Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions (or equivalents that serve the same purpose): all considered the main elements necessary for the formation of a functional language. The human mind can breech wide topics, however, and trying to develop a special word for every singal derivative form of a word can be cumbersome. Old English solved this issue in a fashion that should be greatly familiar to speakers of modern English; it used prefixes and suffixes. For nouns and adjectives, the phenomes for functional derivatives were almost always suffixes, with sound forms recognizable today. Most were either concerned with converting one kind of word into another while retaining the same general meaning, or abstracting the word into a particular quality or type.

Conversion Suffixes

Adjective and Adverb Derivation from Nouns
Adjectives were derived from nouns by Old English in a fashion that should be immediately familiar. The suffix -líc was attatched to the Nominative form of a noun, pronounced close to the modern English suffix -ly and almost exactly like the modern German suffix -lich, both of which serve the same purpose. From that point the adjective could be declined as needed without in a thoroughly regular fashion (thank the gods. The -líc ending did not cause sound change. Taking it a step further, the -líce ending could be used to form an adverb from a noun. It also could convert adjectives not already in derived form like læt (slow) or hold (loyal) into adverbs: lætlice (slowly) and holdlice (loyally).

Adverb Derivation from Adjectives
The -lice suffix wasn't the only way to form an adjective in Old English. An -e suffix was also regularly used, and the -lice or -e form of an adverb could be used relatively interchangeably. During Middle English's complete butchering of Old English forms, adverbs that had commonly used an -e ending dropped it and became 'flat' adverbs; they could be written exactly the same as their adjective counterparts. They sound somewhat colloquial, but these adverb forms are used regularly in everyday conversation. Examples include the modern 'fast', 'hard', and 'slow'.

Abstract Noun Derivation from Adjectives
The suffix -iþu converted adjectives into abstract nouns. The noun automatically declined as a strong feminine gender, and caused very nasty palatal umlaut in the root (stressed) vowel of the adjective. This ending was a great source of irregularity. Examples include fúl (foul) to fýlþ (filth) and lang (long) to lengþu (length). Ever wondered why many of our abstract nouns are oddly mutated from their adjective counterparts? This is why.

Quality Adjective Derivation from Nouns
Yet another conversion between nouns and adjectives, the suffix -en indicated the material from which something was made or suggested a characteristic of quality. For example, æsc (ash), æscen (ashen). It sometimes caused palatal umlaut. For adjectives of direction, this suffix was changed to -erne, e.g. norþ (north), norþerne (northern). Material composition was irregularly indicated with the suffix -iht, e.g. wud (wood), wudiht (woody).

Feminine Noun Derivation from Masculine Nouns
Because many nouns had an inherant, implied gender that couldn't always correlate with the actual thing they were describing, a process of converting masculine to feminine nouns using the suffix -en was derived. This has a direct parallel with the modern German suffix -in, and somewhat less direct parallel with the modern English suffix -ess (the -en suffix was used more regularly).

Abstractive Suffixes

Agentive Noun Derivation
Rather simply, adding the -ere suffix to a verb or noun indicate an agent, someone who did that activity. For example, fisc (fish) to fiscere (fisher). These nouns were always strong masculine in declension.

Qualitative Adjective Derivation
This process, with an easily recognizable parallel to modern English, took nouns or adjectives and turned them into adjectives denoting the quality of the base form using the suffixes -isc and -ig. For example, cild (child) to cildisc (childish), or stán (stone) to stáénig (stony). Usually -ig was reserved for non-human conversions, while -isc applied to humans (there were exceptions, of course). Watch out, as usual the ending can cause palatal umlaut in some words, as illustrated by stán above. It was not diminutive, unlike the modern English parallel suffix -ish.

Procession Noun Derivation
The suffixes -ing and -ling added a sense to a noun of procession from, association with, or having the quality of. The nouns formed were always strong masculine. For example, earm (poor) to ierming (wretch) or æþele to æþeling. Once again, the -ling ending was more associated with humans, and palatal umlaut may bite you in the ass for some words. One interesting use of this suffix was in names. Like the Icelandic naming system, Old English names usually gave the surname, then 'son of' the father's surname. This was done not with Blah Blahsson, however, but instead used the processional suffix. For example, Ælfréd Éadwearding.

Abstractive Noun Derivation
To elevate a noun to its abstract concept (accomplished these days by the suffix -hood), Old English used the suffix -hád. The nouns derived were always strong masculine. Example, cild to cildhád (childhood).

Conditional Noun Derivation
To either adjectives or nouns, the suffix -dóm was added to indicate a state, condition, or office. Directly equivalent with the modern English -dom. For example, fréo (free), fréodóm (freedom).

Diminutive Noun Derivation
Diminuitives, nouns which are made to feel younger or weaker than their roots, were made through the use of the -en suffix. It is directly equivalent to the modern German -chen suffix, and somewhat equivalent to the modern English -ette suffix (but more regularly applied). Although you'll notice this is the same suffix as the masculine to feminine conversion suffix (and that may sound a little mysogynistic), the two really did share separate linguistic historic backgrounds, and merged under sound shift coincidence. Still sounds a little galling, though.


Marckwardt, Albert H. Rosier, James L. Old English Language and Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 1972.

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