Old English/Grammar

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Grammar is the rules that govern how you make sentences, clauses, and words in a language. To have a good understanding of a language, it is important to know and have a good feel for the grammar. Many things about Old English grammar are different to Modern English grammar, so you'll need to learn the differences. Read on!

Old English[edit | edit source]

Old English was a Germanic language, which means it is also an Indo-European language. Because it is a Germanic language, it is closely related to the other ancient Germanic languages of Gothic, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old Saxon, and Old Dutch; and because it is Indo-European, it is more distantly related to Latin, Greek, many Indian and Central Asian languages (including Hittite and Sanskrit), the Balto-Slavic languages, and more.

Like them, it is quite declension and conjugation-heavy - to a similar to degree to Modern Icelandic and Modern German (and much more so than Modern English or even Modern Dutch). This can seem frightening, but it is quite possible to learn. It requires some effort, memorization, and practice.

Nouns[edit | edit source]

Nouns are words used to name something, like "John", "Sarah", "ice", "monster", and "sword" in Modern English. They are part of a larger category of words called substantives, which also includes pronouns and adjectives which are used like nouns.

In Modern English, we usually change a noun to show that it is plural - we add "-s" to the end of it usually, for example "friend" (one friend) but then "friends" (more than one friend). We also usually add "-'s" to the end of a noun to show that it is possessive - that the thing being named owns something, as in "Sam's toys".

In Old English, however, they changed nouns a lot more than that. For more information, read the "Declensions" section on this page.

Declensions[edit | edit source]

A declension is when you change a noun, a pronoun, or an adjective, a bit to add some extra meaning to it, like when we add "-s" to the end of a noun in Modern English to show that there is more than one of something. For example, "toy" means "one toy", but "toys" means "more than one toy".

There was much more declension done in Old English than Modern English. Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives were all obligatorily declined - if you didn't decline them correctly in a given context, it would be wrong. They were declined differently depending on what number they were:

  • singular (for just one)
  • or plural (for more than one)
  • dual (only applies to first person (I, we) and second person (you) pronouns - for just two)

They were also declined according to case. Cases show a little bit of extra meaning about a word, like whether something is the subject of a sentence, or the direct object of a verb, or the owner of something. Cases can often be used alone instead of prepositions. In Old English, the cases were:

  • nominative (the subject of a sentence, or the doer of an action "he" in "he is cool" or "she" in "she sings a song")
  • accusative (the direct object of a verb - the thing that is having something done to it)
  • dative (the benefactor of a verb - the thing that is being given something or is having something done for them)
  • genitive (the owner of something else)
  • instrumental (the instrument by which an action is achieved) (very rare - usually exactly like the dative)

Specific different cases were also used after different prepositions. For example, "for" - "because of", was followed by the dative case; but "ƿið" - "against", was usually followed by the accusative case. Sometimes, if you used a different case after the same preposition, it would change the meaning. For example, if "on" is followed by the dative case, it usually means "in"/"on"/"at", but if it is followed by the accusative case, it means "into" or "onto".

And then there were genders, just like in Modern French or Modern German. Modern English doesn't have different grammatical genders, but Old English had three:

  • masculine
  • feminine
  • neuter

In grammar, "gender" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with social gender - for example an Old English word for "woman" - ƿīf is actually of the neuter grammatical gender. Gender is simply a way to divide nouns up into different categories.

Often, you can know what the gender of a word in Old English is, just by the "shape" of the word itself, but not always. So it's best to memorize the gender of each new noun that you learn along with the noun itself. You can do this be memorizing the unique singular article (word for "the") of that gender with the noun ("sē" for masculine, "þæt" for neuter, "sēo" for feminine). Different genders had different declensions, which you can see in the "Nouns" page.

Adjectives[edit | edit source]

Adjectives are words that are used to add extra meaning to or modify a noun or a pronoun, like Modern English "good" or "funny" as in "the good man" or "the funny man".

Like in Modern English, adjectives in Old English were put before the noun, for example dƿǣs mann - "stupid person", unless they were used in a statement like "I am cool", where they came after the noun and the verb, like in Modern English. Also like in Modern English, adjectives had comparative and superlative forms (like "much" - "more" - "most" or "good" - "better" - "best").

Unlike in Modern English, adjectives were declined with the case, gender, and number of the noun or pronoun that they modified. In addition, there were two different ways you could decline adjectives: weak or strong. It's not too hard to learn when to use each declension.

In Old English, adjectives could be used alone without modifying any noun or pronoun, as a substansive (see the "Nouns" section above), to mean something like "the (adjective) one", as in se ealda - "the old one, the old man".

Verbs[edit | edit source]

Verbs are used to show action, like Modern English "do" or "make" or "sing"; or to show an event, like Modern English "happen"; or to show a state, like Modern English "be", "become", and "seem".

In Modern English, verbs are conjugated. Conjugation is similar to declension - it's when you change a verb a bit to add some extra meaning to it. In Modern English, we conjugate verbs when we add "-s" to a third person (he/she/it/the person) singular verb: "I kick" but then "she kicks"; we also conjugate when we change the vowel of some verbs to show that it happened in that past: "I am singing" but "I sang"; or when we add "-ed" to other verbs to show that they happened in the past: "she kicked".

Verbs in Old English were also conjugated, but much more so than in Modern English. They were conjugated according to tense (the time when the verb happens, like Modern English "sing" (now) and "sang" (in the past)), person (who is doing the verb - you (second person), me (first person), or John (third person)?), number (how many are doing the verb: just one (singular) or more than one (plural)?), and mood (mood reflects different circumstances pertaining to the action of the verb - are you simply asserting something, or just speculating, or wishing, or giving a command, etc. - "He did come" is an assertion (indicative mood) but then "Maybe he came" (subjunctive mood); "Come now!" is a command (imperative mood)).

Pronouns[edit | edit source]

Pronouns are a lot like nouns - indeed, one could simply say that they are very flexible, general nouns. They can take the place for many other nouns, for example the Modern English word "he" is a personal pronoun - it can replace all the nouns "the man", "the bicyclist", "John", "the Pope", "the child", and many more. They are used to avoid repeating a noun too often, for example:

  • "John said that he was coming" not "John said that John was coming"
  • "Sarah says her cat died when it was run over by a car" not "Sarah says Sarah's cat died when Sarah's cat was run over by a car"

Other examples of pronouns in Modern English are the words "that", "this", "what", and "who".

Like Old English nouns, Old English pronouns were declined according to case, usually number, and in some cases gender; but you need to remember each pronoun's special declension, because there weren't usually predictable using the same declensions as nouns or adjectives.

Adverbs[edit | edit source]

Adverbs are a verb broad, general category of words. They are any word that modifies:

  • adjectives
  • verbs
  • other adverbs
  • prepositions

But not all adverbs can modify all of these types of words. For example, in Modern English, the word "very" is an adverb because it can be used to modify an adjective (as in "the very tall man") and some other adverbs but it cannot be used to modify a verb or a preposition (for example, one cannot say "I ran very into the wall" or "I very danced").

In Old English, like in Modern English, most adverbs are formed from adjectives. But also nouns used in the accusative, genitive, dative, or instrumental case can often or usually be used as adverbs, and prepositional phrases (phrases that include a preposition) can also take the place of an adverb (for example, in Modern English, we could say either "I went homeward" with "homeward" as an adverb, or "I went towards home" with "towards home" as a prepositional phrase).

Like in Modern English, adverbs formed off adjectives in Old English could be comparative or superlative (that means like "more" and "most", or "better" and "best"). Many adverbs, though (like the ones formed by simply declining a noun) could not be used comparatively or superlatively.

Prepositions[edit | edit source]

Prepositions are words that show different relations between substansives and substansives (substansive is a general word for nouns and pronouns), verbs and substansives, and adjectives and substansives; and they can sometimes be modified by adverbs. In Modern English, words like "to", "in", "under", "of", and "from" are all prepositions. Here are examples of the different uses of prepositions:

  • The roof of the house (shows relation between two substansives - "roof" and "house")
  • I went to the party (shows relation between a verb and a substansive - the verb "went" and the noun "party")
  • I look similar to him (shows relation between an adjective and a substansive - the adjective "similar" and the pronoun "him")
  • The frog hopped away from the hungry fish (the preposition "from" is modified by the adverb "away")

You will notice that all the examples of prepositions are followed by substansives - prepositions must always occur as part of a prepositional phrase (a phrase that has at least a preposition and a substansive) along with a substansive. Sometimes words that are prepositions can also be used as adverbs, or another part of speech. When being used as another part of speech, prepositions do not have to occur in a prepositional phrase.

In Old English, prepositions were followed by different cases - always a case other than the nominative. Some prepositions could be followed by any of several different cases, and sometimes the meaning of the preposition would change a little depending on which case followed it. For example, in Old English, if the word "in" was followed by the dative case, it would mean "in" or "inside of", but when followed by the accusative case, it would mean "into".

Many Old English prepositions were very similar to their Modern English descendants, so they should be mostly easy to learn.

Conjunctions[edit | edit source]

Conjunctions are words that connect words, phrases, or sentences, like Modern English "and", "but", "because", "if", "though", and many more.

There were three types of conjunction in Old English:

  • coordinating conjunctions - link two sentences of equal "weight", both of which could be standalone, such as "I am John, but she is Sarah" or "These keys are mine, and that hat is mine"
  • conjunctions introducing dependent clauses - conjunctions that attach a less important clause (a "dependent clause") to a main clause, such as "I came because I heard your call", where "I came" is the main clause, and "because" simply introduces the reason for coming; another example: "Even if I fail, I will try again" where "even if" introduces the dependent clause, and "I will try again" is the main clause
  • correlative conjunctions - similar to coordinating conjunctions because they introduce clauses of equal weight, but you use several conjunctions together, for example: "Neither Sam nor Fred were strong enough to lift it" and "Both the dog and the cat were savage creatures"