"The loss and weakening of unstressed syllables at the ends of words..... had disastrous effects on the inflectional system, since many endings now became identical." (Barber, 1993: 157)

Inflections are defined and exemplified in the page devoted to the Overview of Old English (OE). In this section it is proposed to examine the processes, albeit briefly, of inflectional decay, and consider the likely catalyst responsible for these changes.


The processes of inflectional decay

The processes of change within the inflectional system commenced towards the end of the OE period when word-endings began to become less distinct. For example, by the end of the 11th century and in most dialects, inflections such as -a, -e, -u and -an had been uniformly reduced to -e, (pronounced ). Another modification involved the loss of word-final -n after -e in unstressed syllables. Eventually the remaining -e itself was abandoned. For example, Middle English drinken (from OE drincan "to drink") became first of all drinke and then drink (see Baugh and Cable, 1993; Burrows and Turville-Petre, 1992).

The rate of inflectional loss was itself irregular and varied according to dialect. With regard to the example of drink mentioned above, the final stage was reached in areas of the North by the 13th century. However, in all probability this form did not completely penetrate into other regions until the beginning of the 15th century. Overall, textual evidence suggests that the North and East had radically modified their inflectional system before the South and West. It is considered that lack of linguistic innovation in the latter areas may be attributed in part to their comparative isolation from the Scandinavian settlers (Burrows and Turville-Petre, 1992).


The catalyst

Whilst the precise reason for these changes is not known, Crystal (1995:32) refers to two possible explanations. Firstly, he observes that, through the evolutionary processes affecting the Germanic languages, in most words the articulatory stress fell on the first syllable. He proposes that such stress patterning may have given rise to difficulties in relation to the audibility of the inflectional endings. This problem may have been exceptionally acute during the course of "rapid conversational speech", particularly where word endings were much the same acoustically (e.g.-en, -on, -an).

Secondly, Crystal draws attention to the claim of some academics that a crucial aspect having a major influence on OE inflections was the incursion of the Vikings. It is argued that, in their attempts to communicate with each other, the English and the Scandinavians would have adopted a kind of pidgin. This may have subsequently evolved into a type of creole employed as a lingua franca for everyday communication between the two cultures. Because in the initial stages (as with pidgins the world over) there would have been a greater dependence on word order, the need for inflectional endings would have been greatly reduced. However, as noted by Crystal, the validity of this argument relies on whether the languages of the two cultures were mutually comprehensible. It appears that this notion is, to a great extent, a matter of conjecture. Crystal nevertheless acknowledges that such mutual understanding is a distinct possibility on the grounds that divergence of the two languages had occurred only a few centuries earlier. Moreover, it is claimed in the Icelandic sagas that the English and the Vikings were able to understand each other's speech. This assertion may well have some validity given that many of the words in both languages had identical roots.

A brief comparison of the two languages is provided by McCrum, Cran and MacNeil (1987: 70) who cite Professor Tom Shippey's examples (from the BBC television series: The Story of English) :

"I’ll sell you the horse that pulls my cart"
Old English: "Ic selle the that hors the draegeth minne waegn."
Old Norse: "Ek mun selja ther hrossit er dregr vagn mine."

Shippey draws attention to the fact that, although there is a similarity between the words, there is a difference in grammatical construction that may have been a source of some confusion. Clearly, this would have been sufficient encouragement to move towards a more simplified form of speech, thus resulting in the loss of inflections as described above.


A third explanation regarding inflectional decay is mentioned by Leith (1996) who draws attention to the argument that "the OE inflectional system was inefficient". For example, In the case of mann (man) and hand (hand) there is little distinction between the cases, least of all in relation to hand. (For more details about inflections and case - see OE Grammar)

  Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative mann menn hand handa
Accusative mann menn hand handa
Genitive mannes manna handa handa
Dative menn mannum handa handum


It is theorized that, because of these "inefficiencies", the speakers themselves began to regularize the language by eliminating word endings in the various paradigms.

However, in terms of purely linguistic explanations, German has stress patterns identical to those of English but has maintained its inflectional system to the present day. Such theories alone cannot therefore fully account for the changes in the English system.



Barber, C. (1993) The English language: a historical introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Burrows, J. A. and Turville-Petre, T. (1992) A Book of Middle English, Oxford: Blackwell.

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

Leith, D. (1996) The Origins of English. In Graddol, D, Leith, D. and Swann, J. (1996) English history, diversity and change, London: Routledge.

McCrum, R., Cran, W. and MacNeil, R. (1987) The Story of English, London: Faber and Faber.

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