Morphological Classification of Nouns. Declensions

§ 158. The most remarkable feature of OE nouns was their elaborate system of declensions, which was a sort of morphological classification. The total number of declensions, including both the major and minor types, exceeded twenty-five. All in all there were only ten distinct endings (plus some phonetic variants of these endings) and a few relevant root-vowel interchanges used in the noun paradigms; yet every morphological class had either its own specific endings or a specific succession of markers. Historically, the OE system of declensions was based on a number of distinctions: the stem-suffix, the gender of nouns, the phonetic structure of the word, phonetic changes in the final syllables.

§ 159.In the first place, the morphological classification of OE nouns rested upon the most ancient (IE) grouping of nouns according to the stem-suffixes (see § 66, 67). Stem-suffixes could consist of vowels (vocalic stems, e. g. a-stems, i-stems), of consonants (consonantal stems, e. g. n-stems), of sound sequences, e. g. -ja-stems, -nd-stems. Some groups of nouns had no stem-forming suffix or had a "zero-suffix"; they are usually termed "root-stems" and are grouped together with conso­nantal stems, as their roots ended in consonants, e. g. OE man, bōc (NE man, book).

The loss of stem-suffixes as distinct component parts had led to the formation of different sets of grammatical endings (see § 67). The merg­ing of the stem-suffix with the original grammatical ending and their phonetic weakening could result in the survival of the former stem-suf­fix in a new function, as a grammatical ending; thus n-stems had many forms ending in -an (from the earlier -*eni, -*enaz, etc.); u-stems had the inflection -u in some forms.

Sometimes both elements — the stem-suffix and the original ending — were shortened or even dropped (e. g. the ending of the Dat. sg -e from the earlier Nom. and Acc. pl -as from the earlier -ōs; the zero-ending in the Nom. and Acc. sg) in a-stems.

§ 160. Another reason which accounts for the division of nouns into numerous declensions is their grouping according to gender. OE nouns distinguished three genders: Masc., Fem. and Neut. Though ori­ginally a semantic division, gender in OE was not always associated with the meaning of nouns. Sometimes a derivational suffix referred a noun to a certain gender and placed it into a certain semantic group, e. g. abstract nouns built with the help of the suffix -pu. were Fem. — OE lenðpu, hӯhþu (NE length, height), nomina agentis with the suffix -ere were Masc. — OE fiscere, bōcere (NE fisher, ‘learned man’). The follow­ing nouns denoting human beings show, however, that grammatical gender did not necessarily correspond to sex: alongside Masc. and Fem. nouns denoting males and females there were nouns with "unjustified" gender, cf.:

OE widuwa, Masc. (‘widower’) — OE widowe. Fem. (NE widow);

OE spinnere, Masc. (NE spinner)— OE spinnestre, Fem. (‘female spinner’; note NE spinster with a shift of meaning) and nouns like OE wif, Neut. (NE wife), OE mæʒden Neut. (NE maiden, maid), OE wlfman, Masc. (NE woman, originally a compound word whose second component -man was Masc).

In OE gender was primarily a grammatical distinction; Masc., Fem. and Neut. nouns could have different forms, even if they belonged to the same stem (type of declension).

The division into genders was in a certain way connected with the division into stems, though there was no direct correspondence between them: some stems were represented by nouns of one particular gender, e. g. ō-stems were always Fem., others embraced nouns of two or three genders.

§ 161.Other reasons accounting for the division into declensions were structural and phonetic: monosyllabic nouns had certain peculiar­ities as compared to polysyllabic; monosyllables with a long root-syl­lable (that is, containing a long vowel plus a consonant or a short vowel plus two consonants — also called "long-stemmed" nouns) differed in some forms from nouns with a short syllable (short-stemmed nouns).

§ 162.Table 1 shows the morphological classification of OE nouns and the hierarchial application of the main features which account for this division (division of nouns into mono- and polysyllables is not in­cluded; see the descriptions of the declensions below).

The paradigms of nouns belonging to the main types of OE declen­sions are given in Tables 2, 3 and 4.

The majority of OE nouns belonged to the a-stems, ō-stems and n-stems. Special attention should also be paid to the root-stems which displayed specific peculiarities in their forms and have left noticeable traces in Mod E.

Table 1

Morphological Classification of Nouns In Old English

Division, according to stem

Vocalic stems Consonantal stems
Strong declension[14]      
a-stems ō-stems i-stems u-stems n-stems (weak declension) Root-stems Other minor stems: r-, s-, nd-
and their variants
ja-stems wa-stems -stems wo-stems
Division according to gender
Division according to length of the root-syllable
short long short long short long short long      

§ 163. a-stems included Masc, and Neut. nouns. About one third of OE nouns were Masc. a-stems, e. g. cniht (NE knight), hām (NE home), mūp)(NE mouth); examples of Neut. nouns are: lim (NE limb), hūs (NE house), pinʒ (NE thing). (Disyllabic nouns, e. g. finʒer, differed from monosyllabics in that they could drop their second vowel in the oblique cases: Nom. sg finʒer, Gen. finʒres, Dat. fynʒre, NE finger.)

As seen from Table 2 the forms in the a-stem declension were dis­tinguished through grammatical endings (including the zero-ending). In some words inflections were accompanied by sound interchanges: nouns with the vowel [æ] in the root had an interchange [æ ~ a], since in some forms the ending contained a back vowel, e. g. Nom. sg dæʒ, Gen. dæʒes — Nom. and Gen. pl daʒas, daʒa (for the origin of the in­terchange see § 117). If a noun ended in a fricative consonant, it became voiced in an intervocal position, cf. Nom. sg mūp, wulf — [θ], [f] — and Nom. pl mūpas, wulfas — [ð], [v] (see § 139). (Note that their modern descendants have retained the interchange: NE mouth — mouths [θ ~ ð], wolf — wolves, also house houses and others.) These inter­changes were not peculiar of a-stems alone and are of no significance as grammatical markers; they are easily accountable by phonetic reasons.

Table 2


Strong Declensions (Vocalic Stems)

  M short-stemmed N long-stemmed N ja-stems M aw-stems N
Nom. fisc Gen. fisces Dat. fisce Acc. fisc scip scipes scipe scip dēor dēores dēore dēor ende endes ende ende cnēo(w) cnēowes cnēowe cnēo(w)
Nom. fisces Gen. fisca Dat. fiscum Acc. fiscas (NE fish) scipu scipa scipum scipu (NE scip) dēor dēora dēorum dēor (NE deer) endas enda endum endas (NE end) cnēo(w) cnēowa cnēowum cnēo(w) (NE knee)

Table 3

Strong Declensions (Vocalic Stems)


ō-stems short-stemmed long-stemmed F i-stems short-stemmed[16] M u-stems short-stemmed long-stemmed M
Nom. talu wund Gen. tale wunde Dat. tale wunde Acc. tale wunde mete metes mete mete sunu feld suna felda suna felda sunu felda
Nom. tala, -e wunda, -e mete, -as suna felda
Gen. tala (-ena) wunda (-ena) meta suna felda
Dat. talum wundum metum sunum feldum
Acc. tala, -e wunda, -e mete, -as suna felda
  (NE tale) (NE wound) (‘food’, NE meat) (NE son) (NE field)

Table 4

Consonantal Stems

n-stems (weak declension) root-stems
  M N F M  
Nom. nama ēare tunʒe fōt mūs
Gen. naman ēaran tunʒan fōtes mӯs, mūse
Dat. naman ēaran tunʒan fēt mӯs
Acc. naman ēaran tunʒan fōt mūs
Nom. naman ēaran tunʒan fēt mӯs
Gen. namena ēarena tunʒena fōta mūsa
Dat. namum ēarum tunʒum fōtum mūsum
Acc. naman ēaran tunʒan fēt mӯs
  (NE name) (NE ear) (NE tongue) (NE foot) (NE mouse)

Note should be taken of the inflections -es of the Gen. sg, -as of the Nom. and Acc. Masc. Towards the end of the OE period they began to be added to an increasing number of nouns, which originally belonged to other stems. These inflections are the prototypes and sources of the Mod E pl and Poss. case markers -(e)s and -s.

§ 164. Neut. a-stems differed from Masc, in the pl of the Nom. and Acc. cases. Instead of -as they took -u for short stems (that is nouns with a short root-syllable) and did not add any inflection in the long-stemmed variant — see Nom. and Acc. pl of scip and dēor in the table. Consequent­ly, long-stemmed Neuters had homonymous sg and pl forms: dēor — dēor, likewise scēap — scēap, pinʒ — pinʒ, hūs — hūs. This peculiarity of Neut. a-stems goes back to some phonetic changes (see § 132) in final unaccented syllables which have given rise to an important grammati­cal feature: an instance of regular homonymy or neutralisation of num­ber distinctions in the noun paradigm. (Traces of this group of a-stems have survived as irregular pl forms in Mod E: sheep, deer, mine.)

§ 165.wa-and ja-stemsdiffered from pure a-stems in some forms, as their endings contained traces of the elements -j- and -w-. Nom. and Acc. sg could end in -e which had developed from the weakened -j- (see ende in Table 2), though in some nouns with a doubled final consonant it was lost — cf. OE bridd (NE bird); in some forms -j- is reflected as -i- or --, e. g. Nom. sg here, Dat. herie, herʒe, or heriʒe (‘army’). Short-stemmed wa-stems had -u in the Nom. and Acc. sg which had developed from the element -w- but was lost after a long syllable (in the same way as the plural ending of neuter a-stems described above); cf. OE bearu (NE bear)and cnēo; -w- is optional but appears regularly before the endings of the oblique cases (see the declension of cnēo in Table 2).

§ 166. ō-stems were all Fem., so there was no further subdivision according to gender. The variants with -j- and -w- decline like pure ō-stems except that -w- appears before some endings, e. g. Nom. sg sceadu, the other cases — sceadwe (NE shadow). The difference between short and long-stemmed ō-stems is similar to that between respective a-stems: after a short syllable the ending -u is retained, after a long syllable it is dropped, cf. wund, talu in Table 3. Disyllabic ō-stems, like a-stems, lost their second vowel in some case forms: Nom. sg ceaster, the other cases ceastre (‘camp’, NE -caster, -chester — a component of place-names), Like other nouns, ō-stems could have an interchange of voiced and voiceless fricative consonants as allophones in intervocal and final position: ʒlōf ʒlōfe [f ~ v] (NE glove).Among the forms of ō-stems there occurred some variant forms with weakened endings or with end­ings borrowed from the weak declension — with the element -n- wundena alongside wunda. Variation increased towards the end of the OE period.

§ 167. The other vocalic stems, i-stems and u-stems, include nouns of different genders. Division into genders breaks up i-stems into three declensions, but is irrelevant for u-stems: Masc. and Fem. u-stems de­cline alike, e. g. Fem. duru (NE door)had the same forms as Masc. sunu shown in the table. The length of the root-syllable is important for both stems; it accounts for the endings in the Nom. and Acc. sg in the same way as in other classes: the endings -e, -u are usually preserved in short-stemmed nouns and lost in long-stemmed.

Comparison of the i-stems with a-stems reveals many similarities. Neut. i-stems are declined like Neut. ja-stems; the inflection of the Gen. sg for Masc. and Neut. i-stems is the same as in a-stems — es; along­side pl forms in -e we find new variant forms of Masc. nouns in -as, e. g. Nom., Acc. pl — winas ‘friends’ (among Masc. i-stems only names of peo­ples regularly formed their pl in the old way: Dene, Enʒle, NE Danes, Angles). It appears that Masc. i-stems adopted some forms from Masc. a-stems, while Neut. i-stems were more likely to follow the pattern of Neut. a-stems; as for Fem. i-stems, they resembled ō-stems, except that the Acc. and Nom. sg were not distinguished as with other i-stems.

§ 168. The most numerous group of the consonantal stems were n-stems or the weak declension. n-stems had only two distinct forms in the sg: one form for the Nom. case and the other for the three ob­lique cases; the element -n- in the inflections of the weak declension was a direct descendant of the old stem-suffix -n, which had acquired anew, grammatical function. u-stems included many Masc. nouns, such as boʒa, cnotta, steorra (NE bow, knot, star), many Fem. nouns, e. g. cirice, eorpe, heorte, hlæfdiʒe (NE church, earth, heart, lady)and only a few Neut. nouns: eaʒa(NE eye).

§ 169.The other consonantal declensions are called minor conso­nantal stems as they included small groups of nouns. The most impor­tant type are the root-stems, which had never had any stem-forming suffix. In Early OE the root-vowel in some forms was subjected to pho­netic changes: if the grammatical ending contained the sound [i], the vowel was narrowed and/or fronted by palatal mutation (see § 125 ff). After the ending was dropped the mutated vowel turned out to be the only marker of the form. Cf. the reconstructed forms of Dat. sg and Nom., Acc. pl of fōt (NE foot): *fēti, *fētiz (from earlier *fōti, *fōtiz)and their descendants in OE — fēt, fēt. The interchange of root-vowels had turned into a regular means of form-building used similarly with inflections (see the forms of fōt and mūs inTable 4). This peculiarity of the root-stems is of considerable consequence for later history and has left traces in Mod E. (Irregular pl forms — men, women, teeth and the like come from the OE root-stem declension.)

§ 170. Among the other consonantal stems we should mention a small group of nouns denoting family relationship with the stem-suffix -r, e.g. brōpor, fæder, mōdor (NE brother, father, mother). They commonly had a mutated vowel in the Dat. sg: brēper, lost the second vowel in some forms like other disyllabic nouns: brōprum, mōāra and employed some endings adopted from other stems, e.g. fæderas — Nom., Acc. pl (cf. -as in a-stems).

§ 171. Another small group of nouns is known as s-stems, though in OE, as well as in other West and North G languages this [s] had long changed into [r]. Only a Few Neut. nouns remained in that group in OE, e. g. lamb, cealf, cild (NE lamb, calf, child). In the sg they were declined like Neut. a-stems, but in the pl had a specific inflection, not to be found outside that group; their stem-suffix -s, transformed into -r, had survived as part of the inflection: Nom. pl lambru. Gen. lambra, Dat. lambrum, Acc. lambru. ([r] in the pl form of children in Mod E is a trace of the stem-suffix -r).

§ 172. It may be concluded that for all its complicated arrangement the system of noun declensions lacked consistency and precision. There were many polyfunctional and homonymous markers in the paradigms. The distinction between morphological classes was not strict. Some forms were alike in all the declensions (namely, -a and -um for the Gen. and Dat. pl), many forms acquired new analogical variants under the influence of the more numerous classes or variants with phonetically weakened endings, which eliminated the differences between the declensions and between the forms within the paradigm. Towards the end of the OE period formal variation grew and the system tended to be re-arranged according to gender on the basis of the most influential types: a-stems, n-stems and ō-stems.

The distinction of forms in the paradigms was inconsistent. None of the declen­sions made a distinction between eight forms — for two numbers and four cases; some declensions distinguished between five forms, others — between three or even two. Nom. and Acc. pl had the same form in all the declensions. In the sg there were two main ways of case differentiation: one common form for the Nom. and the Acc. and two distinct forms for the Dat. and Gen.; or else — one common form for the three oblique cases, distinct from the Nom. The difference between the two numbers — sg and pl — was shown with greater precision.


§ 173. OE pronouns fell roughly under the same main classes as modern pronouns; personal, demonstrative, interrogative and indefi­nite. As for the other groups — relative, possessive and reflexive — they were as yet not fully developed and were not always distinctly separat­ed from the four main classes. The grammatical categories of the pro­nouns were either similar to those of nouns (in "noun-pronouns") or corresponded to those of adjectives (in "adjective pronouns"). Some fea­tures of pronouns were peculiar to them alone.

Personal Pronouns

§ 174. As shown in Table 5 below, OE personal pronouns had three persons, three numbers in the 1st and 2nd p. (two numbers — in the 3rd) and three genders in the 3rd p. The pronouns of the 1st and 2nd p. had suppletive forms like their parallels in other IE languages (see § 62). The pronouns of the 3rd p., having originated from demonstrative pro­nouns, had many affinities with the latter (cf. the forms in Table 6).

§ 175. In OE, while nouns consistently distinguished between four cases, personal pronouns began to lose some of their case distinctions: the forms of the Dat. case of the pronouns of the 1st and 2nd p. were fre­quently used instead of the Acc; in fact the fusion of these two cases in the pl was completed in the WS dialect already in Early OE: Acc. ēowic and ūsic were replaced by Dat. ēow, ūs; in the sg usage was variable, but variant forms revealed the same tendency to generalise the form of the Dat. for both cases. This is seen in the following quotation: Sē pe mē ʒehǣlde, sē cwæð tō‘He who healed me, he said to me’ — the first mē, though Dat. in form, serves as an Acc. (direct object); the sec­ond is a real Dat.

§ 176. It is important to note that the Gen. case of personal pronouns had two main applications: like other oblique cases of noun-pronouns it could be an object, but far more frequently it was used as an attribute or a noun determiner, like a possessive pronoun, e. g. sunu min, his fæder (NE my son, his father). Though forms of the Gen. case were em­ployed as possessive pronouns, they cannot be regarded as possessive pronouns proper (that is, as a separate class of pronouns). The grammati­cal characteristics of these forms were not homogeneous. The forms of the 1st and 2nd p. — min, ūre and others — were declined like adjectives to show agreement with the nouns they modified, while the forms of the 3rd p. behaved like nouns: they remained uninflected and did not agree with the nouns they modified.


Nim pin ʒesceot... and pinne boʒan ‘take thy (thine) implements for shoot­ing and thy bow’ (pin and pinne show agreement with the nouns —Acc. sg, Neut. and Masc.)

He ... sēalde hit hys mēder ‘he gave it to his mother’.

hēo befēold his handa ‘she covered his hands’ (his does not change its form though mider is Dat. sg, handa — Acc. pl).

Table 5

Declension of Personal Pronouns

First person
Case Singular Dual Plural
Nom. ic wit
Gen. min uncer ūre, ūser
Dat. me unc ūs
Acc. mec, mē uncit ūsic, ūs
Second person
Nom. ʒit ʒē
Gen. pin incer ēower
Dat. inc ēow
Acc. pēc, pē incit, inc ēowic, ēow
Third person
Singular Plural
  M F N All genders
Nom. hēo, hio hit hie, hi, hӯ, hēo
Gen. his hire, hiere his hira, heora, hiera, hyra
Dat. him hire, hiere him him, heom
Acc. hine hie, hi, hӯ hit hie, hi, hӯ, hēo

§ 177. The oblique cases of personal pronouns in combination with the adjective self could also serve as reflexive pronouns, e. g.:

ʒif hwā hwæt lӯtles ǣniʒes biwistes him selfum if ʒearcode... ‘If any one provided himself with some small portion of food...’

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