Saturday, November 28, 2009

old english morphology

Old English morphology

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The morphology of the Old English language is quite different from that of Modern English, predominantly by being much more highly inflected. As an old Germanic language, Old English's morphological system is similar to that of the hypothetical Proto-Germanic reconstruction, retaining many of the inflections theorized to have been common in Proto-Indo-European and also including characteristically Germanic constructions such as umlaut.
Among living languages, Old English morphology most closely resembles that of modern Icelandic, which is among the most conservative of the Germanic languages; to a lesser extent, the Old English inflectional system is similar to that of modern High German.




Verbs in Old English are divided into strong or weak verbs. Strong verbs indicate tense by a change in the quality of a vowel, while weak verbs indicate tense by the addition of an ending.

Strong verbs

Strong verbs use the Germanic form of conjugation known as ablaut. In this form of conjugation, the stem of the word changes to indicate the tense. Verbs like this persist in modern English, for example sing, sang, sung is a strong verb, as are swim, swam, swum and choose, chose, chosen. The root portion of the word changes rather than its ending. In Old English, there were seven major classes of strong verb; each class has its own pattern of stem changes. Learning these is often a challenge for students of the language, though English speakers may see connections between the old verb classes and their modern forms.
The classes had the following distinguishing features to their infinitive stems:
  1. ī + 1 consonant.
  2. ēo or ū + 1 consonant.
  3. Originally e + 2 consonants (This was no longer the case by the time of written Old English).
  4. e + 1 consonant (usually l or r, plus the verb brecan 'to break').
  5. e + 1 consonant (usually a stop or a fricative).
  6. a + 1 consonant.
  7. No specific rule — first and second have identical stems (ē or ēo), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.
Stem Changes in Strong Verbs
Class Infinitive First Preterite Second Preterite Past Participle
I ī ā i i
II ēo or ū ēa u o
III see table below
IV e æ ǣ o
V e æ ǣ e
VI a ō ō a
VII ē or ēo ē or ēo
The first preterite stem is used in the preterite tense, for the first and third persons singular. The second preterite stem is used for second person singular, and all persons in the plural (as well as the preterite subjunctive). Strong verbs also exhibit i-mutation of the stem in the second and third persons singular in the present tense.
The third class went through so many sound changes that it was barely recognisable as a single class. The first was a process called 'breaking'. Before , and + another consonant, <æ> turned into , and to . Also, before + another consonant, the same happened to <æ>, but remained unchanged (except before combination ).
The second sound-change to affect it was the influence of palatal sounds , , and . These turned anteceding and <æ> to and , respectively.
The third sound change turned to , <æ> to , and to before nasals.
  1. e + two consonants (apart from clusters beginning with l).
  2. eo + r or h + another consonant.
  3. e + l + another consonant.
  4. g, c, or sc + ie + two consonants.
  5. i + nasal + another consonant.
Stem Changes in Class III
Sub-class Infinitive First Preterite Second Preterite Past Participle
a e æ u o
b eo ea u o
c e ea u o
d ie ea u o
e i a u u
Conjugation Pronoun 'steal'
Infinitives stelan
tō stelanne
Present Indicative
ic stele
þū stilst
hē/hit/hēo stilð
wē/gē/hīe stelaþ
Past Indicative ic stæl
þū stæle
hē/hit/hēo stæl
wē/gē/hīe stælon
Present Subjunctive ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo stele
wē/gē/hīe stelen
Past Subjunctive ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo stǣle
wē/gē/hīe stǣlen
Imperative Singular stel
Plural stelaþ
Present Participle stelende
Past Participle stole

Weak verbs

Weak verbs are formed by adding alveolar (t or d) endings to the stem for the past and past-participle tenses. Some examples are love, loved or look, looked.
Originally, the weak ending was used to form the preterite of informal, noun-derived verbs such as often emerge in conversation and which have no established system of stem-change. By nature, these verbs were almost always transitive, and even today, most weak verbs are transitive verbs formed in the same way. However, as English came into contact with non-Germanic languages, it invariably borrowed useful verbs which lacked established stem-change patterns. Rather than invent and standardize new classes or learn foreign conjugations, English speakers simply applied the weak ending to the foreign bases.
The linguistic trends of borrowing foreign verbs and verbalizing nouns have greatly increased the number of weak verbs over the last 1,200 years. Some verbs that were originally strong (for example help, holp, holpen) have become weak by analogy; most foreign verbs are adopted as weak verbs; and when verbs are made from nouns (for example "to scroll" or "to water") the resulting verb is weak. Additionally, conjugation of weak verbs is easier to teach, since there are fewer classes of variation. In combination, these factors have drastically increased the number of weak verbs, so that in modern English weak verbs are the most numerous and productive form (although occasionally a weak verb may turn into a strong verb through the process of analogy, such as sneak (originally only a noun), where snuck is an analogical formation rather than a survival from Old English).
There are three major classes of weak verbs in Old English. The first class displays i-mutation in the root, and the second class none. There is also a third class explained below.
Class-one verbs with short roots exhibit gemination of the final stem consonant in certain forms. With verbs in this appears as or , where and are pronounced [j]. Geminated appears as , and that of appears as . Class one verbs may receive an epenthetic vowel before endings beginning in a consonant.
Where class-one verbs have gemination, class-two verbs have or , which is a separate syllable pronounced [i]. All class-two verbs have an epenthetic vowel, which appears as or .
Conjugation Pronoun 'put to sleep' 'heal' 'journey'
Infinitives swebban hǣlan sīðian
tō swebbanne hǣlanne tō sīðianne
Present Indicative
ic swebbe hǣle sīðie
þū swefest hǣlst sīðast
hē/hit/hēo swefeþ hǣlþ sīðað
wē/gē/hīe swebbaþ hǣlaþ sīðiað
Past Indicative ic swefede hǣlde sīðode
þū swefedest hǣldest sīðodest
hē/hit/hēo swefede hǣle sīðode
wē/gē/hīe swefedon hǣlon sīðodon
Present Subjunctive ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo swebbe hǣle sīðie
wē/gē/hīe swebben hǣlen sīðien
Past Subjunctive ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo swefede hǣlde sīðode
wē/gē/hīe swefeden hǣlden sīðoden
Imperative Singular swefe hǣl sīða
Plural swebbaþ hǣlaþ sīðiað
Present Participle swefende hǣlende sīðiende
Past Participle swefed hǣled sīðod
Conjugation Pronoun 'have' 'live' 'say' 'think'
Infinitive habban libban, lifgan secgan hycgan
Present Indicative
ic hæbbe libbe, lifge secge hycge
þū hæfst, hafast lifast, leofast segst, sagast hygst, hogast
hē/hit/hēo hæfð, hafað lifað, leofað segð, sagað hyg(e)d, hogað
wē/gē/hīe habbaþ libbað secgaþ hycgað
Past Indicative (all persons) hæfde lifde, leofode sægde hog(o)de, hygde
Present Subjunctive (all persons) hæbbe libbe, lifge secge hycge
Past Subjunctive (all persons) hæfde lifde, leofode sægde hog(o)de, hygde
Imperative Singular hafa leofa sæge, saga hyge, hoga
Plural habbaþ libbaþ, lifgaþ secgaþ hycgaþ
Present Participle hæbbende libbende, lifgende secgende hycgende
Past Participle gehæfd gelifd gesægd gehogod

Preterite-present verbs

Conjugation Pronoun 'know, know how to, can' 'be able to, may' 'be obliged to, shall' 'know, wit' 'own, owe' 'avail, dow' 'dare' 'remember' 'need' 'be able to, be obliged to, mote
Infinitives cunnan magan sculan witan āgan dugan durran munan
Present Indicative
ic cann mæg sceal wāt āh deah dearr man þearf mōt
þū canst meaht scealt wāst āhst
dearst manst þearft mōst
hē/hit/hēo cann mæg sceal wāt āh deah dearr man þearf mōt
wē/gē/hīe cunnon magon sculon witon āgon dugon durron munon þurfon mōton
Past Indicative
ic cūðe meahte sceolde wisse, wiste āhte dohte dorst munde þorfte mōste
þū cūðest meahtest sceoldest wissest, wistest āhte dohte dorst munde þorfte mōste
hē/hit/hēo cūðe meahte sceolde wisse, wiste āhte dohte dorst munde þorfte mōste
wē/gē/hīe cūðon meahton sceoldon wisson, wiston

Present Subjunctive
ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo cunne mæge scule wite āge dyge, duge durre myne, mune þyrfe, þurfe mōte
wē/gē/hīe cunnen mægen sculen witaþ

Past Subjunctive
ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo cūðe meahte sceolde wisse, wiste

wē/gē/hīe cūðen meahten sceolden

Anomalous verbs

Conjugation Pronoun 'do' 'go' 'will'
Infinitive dōn gān willan
Present Indicative
ic wille
þū dēst gǣst wilt
hē/hit/hēo dēð gǣð wile
wē/gē/hīe dōð gāð willað
Past Indicative
ic/hē/hit/hēo dyde ēode wolde
þū dydest ēodest woldest
wē/gē/hīe dydon ēodon woldon
Present Subjunctive (all persons) wille
Past Subjunctive (all persons) dyde ēode wolde
Present Participle dōnde willende
Past Participle gedōn gegān
Conjugation Pronoun sindon bēon wesan
Infinitive sindon bēon wesan
Present Indicative
ic eom bēo wese
þū eart bist wesst
hē/hit/hēo is bið wes(t)
wē/gē/hīe sind(on) bēoð wesað
Past Indicative
ic wæs
þū wǣre
hē/hit/hēo wæs
wē/gē/hīe wǣron
Present Subjunctive
ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo sīe bēo wese
wē/gē/hīe sīen bēon wesen
Past Subjunctive
ic/þū/hē/hit/hēo wǣre
wē/gē/hīe wǣren
(singular) bēo wes
(plural) bēoð wesað
Present Participle bēonde wesende
Past Participle gebēon
The present forms of wesan are almost never used. Therefore, wesan is used as the past, imperative, and present participle versions of sindon, and does not have a separate meaning. The bēon forms are usually used in reference to future actions. Only the present forms of bēon contrast with the present forms of sindon/wesan in that bēon tends to be used to refer to eternal or permanent truths, while sindon/wesan is used more commonly to refer to temporary or subjective facts. This semantic distinction was lost as Old English developed into modern English, so that the modern verb 'to be' is a single verb which takes its present indicative forms from sindon, its past indicative forms from wesan, its present subjunctive forms from bēon, its past subjunctive forms from wesan, and its imperative and participle forms from bēon.


Old English nouns were declined – that is, the ending of the noun changed to reflect its function in the sentence. There were five major cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and instrumental.
  • The nominative case indicated the subject of the sentence, for example se cyning means 'the king'. It was also used for direct address. Adjectives in the predicate (qualifying a noun on the other side of 'to be') were also in the nominative.
  • The accusative indicated the direct object of the sentence, for example Æþelbald lufode þone cyning means "Æþelbald loved the king", where Æþelbald is the subject and the king is the object. Already the accusative had begun to merge with the nominative; it was never distinguished in the plural, or in a neuter noun.
  • The genitive case indicated possession, for example the þæs cyninges scip is "the ship of the king" or "the king's ship". It also indicated partitive nouns.
  • The dative case indicated the indirect object of the sentence, for example hringas þæm cyninge means "rings for the king" or "rings to the king". There were also several verbs which took direct objects in the dative.
  • The instrumental case indicated an instrument used to achieve something, for example lifde sweorde, "he lived by the sword", where sweorde is the instrumental form of sweord. During the Old English period, the instrumental was falling out of use, having largely merged with the dative. Only pronouns and strong adjectives retained separate forms for the instrumental.
There were different endings depending on whether the noun was in the singular (for example, hring 'one ring') or plural (for example, hringas 'many rings').
Nouns are also categorised by grammatical gender – masculine, feminine, or neuter. Masculine and neuter words generally share their endings. Feminine words have their own subset of endings. The plural does not distinguish between genders.
Furthermore, Old English nouns are divided as either strong or weak. Weak nouns have their own endings. In general, weak nouns are easier than strong nouns, since they had begun to lose their declensional system. However, there is a great deal of overlap between the various classes of noun: they are not totally distinct from one another.


Most pronouns are declined by number, case and gender; in the plural form most pronouns have only one form for all genders. Additionally, Old English pronouns reserve the dual form (which is specifically for talking about groups of two things, for example "we two" or "you two" or "they two"). These were uncommon even then, but remained in use throughout the period.
First Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative ic, īc wit
Accusative mec, mē ūsic, ūs uncit, unc
Genitive mīn ūre uncer
Dative ūs unc
Second Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þū git
Accusative þēc, þē ēowic, ēow incit, inc
Genitive þīn ēower incer
Dative þē ēow inc
Third Person
Case Singular Plural
Masc. Neut. Fem.
Nominative hit hēo hiē m., hēo f.
Accusative hine hit hīe hiē m., hīo f.
Genitive his his hire hiera m., heora f.
Dative him him hire him
Many of the forms above bear strong resemblances to their contemporary English language equivalents: for instance in the genitive case ēower became "your", ūre became "our", mīn became "mine".


Prepositions (like Modern English words by, for, and with) often follow the word which they govern, in which case they are called postpositions. Also, so that the object of a preposition was marked in the dative case, a preposition may conceivably be located anywhere in the sentence, even appended to the verb. e.g. "Scyld Scefing sceathena threatum meodo setla of teoh" means "Scyld took mead settles of (from) enemy threats." The infinitive is not declined.


  • Moore, Samuel, and Thomas A. Knott. The Elements of Old English. 1919. Ed. James R. Hulbert. 10th ed. Ann Arbor, Michigan: George Wahr Publishing Co., 1958.

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