The history of Old English and its development
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 *dún
"down"; other examples of Celtic influence in place names are tne
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 country.
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
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 morphology.
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 Middle stage.
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 of, etc.
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 for smth".
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. stán (stone) scip (ship) bán (bone) reced (house) níeten (ox)
Gen. stánes scipes bánes recedes
Dat. stáne scipe báne recede
Acc. stán scip bán reced
Nom. stánas scipu bán reced
Gen. stána scipa bána receda
Dat. stánum scipum bánum recedum níetenum
Acc. stánas scipu bán 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, stán, 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 [æ] in the stem and
say farewell to it in the plural:
Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.
N dæg (day) dagas fæt (vessel) fatu
G dæges daga fætes fata
D dæge dagum fæte fatum
A dæg dagas fæt fatu
Examples of a-stems: earm (an arm), eorl, helm (a helmet), hring (a
ring), múþ (a mouth); neuter ones - dor (a gate), hof (a courtyard), geoc
(a yoke), word, déor (an animal), bearn (a child), géar (a year).
N hrycg (back) here (army) ende (end) cynn (kind) ríce (realm)
G hrycges heriges endes cynnes ríces
D hrycge herige ende cynne ríce
A hrycg here ende cynn ríce
N hrycgeas herigeas endas cynn ríciu
G hrycgea herigea enda cynna rícea
D hrycgium herigum endum cynnum rícium
A hrycgeas herigeas endas cynn ríciu
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), bócere (a scholar), fiscere (a fisher);
neuter - net, bed, wíte (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 - snáw (snow), þéaw (a
custom); neuter - searu (armour), tréow (a tree), cnéw (a knee)
N swaþu (trace) fór (journey) tigol (brick)
G swaþe fóre tigole
D swaþe fóre tigole
A swaþe fóre tigole
N swaþa fóra tigola
G swaþa fóra tigola
D swaþum fórum tigolum
A swaþa fóra 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 ó-stems are jo- and wo-stems which have practically
the same declension but with the corresponding sounds between the root and
Examples of ó-stems: caru (care), sceamu (shame), onswaru (worry), lufu
(love), lár (an instruction), sorg (sorrow), þrág (a season), ides (a
Examples of jó-stems: sibb (peace), ecg (a blade), secg (a sword), hild (a
fight), æx (an axe).
Examples of wó-stems: beadu (a battle), nearu (need), læs (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),
Norþymbre (the Northumbrians), Dene (the Danish)
G Dena (Miercna, Seaxna)
N hyd (hide) hýde, hýda
G hýde hýda
D hýde hýdum
A hýd hýde, hýda
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), dæl (a part), giest (a
guest), drync (a drink); neuter - spere (a spear); feminine - cwén (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), flór (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) éage (eye)
G naman cwenan éagan
D naman cwenan éagan
A naman cwenan éage
N naman cwenan éagan
G namena cwenena éagena
D namum cwenum éagum
A naman cwenan éagan
Examples: masc. - guma (a man), wita (a wizard), steorra (a star), móna
(the Moon), déma (a judge); fem. - eorþe (Earth), heorte (a heart), sunne
(Sun); neut. - éare (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 fót (foot) tóþ (tooth) | hnutu (nut) bóc (book) gós
(goose) mús (mouse) burg (burg)
G mannes fótes tóþes | hnute bóce
góse múse burge
D menn fét téþ | hnyte
béc gés mýs byrig
A mann fót tóþ | hnutu bók
gós mús burg
N menn fét téþ | hnyte béc
gés mýs byrig
G manna fóta tóþa | hnuta bóca
gósa músa burga
D mannum fótum tóþum | hnutum bócum
gósum músum burgum
A menn fét téþ | hnyte béc
gés mýs 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
Examples: fem. - wífman (a woman), ác (an oak), gát (a goat), bróc
(breeches), wlóh (seam), dung (a dungeon), furh (a furrow), sulh (a
plough), grut (gruel), lús (a louse), þrul (a basket), éa (water), niht (a
night), mæ'gþ (a girl), scrúd (clothes).
There are still some other types of declension, but not too important
fro understanding the general image. For example, r-stems denoted the
family relatives (dohtor 'a daughter', módor 'a mother' and several
others), es-stems usually meant children and cubs (cild 'a child', cealf 'a
calf'). The most intriguing question that arises from the picture of the
Old English declension is "How to define which words is which kind of
stems?". I am sure you are always thinking of this question, the same as I
thought myself when first studying Old English. The answer is "I don't
know"; because of the loss of many endings all genders, all stems and
therefore all nouns mixed in the language, and one has just to learn how to
decline this or that word. This mixture was the decisive step of the
following transfer of English to the analytic language - when endings are
not used, people forget genders and cases. In any solid dictionary you will
be given a noun with its gender and kind of stem. But in general, the
declension is similar for all stems. One of the most stable differences of
masculine and feminine is the -es (masc.) or -e in genitive singular of the
Now I am giving another table, the general declension system of Old
English nouns. Here '-' means a zero ending.
Strong declension (a, ja, wa, ó, jó, wó, i -stems).
| |Masculine |Neutral |Feminine |
| |Singular |Plural |Singular |Plural |Singular |Plural |
|Nominativ|- |-as |- |-u (-) |- |-a |
|e | | | | | | |
|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 blæc (black) blæc blacu
G blaces blaces blæcre
D blacum blacum blæcre
A blæcne blæc 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 éadig (happy) éadig éadigu
G éadiges éadiges éadigre
D éadigum éadigum éadigre
A éadigne éadig éadige
I éadige éadige
N éadige éadigu éadiga
G éadigra éadigra éadigra
D éadigum éadigum éadigum
A éadige éadigu éadigu
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, jó-stems (swéte - sweet)
Masc. Neut. Fem. Masc. Neut. Fem.
N swéte swéte swétu swéte swétu swéta
G swétes swétes swétre swétra swétra swétra
D swétum swétum swétre swétum swétum swétum
A swétne swéte swéte swéte swétu swéta
I swéte swéte -
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 blæc tréow (strong), and "a
black eye" will sound blace éage. Here is the weak declension example
(blaca - black):
Masc. Neut. Fem.
N blaca blace blace blacan
G blacan blacan blacan blæcra
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
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
blæc (black) - blæcra - 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:
gód (good) - betera - betst (or sélra - sélest)
yfel (bad) - wiersa - wierest
micel (much) - mára - máést
lýtel (little) - læ'ssa - læ'st
fear (far) - fierra - fierrest, fyrrest
néah (near) - néarra - níehst, nýhst
æ'r (early) - æ'rra - æ'rest
fore (before) - furþra - fyrest (first)
Now you see what the word "first" means - just the superlative degree
from the adjective "before, forward". The same is with níehst from néah
(near) which is now "next".
Old English affixation for adjectives:
1. -ede (group "adjective stem + substantive stem") - micelhéafdede
2. -ihte (from substantives with mutation) - þirnihte (thorny)
3. -ig (from substantives with mutation) - hálig (holy), mistig (misty)
4. -en, -in (with mutation) - gylden (golden), wyllen (wóllen)
5. -isc (nationality) - Englisc, Welisc, mennisc (human)
6. -sum (from stems of verbs, adjectives, substantives) - sibbsum
(peaceful), híersum (obedient)
7. -feald (from stems of numerals, adjectives) - þríefeald (threefold)
8. -full (from abstract substantive stems) - sorgfull (sorrowful)
9. -léás (from verbal and nominal stems) - slæpléás (sleepless)
10. -líc (from substantive and adjective stems) - eorþlíc (earthly)
11. -weard (from adjective, substantive, adverb stems) - inneweard
(internal), hámweard (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 mín became mine, gé 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 hwá hwæt
G hwæs hwæs
D hwæ'm hwæ'm
A hwone hwæt
I - hwý, hwí
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 specific articulation.
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 hwæt, 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 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:
gehwá (every) - declined the same way as hwá
swilc (such) - all declined like strong adjectives
sé ylca (the same) - declined like a weak adjective
æ'nig (any) - both behave the same way as strong adjectives
nán, næ'nig (no, none) - declined like strong adjectives
þe (which, that)
séþe (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 hwæt and þæt, 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
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
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 -þa, 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), déope (deeply), fæste (fast), hearde (hard). Another major
sugroup of them used the suffixes -líc, -líce from more complexed
adjectives: bealdlíce (boldly), freondlíce (in a friendly way).
Adverbs, as well as adjectives, had their degrees of comparison:
wíde - wídor - wídost (widely - more widely - most widely)
long - leng (long - longer)
feorr (far) - fierr
sófte (softly) - séft
éaþe (easily) - íeþ
wel (well) - betre - best
yfele (badly) - wiers, wyrs - wierst
micele (much) - máre - mæ'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
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 Participle)
wrítan (to write), wrát, writon, writen
snípan (to cut), snáþ, snidon, sniden
Other examples: belífan (stay), clífan (cling), ygrípan (clutch), bítan
(bite), slítan (slit), besmítan (dirty), gewítan (go), blícan (glitter),
sícan (sigh), stígan (mount), scínan (shine), árísan (arise), líþan (go).
béodan (to offer), béad, budon, boden
céosan (to choose), céas, curon, coren
Other examples: créopan (creep), cléofan (cleave), fléotan (fleet),
géotan (pour), gréotan (weep), néotan (enjoy), scéotan (shoot), léogan
(lie), bréowan (brew), dréosan (fall), fréosan (freeze), forléosan (lose).
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),
III c) r, h + a consonant
steorfan (to die), stearf, sturfon, storfen
weorþan (to become), wearþ, wurdon, worden
feohtan (to fight), feaht, fuhton, fohten
More: ceorfan (carve), hweorfan (turn), weorpan (throw), beorgan
(conceal), beorcan (bark).
stelan (to steal), stæ'l, stæ'lon, stolen
beran (to bear), bæ'r, bæ'ron, boren
More: cwelan (die), helan (conceal), teran (tear), brecan (break).
tredan (to tread), træ'd, træ'don, treden
cweþan (to say), cwæ'þ, cwæ'don, cweden
More: metan (measure), swefan (sleep), wefan (weave), sprecan (to
speak), wrecan (persecute), lesan (gather), etan (eat), wesan (be).
faran (to go), fór, fóron, faren
More: galan (sing), grafan (dig), hladan (lade), wadan (walk), dragan
(drag), gnagan (gnaw), bacan (bake), scacan (shake), wascan (wash).
hátan (to call), hét, héton, háten
feallan (to fall), feoll, feollon, feallen
cnéawan (to know), cnéow, cnéowon, cnáwen
More: blondan (blend), ondræ'dan (fear), lácan (jump), scadan (divide),
fealdan (fold), healdan (hold), sponnan (span), béatan (beat), blówan
(flourish), hlówan (low), spówan (flourish), máwan (mow), sáwan (sow),
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 the
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 í in the stem gives i
with an open syllable in the modern language (wrítan > write, scínan >
shine). The same can be said about a, which nowadays is a in open syllables
pronounced [æ] (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 the languages.
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
déman (to judge), démde, démed
híeran (to hear), híerde, híered
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
cépan (to keep), cépte, cépt / céped
grétan (to greet), grétte, grét / gréted
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
tæ'can (to teach), táhte, táht
ræ'can (to reach), ráhte, ráht
bycgan (to buy), bohte, boht
sécan (to seek), sóhte, sóht
wyrcan (to work), worhte, worht
þencan (to think), þóhte, þóht
bringan (to bring), bróhte, bróht
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), sceþþan (harm), wecgean (move), féran
(go), læ'ran (teach), dræfan (drive), fýsan (hurry), drýgean (dry), híepan
(heap), métan (to meet), wýscean (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), scéawian (look), weorþian (honour), wundrian (wonder), fæstnian
(fasten), mærsian (glorify).
habban (to have), hæfde, hæfd
libban (to live), lifde, lifd
secgan (to say), sægde, sægd
hycgan (to think), hogde, hogod
þréagan (to threaten), þréade, þréad
sméagan (to think), sméade, sméad
fréogan (to free), fréode, fréod
féogan (to hate), féode, féod
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 different.
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 wrítan, for example,
those three stems are: wrít- (infinitive without the ending -an), wrát-
(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 - wrítan (to write)
Ind. Subj. Imper. ¦ Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 wríte - ¦ wrát
2 wrítest wríte wrít ¦ write } wríte
3 wríteþ - ¦ wrát
Pl. wrítaþ wríten 2 wrítaþ ¦ writon writen
wrítan I wrítende II gewriten
Class II weak - lufian (to love)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 lufie - lufode
2 lufast }lufie lufa lufodest } lufode
3 lufaþ - lufode
Pl. lufiaþ lufien 2 lufiaþ 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 bindeþ - ¦ band, bond
Pl. bindaþ binden bindaþ ¦ bundon bunden
bindan I bindende II gebunden
Class V strong - séon (to see)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 séo - seah
2 síehst } séo seoh sáwe } sáwe,
3 síehþ - seah sæge
Pl. séoþ séon 2 séoþ sawon sáwen
I séonde II gesewen, gesegen
Class VII strong - fón (to catch)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg. 1 fó - feng
2 féhst } fó fóh fenge } fenge
3 féhþ - feng
Pl. fóþ fón 2 fóþ fengon fengen
I fónde II gefangen, gefongen
Class III weak - secgan (to say)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 secge - sægde
2 sægst }secge sæge sægdest }sægde
3 sægþ - sægde
Pl. secgaþ secgen 2 secgaþ sægdon sægden
I secgende II gesægd
Class III weak - libban (to live)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 libbe - lifde
2 liofast }libbe liofa lifdest } lifde
3 liofaþ - lifde
Pl. libbaþ libben 2 libbaþ 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), þurfan (to need), dearan (to dare), munan (to
remember), sculan (shall), magan (may).
Present of witan (= strong Past)
Ind. Subj. Imp.
Sg. 1 wát -
2 wast } wite wite
3 wát -
Pl. witon 2 witen witaþ
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 cúþe
2 canst } cunne cúþest } cúþe
3 cann cúþe
Pl. cunnon cunnen cúþon cúþen
Sg. 1 þearf þorfte
2 þearft } þurfe þorftest } þorfte
3 þearf þorfte
Pl. þurfon þurfen þorfton þorften
Sg. 1 mæg meahte mihte, mihten
2 meaht } mæge meahtest
3 mæg meahte
Pl. magon mægen 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
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), béon (to be), gán (to go), dón (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 béon in
Ind. Subj. Imp.
Sg.1 eom -
2 eart } síe, sý wes
3 is -
Pl. sind síen, sýn 2 wesaþ
béon (to be)
Ind. Subj. Imp.
Sg. 1 béo -
2 bist }béo béo
3 biþ -
Pl. béoþ béon 2 béoþ
Sg. 1 wæs
2 wære } wære
Pl. wæron wæren
Participle I is béonde (being).
gán (to go)
Ind. Subj. Imp. Ind. Subj.
Sg.1 gá - éode
2 gæ'st } gá gá éodest } éode
3 gæ'þ - éode
Pl. gáþ 2 gán gáþ éodon éoden
I gánde, gangende II gegán
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 béon, and the words béo (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 hæfdon '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) - mæ'rsian (to announce;
from mæ're - famous)
2. -læc- - néálæcan (to approach)
3. -ett- - bliccettan (to sparkle)
1. á- = out of, from - árísan (arise), áwakan (awake), áberan (sustain)
2. be- = over, around, by - begán (go around), beþencan (think over),
3. for- = destruction or loss - fordón (destroy), forweorþan (perish)
4. mis- = negation or bad quality - mislícian (displease)
5. of- = reinfors - ofsléan (kill), oftéon (take away)
6. on- = change or separation - onbindan (unbind), onlúcan (unlock)
7. tó- = destruction - tóbrecan (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), æt (to), fram (from), tó (to), wiþ (against), in,
of, mid (with), on (on, at), be (by, near, to, because of, about), þurh
(through), under, ofer (over), æfter (after), bufan (above), út (out).
Secondary: beforan (before), bútan (without), benorþan (north of), etc.
æt means 'to' and wiþ 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, bútan, sometimes on, in) or genitive (fram,
Conjunctions included the following:
Primary: and / ond (and) , ac (but), gif (if), or.
Secondary: ægþer ge... ge (both... and..., either ... or...), hwonne
(when), þa (when), þonne (when), þéáh (though), þætte (that), ær (before),
swá... swá... (so... as...).
And a few interjections: iá (yes), wá (woe!, wow!), hwæt (there! what!).