"In Old English, the relationships between and within noun phrases were expressed by the use of formal case and grammatical gender respectively. The inflectional endings and agreements which marked these categories were syntagmatic tracking devices , indicating the functions and dependencies which operated at the clausal and phrasal level." (Burnley, 2000: 129)

Burnley further observes that this system was in a process of disintegration during the Late Old English period and had died out completely by the Early Middle English period. But what are inflections and what is grammatical gender? These features are briefly explored below together with another characteristic of Old English (OE), word order.

 

Inflections

The term inflection relates to the modification of the words of a language (e.g. by affixation) in accordance with the grammatical rules of that language. For example, in English, the majority of nouns are inflected to form the plural, e.g.: boy - boys, ox - oxen, woman - women, basis -bases, etc. With regard to verbs, the root is modified according to person (I run but he, she, it runs) and tense (in the past tense, we turn, they eat, etc. become we turned, they ate and so on). However, as can be seen from the following examples, compared to Modern English the language of the Anglo-Saxons was much more complex.

Nouns

Number Case glof (glove) guma (man) cyning (king)
Singular Nominative glof guma cyning
Accusative glofe guman cyninge
Genitive glofe guman cyninges
Dative glofe guman cyninge
Plural Nominative glofa guman cyningas
Accusative glofa guman cyningas
Genitive glofa gumena cyninga
Dative glofum gumum cyningum

After Crystal 1995: 12

 

Verbs

Lufian: to love
Tense
Person Present Indicative Past Indicative
1st person sing. (I) lufie lufode
2nd person sing (you) lufast lufodest
3rd person sing (he, she, it) lufa­ lufode
1st - 3rd persons plural (we, you, they) lufia­ lufodon

After Crystal 1995: 12

 

The Definite Article

Case
Old English
Singular
Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter All genders
Nominative s so ­Št ­
Accusative ­one ­ ­Št ­
Genitive ­Šs ­re ­Šs ­ra
Dative ­m ­re ­m ­m
Instrumental ­y, ­on -- ­y, ­on --

After Baugh and Cable 1993: 57, 157

 

By the late Middle English period, the use of the definite article had generally settled down to the its present form the although the plural tho was occasionally employed (Burnley, 2000).

 

Grammatical gender

The gender of Old English nouns was grammatical and had no bearing on natural gender. In effect it and was not determined by meaning but was purely arbitrary. It continued to exist well into the Middle English period (and indeed still survives today in modern German and Icelandic). The following are some examples

Masculine Feminine Neuter

wfmann (woman);
stn (stone);
nama (name).

giefu (gift);
denu (valley);
eor­e (earth).

bearn (child);
wf (wife);
god ([pagan] god)

 

There is a suggested link between the development of natural gender and loss of inflections. Baugh and Cable (1993) note that grammatical gender disappeared earlier in the north where inflectional weakening occurred first whereas, in contrast, it lasted longer in the south where inflectional decay was slower.

 

 

Word order

Although word order was generally the same as it is today, because OE inflectional endings signalled semantic and syntactic relationships, it could be more flexible than in modern English. Crystal (1995) provides the following examples:

(i) so cwn geseah ■one guman "the man saw the woman"
(ii) ■one guman geseah so cwn "the man saw the woman"
(iii) s guma geseah ■ cwn "the woman saw the man"

After Crystal (1995:20)

 

Note that, despite the different word order, both (i) and (ii) mean exactly the same thing. In (iii), which has the reverse meaning, the nominative feminine form so has changed to the accusative whilst the accusative masculine form ■one has become s. (for further details of these inflected forms see the Definite Article in Loss of Inflections).

With the loss of such inflections ambiguities were prone to arise and, in order to avoid confusion, the ordering of words became more rigid. In terms of the modern Subject-Verb-Object order, Crystal (1995) observes that although this construction existed in Old English other constructions were possible. For example, as in modern German, it was possible to have a verb-final construction. This pattern persisted into the Middle English period and was still in evidence at its close. The following example is from the Peterborough Chronicles:

ne nŠure hethen men werse ne deden
no never heathen men worse not did

After Crystal (1995: 44)

 

Note the double negation which, according to Burnley (2000) had become much rarer by the late 14th century. Notwithstanding this, it is still a common feature of dialectal speech even though considered by prescriptivists to be "bad" grammar.

 

 

Sources

Baugh, A.C. and Cable, T. (1993) A History of the English Language, Fourth Edition, London: Routledge.

Burnley, D. (2000) The History of the English Language, Second Edition, London: Longman

Crystal, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, B. and Robinson, F.C. (1968) A Guide to Old English, Second Edition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Pyles, T. and Algeo, J. (1993) The Origins and Development of the English Language, Fourth Edition, London: Harcourt Brace.