Archaic case & gender/Inflections

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Articles and demonstratives[edit]

Definite article[edit]

The modern definite article comes from the Old English demonstrative , which had many inflections to show gender, case, and number:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative sēo þæt þā
Accusative þone þā þæt þā
Genitive þæs þǣre þæs þǣre, þāra
Dative þǣm, þām þǣre þǣm, þām þǣm, þām
Instrumental þȳ, þon þǣre þȳ, þon þǣm, þām

One might be tempted to think that if English had been more conservative in case and gender, then we should only have to modernize the table with regular sound changes. However, that would imply a very heavy level of conservatism. Icelandic and German are more conservative than most other Germanic languages, yet even they would not go so far as to hold an instrumental case. Indeed, I would call the above table the most conservative that the tongue could possibly be.

Only two forms have survived:

  • The. The vowel in the stressed form (/ðiː/) is traced back to OE þē(o), a late variant of OE sē(o) brought about by analogy with forms beginning with þ. The unstressed forms are /ðə/ (used before consonants) and /ði/ (used before vowels). The modern form has also come from OE þē, a variant of the instrumental case, and this the is found in constructions such as the more X, the more Y and all/none the more X.
  • That, the stressed form traced back to OE þæt.

In Middle English, the two forms were differentiated, which led to the modern distinction between the and that. The more conservative dialects kept the old forms in early Middle English, but by the mid-14th century, they had been discarded and replaced with the modern forms for the most part.

Now, which forms are we to bring back? Let us start with the nominative case.

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative the tho thet tho

Forms:

  • Tho (feminine) - from OE þā, which was originally the accusative singular only. However, there is some evidence in Middle English of its being extended to the nominative, e.g., Þa burh wes wel iȝarwed binnen lut ȝearen (from Layamon's Brut). Interestingly, even after the discarding of grammatical gender, tho remained in use throughout Middle English as an occasional variant of the, e.g., Take þo kelkes of fysshe anon, And þo lyver of þo fysshe (note the second and third instances of þo).
  • Thet (neuter) - from that. If that had been kept in its use as the neuter form of the, then it likely would be used as such mainly through the unstressed variant. In other words, that would now be pronounced /ðət/ as a definite article (which generally is said with little stress), but /ðæt/ as a demonstrative. For our purposes, the form used for the neuter article is spelled as thet here, but the stressed form is still /ðæt/. In spoken speech, context would determine whether /ðæt/ represents the stressed definite article or the demonstrative. In any case, since stressing the definite article is less common than stressing the demonstrative, in practice, little confusion should arise from this.
  • Tho (plural) - from OE þā. Throughout Middle English, tho was sometimes used as a plural for the definite article and the demonstrative.

Pronunciations:

  • The - /ðə/ (unstressed form before consonants), /ði/ (unstressed form before vowels), /ðiː/ (stressed)
  • Tho - /ðoʊ/ (unstressed, the vowel like the final one in meadow), /ðoʊ/ (stressed, the vowel like the one in show)
  • Thet - /ðət/ (unstressed), /ðæt/ (stressed)

Examples:

  • The man, tho woman, the men, tho women.
  • Thet house, tho houses.
  • The stone (masculine), tho sun (feminine).

The forms for the accusative are slightly trickier to handle, since we have both accusative and dative forms to deal with. The main question is whether there would even be a dative case since modern English shows no distinct dative case.

While it cannot be said for certain whether a dative case would have been kept, it is assumed here that it would have been lost. In Old English, the personal pronouns had already begun to lose the distinction for the first and second persons, with distinct accusative and dative forms regularly used only for the third person. It seems that in early Middle English, some texts still showed an accusative-dative distinction, but even texts of more conservative dialects had already begun to show a few signs of an accusative-dative merger. Hence, for the personal pronouns, no accusative-dative distinction is recognized here. Since there is no such distinction for the personal pronouns, it is questionable whether it would have been kept for modifiers such as the definite article.

In a few other West Germanic languages that have simplified case systems such as many Low German dialects, it seems that there is a preference for the accusative forms for the definite article as part of an accusative-dative merger. Hence, we have the following:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Accusative then tho thet tho

Forms:

  • Then - from OE þane (a variant of þone). The stressed form would likely have become /ðeɪn/ since open-syllable lengthening would have affected the stressed form.

Pronunciations:

  • Then - /ðən/ (unstressed), /ðeɪn/ (stressed).

Let us add the genitive next.

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Genitive thes ther thes ther

Forms:

  • Thes - from OE þæs. The stressed form would probably have become /ðæz/, as all genitive forms ending in -s show voicing of /s/ to /z/.
  • Ther - from OE þāra (the genitive plural). The form is generalized here for the feminine genitive singular since even in late West Saxon, þāra appears as a less common variant for the feminine.

Pronunciations:

  • Thes - /ðəz/ (unstressed), /ðæz/ (stressed)
  • Ther - /ðər/ (unstressed), /ðɔːr/ (stressed)

Since modifiers now show the genitive, an apostrophe becomes less necessary to show the genitive. Hence:

  • the knight's sword > thes knights sword

Altogether, we have:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative the tho thet tho
Accusative then tho thet tho
Genitive thes ther thes ther

Once again, it should be kept in mind that these spellings represent the unstressed forms, and these forms have different pronunciations for the stressed forms.

Demonstratives[edit]

English has two demonstratives: this (plural these) and that (plural those).

The demonstrative this, like that, was inflected for case, gender, and number in Old English:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative þēs þēos þis þās
Accusative þisne þās þis þās
Genitive þisses þisse þisses þissa
Dative þissum þisse þissum þissum
Instrumental þȳs þisse þȳs þissum

The feminine genitive, dative, and instrumental singular later had as a variant þissere, and the genitive plural þisra.

Middle English thos (from þās) did not stay as the plural for this. New forms for the plural were formed with the singular and -e (used in plural adjectives), and these (from thes-e) became the standard form.

One can tell from the OE declension that the majority of the forms use þis as the base, and so analogy probably would have later applied to all the forms in the singular. As a result, we have this:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative this this this these
Accusative thissen this this these
Genitive thisses thisser thisses theser

The demonstrative this is inflected like a regular adjective (see below), except that it has an irregular plural form these. The genitive plural has been altered by analogy.

As for that, in Old English, there was no formal differentiation between the and that. Since the demonstrative is stressed, all we have to do for our new declension of that is to use the stressed forms of the definite article. To mark the stressed forms, different spellings are used.

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative thee thoe that those
Accusative thane thoe that those
Genitive thas thore thas thoser

The plural demonstrative was once tho, but in late Middle English, it was replaced with those. This form probably came about by analogy with these, and since those is helpful in explicitly marking the plural, it is kept here. Like the definite article, the feminine accusative singular has been extended to the nominative. The genitive plural has been altered by analogy.

Note that thee is only masculine nominative and is not to be confused with thee, the second-person singular accusative.

Examples:

  • This stone (masculine) is great, but that stone is greater. > This stone is great, but thee stone is greater.
  • I will give you this axe (feminine) if you give me that goose (feminine) > I will give you this axe if you give me thoe goose.
  • This house (neuter) is red, and that house is green. (no change)

Indefinite article[edit]

The indefinite article is much less exciting to delve into. Old English had no article to convey indefiniteness, but on some occasions, ān (a numeral meaning one) was used in a sense that could be translated as a certain. The declension of ān was:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative ān ān ān
Accusative ānne āne ān
Genitive ānes ānre ānes
Dative ānum ānre ānum
Instrumental āne ānre āne

In Middle English, the same word began to be used as an indefinite article, and an unstressed form developed. The original stressed form became one, whereas the unstressed variant became an, and the two are now generally separated in their function. By the way, it is clear from this that it is an that is historically the older form; a arose as a variant used before consonants, whence comes our modern distinction.

Our new declension for a(n) is:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative a(n) a(n) a(n)
Accusative annen a(n) a(n)
Genitive annes anner annes

It is assumed here that the accusative masculine would have become annen by analogy with other accusative masculine singular forms.

Anyway, as one can see, there are fewer distinctions in gender made here; the nominative is identical for all genders, and only the masculine is distinguished for the accusative. The reason is that Old English never had an ending for the neuter nominative and accusative, and the feminine was marked by final -e for the accusative, so once final -e was lost, the feminine accusative would have become identical to the bare form.

The genitive form was also used as an adverb, and the adverb later became once, but one can see that it is more associated with the numeral than with the indefinite article, so we can have a separation between annes and once as well.

Note that it is assumed here that the case endings -es and -en in adjectives would not be shortened, much like how the comparative ending -er and the superlative ending -est have retained their vowel, even though grammatical endings in nouns and verbs have lost their vowels. Hence, the form annes is used here.

Note that no is etymologically connected to a(n)/one, as it is a shortened form of none (OE nān). It would probably have the following declension (the inflections are based on the older form none):

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative no no no no
Accusative nonen no no no
Genitive nones noner nones noner

As none is simply the independent form of no, it shares the same inflections as no. Basically, if the word is used independently, wherever no is uninflected (i.e., the nominative), none is used instead of no. But the other inflections remain the same.

  • I have no dream. > I have nonen dream. (since dream is masculine)
  • Do you have any books? No, I have none / no books. (unchanged since books is plural)

Noun declensions[edit]

In our system, it is mainly the adjectives and articles that indicate case, so there is not as much inflection for nouns. Nonetheless, there are still a few noun declensions that we can incorporate in our system.

Old declensions[edit]

Old English had ten main declension types, which we can group into two. Note that the plural forms given refer to the plural nominative.

Key: m. - masculine, f. - feminine, n. - neuter

  1. Vocalic stems
    1. a-stems, e.g., m. stān (stone, plural stānas), n. græs (grass, plural grasu)
    2. ō-stems, e.g., f. rād (ride, plural rāda)
    3. i-stems, e.g., m. wine (friend, plural winas), f. tīd (time, plural tīda)
    4. u-stems, e.g., m. sunu (son, plural suna), f. hand (hand, plural handa)
  2. Consonantal stems
    1. n-stems, e.g., m. oxa (ox, plural oxan), f. sunne (sun, plural sunnan), n. ēage (eye, plural ēagan)
    2. nd-stems, e.g., m. hettend (foe, plural hettend)
    3. r-stems, e.g., m. brōþor (brother, plural brōþor), f. mōdor (mother, plural mōdru)
    4. z-stems (also known as s-stems), e.g., n. lamb (lamb, plural lambru)
    5. þ-stems, e.g., m. hæle (hero, plural hæleþ)
    6. Root stems, e..g, m. mann (human, plural menn), f. gōs (goose, plural gēs)

Note that not all the examples above show off all the diverse variations that OE nouns can show in their inflections depending on the noun. For example, m. bearu (grove) was a wa-stem, a subset of a-stems, and the plural form was bearwas.

Anyway, despite these various different declensions, not all were used equally. Some were already marginal and growing out of use. For example, the z-stems were a very small class and were made of only a few nouns, albeit common ones. And even in Old English, some declensions were already subsumed under commoner ones. For example, the i-stem declension had already become the same as the a-stem declension for masculine nouns. Thus, already in Old English, there was a simplification in noun declension. As a result, there were three major declensions in Old English:

  1. as-declension, plural ending in -as. This declension holds masculine and neuter nouns. Despite the name, the -as ending is used by only masculine nouns; neuter nouns have -u or no ending, e.g., scip (ship, plural scipu), folc (folk, plural folc)
  2. a-declension, plural ending in -a. This declension holds feminine nouns.
  3. an-declension, plural ending in -an. This declension holds nouns of all three genders, but there are only three neuter nouns, ēage (eye), ēare (ear), wange (cheek, and even the plural tended to be re-formed on the basis of the plural forms of other declensions)

Over time, it was the first declension that became dominant, since later in Middle English, the -es plural was extended to feminine nouns, neuter nouns with no plural ending, and practically all nouns that had -en plurals. Now there are only a few relics of the old declensions, e.g., deer (plural deer), child (plural children), ox (plural oxen), mouse (plural mice).

Let us imagine what a more conservative system of noun declension would look like. First, let us look at the tables of the major OE declensions. In the as-declension, stān is masculine, and græs and land are neuter. In the a-declension, all nouns are feminine. In the an-declension, oxa is masculine, sunne is feminine, and ēage is neuter. The definite article is included.

as-declension
Case Singular Plural
Nominative sē stān, þæt græs, þæt land þā stānas, þā grasu, þā land
Accusative þone stān, þæt græs, þæt land þā stānas, þā grasu, þā land
Genitive þæs stānes, þæs græses, þæs landes þāra stāna, þāra grasa, þāra landa
Dative þǣm stāne, þǣm græse, þǣm lande þǣm stānum, þǣm grasum, þǣm landum
a-declension
Case Singular Plural
Nominative sēo rād, sēo strǣt, sēo spadu þā rāda, þā strǣta, þā spada
Accusative þā rāde, þā strǣte, þā spade þā rāda, þā strǣta, þā spada
Genitive þǣre rāde, þǣre strǣte, þǣre spade þāra rāda, þāra strǣta, þāra spada
Dative þǣre rāde, þǣre strǣte, þǣre spade þǣm rādum, þǣm strǣtum, þǣm spadum
an-declension
Case Singular Plural
Nominative sē oxa, sēo sunne, þæt ēage þā oxan, þā sunnan, þā ēagan
Accusative þone oxan, þā sunnan, þæt ēage þā oxan, þā sunnan, þā ēagan
Genitive þæs oxan, þǣre sunnan, þæs ēagan þāra oxena, þāra sunnena, þāra ēagena
Dative þǣm oxan, þǣre sunnan, þǣm ēagan þǣm oxum, þǣm sunnum, þǣm ēaguum

Now let us apply regular sound changes to it. The only additional changes are the change of the dative plural ending from -um to -en, as final m was altered to n in certain inflections in late Old English and early Middle English. Also, all inflections here now have the same stem by analogy, as OE grasu would have yielded *graze (differing from grass in the vowel and the final consonant). The dative forms for the definite article are then (masculine, neuter, and plural) and ther (feminine).

as-declension
Case Singular Plural
Nominative the stone, thet grass, thet land tho stones, tho grass, tho land
Accusative then stone, thet grass, thet land tho stones, tho grass, tho land
Genitive thes stones, thes grasses, thes lands ther stone, ther grass, ther land
Dative then stone, then grass, then land then stonen, then grassen, then landen
a-declension
Case Singular Plural
Nominative tho road, tho street, tho spade tho road, tho street, tho spade
Accusative tho road, tho street, tho spade tho road, tho street, tho spade
Genitive ther road, ther street, ther spade ther road, ther street, ther spade
Dative ther road, ther street, ther spade then roaden, then streeten, then spaden
an-declension
Case Singular Plural
Nominative the ox, tho sun, thet eye tho oxen, tho sunnen, tho eyen
Accusative then oxen, tho sunnen, thet eye tho oxen, tho sunnen, tho eyen
Genitive thes oxen, ther sunnen, thes eyen ther oxen, ther sunnen, ther eyen
Dative then oxen, ther sunnen, then eyen then oxen, then sunnen, then eyen

We can make a few observations:

  1. In the as-declension, all neuter nouns are essentially uninflected except for the genitive singular and the dative plural. Except for the nominative and accusative plural, they are inflected exactly like masculine nouns. Though the definite article helps clarify number, the neuter plural is still liable to be confused with the feminine singular of the a-declension in all cases except the dative.
  2. In the a-declension, all nouns are completely uninflected except for the dative plural. Even with the definite article, the only clear case between singular and difference is in the dative, which means that most of the time, it is unclear whether the noun is singular or plural.
  3. In the an-declension, only the nominative singular of all nouns (regardless of gender) and the neuter accusative singular are uninflected. All other forms take -en, regardless of number. Though the definite article clarifies the number for masculine and neuter nouns (except in the dative), it only distinguishes number for feminine nouns in the nominative and the dative. Note that German uses this same declension for certain masculine nouns, but in German, the definite article is clearly distinguished in number for the dative, i.e., masculine dative singular dem, dative plural den. As a result, there is less ambiguity in German.

As one can see, even with the definite article to mark case, gender, and number, it is often hard to tell whether a noun is singular or plural.

New declensions[edit]

Let us make a few changes to the old declensions:

  1. In the as-declension:
    1. -en is used for the genitive plural. This comes from the OE ending -ena (originally used only for an-declension nouns). In the more conservative Middle English dialects, there was an early tendency to use -ene or -en for the genitive plural, even for nouns that etymologically did not take this ending in Old English, e.g., kingene king (king of kings). The reason why it spread to other nouns seems to be that the original genitive plural ending was -a, which became -e in Middle English, and since -en(e) was more distinctive, it came to be a common form for the genitive plural. This was later replaced with -s as part of the generalization of -s for the genitive ending, which we shall not follow. Hence, genitive -s is now limited to the singular.
    2. Neuter nouns now take the -s ending for the nominative and accusative plural except for a few nouns such as deer and sheep. This is what has happened in normal English, so there is no problem here.
  2. In the a-declension, the dative plural ending is generalized, so the plural is marked with -en. A similar analogical change happened in German, so many feminine nouns in German now end in -en.
  3. In the an-declension, the singular is completely uninflected. Otherwise, in the plural, -en is used. The loss of -n in the singular is apparently what happened in Middle English dialects that still commonly used -en plurals. The genitive plural is -en (from Old English -ena). This is almost the same declension as modern ox, but there is no -s for the genitive singular or genitive plural. The addition of -s to words like ox was part of a later English development in which -s became the genitive ending for all nouns, which is not the case here.

As a result, there are only two declensions left: the strong declension (forming the plural with -s) and the weak declension (forming the plural with -en).

Now here is what our new declensions look like.

Strong
Case Singular Plural
Nominative the stone, thet ship tho stones, tho ships
Accusative then stone, thet ship tho stones, tho ships
Genitive thes stones, thes ships ther stonen, ther shippen
Weak
Case Singular Plural
Nominative the ox, tho road tho oxen, tho roaden
Accusative then ox, tho road tho oxen, tho roaden
Genitive thes ox, ther road ther oxen, ther roaden

As a result, masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns are now assigned to new declensions:

  • Masculines can be either strong or weak, e.g., stone (strong, plural stones), ox (weak, plural oxen).
  • Feminines are weak, e.g., sin (plural sinnen), heart (plural hearten).
  • Neuters are generally strong, e.g., land (plural lands), thing (plural things), but eye (plural eyen).

The results of these changes on noun inflections are:

  1. All nouns now use -en for the genitive plural, so the churches' windows is now ther churchen windows, and men's clothing is now mennen clothing. However, if the plural is already formed with -en, then no ending is added, so the oxen's master is now ther oxen master, and the children's teacher is now ther children teacher.
  2. Certain masculine nouns are weak and no longer use -s as a grammatical ending, e.g., hallows > hallown. Very few neuter nouns are weak and thus can be easily memorized.
  3. All feminine nouns are weak, i.e., they are uninflected in the singular and use the -en ending for the plural.

Examples:

  1. I see annen ox (weak masculine) wandering in then field (strong masculine).
  2. Look at thet eye (weak neuter) and tell me what thou seest.
  3. Ther mother (feminine) wit is sharp.
  4. Why are his earen (weak neuter) so large?
  5. I stowed tho booken (feminine) in tho chest (feminine).

While the lack of distinct inflection for the genitive plural of weak nouns may seem like an hindrance, it should be remembered that we already have the same lack of distinct inflection in most nouns in normal English (e.g., stones in spoken speech is ambiguous in case and number). Moreover, in our system, inflected forms such as the articles can clarify whether stones and oxen are genitive.

How can one tell which gender a noun has, and which declension it uses? One has to simply memorize each noun, its gender, and its declension (the last of which is only really a problem for masculine nouns). Though this may seem complicated, native German speakers generally have no problems learning their nouns, and so did native Old English speakers, so this is no insurmountable task. In fact, this system is far simpler than the Old English and German systems, but slightly more complicated than the Dutch system.

Additional notes:

  1. The -en ending undergoes syncope after vowels and r in an unstressed syllable, so the genitive plural of day is dain, and the genitive plural of paper is papern. Syncope of the vowel before r was formerly common, as was syncope before the -s plural ending (e.g., laddres as an obsolete form of ladders). Since we no longer do that with -s, we will go with the approach of syncopating the vowel in -en (with a few exceptions such as children and brethren), so the plural of mother is mothern. This aligns with syncope in the adjectival ending -en, which seems to prefer syncope after r in an unstressed syllable, e.g., silvern, leathern, but hairen.
  2. Since -en is the genitive plural ending, in a few cases, it may feel equivalent to the adjectival ending -en. For example, in stonen houses, the word can be interpreted as the genitive plural of stone or an adjective meaning of stone. Generally, there is hardly any difference in meaning, so this does not pose a problem. Also, -en adjectives are generally derived from mass nouns such as gold and wood, so in a golden helmet, golden can only be an adjective, since it would be odd to interpret it as a genitive plural.
  3. Because weak nouns are now uninflected for the genitive singular, it may be difficult to tell whether two nouns put together form a compound noun or a phrase involving a genitive. For example, in the phrase church yard, church (feminine) may be interpreted as the first word of a compound or the genitive singular of church. As was the case with genitive plural -en, the morphology and syntax can help determine whether the word is genitive. In cases like ther church yard, church is genitive since ther marks the genitive feminine singular. But in go to then churchyard, even without the orthography clearing showing churchyard as one word, it is clear that then, which marks the accusative masculine singular, is not modifying church, a feminine noun, but yard, the latter half of the compound and a masculine noun.

Irregular plurals[edit]

There are a few nouns whose plurals are not regularly formed.

First, there are the nouns with fricative voicing in the plural, e.g., wolf (strong masculine), half (feminine), house (strong neuter). They are declined like regular nouns, except that the fricative in the plural form is voiced.

One change made here is that the genitive singular also has a voiced fricative; this was the norm in Middle English, but the voiceless fricative was introduced later once genitive -s became more loosely attached to what it modifies, which is not the case here. Note that the genitive should have a voiced fricative where the plural also has one; for example, the noun cross has no voiced fricative in crosses, so the genitive singular should not have one. In other words, for all nouns that form the plural with -s, the genitive singular and the plural nominative are always identical, which actually makes the declension of these nouns less complex.

Case Singular Plural
Nominative wolf, half, house wolves, halven, houses
Accusative wolf, half, house wolves, halven, houses
Genitive wolves, half, houses wolven, halven, housen

Nouns unchanged in the nominative plural were originally only neuter, but some masculine nouns now have an unchanged plural. Deer and sheep are neuter, but some nouns such as fish are masculine.

Case Singular Plural
Nominative deer, sheep, fish deer, sheep, fish
Accusative deer, sheep, fish deer, sheep, fish
Genitive deers, sheeps, fishes deeren, sheepen, fishen

Two nouns have irregularly formed double plurals: child and obsolete ey (egg, plural eyren). Both are neuter.

Case Singular Plural
Nominative child, ey children, eyren
Accusative child, ey children, eyren
Genitive childs, eys children, eyren

Note that brother (masculine) has brethren as a plural form and thus has brethren as a genitive plural. But in normal speech, brothers is the normal plural, and thus brother has brothern as the genitive plural.

Nouns with umlaut plurals such as man (masculine) and goose (feminine) are masculine or feminine.

Case Singular Plural
Nominative man, goose men, geese
Accusative man, goose men, geese
Genitive mans, goose mennen, geesen

Adjectives[edit]

Adjectives were declined to show agreement in case, number, and gender with the nouns that they modified. For example:

  • NE a good king - OE gōd cyning
  • NE the good king - OE sē gōda cyning
  • NE good kings - OE gōde cyningas
  • NE the good kings - OE þā gōdan cyningas

In Old English, adjectives had two declensions: strong and weak. Which declension was to be used depends on the syntactical context in which the adjective was used. The weak declension was used when the noun was definite, i.e., it was modified by the definite article, a demonstrative, or a genitive. Otherwise, the strong declension was used. In other words, the strong forms were associated with indefiniteness, whereas the weak forms were associated with definiteness. There were some other distinctions in Old English (e.g., comparatives were always treated as weak).

Let us see how the adjective good was declined in Old English.

Strong declension (OE)
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Mas. plural Fem. plural Neu. plural
Nominative gōd gōd gōd gōde gōda gōd
Accusative gōdne gōde gōd gōde gōda gōd
Genitive gōdes gōdre gōdes gōdra gōdra gōdra
Dative gōdum gōdre gōdum gōdum gōdum gōdum
Instrumental gōde gōdre gōde gōdum gōdum gōdum
Weak declension (OE)
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative gōda gōde gōde gōdan
Accusative gōdan gōdan gōde gōdan
Genitive gōdan gōdan gōdan gōdra, gōdena
Dative gōdan gōdan gōdan gōdum
Instrumental gōdan gōdan gōdan gōdum

In the weak declension, the genitive plural ending -ra is taken from the strong declension and appears to have been more usual in later Old English.

This system, though followed to some extent for a while in southern Middle English, broke down early on in other Middle English dialects, such that case and gender were no longer inflected for, and god and gode were the only forms used. The former was used only in the strong declension's singular number; the latter was used everywhere else. And of course, once last e was dropped, adjectives in general stopped being inflected except for degree.

Strong and weak adjectives[edit]

How would the adjective declensions have changed over time? It seems that even in early Middle English, final n was liable to be dropped in many inflectional categories, and final n was quite vulnerable in the adjective declensions. Thus, the main inflection used for the weak declension became -e, which was later dropped. Even the dative plural ending -um was changed to -en, which then became -e. This leaves the weak declension entirely uninflected.

In the strong declension, with the loss of the dative and the instrumental, we have the following:

Strong declension
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative good good good good
Accusative gooden good good good
Genitive goodes gooder goodes gooder

The masculine accusative would still have -en since the ending in Middle English was -ne. In Middle English, -ne and the genitive endings were not affected by the dropping of final n and thus did not disappear from sound change. Rather, they were replaced analogically. Here, we shall not follow this analogical change and shall keep these forms for the strong declension.

As a result of these changes, we can make a few observations:

  • If the adjective is weak, then it is uninflected. Case and gender marking is instead shown with determiners such as the definite article, e.g., thes evil fiends (the evil fiend's), ther majestic elven (the majestic elves')
  • If the adjective is strong, then case and gender marking is shown with the adjective or the indefinite article, e.g., I saw annen mightien king (I saw a mighty king), annes childs plaything (a child's plaything), beautifuller womenen club (beautiful women's club)

When is an adjective weak (i.e., completely uninflected)?

  • It is used with the definite article, e.g., I am reading the long book. > I am reading tho long book (feminine accusative).
  • It is used with the demonstratives this and that, e.g., I want to buy this great house.
  • It is used with a possessive or a genitive noun, e.g., I have lost my yellow hat. > I have lost minen yellow hat (masculine accusative).
  • It is used with a determiner with definite reference, e.g., I do not listen to such foolish thinking.
  • It is used as a vocative, e.g., Good men, would you care to listen to my story?

An adjective is strong when:

  • It is used with no article, e.g., I love tasty food.
  • It is used with the indefinite article, e.g., I threw a great stone. > I threw annen greaten stone (masculine accusative).
  • It is used with a determiner with indefinite reference, e.g., Many good men's lives were lost. > Manier gooder mennen lives were lost (genitive plural).

What about relatively recent formations such as a few and a good / great many? They would probably be inflected like plural adjectives, since grammatically, they are followed by plural nouns, and so we would see genitive forms such as a fewer and a good / great manier. For many a(n), since it is followed by a singular noun, the singular inflections should be used and applied to a(n).

  • A few men's tales > A fewer mennen tales
  • A great many kids' parents > A great manier kidden parents
  • I saw many a knight's sword. > I saw many annes knights sword.
  • I am many a lady's friend. > I am many anner lady friend.

For adjectives ending with er, the strong comparative (e.g., bitterer) would have -ererer for the genitive feminine and the genitive plural. Because this sounds rather awkward, we can allow for contraction here, i.e., the strong genitive feminine and the genitive plural of bitterer is instead bittrerer.

Since participles essentially have the qualities of both verbs and adjectives, they too were inflected in Old English. Thus, the strong declension of falling and fallen is:

Strong declension
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative falling, fallen falling, fallen falling, fallen falling, fallen
Accusative fallingen, fallenen falling, fallen falling, fallen falling, fallen
Genitive fallinges, fallenes fallinger, fallener fallinges, fallenes fallinger, fallener

Uninflected[edit]

So far, all the inflections shown so far are used when adjectives go before nouns. These adjectives are called attributive adjectives. But this is not the only way to use adjectives.

Adjectives can be used as predicate adjectives. For example, in he is short, short is a predicate adjective. Likewise, in I deemed it worthless, worthless is a predicate adjective (in this case, it also acts as the complement of a factitive verb). Predicate adjectives are always uninflected.

  • I am great.
  • I called him silly.

Adjectives used appositively are uninflected.

  • Ever so merry, Tim sang a wonderful song.

Adjectives in the absolute construction are uninflected.

  • The lord's flowers pretty to look at, many people visit his garden. > Thes lords flowers pretty to look at, many people visit hisen garden (note that pretty' is not changed).

Attributive adjectives placed after nouns are uninflected.

  • The leader had to persuade an advisor skeptical about what he had proposed. (change an advisor to annen advisor, but nothing else is changed)

In short, the general rule is that adjectives must be inflected only if they are attributive, are placed before the noun, and are not used appositively.

Substantive[edit]

Adjectives can also be used substantively when they are not used alongside a noun. In English, this is done with the definite article. For example:

  • The rich live in great houses. > Tho rich live in great houses.
  • Artists should strive to depict the sublime. > Artists should strive to depict thet sublime.

One can see that in New English, there are two main uses of the substantive adjective:

  • As a masculine or feminine plural referring to a group of people.
  • As a neuter singular equivalent to an abstract noun.

Since they are used with the definite article, the adjectives are always declined weak. Hence, they are left uninflected.

With the comparative and the superlative, the singular can refer to a specific person or thing.

  • I fought with the stronger of the knights. > I fought with then stronger of tho knights. (since knight is masculine, the stronger must be masculine singular and so is changed to then stronger)
  • Of the seven books, I chose the longest. > Of tho seven books, I chose tho longest. (since book is feminine, tho longest is feminine singular)

Pronouns[edit]

Third-person pronouns[edit]

The first and second persons do not distinguish gender, so there is no need to change them. The third person, on the other hand, needs a few modifications.

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative he she it hy
Accusative him her it hem
Genitive his hers his hers

As we can see, it is largely the same as our current system, but I have replaced the current plural pronouns (which are from Norse) with the native set (see here for more about the native forms). Moreover, the neuter possessive is now his instead of its, as it was in older stages of English. The reason for this reversion is that its was formed in Early New English, long after the fall of grammatical gender. And in other West Germanic speeches with grammatical gender, the masculine and the neuter still use the same form, e.g., Dutch zijn, German sein. Hence, it is quite likely that his would stay as the neuter possessive.

Examples:

  • A house (neuter) and its garden > A house and his garden
  • The ship (neuter) and its crew > Thet ship and his crew

Possessives[edit]

The Old English genitives of the first-person and second-person pronouns were mīn, þīn, ūre, and ēower, and from them were gotten the possessives, which were always declined in the strong declension.

What is the difference between genitive pronouns and possessives? This difference is meaningful only in certain inflectional speeches such as German, Icelandic, and Latin. For instance, in Latin, possession is shown with the genitives of nouns, but for personal pronouns, possessives are used instead, e.g., the Latin for my father is pater meus. But the genitives are used for other functions of the genitive such as the objective genitive, e.g., odium meī (my hatred; that is, hatred directed at me).

In Old English, a similar distinction was found; the possessives were used to show possession, but the genitives were used with certain verbs, adjectives, and prepositions, and showed other functions of the genitive such as the partitive genitive, e.g., ēowerum heortum (your hearts; ēower is declined as an adjective), ān ēower (one of you; ēower is not declined, as it is a genitive).

In modern English, it hardly makes a difference whether one analyzes my as a possessive adjective or the genitive of the first-person singular pronouns, because of the lack of inflection on my. However, we make a distinction here. The genitives are mine, ours, and so forth, but they are not used to mark possession. Instead, for possession, we have possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns, which are declined for case. This is the same distinction as German has. Hence:

  1. Possessive adjectives - my, thy, and so forth (declinable)
  2. Possessive pronouns - mine, thine, and so forth (declinable)
  3. Genitives - mine, thine, and so forth (undeclinable)

Here is the declension for the possessive adjectives of the first and second persons. They are declined like strong adjectives.

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative my, thy, our, your my, thy, our, your my, thy, our, your my, thy, our, your
Accusative minen, thinen, ouren, youren my, thy, our, your my, thy, our, your my, thy, our, your
Genitive mines, thines, oures, youres miner, thiner, ourer, yourer mines, thines, oures, youres miner, thiner, ourer, yourer

Like a(n) and no, my and thy use the older etymological forms mine and thine as the base of the other inflections. Note that in Early New English, mine and thine can be used instead of my and thy before vowel sounds, e.g., this is my ax > this is mine ax.

As for the third person, his and her were not possessives in Old English; instead, they were the genitives of the third-person singular pronouns and thus were generally not inflected as possessives. Its was a later innovation, and their (alongside they and them) was borrowed from Norse (see more here). In all likelihood, the genitives would have become possessives by analogy with the possessives for the first and second persons. In fact, in some Middle English texts, his was a declinable possessive, and there are some attestations that show ME here (originally the genitive plural) having inflected forms and thus acting like a possessive.

The declension for the third-person possessives is:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative his, her his, her his, her his, her
Accusative hisen, heren his, her his, her his, her
Genitive hises, heres hiser, herer hises, heres hiser, herer

Note that hisen, hises, and hiser are respectively pronounced /hɪzən/, /hɪzəz/, and /hɪzər/. Also, heres and herer are pronounced /hɜrəz/ and /hɜrər/.

The above forms are for the dependent possessives, but the independent possessives (e.g., mine, ours) also are declined and share the same inflections. As to where the -s forms came from, they were not present in Old English, but were innovative forms that first appeared in the northern dialects in Middle English before they spread southwards. It is not necessary to assume that the independent and dependent forms would have remained the same even in a more conservative case system, as a similar separation between the independent and dependent forms is found in German. For example, for the nominative masculine singular, German uses meiner for the independent form, but mein for the dependent form.

In any case, like none, the independent forms would be used where the dependent forms are uninflected. The other inflections remain the same. Note that here, forms ending in -s are made distinct from forms ending in -es. For example, ours replaces the uninflected form our, but oures (in which -es is pronounced separately) is used for the genitive masculine and neuter.

Examples of the inflected possessives:

  • Hast thou seen my brother? > Hast thou seen minen brother?
  • She likes my boss more than yours. > She likes minen boss more than youren. (since boss is masculine, minen and youren are used. Note that the form youren makes it clear that it acts as an object, so ambiguity about whether yours in the original is a subject or an object is removed)

What are the genitive pronouns used for? Remember that they do not show possession. Instead, in Old English, they were for uses such as the partitive genitive and the object of certain verbs, e.g., one ours (one of us), help mine! (help me, since help could take the genitive in Old English). Note that in the second example, mine cannot be interpreted as a possessive; if it were, it would be inflected accordingly and would be help mines! (help mine). Genitive nouns can be used likewise, e.g., help thes kings! (help the king).

However, many of these genitive uses for both nouns and pronouns are archaic or formal in modern German, so in all likelihood, the genitive pronouns would not be used much in our system. Genitive nouns are still used, but normally not in these functions unless one wants to sound archaic or formal.

Interrogatives[edit]

For the interrogatives, let us start with who:

Case Singular / Plural
Nominative who
Accusative whom
Genitive whose

As you can see, it is exactly the same as it is used now. There is no distinction in gender or number.

Let us next go to which, which was inflected like an adjective in Old English:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative which which which which
Accusative whichen which which which
Genitive whiches whicher whiches whicher

When which is used by itself, the gender depends on what which is referring to, so it depends on context. For example:

  • Which of the men do you fancy? > Whichen of tho men do you fancy? (since man is masculine, the context shows that which is masculine and is thus in the accusative masculine)
  • Which of the books do you like? > Which of tho booken do you like? (which is unchanged since book is feminine)
  • Which of the following houses do you prefer? > Which of tho following houses do you prefer? (which is unchanged since house is neuter)

The last interrogative is what and is trickier than one may think. In Old English, hwæt is used only as a pronoun, and when one wanted to ask what kind, hwæt had to be used with a partitive genitive, e.g., hwæt manna (what kind of person, literally what of people). This construction appears to have replaced with the modern construction when the partitive genitive declined in early Middle English. It does not seem like adjectival what ever had inflected forms in Middle English, even in the more conservative dialects, so adjectival what would be indeclinable. German and Dutch do not use their cognates of what like this, though Dutch uses wat as an adjective meaning some and in exclamatory sentences in the form of wat een (what a). Interestingly, it seems that West Frisian can use wat as an adjective.

For an alternative to adjectival what, we can also use what for, which was formerly used in English to mean what kind. This is akin to how German was für, Dutch wat voor, and West Frisian wat foar are used. Note that in German was für is grammatically a set phrase and does not affect the case of the following noun, even though für is normally a preposition. With that in mind, for in what for does not cause the following noun to be inflected. Also, what for uses the indefinite article when followed by a singular countable noun.

  • What drinks are available? > What for drinks are available?
  • What time is it right now? > What for time is it right now? (or: what is the time right now?)
  • What kind of book did you read? > What for a kind of book did you read? (or: of what for a sort did you read a book?)
  • What an amazing discovery! > What for an amazing discovery!
  • What beautiful weather we have! > What for beautiful weather we have!
  • What a piece of work he is! > What for a piece of work he is!

What is occasionally part of a genitive phrase. In this case, the sentence should be reworded.

  • What man's idea is that? > What for a man came up with thoe idea (feminine accusative)?
  • Could you tell me what land's king George III was? > Could you tell me what for a land George III was the king of?

Relatives[edit]

The relative pronouns are trickier to deal with, as which and who were not used in Old English as such; rather, only the demonstrative and definite article was used as a relative pronoun, and it had the same declension as it usually did (though one could also use the indeclinable particle þe after the pronoun or simply use þe by itself). At some point in Middle English, the was replaced with that (which was left indeclinable in the nominative and the accusative), and which and who began to be used as relatives.

Here, we use the demonstrative forms. The relative pronoun agrees with its antecedent in number and gender, but not necessarily in case, as its case is determined by its role in the relative clause. As for which, the same declension as that of the interrogative which is used, since we do the same for who.

The relative pronoun that:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative thoe thoe that thoe
Accusative thane thoe that thoe
Genitive thas thore thas thore

It does not seem like those has ever been used as a relative, so the old forms are used here instead.

The relative pronoun which:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative which which which which
Accusative whichen which which which
Genitive whiches whicher whiches whicher

The relative pronoun who:

Case Singular / Plural
Nominative who
Accusative whom
Genitive whose

For any relatives in the genitive, the relative agrees with the antecedent, not the noun that it modifies. Also, since that and which now have genitive forms, we no longer use whose as their genitives.

And so:

  • The man that / who works as a carpenter is here > The man thee / who works as a carpenter is here. (man: masculine)
  • The woman whom I often talk to is here > Tho woman thoe / whom I often talk to is here. (woman: feminine)
  • The boy whose mother is a countess is here > The boy thas / whose mother is a countess is here. (thas is used to agree with the antecedent, boy)
  • The book that he bought yesterday is missing. > Tho book thoe / which he bought yesterday is missing. (book: feminine)
  • The school to which I go is nearby. (school: feminine)
  • This is an idea whose time has come > This is an idea thore / whicher time has come (idea: feminine)
  • The animals, whose owner came yesterday, are becoming noisy. > Tho animals, whicher owner came yesterday, are becoming noisy. (whicher is used to agree with the antecedent, animals)

Numbers[edit]

Cardinals[edit]

In Old English, the numbers from one to three were declined. The new declension of one is easy to figure out since it uses the same pattern as usual adjectives. It seemed to be declined only as a strong adjective in Old English, but since one can be used where weak adjectives are used, and German declines the number ein as strong or weak, we will give it a weak declension as well (which simply means that one is left uninflected where a weak adjective is expected).

Strong declension
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative one one one
Accusative onen one one
Genitive ones oner ones

The number two (which is always plural because of its meaning) is trickier to pinpoint. The Old English declension was:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative twēgen twā tū, twā
Accusative twēgen twā tū, twā
Genitive twēga twēga twēga
Dative twām twām twām
Instrumental twām twām twām

The genitive had twēgra as an alternative. In early southern Middle English, we have the following forms: tweien (which later became twain), two, tweire, and twom. The dative form would have become *twom, and the genitive form (from twēgra) would have become *twair.

Interestingly, twain has survived, despite Middle English's breakdown of gender. It would be rather interesting to have both twain and two be used on the basis of the noun's gender, e.g., twain men, two women, two houses. But since no other adjective is now inflected to show gender in the plural, and the two words had already become mere synonyms in Middle English, there is no need for us to follow this distinction.

As for three, the Old English declension was:

Case Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative þrī þrēo þrēo
Accusative þrī þrēo þrēo
Genitive þrēora þrēora þrēora
Dative þrīm þrīm þrīm
Instrumental þrīm þrīm þrīm

In early southern Middle English, the following forms survived: thre (among variants), threm from the dative. The dative would have become *threem. The genitive had not survived, but would have become *threer.

The other numbers were only occasionally inflected in Old English. Whenever they were inflected, the nominative and accusative ending was -e, and the genitive ending was -a, all of which would have become -e in Middle English and then would have disappeared. Hence, we can simply let them be indeclinable.

In German, for numbers above ein, only zwei, and drei are generally declined, albeit only in the dative and the genitive, and even then, uninflected forms are favored nowadays.

As for whether two and three still distinguish gender, in all likelihood, any differences in gender would have been eliminated, as in modern German. Hence:

  • I saw one man. > I saw onen man.
  • I saw one woman. (no change, since woman is feminine)
  • I saw one house. (no change, since house is neuter)
  • I saw two men/women/houses. (no change, as numbers above one do not distinguish gender)

In short, except for one, no numbers need to be inflected for case or gender. The optional forms for two and three are:

Strong declension (optional)
Case Plural
Nominative two / twain, three
Accusative two / twain, three
Genitive twair, threer

Note that if one is used in conjunction with another number, it is not inflected, e.g., I have stayed here for one or two days (unchanged).

When a number is used as a noun referring to the digit itself, it is declined as a feminine noun (based on how numbers in German are feminine).

  • The three's (3's) font is unfitting. > Ther three font is unfitting.
  • The sevens' (7s') placements are wrong. > Ther sevenen placements are wrong.
  • The ball landed on a 5 (no change since 5 is feminine).

Ordinals[edit]

In Old English, ordinal numbers were always declined weak, the lone exception being ōþer (which meant second and became other). Because other has a different meaning now, and second is a French borrowing, many Anglishers replace second with a wholly new word. It does not matter what one uses to replace second, since it would still be inflected like any normal adjective.

We suppose that all ordinals would now be declined like normal adjectives, and so the strong declension for first is:

Strong declension
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative first first first first
Accusative firsten first first first
Genitive firstes firster firstes firster

Gender without case[edit]

Everything above has been about what English might be like if it had kept its system of case and gender like German and archaic Dutch. There is another possible path that English might have taken if it had been more conservative: a system with grammatical gender, but no case (except for the genitive in nouns and the accusative in personal pronouns). This is, for the most part, the same path that Dutch and West Frisian ended up taking.

Personal pronouns
Case Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative he she it hy
Accusative him her it hem
Dependent possessive his her his her
Independent possessive his hers his hers

As one can see, the masculine and the neuter use the same possessive form, just as it is in Dutch and West Frisian.

Articles
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Definite the tho thet tho
Indefinite a(n) a(n) a(n) (none)

The definite article distinguishes gender in the singular, but the indefinite article does not.

Demonstratives
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Proximal this this this these
Distal thee thoe that those

Note that the relative pronouns are slightly different now:

Relative
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Normal thee thoe that thoe
Animate who(m) who(m) who(m) who(m)
Inanimate which which which which

It does not seem like those has ever been used as a relative, so thoe is used for the plural instead.

In short, there are only a few places in which gender is distinguished (all in the singular):

  1. The third-person pronouns (he, she, it)
  2. The definite article (the, tho, thet)
  3. The distal demonstrative (thee, thoe, that)
  4. The normal relative pronoun (thee, thoe, that)