Old English grammar
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The grammar of Old English is quite different from that of Modern English, predominantly by being much more inflected. As an old Germanic language, Old English has a morphological system that is similar to that of the hypothetical Proto-Germanic reconstruction, retaining many of the inflections thought to have been common in Proto-Indo-European and also including constructions characteristic of the Germanic daughter languages such as the 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, it resembles modern German.
Nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners were fully inflected with four grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative), and a vestigial instrumental, two grammatical numbers (singular and plural) and three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). First- and second-person personal pronouns also had dual forms for referring to groups of two people, in addition to the usual singular and plural forms. The instrumental case was somewhat rare and occurred only in the masculine and neuter singular. It was often replaced by the dative. Adjectives, pronouns and (sometimes) participles agreed with their antecedent nouns in case, number and gender. Finite verbs agreed with their subject in person and number.
Nouns came in numerous declensions (with many parallels in Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit). Verbs came in nine main conjugations (seven strong and three weak), all with numerous subtypes, as well as a few additional smaller conjugations and a handful of irregular verbs. The main difference from other ancient Indo-European languages, such as Latin, is that verbs could be conjugated in only two tenses (vs. the six "tenses," really tense/aspect combinations, of Latin), and they have no synthetic passive voice although it still existed in Gothic.
In common with other members of the Indo-European family, Old English has grammatical gender: a given noun does not necessarily correspond to its natural gender, even for nouns referring to people. For example, sēo sunne (the sun) was feminine, se mōna (the moon) was masculine, and þæt wīf (the woman) was neuter. (These correspond to modern German feminine die Sonne, masculine der Mond, and neuter das Weib.) Pronominal usage usually reflected natural gender rather than grammatical gender when the two conflicted.
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:
- ī + one consonant.
- ēo or ū + one consonant.
- Originally e + two consonants. By the time of written Old English, many had changed. If C is used to represent any consonant, verbs in this class usually had short e + lC; short eo + rC; short i + nC/mC; or (g̣ +) short ie + lC.
- e + one consonant (usually l or r, plus the verb brecan 'to break').
- e + one consonant (usually a stop or a fricative).
- a + one consonant.
- Other than the above. Always a heavy root syllable (either a long vowel or short + two consonants), almost always a non-umlauted vowel – e.g., ō, ā, ēa, a (+ nC), ea (+ lC/rC), occ. ǣ (the latter with past in ē instead of normal ēo). Infinitive is distinguishable from class 1 weak verbs by non-umlauted root vowel; from class 2 weak verbs by lack of suffix -ian. First and second preterite have identical stems, usually in ēo (occ. ē), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.
|Verb class||Stem vowel|
|Class||Root weight||Non-past||First past||Second past||Past participle|
|e (+lC), eo (+rC/ hC)||ea|
|7||heavy||various||ē or ēo||same as infinitive|
The first past stem is used in the past, for the first- and third-person singular. The second past 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-person 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 ⟨h⟩, and ⟨r⟩ + another consonant, ⟨æ⟩ turned into ⟨ea⟩, and ⟨e⟩ to ⟨eo⟩. Also, before ⟨l⟩ + another consonant, the same happened to ⟨æ⟩, but ⟨e⟩ remained unchanged (except before combination ⟨lh⟩).
A second sound change turned ⟨e⟩ to ⟨i⟩, ⟨æ⟩ to ⟨a⟩, and ⟨o⟩ to ⟨u⟩ before nasals.
Altogether, this split the third class into four sub-classes:
- e + two consonants (apart from clusters beginning with l).
- eo + r or h + another consonant.
- e + l + another consonant.
- i + nasal + another consonant.
Regular strong verbs were all conjugated roughly the same, with the main differences being in the stem vowel. Thus stelan "to steal" represents the strong verb conjugation paradigm.
|Strong verb conjugation||Stelan "to steal"|
|tō stelanne||tō -anne|
Weak verbs are formed by adding alveolar (t or d) endings to the stem for the past and past-participle tenses. Examples include love, loved and 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 inventing and standardizing new classes or learning 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 learn, 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 ⟨r⟩, this appears as ⟨ri⟩ or ⟨rg⟩, where ⟨i⟩ and ⟨g⟩ are pronounced [j]. Geminated ⟨f⟩ appears as ⟨bb⟩, and that of ⟨g⟩ appears as ⟨cg⟩. Class-one verbs may receive an epenthetic vowel before endings beginning in a consonant.
Where class-one verbs have gemination, class-two verbs have ⟨i⟩ or ⟨ig⟩, which is a separate syllable pronounced [i]. All class-two verbs have an epenthetic vowel, which appears as ⟨a⟩ or ⟨o⟩.
In the following table, three verbs are conjugated. Hǣlan "to heal" is a class-one verb exhibiting neither gemination nor an epenthetic vowel. Swebban "to put to sleep" is a class-one verb exhibiting gemination and an epenthetic vowel. Sīþian "to travel" is a class-two verb.
|Weak verb conjugation||Class 1, short||Class 1, long||Class 2|
|tō hǣlanne||tō -anne||tō swebbanne||tō -anne||tō sīþienne||tō -ienne|
|Past||(ġe)hǣled||(ġe)- -ed||(ġe)swefed||(ġe)- -ed||(ġe)sīþod||(ġe)- -od|
During the Old English period, the third class was significantly reduced; only four verbs belonged to this group: habban 'have', libban 'live', seċġan 'say', and hyċġan 'think'. Each of these verbs is distinctly irregular, though they share some commonalities.
|Class 3 weak verbs||Suffixes||Habban "to have"||Libban "to live"||Seċġan "to say"||Hyċġan "to think"|
|tō -enne||tō hæbbenne||tō libbenne||tō seċġenne||tō hyċġenne|
The preterite-present verbs are a class of about a dozen verbs which have a present tense in the form of a strong preterite and a past tense like the past of a weak verb. These verbs derive from the subjunctive or optative use of preterite forms to refer to present or future time. For example, witan, "to know" comes from a verb which originally meant "to have seen" (cf. OE wise "manner, mode, appearance"; Latin videre "to see" from the same root). The present singular is formed from the original singular preterite stem and the present plural from the original plural preterite stem. As a result of this history, the first-person singular and third-person singular are the same in the present.
Few preterite-present verbs appear in the Old English corpus. Not all of the inflections listed below are attested: some have been reconstructed by comparison with cognates in other languages and with similar verbs in Old English.
In spite of heavy irregularities, there are four groups of similarly-conjugated verbs:
- Āgan, durran, mōtan, and witan
- Cunnan, ġemunan (outside the past tense), and unnan
- Dugan, magan, and ġenugan
- Sċulan and þurfan
|1||Āgan "to own"||āgende||(ġe)āgen||āh-||āg-||āht-||āg-||āht-||āge||āgaþ|
|Durran "to dare"||durrende||(ġe)dorren||dearr-||durr-||dorst-||dyrr-||dyrst-||dyrre||durraþ|
|Mōtan "may, to be allowed to"||mōtende||(ġe)mōten||mōt-||mōst||mōt-||mōst-||mōte||mōtaþ|
|Witan "to know (a fact)"||witende||(ġe)witen||wāt-||wit-||wist-||wit-||wist-||wite||witaþ|
|2||Cunnan "to know (how to)"||cunnende||(ġe)cunnen, (ġe)cūþ||cann-||cunn-||cūþ-||cunn-||cūþ-||cunne||cunnaþ|
|3||Dugan "work with, avail"||dugende||(ġe)dugen||deah-||dug-||doht-||dug-||doht-||ġeduge||ġedugaþ|
|Ġenugan "to enjoy, use"||ġenugende||ġenugen||ġeneah-||ġenug-||ġenoht-||ġenug-||ġenoht-||ġenuge||ġenugaþ|
|Magan "can, be able to"||mæġende||(ġe)mæġen||mæg-||mag-||meaht-||mæg-||miht-||mæge||magaþ|
|4||Sċulan "should, must"||sċuldende||(ġe)sċulen||sċeal-||sċul-||sċold-||sċyl-||sċyld-||sċyle||sċulaþ|
|Þurfan "to need"||þurfende||(ġe)þurfen||þearf-||þurf-||þorft-||þyrf-||þyrft-||þyrfe||þurfaþ|
The Old English meanings of many of the verbs are significantly different from that of the modern descendants; in fact, the verbs "can, may, must", and to a lesser extent "thurf, durr" appear to have chain shifted in meaning.
Additionally, there is a further group of four verbs which are anomalous: "want", "do", "go" and "be". These four have their own conjugation schemes which differ significantly from all the other classes of verb. This is not especially unusual: "want", "do", "go", and "be" are the most commonly used verbs in the language, and are very important to the meaning of the sentences in which they are used. Idiosyncratic patterns of inflection are much more common with important items of vocabulary than with rarely used ones.
Dōn 'to do' and gān 'to go' are conjugated alike; willan 'to want' is similar outside of the present tense.
The verb 'to be' is actually composed of three different stems: one beginning with w-, one beginning with b-, and one beginning with s-. These are traditionally thought of as forming two separate words: wesan, comprising the forms beginning with w- and s-, and bēon, comprising the forms beginning with b-.
In the present tense, wesan and bēon carried a difference in meaning. Wesan was used in most circumstances, whereas bēon was used for the future and for certain kinds of general statements.
|Anomalous verbs||Bēon, "to be"||Wesan, "to be"||Dōn, "to do"||Gān, "to go"||Willan "to want"|
|tō bēonne||to wesanne||tō dōnne||tō gānne||tō willenne|
Old English is an inflected language, and as such its nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners must be declined for case, number and gender in order to serve a grammatical function. A set of declined forms of the same word pattern is called a declension. As in several other ancient Germanic languages, Old English declensions include five major cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive 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 case indicated the direct object of the sentence, for example: Æðelbald lufode þone cyning means "Æðelbald loved the king", where Æðelbald 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 sċip is "the king's ship". It also indicated partitive nouns.
- The dative case indicated the indirect object. For example: hringas þǣm cyninge means "rings for the king" or "rings to the king". Here, the word cyning is in its dative form: cyninge. There were also several verbs that 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.
The small body of evidence available for Runic texts suggests that there may also have been a separate locative case in early or Northumbrian forms of the language (e.g., ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ on rodi "on the Cross").
In addition to inflection for case, nouns take different endings depending on whether the noun was in the singular (for example, hring "one ring"') or plural (for example, hringas "many rings"). Also, some nouns pluralize by way of Umlaut, and some undergo no pluralizing change in certain cases.
Nouns are also categorized by grammatical gender – masculine, feminine, or neuter. In general, masculine and neuter words share most of their endings, while feminine words have their own subset of endings.
Furthermore, Old English nouns are divided as either strong or weak. Weak nouns have their own endings. In general, weak nouns are less complex than strong nouns, since they had begun to lose their system of declension. However, the various noun classes are not totally distinct from one another, and there is a great deal of overlap between them.
Descriptions of Old English language grammars often follow the NOM-ACC-GEN-DAT-INST case order.
Here are the regular declensional endings and examples for each gender:
|Strong declension (wulf "wolf"; sċip "ship"; sorg- "sorrow")|
|Accusative||sorge||-e||sorga/ sorge||-a/ -e|
|Strong W-declension (smeoru "grease"; sinu "sinew")|
|Accusative||sinwe||-we||sinwa/ sinwe||-wa/ -we|
|Weak declension (nama "name"; ēage "eye"; tunge "tongue")|
For the '-u/–' forms above, the '-u' is used with a root consisting of a single short syllable or ending in a long syllable followed by a short syllable, while roots ending in a long syllable or two short syllables are not inflected. (A long syllable contains a long vowel or is followed by two consonants. There are some exceptions; for example, feminine nouns ending in -þu such as strengþu 'strength'.)
There is a syncope of a vowel in an unstressed second syllable with two-syllable strong nouns, which have a long vowel in the first syllable and a second syllable consisting of a short vowel and single consonant (for example, enġel, wuldor 'glory', and hēafod 'head'). However, this syncope is not always present, so forms such as engelas may be seen.
Some strong masculine and neuter nouns end in -e in their base form. These drop the -e and add normal endings. Neuter nouns in -e always have -u in the plural, even with a long vowel.
Nouns whose stem ends in -w change this to -u or drop it in the nominative singular. (This '-u/–' distinction depends on syllable weight, as for other strong nouns, above.)
Masculine and neuter nouns whose main vowel is short æ and end with a single consonant change the vowel to a in the plural (a result of the phonological phenomenon known as Anglo-Frisian brightening). In some cases, a consonant change (like ġ to g or c to ċ) may also take place:
|Brightened nouns||Dæġ "day" (m.)||Blæd "leaf" (n.)|
Nouns ending in -h lose this when an ending is added, and lengthen the vowel in compensation (this can result in compression of the ending as well):
|H-stem nouns||Mearh "horse" (m.)||Feorh "life" (n.)||Sċōh "shoe" (m.)|
A few nouns follow the -u declension, with an entirely different set of endings. The following examples are both masculine, although feminines also exist, with the same endings (for example duru 'door' and hand 'hand'). The '-u/–' distinction in the singular depends on syllable weight, as for strong nouns, above.
|U-stem nouns||Sunu "son" (m.)||Feld "field" (m.)|
There are also some nouns of the consonant declension, which show i-umlaut in some forms, which may change a c or g into a ċ or ġ:
|Case||Fōt "foot" (m.)||Hnutu "nut" (f.)|
Other such nouns include (with singular and plural nominative forms given):
Masculine: tōþ, tēþ 'tooth'; mann, menn 'person'; frēond, frīend 'friend'; fēond, fīend 'enemy' (cf. 'fiend')
Feminine: studu, styde 'post' (cf. 'stud'); hnitu, hnite 'nit'; āc, ǣċ 'oak'; gāt, gǣt 'goat'; brōc, brēċ 'leg covering' (cf. 'breeches'); gōs, gēs 'goose'; burg, byrġ 'city'; dung, dynġ 'prison'; turf, tyrf 'turf'; grūt, grȳt 'meal' (cf. 'grout'); lūs, lȳs 'louse'; mūs, mȳs 'mouse'
Feminine -h stems: furh, fyrh 'furrow' or 'fir'; sulh, sylh 'plough'; þrūh, þrȳh 'trough'; wlōh, wlēh 'fringe'.
Feminine with compression of endings: cū, cȳ 'cow' (cf. dialectal plural 'kine')
Neuter: Sċrūd 'clothing, garment' has the umlauted dative-singular form sċrȳd.
Five nouns of relationship have an irregular declension:
|Relationship nouns||Fæder "father" (m.)||Brōþor "brother" (m.)||Mōdor "mother" (f.)||Sweostor "sister" (f.)||Dohtor "daughter" (f.)|
|Nominative||fæder||fæderas||brōþor||(ġe)brōþor, -ra, -ru||mōdor||mōdra, -ru||sweostor||(ġe)sweostor, -tra, -tru||dohtor||dohtor, -ra, -ru|
A few neuter strong nouns have -r- in the plural, from proto-Germanic -z stem nouns:
|R-stem nouns||Lamb "lamb" (n.)|
The other nouns of this type are ǣġ, ǣġru 'egg'; ċealf, ċealfru 'calf'; and ċild 'child', which has either the a-stem plural ċild or the inherited plural ċildru (cf. 'children', with -en from the weak nouns).
Adjectives in Old English are declined using the same categories as nouns: five cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and two numbers (singular, plural). In addition, they can be declined either strong or weak. The weak forms are used in the presence of a definite or possessive determiner, while the strong ones are used in other situations. The weak forms are identical to those for nouns, while the strong forms use a combination of noun and pronoun endings:
|Strong consonant stem|
|Strong vowel stem|
The suffix -u can variably be -o, and the feminine nominative plural suffix -a can variably be -e.
W-stem adjectives use -w- before a vowel, -o- before a consonant, and -u word-finally. H-stem adjectives remove the final "-h" before a consonant and drop the vowels of a given ending.
The same stem-changing variants described above for nouns also exist for adjectives. The following example shows both the æ/ a variation of the stems:
|Glæd "glad"||Masculine/ Neuter||Feminine|
Comparatives and superlatives
Comparative adjectives are fairly regular, but do often cause i-mutation.
|Ġeong "young" (i-mutation)||Ġingra||Ġinġest|
|Gōd "good" (irregular)||Betera||Betst|
|Yfel "bad" (irregular)||Wyrsa||Wyrrest|
Old English had two main determiners: se, which could function as both 'the' or 'that', and þes for 'this'.
|Determiner inflection||Se "the; these, those"||Þes "this, these"|
Modern English 'that' descends from the neuter nominative/accusative form, and 'the' from the masculine nominative form, with 's' replaced analogously by the 'th' of the other forms. The feminine nominative form was possibly the source of Modern English 'she'.
|Interrogative Inflection||Hwā/ Hwæt "what, why, who"|
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 preserve the dual form, which was specifically used for groups of two things, as in "we both" and "you two"). These were common, but could optionally be substituted with the ordinary plural forms.
|Case||1st person||2nd person||3rd person|
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". However, the h- in plural forms such as hīe was eventually replaced with þ- under Norse influence, yielding "they," "them," and "their."
Prepositions (like Modern English words by, for, and with) sometimes follow the word which they govern (especially pronouns), in which case they are called postpositions.
|æfter||after||Related to Frisian efter, Dutch achter ("behind"), Icelandic eftir. Ancestor of modern after.|
|ǣr||before||Related to German eher and Icelandic áður. Ancestor of modern ere.|
|æt||at||Related to Icelandic að ("to, towards"). Ancestor of modern at.|
|andlang||along||Related to German entlang. Ancestor of modern along. Governs the genitive.|
|bæftan||behind||Ancestor of modern (nautical) abaft.|
|be, bī||by, about||Related to West Frisian by, Low German bi, Dutch bij, German bei. Ancestor of modern by.|
|beforan||before||Related to German bevor. Ancestor of modern before.|
|beġeondan||beyond||Ancestor of modern beyond|
|behindan||behind||Ancestor of modern behind. Related to German hinter.|
|binnan||in, within||Related to German and Dutch binnen|
|benēoðan||beneath||Ancestor of modern beneath.|
|betwēonum||between||Ancestor of modern between|
|bufan||above||Ancestor of modern above through compound form onbufan|
|būtan||without, except||Related to Dutch buiten. Ancestor of modern but.|
|ēac||also||Related to Frisian ek, Low German ook, Dutch ook, and German auch. Ancestor of modern (archaic) eke|
|for||for, because of, instead of||Ancestor of modern for, related to modern German für|
|fram||from, by||Ancestor of modern from|
|ġeond||through||Ancestor of modern yonder through comparative form ġeondra. Related to Dutch ginds and (archaic) ginder|
|in||in||Ancestor of modern in, related to German and Latin in|
|innan||within||Related to modern German innen|
|intō||into||Ancestor of modern into|
|mid||with||Related to modern German mit|
|nēah||near||Ancestor of modern nigh. German nah|
|of||from, out of||Ancestor of modern of and off|
|ofer||over||Ancestor of modern over|
|on||on, in||Ancestor of modern on|
|onbūtan||around||Ancestor of modern about|
|onġēan||opposite, against; towards; in reply to||Ancestor of modern again. Related to German entgegen|
|samod||together||Related to German samt|
|tō||to||Ancestor of modern to, related to German zu|
|tōeācan||in addition to, besides|
|tōforan||before||Related to Dutch tevoren, German zuvor|
|tōgeagnes||towards, against||Related to Dutch tegen|
|tōweard||toward||Ancestor of modern toward|
|þurh||through||Ancestor of modern through. Related to German durch.|
|under||under||Ancestor of modern under, related to German unter|
|undernēoðan||underneath||Ancestor of modern underneath|
|uppon||upon, on||Not the ancestor of modern upon, which came from "up on".|
|ūtan||without, outside of||Related to modern Swedish utan, German außen. The adverbial form ūt is the ancestor of modern out.|
|wiþ||against||Ancestor of modern with|
|wiþinnan||within||Ancestor of modern within|
|wiþūtan||outside of||Ancestor of modern without|
|ymb||around||Related to modern German um and Latin ambi|
Old English syntax was similar in many ways to that of Modern English. However, there were some important differences. Some were simply consequences of the greater level of nominal and verbal inflection, and word order was generally freer. There are also differences in the default word order and in the construction of negation, questions, relative clauses and subordinate clauses.
- The default word order was verb-second and more like German than Modern English.
- There was no do-support in questions and negatives.
- Multiple negatives could stack up in a sentence and intensified each other (negative concord).
- Sentences with subordinate clauses of the type "When X, Y" did not use a wh-type word for the conjunction but used a th-type correlative conjunction (e.g., þā X, þā Y instead of "When X, Y").
There was some flexibility in word order of Old English since the heavily inflected nature of nouns, adjectives, and verbs often indicated the relationships between clause arguments. Scrambling of constituents was common. Even sometimes scrambling within a constituent occurred, as in Beowulf line 708 wrāþum on andan:
|hostile (Dative Singular)||on/with||malice (Dative Singular)|
|"with hostile malice"|
Something similar occurs in line 713 in sele þām hēan "in the high hall" (lit. "in hall the high").
- Hēr Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his rīces ond westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum dǣdum, būton Hamtūnscīre; ...
- (Literally) "Here Cynewulf deprived Sigebryht of his kingdom and West Saxons' counselors for unright deeds, except Hampshire"
- (translated) "Here Cynewulf and the West Saxon counselors deprived Sigebryht of his kingdom, other than Hampshire, for unjust actions"
The words ond westseaxna wiotan "and the West Saxon counselors" (lit. "and (the) counselors of (the) West Saxons") have been extraposed from (moved out of) the compound subject they belong in, in a way that would be impossible in modern English. In Old English, case inflection preserves the meaning: the verb beniman "to deprive" (appearing in this sentence in the form benam, "[he] deprived") needs a word in the genitive case to show what someone or something is deprived of, which in this sentence is rīces "of kingdom" (nominative rīce, "kingdom"), whereas wiotan "counselors" is in the nominative case and therefore serves a different role entirely (the genitive of it would be wiotana, "of counselors"); for this reason the interpretation that Cynewulf deprived Sigebryht of the West Saxon counselors was not possible for speakers of Old English. The Old English sentence still isn't in theory perfectly unambiguous, as it contains one more word in the genitive: westseaxna ("of West Saxons", nominative westseaxan "West Saxons"), and the form wiotan "counselors" may also represent the accusative case in addition to the nominative, thus for example creating the grammatical possibility of the interpretation that Cynewulf also took the West Saxons away from the counselors, but this would have been difficult to conceive.
Main clauses in Old English tend to have a verb-second (V2) order, where the finite verb is the second constituent in a sentence, regardless of what comes first. There are echoes of this in modern English: "Hardly did he arrive when ...", "Never can it be said that ...", "Over went the boat", "Ever onward marched the weary soldiers ...", "Then came a loud sound from the sky above". In Old English, however, it was much more extensive, like the word order in modern Germanic languages other than modern English. If the subject appears first, there is an SVO order, but it can also yield orders such as OVS and others. In questions VSO was common, see below.
In subordinate clauses, however, the word order is markedly different, with verb-final constructions the norm, again as in Dutch and German. Furthermore, in poetry, all the rules were frequently broken. In Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order, and subordinate clauses often have verb-second order. (However, in clauses introduced by þā, which can mean either "when" or "then", and where word order is crucial for telling the difference, the normal word order is nearly always followed.)
Those linguists who work within the Chomskyan transformational grammar paradigm often believe that it is more accurate to describe Old English (and other Germanic languages with the same word-order patterns like modern German) as having underlying subject-object-verb (SOV) ordering. According to this theory, all sentences are initially generated using this order, but in main clauses, the verb is moved back to the V2 position (technically, the verb undergoes V-to-T raising). That is said to explain the fact that Old English allows inversion of subject and verb as a general strategy for forming questions, while modern English uses this strategy almost only with auxiliary verbs and the main verb "to be", requiring do-support in other cases.
Most of the time the word order of Old English changed when asking a question, from SVO to VSO. While many purport that Old English had free word order, this is not quite true, as there were conventions for the positioning of subject, object and verb in clause.
- "I am..." becomes "Am I..."
- "Ic eom..." becomes "Eom ic..."
Relative and subordinate clauses
Old English did not use forms equivalent to "who, when, where" in relative clauses (as in "The man whom I saw") or subordinate clauses ("When I got home, I went to sleep").
Instead, relative clauses used one of the following:
- An invariable complementizer þe
- The demonstrative pronoun se, sēo, þæt
- The combination of the two, as in se þe
Subordinate clauses tended to use correlative conjunctions, e.g.
- Þā ic hām ēode, þā slēp ic.
- (word-for-word) "Then I home went, then slept I."
- (translated) "When I went home, I slept."
The word order usually distinguished the subordinate clause (with verb-final order) from the main clause (with verb-second word order).
Besides þā ... þā ..., other correlative conjunctions occurred, often in pairs of identical words, e.g.:
- þǣr X, þǣr Y: "Where X, Y"
- þanon X, þanon Y: "Whence (from where/wherefrom) X, Y"
- þider X, þider Y: "Whither (to where/whereto) X, Y"
- þēah (þe) X, þēah Y: "Although X, Y"
- þenden X, þenden Y: "While X, Y"
- þonne X, þonne Y: "Whenever X, Y"
- þæs X, þæs Y: "As/after/since X, Y"
- þȳ X, þȳ Y: "The more X, the more Y"
The phonology of Old English is necessarily somewhat speculative, since it is preserved purely as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large corpus of Old English, and the written language apparently indicates phonological alternations quite faithfully, so it is not difficult to draw certain conclusions about the nature of Old English phonology.
- Fausto Cercignani (1980). "Early 'Umlaut' Phenomena in the Germanic Languages". Language. 56 (1): 126–136. doi:10.2307/412645. JSTOR 412645.
- Quirk, Randolph; Wrenn, Charles Leslie (1957). An Old English Grammar. London: Methuen and Co.
- Peter S. Baker (2003). "Pronouns". The Electronic Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. Archived from the original on September 11, 2015.
- Page, An Introduction to English Runes, Boydell 1999, p. 230
- "That". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
- "The". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
- "She". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
- 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.
- The Magic Sheet, one page color PDF summarizing Old English declension, from Peter S. Baker, inspired by Moore and Marckwardt's 1951 Historical Outlines of English Sounds and Inflections
- J. Bosworth & T.N. Toller, An Anglo-Saxon dictionary: Germanic Lexicon Project
- Brunner, Karl (1965). Altenglische Grammatik (nach der angelsächsischen Grammatik von Eduard Sievers neubearbeitet) (3rd ed.). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
- Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Mitchell, Bruce & Robinson, Fred (2001) A Guide to Old English; 6th ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ISBN 0-631-22636-2
- Quirk, Randolph; & Wrenn, C. L. (1957). An Old English Grammar (2nd ed.) London: Methuen.