then, although they operate like weak (regular) verbs nowadays.

(iv) Strong verbs like choose, rise and stand are now known as irregular verbs and weak verbs like talk, walk and turn are known as regular verbs. This is because strong verbs do not follow a regular pattern of change. In Old English, however, the so-called irregular verbs were not as irregular as they are now.

They could be grouped into seven main types and each type had a number of sub-types, but with small exceptions here and there each sub-type was describable in terms of fairly regular patterns. It is true that these strong verbs did not inflect as the weak (the regular) verbs did for indicating the change of tense but the modification of the root vowel in them for purposes of change in tense was fairly regular.

(v) Because of the regularity of their patterns, regular verbs in Modern English have an established superiority over irregular verbs. These regular verbs constitute the main bulk of verbs in present-day English and the irregular verbs represent only a subsidiary set of verbs in the form of exceptions. The paradigm constituted by the tense forms of these verbs in Old English was not as regular as it is now.

In Modern English the past and the past participle forms are indicated by adding -d or -ed to the stem form of the verb but in Old English the situation was slightly complicated because the past tense of these regular verbs was formed by adding -ede, -ode or -die and their past participle was formed by adding -ed, -od and -d.