Old English/Nouns

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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 -

Nouns are words which indicate a person, place, animal, thing, or idea, like "thing", "animal", "Samuel", and "Buddhism" in Modern English.

In Old English they have 3 genders (masculine, neuter, feminine), 2 numbers (singular, plural), and 5 cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental). Note that the so-called "genders" were purely grammatical genders - they very often did not correspond to natural gender. For example the word wīf - "woman" is actually of the neuter (grammatical) gender, not the feminine (natural gender).

In Old English, nouns were inflected (they changed how they were written and spoken) to add little bits of extra information to communicate their function within the sentence and the number of the noun (whether singular or plural). Although learning a language with three different genders might seem hard, it isn't really very hard - it can easily enough be done if you just make sure to memorize nouns along with their definitive article, because the definitive articles for each grammatical gender are unique. For example, don't just remember the word "ġiefu" - remember "sēo ġiefu", so you'll always know it's a feminine noun - you can easily just not say the article if you don't need to; on the other hand, if you don't know the gender of a noun, it might be annoying.

Nouns were the essential element to a noun phrase (either a noun or a pronoun had to be in a noun phrase), which is an important part of most sentences. Also in the noun phrase you could put noun modifiers, like numbers, adjectives (words that describe, like "cool" or "special"), articles ("the" or "a/an), and demonstratives ("this" and "that"). All those other words within a noun phrase had to have the same number, grammatical gender, and case as the noun that they were modifying. In addition, most adjectives (but not most numerals) could either be declined strong or weak depending on what other words were used with them. For more information on adjective declension, please see the page about Old English adjectives.

Noun Declensions[edit]

Nouns are divided into two main categories of declension in Old English: the so called "Strong" and "Weak" nouns. There are other minor declension groups, as well; but most nouns fall into these two classifications. If a noun belongs to a particular declension group, it can usually only be declined that way. Occasionally, you can decline an Old English noun one of several ways. Whether or not a noun is weak or strong does not affect whether or not the modifiers (adjectives) used with it are declined weak or strong.

Which declension a noun takes must be memorized along with the noun itself. Often, the noun itself may give clues as to which declension it takes, but not always.

Strong Nouns[edit]

The strong noun paradigm declines for case, gender and singular/plural.

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative -- -as -- -u / -- -u / -- -a, -e
Accusative -- -as -- -u / -- -e -a, -e
Genitive -es -a -es -a -e -a
Dative -e -um -e -um -e -um

In the Nominative Plural and Accusative Plural of the Strong Neuter declension, a -u follows only after short syllables (a syllable which ends with 1 short vowel and 1 consonant), while neuters with long syllables (short vowel and 2 consonants or long vowel and one consonant) have no ending. Also, feminine nouns only take "-u" in the nominative singular if they have a short syllable.


Example declensions of stān - "stone" (masc.); sċip - "ship" (neut. short stem); þing - "thing" (neut. long stem); ġiefu - "gift" (fem. short stem); and sorg - "sorrow" (fem. long stem)
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative stān stān-as sċip / þing sċip-u / þing ġief-u / sorg ġief-a / sorg-a, -e
Accusative stān stān-as sċip / þing sċip-u / þing ġief-e / sorg-e ġief-a / sorg-a, -e
Genitive stān-es stān-a sċip-es / þing-es sċip-a / þing-a ġief-e / sorg-e ġief-a / sorg-a
Dative stān-e stān-um sċip-e / þing-e sċip-um / þing-um ġief-e / sorg-e ġief-um / sorg-um

U-nouns[edit]

Some masculine and some feminine nouns belong to the u-declension. They were either short-stemmed and two-syllabled (like "sunu"), or long-stemmed one-syllabled (like "hand").

They had the same endings for both genders, but slightly different endings depending on which of the two types mentioned above a word was. Here are two examples of this declension:

Example declensions of hand - "hand" (fem. long-stem) and wudu - "wood", "forrest" (masc. short-stem)
Case Feminine Masculine
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative hand hand-a wud-u wud-a
Accusative hand hand-a wud-u wud-a
Genetive hand-a hand-um wud-a wud-um
Dative hand-a hand-a wud-a wud-a

Other nouns in this category are feld - field (masc.), weald - forest, wood (masc.), and sunu - son (masc.)

W-nouns[edit]

Nouns whose stem ended in -u or -o (the two were interchangeable) would turn this -u/o to a -w- before a vowel of a grammatical suffix. For example:

searu (neut.) - device, machine
Case Singular Plural
Nominative searu searu
Accusative searu searu
Dative searw-e searw-um
Genetive searw-es searw-a

Note that this applied to the other genders, as well. There are quite a few nouns like this, and it is fairly easy to remember that their stem ends with -u/o, so I won't list them here. But do make sure you don't confuse nouns like this with u-nouns (see above) or strong feminine nouns with the grammatical ending -u.

I-mutation nouns[edit]

A small handful of nouns in Old English take the i-mutation in parts of their declension. This is for historical reasons, which are not delved into here. Some of these nouns actually have survived into Modern English with their i-mutation in the plural, for example "goose" and "geese", "mouse" and "mice", "louse" and "lice", and "man" and "men". All i-mutation nouns in Old English are either masculine or feminine. Here is an example of the declension:

Example declensions of mann - "human", "person" (masculine); bōc - "book" (long-stem feminine); hnutu - "nut" (short-stem feminine)
Case Masculine Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative mann menn bōc, hnutu bēċ, hnyte
Accusative mann menn bōc, hnute bēċ, hnyte
Dative menn mannum bēċ, hnyte bōca, hnutum
Genetive menn manna bēċ, hnyte bōcum, hnuta

As you can see, the i-mutation affects the stem vowels in singular dative and genetive, and plural nominative and accusative. Other masculine i-mutation nouns with their i-mutated forms are:

  • frēond (frīend) - "friend"
  • fēond (fīend) - "fiend", "enemy"
  • fōt (fēt) - "foot"
  • tōþ (tēþ) - "tooth"

Other feminine i-mutation nous with their i-mutated forms are:

  • mūs (mȳs) - "mouse"
  • lūs (lȳs) - "louse"
  • burg (byriġ) - "city"
  • āc (ǣċ) - "oak tree"
  • gāt (gǣt) - "goat"
  • gōs (gēs) - goose

Note that sometimes these usually i-mutated nouns were declined just like other strong nouns.

Weak Declension[edit]

The weak paradigm is more simplified and has less variation between the genders and cases.

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Pluraĺ
Nominative -a -e -e -an
Accusative -an -ae -an -an
Genitive -an -an -an -ena
Dative -an -an -an -um

Note that the plural weak declension is the same for all genders.

Example declension of nama - "name", ēage - "eye", and tunge - "tongue"
Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative nam-a nam-an ēag-e ēag-an tung-e tung-an
Accusative nam-an nam-an ēag-e ēag-an tung-an tung-an
Genitive nam-an nam-ena ēag-an ēag-ena tung-an tung-ena
Dative nam-an nam-um ēag-an ēag-um tung-an tung-um

There are very many other weak masculine and feminine nouns, so they aren't list them here; but there is only one other weak neuter noun, and that is ēare - "ear".

Make sure not to confuse weak feminine nouns with some strong masculine or neuter nouns that end with -e.

Indeclinable nouns[edit]

Some nouns are indeclinable, or can optionally be treated as indeclinable. This means that they do not change at all according to case or number, but words that modify them, such as adjectives, still do; and verbs that they are used with also still change according to number.

One large category of such nouns are feminine nouns ending in -o/-u, such as lengu - "length" and strengu - "strength". Sometimes these nouns had weak feminine equivalents that were otherwise identical. Also, country names borrowed from Latin, often ending in "-a", could usually optionally be treated as indeclinable. There are a few more indeclinable nouns, which should be memorized as you go.

Appositives[edit]

In Old English, as in Modern English, nouns could sometimes be used similarly to an adjective to modify another noun. These are called appositives. One example of appositives in Modern English is in titles: "Queen Elizabeth", "Brother John", "General Schwartzkopf", where "Queen", "Brother", and "General" are all nouns used to modify other nouns.

To get a better understanding of how appositives were used in Old English, see the appositives page.