LINGUIST List 8.342

Sun Mar 9 1997

Sum: Adjectival inflection in Old English

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>


  1. Fernando Martinho, SUM: Adjectival inflection in Old English

Message 1: SUM: Adjectival inflection in Old English

Date: Sat, 8 Mar 1997 23:40:08 +0000
From: Fernando Martinho <>
Subject: SUM: Adjectival inflection in Old English

Dear Linguists.

About two weeks ago, I asked for informations about adjectival
inflection in English language, namely in Old English. Here is a sum
of the answers. I want to thank everyone who bothered to spend time
with me, specially:

Cassan Braconnier
Richard Krause
John E Koontz
Charlie Rowe
Catherine N. Ball
Yannick Garcia
Carl Mills
Johanna Rubba
Barbara Need

First, this matter seems to interest many people, as I received emails
from people telling me they were wondering the same question, and
simply asking me to send back any answer to my query. This sum is a
way to do just that.

10 days after my query was posted, I finally have a first list of
references on grammar and history of Old English. Here it is (some
references are incomplete):

Henry Sweet _Anglo-Saxon Primer_ Oxford University Press
Albert Baugh: _A History of the English Language_
Mario Pei, _The Story of English_
Bright's Old English Grammar & Reader, third edition, by Cassidy & Ringler,
pp. 35-38, 42-44.
 _Elements of Old English_ by Moore & Knott
Elizabeth Traugott _historical English syntax_

As to related Internet resources, Catherine N. Ball says she has 'some
standard references on her Old English Pages, under 'Reference', at

Richard Krause recalls that 'in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), adjectives
agreed with their nouns in gender, number and case'. He also claims
that 'Adjectival gender, number and case inflections were probably
lost in conjunction with the elimination of noun gender and the
accompanying major reduction in case inflections. These major
modifications of the English grammatical system probably arose as a
result of the Viking settlements and especially the Norman
conquest. Although Old English, Norman French and Old Norse all shared
similar grammatical systems, i.e. nouns having grammatical gender,
noun-adjective agreement, different cases, etc., the inflections
themselves were obviously different in most cases. The mixture of
languages that resulted from the Viking settlement followed by the
Norman colonization led to a sort of creolization of Old English that
included simplification of the grammatical system'.

John E Koontz claims that 'Old English had a full adjective inflection
of the usual Germanic pattern, very like that of modern German is some
respects: lots of -e and -en, with a distinction between strong and
weak paradigms. For that matter OE nominal inflection was also very
Germanic'. John also supposes that in 'Middle English, the
inflectional system was already much reduced, except for verb personal
inflection, where such things as the second person singular and third
person singular in -th disappeared as recerntly as early New English,
leaving English only the personal forms of 'to be' and similar
irregulars, and the third person singular -s that so bedevils learners
(and tends to disappear in some nonstandard dialects)'.

Charlie Rowe suggests starting OE adjectives with Elizabeth Traugott
and, in addition to her book, searching 'the MLA for the rest of her
works, since she--as far as I am aware--concentrates in this area'.

Carl Mills first refers my point about English retaining its
comparative and superlative adjective inflections. He claims that
'Present Day English retains the superlative/comparative inflection
only for monosyllabic adjectives. For adjectives of three or more
syllables, the inflection is replaced by the periphrastic forms, as in
more beautiful/ most beautiful--NOT *beautifuller or *beautifullest'.

Next, specifically about my query, Carl states that 'OE adjectives had
to be inflected to agree with their head nouns in NUMBER, CASE,
GENDER, and STEM VOWEL class'.
He also gives some examples. Here is an example of STRONG ADJECTIVE
DECLENSION (like nearly all Germanic languages, OE had a WEAK DECLENSION,
too): the forms of '*good*, (where the double vowel oo is computer font
for "o with a macron over it") 'good' one of the "A- (oo-) Stems,
Monosyllabic bases, short and long"

 Masculine Neuter Feminine

Sing. Nom. good good good
 Gen. goodes goodes goodre
 Dat. goodum goodum goodre
 Acc. goodne good goode
 Instr. goode goode goodre

Plu. Nom., Acc. goode goode gooda, goode
 Gen. goodra goodra goodra
 Dat., Instr. goodum goodum goodum

Finally, about OE determiners, Carl recalls that OE did not have any
article, definite or indefinite.
First, 'The PDE INDEFINTE ARTICLE *a/an* derives from the OE number
word *ane* 'one'. Note that many English-lexified creoles substitute
PDE *one* for English *a/an*'. Next, 'OE had no DEFINITE ARTICLE,
either. Instead, OE had a rich system of demonstratives. PDE *the*
derives from a variant pronunciation of OE *see* (again, the ee is
computer for "e with a macron over it"). The PDE demonstratives,
three of them at least, *this, that, those* derive from other parts of
the OE demonstrative system. Demonstratives in OE were suppletive,
but they had to agree with the head noun's GENDER class'.

Again, let me thank you all for all that precious information and
data. It gives me new clues and encourages me.

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