As an inflectional
language, Old English
put much of the burden of transmitting grammatic information on the endings of words and how they mutated. As can be seen in Old English noun cases
, however, the exact case
, or even number
of a word is not inherantly evident by its ending. Beyond that, what differences are present could easily be lost in rapid speech
. Old English nouns in their declension
are much less distinct than those of other inflectional languages in the Indo-European
group, like Greek
, or Russian
. Variable word order
, however, made it an absolute necessity that the case of a word and its number were known. What was the remedy?
One solution to the difficulty was that Old English made extensive use of the definite article ('the'), much like in modern English. Since the definite article declined with the noun it modified, and the declension was far more unique, much information lost in the original noun about its case, gender, or number could be recovered in the definite article. Modern German, also an inflectional language though it doesn't look it at first, makes use of the exact same system. Definite articles aren't always around to lend a helping hand, though. You can't always preface every single noun with 'the', that would sound rather silly, and certainly inefficient. And unlike modern German, Old English did not have an indefinite article ('a' or 'an') to pick up the slack.
Cue adjectives. Adjectives in Old English declined with the nouns they modified. Not only that, but they had two separate declension systems, depending on whether the adjective was functioning as strong or weak. A digression for a moment to define terms: strong and weak in linguistic terms usually refer to an arbitrary category a noun or verb is placed in. Nouns that decline irregularly are called 'strong' nouns, they follow their own rules, refusing to be contained by paltry consistant systems (Steven Pinker's book Words and Rules posits a fascinating theory as to why these kinds of words exist, by the way). Strong verbs are similar, they do not conjugate regularly, operating by their own, older rules. We still have strong verbs in modern English that cause headaches to foreign speakers, like drive, drove, driven or swim, swam, swum. They discard the standard past tense marker of -ed. All this explaination is a set-up for the revelation that strong and weak do not mean the same thing for adjectives!
Unlike nouns and verbs, any adjective can be strong or weak, depending on context. A strong adjective follows a declension pattern with very unique endings, you'll know exactly what case the modified noun is in by looking at the strong adjective ending, as well as its number and gender. Weak adjectives are less distinct, many endings are repeated across cases and numbers.
Why these parallel systems? You'll see in a moment. To determine what case, gender, and number an adjective should take is easy; just look at the case, gender, and number of the noun its modifying. To determine whether the adjective is strong or weak, however, you must look beyond the modified noun. If there is a definite article present (you want to say 'the hard stone'), the adjective takes weak endings. If there is no definite article ('a hard stone', or just 'hard stone'), the adjective takes strong endings.
And now you might begin to see the whole purpose behind having over 48 different endings an adjective can take depending on context. It all has to do with transmitting the most information possible. If a definite article is present, almost everything one needs to know is revealed by the combination of the definite article's declension and the noun's declension. The little added information a weak adjective provides in that context just gets rid of any small remaining ambiguities. Whereas, if there is no definite article present, the adjective will need to take very unique endings, the strong endings, that transmit alot of information in order to achieve the same level of precision available to a definite article/adjective/noun combination. Modern German (there are a ton of parallels between Old English and modern German) does the exact same thing, changing the adjective ending dependant on whether an article is present or not.
With all that over-detailed backstory out of the way, here are the endings themselves. Certain declensions have templates (much like for the nouns) where endings change slightly. I'll provide multiple examples when this occurs.
Masculine Adjective Declension
"proud baker" and "the proud baker"
Nom| wlonc baecere | sé wlonca baecere
Acc| wloncne baecere | þone wloncan baecere
Dat| wloncum baecere | þáé wloncan baecere
Ins| wlonce baecere | þý wloncan baecere
Gen| wlonces baeceres| þaes wloncan baecere
Nom/Acc| wlonce baeceras | þá wloncan baecere
Dat/Ins| wloncum baeceraum| þáém wloncum baeceras
Gen | wloncra baecera | þára wloncena baecera
Neuter Adjective Declension
Templates: In the strong neuter declension, there are two templates. Words whose root
(stressed) syllable is long, like wís
did not change in the plural Nominative. Words whose root syllable was short, like , like til
did change. I provided two examples. These differences did not occur in the weak neuter declension.
"wise verse," "good verse," "the good verse"
STRONG STRONG WEAK
Nom| wís fers | til fers | þaet tile fers
Acc| wís fers | til fers | þaet tile fers
Dat| wísum ferse | tilum ferse | þáém tilan fers
Ins| wíse ferse | tile ferse | þý tilan ferse
Gen| wíses ferses| tiles ferses| þaes tilan ferses
STRONG STRONG WEAK
Nom/Acc| wís fers | tilu fers | þá tilan fers
Dat/Ins| wísum fersum| tilum fersum| þáém tilum fersum
Gen | wísa fersa | tila fersa | þára tilena fersa
Feminine Adjective Declension
"bright melody," "the bright melody"
Nom | torht swinsung | séo torhte swinsung
Acc | torhte swinsunge | þá torhtan swinsunge
Dat/Ins| torhtre swinsunge | þáére torhtan swinsunge
Gen | torhtre swinsunge | þáére torhtan swinsunge
Nom/Acc| torhta swinsunga | þá torhtan swinsunga
Dat/Ins| torhtum swinsungum | þáé torhtum swinsungum
Gen | torhtra swinsunga | þára torhtena swinsunga
Remember, whether an adjective is strong or weak has nothing
to do with whether the noun it modifies is strong or weak.
Marckwardt, Albert H. Rosier, James L. Old English Language and Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 1972.