Inflection


Old English, very much unlike its modern descendant, was an inflectional language. It made extensive use of five 'cases'; five changes one could make to a given word. The best way to conceptualize for those not familiar with the inflection systems prevalent in languages like Latin, Russian, Sanskrit, and Greek is to look at the pronouns in English. When talking about oneself as the subject of a sentence, doing the action, one says 'I'. However, if you're the object, receiving the action, you say 'me'. And if you're the indirect recipient? 'To me'. These changes are so ingrained in our speech patterns it is hard to even think about them in an analytical context, but it's important to do so because in Old English every noun in the language changes like that. Not only that, but since nouns had gender like nearly every other Indo-European Language except English, they could change differently depending on whether they were masculine, feminine, or neuter. And these changes were not just isolated to subjects and objects.

Case Functions


As said, there are five cases in Old English, the Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Instructive, and Genitive. Of these original five, modern English only retains the Genitive for the possession suffix 's.

Nominative: The nominative case is the default case of a noun, the case in which one will always see an Old English noun listed. It is the case of the subject, anything that's taking an action. It can also be an object in a few select special cases, when it is called the predicate nominative. This happens with verbs of equivalence like to be, to seem, and so on. Finally, the Nominative takes the place of the Vocative case sometimes used in other inflectional languages. When addressing something directly, one uses the Nominative.

Accusative: The accusative case is the counterpart to the nominative. The direct object of any verb, the thing receiving an action, is put in the accusative case. The accusative is also paired up with prepositions expressing movement or direction, like 'into', 'onto', 'through', 'around', etc. It can also be used to indicate an extent of time or space, like 'for three years' or 'the entire journey' (similarly to Latin).

Dative: The dative case is the indirect object of the sentence. The indirect object is anything that is benefitted by an action, best translated as 'to' or 'for'. For example, in the sentence "I gave the keys to Alex," or more realistically, "I gave Alex the keys," 'Alex' would be in the dative case, without a preposition. It's important to note that, although in modern English the word order rules for indirect objects are quite strict (you can't say "I gave to Alex the keys," or "I gave the keys Alex"), this is not true by any means in Old English. The indirect object is clear no matter where it is in the sentence because of inflection, and thus the dative was frequently shuffled around as need dictated. Like the accusative, the dative was used with prepostions, mostly abstract, non-movemental (similarly to modern German). One more thing, sometimes the dative case was the direct object of special verbs, things like 'to snatch from' and 'to entrust to'.

Instrumental: Not a widely used case, it was slowly going extinct even in Old English. The Instrumental case is the means or manner in which something is accomplished. It is best translated with the prepositions 'by' or 'with'. Mostly indistinguishable from the dative case, its only notable exceptions were in masculine and neuter.

Genitive: The genitive case indicates possession, much as it does in modern English. It's best translated either with the suffix 's, or with the preposition 'of'. Unlike English, the genitive could either come before or after the noun it was possession (similar to modern German). It is also the object of certain special verbs.

Declension Charts

The division of Old English nouns was somewhat complicated. First, there was grammatical gender to worry about, then whether the noun was 'strong' or 'weak' (an arbitrary distinction), then what specific 'template' it followed. I've provided a sample word for each template available in the declension category, and split up the plurals from the singulars (plural declension is simple, with nominatives/accusatives and datives/insturmentals merged).

The templates for Strong Masculine are regular words with either long or short vowels (bát - boat), words with an agentive suffix of -ere attached (writere - writer) and words with an -ol ending (déofol).

Strong Masculine Singular

Nom | bát  | writere  | déofol
Acc | bát | writere | déofol
Dat | báte | writere | déofle
Ins | báte | writere | déofle
Gen | bátes| writeres | déofles

Strong Masculine Plural

Nom/Acc | bátas | writeras | déoflas
Dat/Ins | bátum | writerum | déoflum
Gen | báta | writera | défla

The templates for Strong Neuter are monosyllabic nouns with short vowel (scip - ship), monosyllabic nouns with long vowel (swín - swine), and multisyllabic nouns (waepen - weapon, take care with these, endings are applied inconsistantly and usually one will just need to memorize the oddities in declension of any strong neuter multisyllabic word). Note also that the nominative and accusative are merged for neuter nouns, this trait also holds in Latin, modern German, and across all Indo-European languages with three genders and inflection. One more thing, ever wondered why certain words don't have a distinct plural form, like sheep, swine, etc? The strong neuter declension is why, many words in this category have exactly the same plural form in the nominative as their singular form.

Strong Neuter Singular

Nom/Acc | scip  | swín  | waepen
Dat/Ins | scipe | swíne | waepne
Gen | scipes| swínes| waepnes

Strong Neuter Plural

Nom/Acc | scipu | swín  | waepnu
Dat/Ins | scipum| swínum| waepnum
Gen | scipa | swína | waepna

The templates for Strong Feminine are nouns ending in -u or anything else (scinu - shin), and nouns ending with -ol (sáwol - soul). Of note is that -u ending nouns will have the final vowel replaced from accusative onwards, this isn't an issue with non -u feminine nouns. You might notice a similarity in pattern of the -ol changes to those of Strong Masculine. Finally, the dative and instructive in Strong Feminine are indistinguishable.

Strong Feminine Singular
Nom | scinu | sáwol
Acc | scine | sáwle
Dat/Ins| scine | sáwle
Gen | scine | sáwle

Strong Feminine Plural

Nom/Acc | scina | sáwla
Dat/Ins | scinum| sáwlum
Gen | scina | sáwla

The templates for the Weak Declension, which is highly regular, occur according to gender; masculine (móna - moon), neuter (éare - ear), and feminine (sunne - sun). They're called 'weak' because of their high regularity compared to the other declensions.

Weak Singular

Nom | móna | éare | sunne
Acc | mónan| éare | sunnan
Dat | mónan| éaran| sunnan
Ins | mónan| éaran| sunnan
Gen | mónan| éaran| sunnan

Weak Plural

Nom/Acc | mónan | éaran | sunnan
Dat/Ins | mónum | éarum | sunnum
Gen | mónena| éarena| sunnena

And those are the noun cases of Old English. If you are a student of a language such as Latin (which has many, many more varied endings) like myself, you're probably scratching your head at this point. With so much repetition, how is a distinction drawn between cases? What's the practical use of them if they look the same?! This is where the other important factor of Old English comes in, the definite article. Like modern English, Old English made use of a definite article regularly. Unlike modern English, which universally uses the word 'the' (with pronunciation changes before certain vowels in certain dialects), the Old English definite article declined along with the noun in terms of gender and number. Coupling clues from the definite article with clues from the noun itself, one can identify the case readily. In fact, all one really needs is the definite article!

So why even have noun declension at all, then? Good question. The modern German language did away with it, packing all their declension into the definite/indefinite articles and adjectives, a highly efficient way to go about things. Latin didn't have a definite article at all, and instead transmitted information through highly unique noun case endings. Old English is caught somewhere in the middle, though it probably would have developed along parallel paths of elimination to Old German had the Norman invasion not taken place and mucked everything up. In any case, the definite article declensions follow, organized Masculine, Feminine, and Neuter from left to right (for the plural the definite articles apply to all genders, regardless).

Definite Article Singular

Nom | sé | þaet | séo
Acc | þone | þaet | þa
Dat | þáém | þáém | þáre
Ins | þý | þý | þáére
Gen | þaes | þaes | þáére

Definite Article Plural

Nom/Acc | þá
Dat/Ins | þáém
Gen | þára


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

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