Old English/Adjectives

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Introduction: Introduction - Grammar - Orthography - I-mutation
Grammar: Nouns - Pronouns - Articles - Adjectives - Numbers - Verbs - Participles - Adverbs - Conjunctions - Prepositions - Interjections - Appositives - Word Formation -

What are adjectives? They are words used to describe either nouns or pronouns. Like nouns and pronouns, they are declined according to number, gender, and case; and their number, gender, and case must always agree with the noun or pronoun that they are modifying. In addition, adjective are also declined in either of two ways: strong or weak. This is governed by certain factors, for which should see the section on the question "Strong or Weak?" bellow.

Strong Declension[edit]

Adjectives in Old English agree with the noun they describe in case, gender, and number. There are several variations on the general declension, but overall, adjectives decline thus:

Singular
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative - - -(u)
Accusative -ne - -e
Genitive -es -es -re
Dative -um -um -re
Instrumental -e -e -re

Notice that the genitive, dative, and instrumental feminine are all -re, the masculine and neuter genetive are both "-es", and masculine and neuter dative are both "-um", and masculine and neuter instrumental are both "-e". Also, the neuter adjective adds no ending in the nominative/accusative case, just like neuter nouns themselves. Basically, you can see that the adjective ending will roughly correspond to the article ending (þæs and -es, þǣm and -um, þǣre and -re', etc.).

Here's an example:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative gōd gōd gōd
Accusative gōd-ne gōd gōd-e
Genitive gōd-es gōd-es gōd-re
Dative gōdu-m gōd-um gōd-re
Instrumental gōd-e gōd-e gōd-re

In the plural, we find:

Plural
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative -e -(u) -a, -e
Accusative -e -(u) -a, -e
Genitive -ra -ra -ra
Dative -um -um -um
Instrumental -um -um -um

Notice that genitive and dative are the same in all genders for plural. Note also the the instrumental is exactly the same as the dative. The "-e" ending for nominative and accusative feminine was used in later Old English.

Here's an example of the plural:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative gōd-e gōd gōd-a, gōd-e
Accusative gōd-e gōd gōd-a, gōd-e
Genitive gōd-ra -ra -ra
Dative gōd-um gōd-um gōd-um
Instrumental gōd-um gōd-um gōd-um

Adjectives with æ in the stem[edit]

If an adjective has a monosyllabic stem and has æ for its vowel, and the æ is followed by a single consonant, as in the words glæd ("glad") and blæc ("black), then an extra rule comes into play: the æ changes to an a whenever the adjective acquires a suffix which begins with a vowel.

For example, here is the strong declension of glæd.

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: glæd 'glad'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative glæd glade glæd gladu gladu glade
Accusative glædne glade glæd gladu glade glade
Genitive glades glædra glades glædra glædre glædra
Dative gladum gladum gladum gladum glædre gladum
Instrumental glade gladum glade gladum glædre gladum

There is no need to supply the weak declension, since in the weak declension every suffix begins with a vowel.

Adjectives with -w[edit]

We shall give ġearu ("ready") as an example of this type of adjective. Here is the strong declension:

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: gearu 'ready'
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative ġearu ġearwe ġearu ġearu ġearu ġearwe
Accusative ġearone ġearwe ġearu ġearu ġearwe ġearwe
Genitive ġearwes ġearora ġearwes ġearora ġearore ġearora
Dative ġearwum ġearwum ġearwum ġearwum ġearore ġearwum
Instrumental ġearwe ġearwum ġearwe ġearwum ġearore ġearwum

This again can be explained in terms of a few simple rules:

  • Where the ordinary strong declension has no suffix, -w adjectives have the suffix -u.
  • Where the ordinary strong declension has a suffix beginning with a consonant, -w adjectives have an o followed by the appropriate suffix.
  • Where the ordinary strong declension has a suffix beginning with a vowel, -w adjectives have a w followed by the appropriate suffix.

There is no need to give the weak declension, since in the weak declension every number and case has a suffix beginning with a vowel; -w adjectives will therefore uniformly precede this suffix with a w.

Adjectives with -e[edit]

Adjectives such as swēte ("sweet") follow a very simple rule: the e at the end is displaced by any suffix, but stays where it is if there is no suffix. Hence the strong declension looks like this:

Example of the Strong Adjective Declension: swēt "sweet"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative swēte swēte swēte swētu swētu swēte
Accusative swētne swēte swēte swētu swēte swēte
Genitive swētes swētra swētes swētra swētre swētra
Dative swētum swētum swētum swētum swētre swētum
Instrumental swēte swētum swēte swētum swētre swētum

Again, there is no real need to give the weak declension — or the strong one, really, since the rule is so simple.

Weak Declension[edit]

Here's the singular weak declension:

Singular
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative -a -e -e
Accusative -an -e -an
Genitive -an -an -an
Dative -an -an -an
Instrumental -an -an -an

Notice that the weak declension is much more uniform and simple than the strong declension. Notice also that it is exactly the same as the weak noun declension.

Here's an example of the singular:

Singular
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative gōd-a gōd-e gōd-e
Accusative gōd-an gōd-e gōd-an
Genitive gōd-an gōd-an gōd-an
Dative gōd-an gōd-an gōd-an
Instrumental gōd-an gōd-an gōd-an

Here's the plural weak declension:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case All genders
Nominative -an
Accusative -an
Genitive -ena
Dative -um
Instrumental -um

Notice again that: It is simpler than the strong declension; it is exactly the same as the weak noun declension; and it is exactly the same for all genders.

Here's an example of a weak plural adjective:

"Gōd" - "good"
Case All genders
Nominative gōd-an
Accusative gōd-an
Genitive gōd-ena
Dative gōd-um
Instrumental gōd-um

Strong or Weak?[edit]

You can tell when to use the strong or weak declension.

An adjective would be declined weak if:

  1. It was always declined weak (like most ordinal numbers, and all comparative adjectives)
  2. It was preceded by the definitive article ("se/sēo/þæt" and all its declined forms), either of the demonstratives ("se/sēo/þæt" and all its declined forms and "þes/þis/þēos" and all its declined forms), or any possessive personal pronoun except for the third person possessive pronouns ("his/hire/heora") - unless the adjective was one of the few adjectives that were always declined strong, like ōðer - "second"
  3. It was used in a nickname and came after the personal name it modified (for more info see: Old English/Titles and Nicknames

In all other cases, the adjective was declined strong, including if it came after a linking verb:

  • Iċ eom grēat - "I am great"
  • Þā wihta wǣron fǣtta - "The creatures were fat").

Comparatives and Superlatives[edit]

The comparative and superlative forms are like Modern English "more" and "most", as is "more intelligent" and "most intelligent" or "better" and "best".

In Old English, all comparative adjectives were declined according to the weak declension - no matter what. The comparative degree was usually formed with the suffix "-ra" (the "a" being the weak masculine singular ending - so it should be replaced by other grammatical endings when it is declined). The superlative degree ("most") was usually formed by adding the suffix "-ost" to an adjective; but like the normal positive degree, it was sometimes declined weak and sometimes declined strong (see the "Strong or Weak?" section above for more information). For example:

  • wīs ("wise") - wīsra ("wiser") - wīsost ("wisest")
  • cræftiġ ("crafty, skilled") - cræftiġra ("craftier, more skilled") - cræftigost ("craftiest, most skilled")
  • hefiġ ("heavy, important") - hefiġra (""heavier, more important") - hefigost ("heaviest, most important")

Some common adjectives undergo i-mutation in the comparative and superlative, and have -est instead of -ost as the superlative suffix. Examples are:

  • eald ("old") - ieldra ("older") - (ieldest)
  • ġeong ("young") - ġingra ("younger") - ġingrest ("youngest")
  • hēah ("high") - hīerra ("higher") - hīehst ("highest")
  • strang ("strong") - strengra ("stronger") - strengest ("strongest")
  • lang ("long") - lengra ("longer") - lengest ("longest")

Some adjectives formed their comparative and superlative degrees irregularly, and need to be memorized:

  • gōd ("good") - betera ("better") - betst ("best")
  • yfel ("bad, evil") - wirsa ("worse") - wirst ("worst")
  • lytel ("little, small") - læssa ("smaller, less") - læst
  • miċel ("much, great") - māra ("more, greater") - mǣst ("most, greatest")

Adjectives and Cases[edit]

Sometimes adjectives in Old English can govern cases, like prepositions. We do a similar thing in Modern English, but we usually use prepositions instead of cases; for example, the adjective "full" can be followed by the preposition "of", plus whatever something is "full of" - "The swimming pool was full of slime".

Adjectives Governing the Dative[edit]

  • Ġelīċ - like, similar to
    • Hē þūhte ġelīċ hunde - "He seemed similar to a dog"
  • Midsprecende - speaking on behalf of
    • þū þe wǣre midsprecende þǣm Hǣlende - "you who were speaking on behalf of the Lord"

Adjectives Governing the Genetive[edit]

  • Full - full (of)
    • Þæt fæt wæs full wæteres - "The container was full of water"