Decay of Noun Declensions in Early Middle English

§ 424. The OE noun had the grammatical categories of Number and Case which were formally distinguished in an elaborate system of declensions. However, homonymous forms in the OE noun paradigms neutrlised some of the grammatical oppositions; similar endings employed in different declensions — as well as the influence of some types upon other types — disrupted the grouping of nouns into morphological class.

§ 425. Increased variation of the noun forms in the late 10th c. and especially in the 11th and 12th c. testifies to impending changes and to a strong tendency toward a re-arrangement and simplification of the declensions. The number of variants of grammatical forms in the 11th and 12th c. was twice as high as in the preceding centuries. Among the variant forms there were direct descendants of OE forms with phoneti­cally weakened endings (the so-called "historical forms") and also nu­merous analogical forms taken over from other parts of the same paradigms and from more influential morphological classes.

The new variants of grammatical forms obliterated the distinction between the forms within the paradigms and the differences between the declensions. For instance, Early ME fisshes and bootes, direct descend­ants of the OE Nom. and Acc. pl of Masc. a-stems — fiscas, bātas — were used, as before, in the position of these cases and could also be used as variant forms of other cases — Gen. and Dat. pl — alongside the his­torical forms fisshe, boote (OE Gen. pl flsca, bāta)and fischen, booten or fisshe, boote (OE Dat. pl fiscum, bātum); (NE fish, boat). As long as all these variants co-existed, it was possible to mark a form more pre­cisely by using a variant with a fuller ending, but when some of the va­riants went out of use and the non-distinctive, levelled variants pre­vailed, many forms fell together. Thus after passing through the "varia­tion stage" many formal oppositions were lost.

The most numerous OE morphological classes of nouns were a-stems, ō-stems and n-stems. Even in Late OE the endings used in these types were added by analogy to other kinds of nouns, especially if they be­longed to the same gender. That is how the noun declensions tended to be re-arranged on the basis of gender.

§ 426.The decline of the OE declension system lasted over three hundred years and revealed considerable dialectal differences. It started in the North of England and gradually spread southwards. The decay of inflectional endings in the Northern dialects began as early as the 10th c. and was virtually completed in the 11th; in the Midlands the process extended over the 12th c, while in the Southern dialects it lasted till the end of the 13th (in the dialect of Kent, the old inflection­al forms were partly preserved even in the 14th c).

§ 427.The dialects differed not only in the chronology but also in the nature of changes. The Southern dialects re-arranged and simpli­fied the noun declensions on the basis of stem and gender distinctions. In Early ME they employed only four markers — -es, -en, -e,and the root-vowel interchange — plus the bare stem (the "zero"-inflection) — but distinguished, with the help of these devices, several paradigms. Masc. and Neut. nouns had two declensions, weak and strong, with certain differences between the genders in the latter: Masc. nouns took the ending -es inthe Nom., Acc. pl, while Neut. nouns had variant forms: Masc. fishes — Neut. land/lande/landes. Most Fem. nouns belonged to the weak declension and were declined like weak Masc. and Neut. nouns The root-stem declension, as before, had mutated vowels in some forms and many variant forms which showed that the vowel interchange was becoming a marker of number rather than case. Cf.

ME, Southern dialects Corresponding OE forms
  sg pl  
Nom., Acc. foot feet fōt — fēt
Dat. foote, foot footen, feet fēt — fōtum
Gen. footes foote, feet fōtes — fōta

§ 428. In the Midland and Northern dialects the system of declen­sion was much simpler. Infact, there was only one major type of declen­sion and a few traces of other types, The majority of nouns took the end­ings of OE Masc. a-stems: -(e)s in the Gen. sg (from OE -es), -(e)s inthe pl irrespective of case (from OE -as: Nom. and Acc. sg, which had extended to other cases).

A small group of nouns, former root-stems, employed a root-vowel interchange to distinguish the forms of number. Survivals of other OE declensions were rare and should be treated rather as exceptions than as separate paradigms. Thus several former Neut. a-stems descending from long-stemmed nouns could build their plurals with or without the end­ing -(e)s; sg hors — pl hors or horses (see OE Neut. a-stems, § 164); some nouns retained weak forms with the ending -en alongside new forms in -es; some former Fem. nouns and some names of relations occur in the Gen. case without -(e)s like OE Fem. nouns, e. g. my fader soule, ‘my father's soul’; In hope to standen in his lady grace — ‘In the hope of standing in his lady's grace’ (Chaucer) — though the latter can be regarded as a set phrase.

§ 429. In Late ME, when the Southern traits were replaced by Cen­tral and Northern traits in the dialect of London, this pattern of noun declensions prevailed in literary English. The declension of nouns in the age of Chaucer is given in Table 1 together with some variants and minor groups showing the main deviations, exceptions and variations.

The declension of nouns in the age of Chaucer, in its main features, was the same as inMod E. The simplification of noun morphology was on the whole completed. Most nouns distinguished two forms: the basic form (with the "zero" ending) and the form in -(e)s. The nouns original­ly descending from other types of declensions for the most part had joined this major type, which had developed from Masc. a-stems (see Table 1on p. 225).

Table 1

Declension of Nouns in the Late 14th and 15th c.

Main declension
    Variant forms and devia­tions
Comm. case (OE Nom., Dat., Acc., fish, end(e)  
tale, sun(e), etc.  
wolf, hous(e), etc.  
Gen. case) fishes, endes, tales, su­nes, etc. lady/ladys, fader/faderes
wolves, houses, etc.[49]  
Comm. case (OE Nom., Dat., Acc., fishes, endes hors/horses/horsen, thing/thinges, eyen/eyes
tales, sunes, etc.
wolves, houses, etc.  
Gen. case) fishes, endes  
  tales, sunes  
  wolves, houses, etc.  
  Minor groups
Comm. case foot, mous(e), ox  
Gen. case footes, mouses, oxen  
Comm. case feet, mis(e), oxen brothers/brethern
Gen. case feetes, mices, oxen(es)  

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