Hit (pronoun)
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Hit Pronoun

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 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.[1]

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,[2] 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.[3] 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 corresponding nouns in case, number and gender. Finite verbs agreed with their subjects 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),[numbers don't agree] 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 (compared to the six "tenses", really tense/aspect combinations, of Latin), and the absence of a synthetic passive voice, which still existed in Gothic.


Old English nouns are grouped by grammatical gender, and inflect based on case and number.


Old English still had all three genders of Proto-Indo-European: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Each noun belongs to one of the three genders, while adjectives and determiners take different forms depending on the gender of the noun they describe. The word for "the" or "that" is s? with a masculine noun, s?o with a feminine noun, and þæt with a neuter noun. Adjectives change endings: for instance, since hring ("ring") is masculine and cuppe ("cup") is feminine, a golden ring is gylden hring, while a golden cup is gyldenu cuppe.

Perhaps the strangest aspect for modern speakers is that the words for "he" (h?) and "she" (h?o) also mean "it." H? refers back to masculine nouns, h?o to feminine nouns, reserving the neuter pronoun hit for nouns that are grammatically neuter. That means even inanimate objects are frequently called "he" or "she."[4] See the following sentence, with the masculine noun sn?w:

Old English M? l?caþ s? sn?w for þon þe h? d?þ þ? burg stille.
Literal gloss Me pleases the snow because he does the city quiet.
Translation I like the snow because it makes the city quiet.

Compare this parallel sentence, where the neuter noun f?r is referred to with hit:

Old English M? l?caþ þæt f?r for þon þe hit d?þ þ? burg hl?de.
Translation I like the fire because it makes the city loud.

Only a few nouns referring to people have a grammatical gender that does not match their natural gender, as in the neuter word mæ?den ("girl"). In such cases, adjectives and determiners follow grammatical gender, but pronouns follow natural gender: Þæt mæ?den s?o þ?r stent, canst þ? h?e? ("The girl who [feminine] is standing there, do you know her?").[5]

When two nouns have different genders, adjectives and determiners that refer to them together are inflected neuter: Hl?sa and sp?d b?oþ twieu ("Fame [masculine] and success [feminine] are double-edged [neuter plural]").[6]

Gender assignment

Nouns referring primarily to one sex, such as fæder ("father") and m?dor ("mother"), usually have the same gender as what they describe. Hence cyning ("king") is masculine and cw?n ("queen") is feminine, munuc ("monk") is masculine and nunne ("nun") is feminine, etc. The three major exceptions are w?f ("woman") and mæ?den ("girl"), which are neuter, and w?fmann ("woman"), which is masculine.

If a noun referred to both males and females, it was usually masculine. Hence fr?ond ("friend") and f?ond ("enemy") were masculine, along with many other examples such as lufiend ("lover"), bæcere ("baker"), h?lga ("saint"), s?op ("poet"), cuma ("guest"), m ("relative"), cristen ("Christian"), h?ðen ("pagan"), ?ngen?a ("loner"), d?nsittend ("mountaineer"), self?ta ("cannibal"), hl?apere ("dancer"), and sangere ("singer"). The main exceptions are the two words for "child," ?ild and bearn, which are both neuter.

However, nouns referring to things weren't so predictable. They could be any gender, almost regardless of their meaning. For example, seax ("knife") is neuter, gafol ("fork") is feminine, and cucler ("spoon") is masculine.[7] Even nouns which mean the same thing often have different genders: beorg ("mountain") is masculine while d?n is feminine, steorra ("star") is masculine while tungol is neuter, ?agþ?rel ("window") is neuter while ?agduru is feminine, tr?o ("tree") is neuter while b?am is masculine, s?ieldweall ("shield wall") is masculine while s?ieldburg is feminine, etc.

That said, there are still ways to guess the gender even of nouns referring to things:

  • Nouns ending in -a are almost all masculine. The exceptions are a small number of learned borrowings from Latin, such as Italia ("Italy") and discipula ("[female] disciple").
  • Compound words always take the gender of the last part of the compound. That's why w?fmann ("woman") is masculine, even though it means "woman": it's a compound of w?f ("woman") plus the masculine noun mann ("person").
  • Similarly, if a noun ends in a suffix, the suffix determines its gender. Nouns ending in the suffixes -oþ, -d?m, -end, -els, -uc, -ling, -ere, -h?d, and -s?ipe are all masculine, nouns ending in -ung, -þu, -nes, -estre, -r?den, and -wist are all feminine, and nouns ending in -l?c, -et, -ern, and -?en are all neuter. Mæ?den ("girl") is neuter because it ends in the neuter diminutive suffix -en.
  • Letters of the alphabet are all masculine. Metals are all neuter.
  • Animal names that only refer to males are masculine (e.g. hana "rooster," hen?est "stallion," eofor "boar," fearr "bull," ramm "ram," and bucc "buck"), and animal names that only refer to females are feminine (e.g. henn "hen," m?ere "mare," sugu "sow," c? "cow," eowu "ewe," and d? "doe"). The only exception is dr?n ("drone"), which is feminine because most people didn't know drones were male. However, the general names for animals could be of any gender: for example, ?r ("aurochs") is masculine, fifalde ("butterfly") is feminine, and sw?n ("pig") is neuter.
  • Adjectives used as nouns, such as colors, are neuter unless they refer to people. When they do refer to people, they're masculine by default unless the person is known to be a female, in which case they duly follow the feminine inflections: fremede ("stranger"), fremedu ("[female] stranger"); d?adl ("mortal"), d?adl?cu ("[female] mortal").
  • Likewise, verbs are neuter when used as nouns.

Feminizing suffixes

Old English has two nouns for many types of people: a general term which can refer to both males and females, like Modern English "waiter," and a separate term which refers only to females, like Modern English "waitress." Several different suffixes are used to specify females:

  • -en is added to miscellaneous words such as god ("god") -> gyden ("goddess"), ielf ("elf") -> ielfen ("female elf"), þe?n ("servant") -> þi?nen ("female servant"), þ?ow ("slave") -> þ?ewen ("female slave"), and n?ah?eb?r ("neighbor") -> n?ah?eb?ren ("female neighbor").
  • -estre is the female equivalent of -ere and -end, both meaning "-er." It is used on many nouns such as sangere ("singer") -> sangestre ("female singer"), lufiend ("lover") -> lufestre ("female lover"), bæcere ("baker") -> bæcestre, tæppere ("bartender") -> tæppestre, and forspennend ("pimp") -> forspennestre.
  • -e is the female equivalent of -a, which was sometimes a regular noun ending with no meaning and sometimes yet another suffix meaning "-er." Examples include wyrhta ("worker") -> wyrhte and foregen?a ("predecessor") -> foregen?e.

Sometimes the female equivalent is a totally separate word, as in l?r?ow ("teacher") ~ l?restre ("female teacher," as if the general term were *l?rere), le ("doctor") ~ l?cnestre ("female doctor," as if the general term were *l?cnere), and hl?ford ("master," literally "bread guardian") ~ hl?fdi?e ("mistress," literally "bread kneader").


As in several other old Germanic languages, Old English declensions include five cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, and instrumental.

  • Nominative: the subject of a sentence, which carries out the action. H? lufode h?e ("he loved her"), þæt mæ?den rann ("the girl ran"). Words on the other side of "to be" also take this case: in the phrase wyrd is eall ("destiny is all"), both "destiny" and "all" are nominative.
  • Accusative: the direct object, that which is acted upon. H? lufode h?e ("he loved her"), s? ridda ?cwealde þone dracan ("the knight slayed the dragon").
  • Genitive: the possessor of something. ?es?we þ? þæs hundes b?n? ("Have you seen the dog's bone?"). This case was much more frequent than the possessive is in Modern English, because Old English had no word for "of." Hence "the fall of Rome" was R?me hryre, literally "Rome's fall," and "the god of thunder" was þunres god, literally "thunder's god." It was even used partitively, to signify that something was composed of something else: "a group of people" was manna h?ap (literally "people's group"), "three of us" was ?re þr? ("our three"), and "a cup of water" was wætres cuppe ("water's cup").
  • Dative: the indirect object. I? sealde hire þone beall ("I gave her the ball").
  • Instrumental: something that is being used. Hwæl m? meahte mid ?ne sle?e besen?an oþþe ofsl?an ("A whale could sink or kill me with one blow"). This case can be used without prepositions when the meaning is clear, as in ?ðre naman, which means "[by] another name": ?htred s? Godl?asa æt Bebban byr?, ?ðre naman s? Deneslaga ("Uhtred the Godless of Bebbanburg, also known as the Daneslayer"). During the Old English period, the instrumental was falling out of use, having mostly merged with the dative. It was distinguished from the dative only in the masculine and neuter singular of strong adjectives and demonstratives, and even then the dative was often used instead.

Noun classes

Not all nouns take the same endings to inflect for number and case. Instead, each noun belongs to one of eight different classes, and each class has a different set of endings (sometimes several, depending on subtype).

In Proto-Germanic, one could tell which class a noun was by its ending in the nominative singular. But by the Old English period, most of these endings had disappeared or merged with other endings, so this was no longer possible.


A-stem nouns are by far the largest class, totaling 60% of all nouns.[8] Some are masculine, some are neuter. They're called a-stems because in Proto-Germanic times, they ended in -az (if masculine) or -? (if neuter). However, in Old English, both these endings have vanished, and masculines only differ from neuters in the nominative/accusative plural.

Masculine a-stems are almost all inflected the same, as in hund ("dog") below. The neuter a-stems, however, are split in two: some of them end in -u in the nominative/accusative plural, while others have no ending there at all. This was caused by a sound change called high vowel apocope, which occurred in the prehistory of Old English. Short -i and -u disappeared at the ends of words after a heavy syllable--that is, a syllable containing a long vowel or long diphthong or ending in two or more consonants--and after two light syllables.[9] Nouns which kept short -i/-u are called light, while nouns which lost them are called heavy.

So, the a-stems actually come in three separate declensions: one for masculine nouns, one for "heavy" neuter nouns, and one for "light" neuter nouns. They are exemplified by hund ("dog"), s?ip ("boat"), and h?s ("house"):

a-stem declension
Case Masculine
hund « dog »
s?ip « boat »
h?s « house »
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative hund hundas s?ip s?ipu h?s h?s
Genitive hundes hunda s?ipes s?ipa h?ses h?sa
Dative hunde hundum s?ipe s?ipum h?se h?sum


The ?-stems are by far the largest class after a-stems. They include the vast majority of feminine nouns, and zero nouns of any other gender.

They're called ?-stems because they ended in -? in Proto-Germanic, but in Old English that ending has changed to -u or vanished. In the nominative singular, "light" ?-stems end in -u while "heavy" ?-stems have no ending, just like neuter a-stems in the nominative/accusative plural.

?-stem declension
Case Light
?iefu « gift »
r?d « ride »
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative ?iefu ?iefa r?d r?da
Accusative ?iefe ?iefa, -e r?de r?da, -e
Genitive ?iefa r?da
Dative ?iefum r?dum


N-stems can be any gender, though there are only a few neuters: ?age ("eye"), ?are ("ear"), wange ("cheek"), and compounds ending in them, such as þunwange ("temple [of the head]"). N-stems are also called "weak nouns," because they are "weakly" inflected; i.e., most of their inflections have the same ending, -an. All other nouns are called "strong nouns."

Masculine and feminine n-stems are inflected the same except in the nominative singular, where masculines end in -a, feminines in -e:

n-stem declension
Case Masculine
m?na « moon »
sunne « sun »
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative m?na m?nan sunne sunnan
Accusative m?nan sunnan
Genitive m?nena sunnena
Dative m?num sunnum

The few neuter n-stems are declined the same as feminines, except they also have -e in the accusative singular:

n-stem declension
?age « eye »
Case Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative ?age ?agan
Genitive ?agan ?agena
Dative ?agum


The i-stems are so called because they ended in -iz in Proto-Germanic, but in Old English that ending has either become -e (in light i-stems) or vanished (in heavy i-stems). These nouns come in every gender, though neuter i-stems are rare.

By the earliest Old English prose, this class has already largely merged with other classes: masculine and neuter i-stems have taken on the same declension as a-stems, and feminine i-stems have almost the same declension as ?-stems. So, they're really only called i-stems because of their history, not because of how they inflect.

Their only distinct inflection survives in the accusative singular of feminine heavy i-stems, which fluctuates between -e (the ?-stem ending) and no ending (the inherited ending):

t?d « time »
Case Singular Plural
Nominative t?d t?da
Accusative t?d, t?de t?da, -e
Genitive t?de t?da
Dative t?dum

The exceptions are a few nouns that only come in the plural, namely l?ode ("people") and various names of nationalities, such as Engle ("the English") and Dene ("the Danes"). These nouns kept the nominative/accusative plural -e that they inherited through regular sound change.

Engle « the English »
Nominative-Accusative Engle
Genitive Engla
Dative Englum


The u-stems are all masculine or feminine. They're all declined the same way, regardless of gender:

u-stem declension
Case Light
sunu « son »
hand « hand »
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative sunu suna hand handa
Genitive suna handa
Dative sunum handum

Pure u-stem nouns aren't very many, but some are very common: duru ("door"), medu ("mead"), wudu ("wood"). Most historical u-stems have been transferred over to the a-stems. Some nouns follow the a-stem inflection overall, but have a few leftover u-stem forms in their inflection. These forms may exist alongside regular a-stem forms:

  • feld: dative singular felda
  • ford: dative singular forda
  • winter: dative singular wintra
  • æppel: nominative/accusative plural æppla

Root nouns

Root nouns are a small class of nouns which, in Proto-Germanic, had ended in a consonant without any intervening vowel.

These nouns undergo i-umlaut in the dative singular and the nominative/accusative plural. This is the source of nouns in Modern English which form their plural by changing a vowel, as in man ~ men, foot ~ feet, tooth ~ teeth, mouse ~ mice, goose ~ geese, and louse ~ lice. In Old English, there were many more such words, including b?c ("book"), c? ("cow"), g?t ("goat"), ?c ("oak"), hnutu ("nut"), burg ("city"), and sulh ("plow").

All root nouns are either masculine or feminine. Masculine root nouns are all heavy, but among feminines there is a contrast between light nouns and heavy nouns: light nouns end in -e where they have umlaut of the root vowel, while heavy nouns have no ending. The typical declension is this:

root noun declension
Case Masculine
mann « person »
hnutu « nut »
g?s « goose »
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative mann menn hnutu hnyte g?s g?s
Genitive mannes manna hnute hnuta g?se g?sa
Dative menn mannum hnyte hnutum g?s g?sum


Nd-stems are nouns formed with the suffix -end, which creates agent nouns from verbs: ?gan ("to own") -> ?gend ("owner"). All are masculine.

Single-syllable nd-stems are only possible when the stem ends in a vowel, which is rare; hence, only three are attested: fr?ond ("friend") fr?o?an ("to love"), f?ond ("enemy") f?o?an ("to hate"), and t?ond ("accuser") t?on ("to accuse"). They're declined just like masculine root nouns:

nd-stem declension (one-syllable)

fr?ond « friend »
Case Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative fr?ond fr?end
Genitive fr?ondes fr?onda
Dative fr?end fr?ondum

The multi-syllable nd-stems are declined very differently. Their stem vowel never undergoes i-umlaut, and in fact, they're inflected just like a-stems in the singular. Moreover, their plural forms are truly unique: the genitive plural always ends in -ra, which is normally used for adjectives, and the nominative/accusative plural varies between no ending, the adjective ending -e, and the a-stem ending -as. The adjectival endings are a relic of the nd-stems' origin as present participles.

nd-stem declension (multi-syllable)

ymbstandend « bystander »
Case Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative ymbstandend ymbstandend, -e, -as
Genitive ymbstandendes ymbstandendra
Dative ymbstandende ymbstandendum


The r-stems comprise only five nouns: fæder, m?dor, br?ðor, sweostor, and dohtor.

Br?ðor, m?dor, and dohtor are all inflected the same, with i-umlaut in the dative singular. Sweostor is inflected the same except without i-umlaut. Fæder is indeclinable in the singular like sweostor, but has taken its nominative/accusative plural from the a-stems. In addition, br?ðor and sweostor often take the prefix ?e- in the plural, while the rest never do.

r-stem declension
Case fæder m?dor br?ðor sweostor dohtor
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative fæder fæderas m?dor m?dru, -a br?ðor (?e)br?ðor, -ru, -ra sweostor (?e)sweostor, -ru, -ra dohtor dohtor, -ru, -ra
Genitive fædera m?dra (?e)br?ðra (?e)sweostra dohtra
Dative fæderum m?der m?drum br?ðer (?e)br?ðrum (?e)sweostrum dehter dohtrum


Z-stems are the name given to four neuter nouns which inflect like light a-stems, except the plural endings begin with -r-. These nouns are ?ild ("child"), ("egg"), lamb ("lamb"), and ?ealf ("calf").

z-stem declension
Case Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative lamb lambru
Genitive lambes lambra
Dative lambe lambrum


The above only mentions the most common ways each noun class is inflected. There are many variations even within classes, some of which include:

  • High vowel apocope (loss of short -i and -u at the end of a word) isn't entirely consistent. At first, these sounds were lost after a heavy syllable or two light syllables. But then, at some point before the written period, speakers started re-adding -u to the plurals of some neuter nouns where it had originally vanished. These nouns have two competing plurals, one with -u and one without it. So, "dreams" is either swefn or swefnu, "sails" is either se?l or se?lu, and "waters" is either wæter or wætru, among many other examples. Note that this mainly happened to a very specific set of nouns: those whose inflectional endings are preceded by a consonant plus /n/, /l/, or /r/.
  • Some nouns have -u after a heavy syllable because, when high vowel apocope occurred, they had an intervening light syllable which later disappeared. Examples include nouns with the suffix -þu such as strengðu ("strength") and iermðu ("poverty"), z-stem plurals such as ru ("eggs") and ?ealfru ("calves"), and the a-stem plurals h?afdu ("heads") and d?oflu ("demons"). Also the plurals of all neuter a-stems that end in -e: w?te ("punishment"), pl. w?tu; ?rende ("message"), pl. ?rendu.
  • Some ?-stems unexpectedly end in -u in the singular, such as þ?estru ("darkness"), h?tu ("heat"), meni?u ("crowd"), ieldu ("age"), and bieldu ("bravery"). These nouns once belonged to a separate class called the ?n-stems, which all ended in -?. Then they merged with the ?-stems when this ending was replaced with -u--well after high vowel apocope had gone to completion, so the -u remained.
  • Many nouns which end with an unstressed vowel plus a single consonant lose the unstressed vowel when they take inflectional endings: gristel ("cartilage"), gristles ("of cartilage"). However, it's impossible to predict which nouns this happens to without knowing the history of the word. For example, Dryhten ("the Lord") loses its unstressed -e- when inflected, but n?eten ("animal") does not; ?ðel ("homeland") does, but crypel ("cripple") does not.[10]
  • If an a-stem ends in one consonant and its stem vowel is short /æ/, it becomes /?/ in the plural. "Day" is dæ? but "days" is dagas, "bath" is bæþ but "baths" is baðu. Other examples include fæt ("container"), s?ræf ("cave"), stæf ("staff"), pæþ ("path"), hwæl ("whale"), and blæd ("blade").
  • A-stems which end in ?, ?, or s? after a vowel have hard g, c, or sc in the plural: fis? /fi?/ ("fish"), pl. fiscas /'fisk?s/. Other examples include dæ? ("day"), we? ("way"), twi? ("twig"), dis? ("plate"), d ("ditch"), l ("corpse"), and w ("village").
  • If a noun ends in h, the h disappears before inflectional endings. This lengthens the preceding vowel or diphthong (if it's short). Unless the h comes right after a consonant, it also deletes the following vowel, except in the genitive plural, where an -n- has been inserted to prevent this from happening. All this is exemplified by two masculine a-stems, sh and fearh:
nouns ending in h
sh « shoe »

fearh « piglet »
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative sh ss fearh f?aras
Genitive ss sna f?ares f?ara
Dative s sm f?are f?arum
  • If an a-stem ends in -u, the u is replaced with w before inflectional endings: searu ("machine"), dat. sg. searwe.
  • Something similar happens with a subgroup of ?-stem nouns called the w?-stems. These nouns once ended in -wu, before a sound change occurred which caused the w to disappear in the nominative singular; subsequently some also lost the -u by high vowel apocope. By the written period, they are indistinguishable from other ?-stems in the nominative singular, except they keep the w before inflectional endings. These nouns include s?eadu ("shadow/shade"), sinu ("sinew"), m?d ("meadow"), and l?s ("pasture").
w?-stem declension
Case Light
s?eadu « shadow »
m?d « meadow »
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative s?eadu s?eadwa m?d m?dwa
Accusative s?eadwe s?eadwa, -e m?dwe m?dwa, -e
Genitive s?eadwa m?dwa
Dative s?eadwum m?dwum


Adjectives take different endings depending on the case, gender, and number of the noun they describe. The adjective cwic ("alive"), for example, comes in eleven different forms: cwic, cwicu, cwicne, cwice, cwices, cwicre, cwicum, cwica, cwicra, cwican, and cwicena.

Strong and weak declension

There are two separate sets of inflections, traditionally called the "strong declension" and the "weak declension." Together, both declensions contain many different inflections, though just ten or eleven unique forms typically cover all of them. The usual endings are exhibited by cwic ("alive") among many other adjectives:

Strong declension of cwic
Singular Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative cwic cwic cwicu
Accusative cwicne cwice
Genitive cwices cwicre
Dative cwicum
Instrumental cwice
Plural Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative cwice cwicu cwica
Accusative cwica, -e
Genitive cwicra
Dative-Instrumental cwicum
Weak declension of cwic
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Any gender
Nominative cwica cwice cwice cwican
Accusative cwican
Genitive cwican cwicena
Dative-Instrumental cwicum

In general, the weak declension is used after the words for "the/that" and "this," nouns in the genitive case, and possessive determiners such as "my," "your," and "his," while the strong declension is used the rest of the time. Hence "a live scorpion" is cwic þr?wend, while "the live scorpion" is s? cwica þr?wend. Further details:

  • The weak declension is also used in direct address, as in ?al? fæ?re mæ?den ("Hey beautiful girl") or þ? stunte h?re ("you stupid whore").
  • Ordinal numbers and comparative adjectives only take the weak declension, even in situations that would otherwise call for the strong declension. The most important exception is ?ðer ("other/second"), which is always strong despite being both an ordinal number and a comparative. Of the four words for "first," forma and ?rra are always weak, but ?rest and fyrest can be either strong or weak just like most other adjectives.
  • The adjective ?gen ("own") is usually strong in the phrase "one's own": H?o forl?t ?ðre dæ?e on hire ?gnum horse ("She left the next day on her own horse").


Adjectives once came in many different classes just like nouns, but by Old English times, all adjectives have basically the same endings as cwic above. However, there are still a good number of differences and irregularities:

  • As with nouns, there are "light" adjectives which retain the inflectional ending -u (which occurs in the feminine nominative singular and neuter nominative/accusative plural), and "heavy" adjectives which have lost it. Originally -u disappeared after a heavy syllable or two light syllables, but speakers have re-added it to some adjectives where it had been lost. Namely, those with the suffixes -i? or -l: bisigu sweord ("busy swords" [nom. pl. neut.]), broðorl?cu lufu ("brotherly love" [nom. sg. fem.]).[11][10]
  • Some adjectives have -u after a heavy syllable because, when high vowel apocope occurred, they had an intervening light syllable which later disappeared. Examples include l?tel ("little"), nom. sg. fem./nom-acc. pl. neut l?tlu; ?ðer ("other"), nom. sg. fem./nom-acc. pl. neut ?ðru; and ?ower ("your"), nom. sg. fem./nom-acc. pl. neut. ?owru.
  • Adjectives ending in -e all lose the -e before inflectional endings: bl?ðe ("happy"), nom. sg. masc. bl?ðne. They also all retain -u: bl?ðu ?ildru ("happy children").[12]
  • If an adjective ends in short æ plus a single consonant, the æ becomes a before endings beginning with a vowel: glæd ("glad"), nom. pl. masc. glade.
  • If an adjective ends in h, the h disappears before inflectional endings. This lengthens the preceding vowel or diphthong: þweorh ("crooked"), þw?orre gen. sg. fem. Also, if the h comes right after a vowel, any immediately following vowel disappears: h?ah ("high"), acc. sg. masc. h?ane, dat. sg. masc. h?am, nom. pl. masc. h?a.
  • If an adjective ends in -u, it changes to o before an inflectional ending beginning with a consonant: ?earu ("ready"), acc. sg. masc. ?earone, dat. sg. fem. ?earore. Before a vowel, it changes to w: nom. pl. masc. ?earwe.
  • Most adjectives ending in ?, ?, or s? have hard g, c, or sc before an ending beginning with a back vowel (/?/, /o/, /u/). ?esdl ("rational"), nom. pl. fem. ?esdl?ca; mennis? ("human"), dat. sg. neut. menniscum.
  • Many adjectives which end in an unstressed vowel plus a single consonant lose the unstressed vowel before endings beginning with vowels: l?tel ("little"), nom. pl. fem. l?tla.


Old English never uses the equivalents of "more" and "most" to form comparative or superlative adjectives. Instead, the equivalents of "-er" and "-est" are used (-ra and -ost, for some words -est). "More beautiful" is fæ?erra, literally "beautiful-er," and "most beautiful" is fæ?rost, literally "beautiful-est." [a] Other examples include beorht ("bright") -> beorhtra ("brighter"), beorhtost ("brightest"); bearn?acen ("pregnant") -> bearn?acenra ("more pregnant"), bearn?acnost ("most pregnant"); and cnihtl ("boyish") -> cnihtl?cra ("more boyish"), cnihtl?cost ("most boyish").

A handful of words form the comparative and superlative with i-umlaut, namely eald ("old") -> ieldra, ieldest; ?eong ("young") -> ?ingra, ?in?est; strang ("strong") -> strengra, stren?est; lang ("long") -> lengra, len?est; s?ort ("short") -> s?yrtra, s?yrtest; and h?ah ("high") -> h?era, h?ehst.

A few more become totally different words: g?d ("good") -> betera, betst; yfel ("bad") -> wiersa, wierrest; mi?el ("much/a lot/big") -> m?ra ("more/bigger"), m?st ("most/biggest"); l?tel ("little") -> l?ssa ("less/smaller"), l?sest ("least/smallest").


Old English has no indefinite article.[13] Instead, a noun is most often used by itself:

Old English ?s is l?ofre þæt w? hæbben healtne cyning þonne healt re.
Literal gloss Us is dearer that we have crippled king than crippled kingdom.
Translation We'd rather have a crippled king than a crippled kingdom.

The definite article is s?, which doubles as the word for "that." It comes in eleven different forms depending on case, gender, and number: s?, s?o, þæt, þone, þ?, þæs, þ?re, þ?m, þon, þ?, and þ?ra.

Declension of s?
Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative s? þæt s?o þ?
Accusative þone þ?
Genitive þæs þ?re þ?ra
Dative þ?m þ?m
Instrumental þon, þ?

The word "the" was used very much like in Modern English. The main difference is that it was used somewhat more sparingly, due to numerous groups of nouns which usually went without it. These include:[14][15][16]

  • All river names. On Temese fl?at ?n s?ip ("A boat was floating on the Thames").
  • Names of peoples. Ex: Seaxan ("the Saxons"), Winedas ("the Slavs"), Si?elhearwan ("the Ethiopians"), Ind?as ("the Indians"). Names of peoples also frequently stand for the place they're from: for example, the word for Essex was simply ?astseaxan ("the East Saxons"), and "the prince of Denmark" was Dena æðeling, literally "prince of the Danes."
  • A few nouns denoting types of locations, namely s? ("the sea"), wudu ("the woods"), and eorðe ("the ground"). Þ? f?olle on eorðan and sl?ge þ?n h?afod ("You fell on the ground and hit your head"). Also "the world," whether expressed with weorold or middan?eard. Note that "sea" is still sometimes used without "the" in Modern English, in fossilized phrases like "at sea" and "out to sea."
  • A couple of abstract concepts, namely s?þ ("the truth") and ? ("the law").
  • Many divisions of time. Namely, the words for the morning, the evening, the four seasons, the past, the present, and the future. I? ?r?s on lætne morgen and ?ode niðer ("I got up late in the morning and went downstairs").
  • Dryhten ("the Lord"). D?ofol ("the Devil") often occurs with "the" and often without it.
  • A few set phrases, including ealle hw?le ("the whole time," literally "all/whole while"), be we?e ("on the way," lit. "by way"), and ealne we? ("all the way" or "always," lit. "all way"). Also forma s?þ ("the first time"), ?ðer s?þ ("the second time"), and so on.

Note that those words still occur with "the" when they refer to a specific iteration, as in "the future that I want," "the woods behind my house," or "the law they just passed."


Old English has two main demonstratives: s? ("that") and þ?s ("this"). S? is also the word for "the"; for its declension, see above.

Declension of þ?s
Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative þ?s þis þ?os þ?s
Accusative þisne þ?s
Genitive þisses þisse þissa
Dative þissum þissum
Instrumental þ?s

There is also the distal demonstrative ?eon, the source of Modern English "yon." It means "that over there" and refers to things far away. ?eon is declined like a regular adjective, that is like cwic above.


Interrogative pronouns

Hw? ("who") and hwæt ("what") follow natural gender, not grammatical gender: as in Modern English, hw? is used with people, hwæt with things. However, that distinction only matters in the nominative and accusative cases, because in every other case they're identical:

Declension of hw? and hwæt
"who" "what"
Nominative hw? hwæt
Accusative hwone
Genitive hwæs
Dative hw?m
Instrumental hwon, hw?

Hwel? ("which" or "what kind of") is inflected like an adjective. Same with hwæðer, which also means "which" but is only used between two alternatives:

Old English Hwæðer w?nst þ? is m?re, þ? þ?n sweord þ? m?n?
Translation Which one do you think is bigger, your sword or mine?

Personal pronouns

The first- and second-person pronouns are the same for all genders. They also have special dual forms, which are only used for groups of two things, as in "we both" and "you two." The dual forms are common, but the ordinary plural forms can always be used instead when the meaning is clear.

Personal pronouns
Case 1st person 2nd person 3rd person
Singular Dual Plural Singular Dual Plural Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative i? wit w? þ? ?it h? hit h?o h?e
Accusative m? unc ?s þ? inc ?ow hine hit h?e
Dative him hire him
Genitive m?n uncer ?re þ?n incer ?ower his heora

Many of the forms above bear a strong resemblance to the Modern English words they eventually became. For instance, in the genitive case, ?ower became "your", ?re became "our", and m?n became "my". However, in stressed positions, the plural third-person personal pronouns were all replaced with Old Norse forms during the Middle English period, yielding "they", "them" and "their". (The Old English dative pronoun is retained as unstressed 'em.)


Old English verbs are divided into two groups: strong verbs and weak verbs. Strong verbs form the past tense by changing a vowel, while weak verbs add an ending.

Strong verbs

Strong verbs use a Germanic form of conjugation known as ablaut. They form the past tense by changing their stem vowel. These verbs still exist in modern English, where they're often called "irregular verbs": for example sing, sang, sung is a strong verb, as are swim, swam, swum and break, broke, broken.

Strong verbs have been growing less and less common over the centuries, because their conjugations are more complicated than weak verbs and harder to predict. That means many verbs that were strong in Old English times are now weak. These include walk, sleep, help, laugh, step, sneeze, chew, wash, shine, climb, let, bake, lock, read, drag, bark, sweep, float, bow, row, fart, creep, flow, starve, weep, grip, leap, mow, slay, shove, carve, gnaw, braid, flee, fare, ban, wreak, quell, delve, abide, yield, spurn, thresh, swell, milk, suck, burst, load, melt, and swallow. Two of these even became weak during the Old English period: sleep (sl?pan) and read (r?dan).

Also, by Old English times, people had long since stopped coining new strong verbs. Even today, almost every strong verb in the modern language dates back to before Old English, even to before Proto-Germanic.

Most strong verbs are not considered irregular in Old English, because each belongs to one of seven major classes, each with 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, each corresponding to particular stem changes within their strong-conjugating paradigms:

  1. ? + one consonant.
  2. ?o or ? + one consonant.
  3. 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 (g? +) short ie + lC.
  4. e + one consonant (usually l or r, plus the verb brecan 'to break').
  5. e + one consonant (usually a stop or a fricative).
  6. a + one consonant.
  7. 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., ?, ?, ?a, a (+ nC), ea (+ lC/rC), occ. ? (the latter with past in ? instead of normal ?o). 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 ?o (occ. ?), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.
Stem changes in strong verbs
Verb class Stem vowel
Class Root weight Non-past First past Second past Past participle
1 heavy ? ? i
2 ?o, ? ?a u o
3 e (+CC) æ u o
e (+lC), eo (+rC/ hC) ea
i (+nC) a u
4 light e(+r/l) æ ? o
5 e(+other) e
6 a ? a
7 heavy various ? or ?o 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:

  1. e + two consonants (apart from clusters beginning with l).
  2. eo + r or h + another consonant.
  3. e + l + another consonant.
  4. 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
Strong verb conjugation Stelan "to steal"
Infinitives stelan -an
t? stelanne t? -anne
Participle Present stelende -ende
Past (?e)stolen (?e)- -en
Indicative Present Singular 1st person stele -e
2nd person stilst -st
3rd person stilþ
Plural stelaþ -aþ
Past Singular 1st person stæl -_
2nd person st?le -e
3rd person stæl -_
Plural st?lon -on
Subjunctive Present Singular stele -e
Plural stelen -en
Past Singular st?le -e
Plural st?len -en
Imperative Singular stel -_
Plural stelaþ -aþ

Weak verbs

Weak verbs form the past tense by adding endings with -d- in them (sometimes -t-) to the stem. In Modern English, these endings have merged as -ed, forming the past tense for most verbs, such as love, loved and look, looked.

Weak verbs already make up the vast majority of verbs in Old English. There are two major types: class I and class II. A class III also existed, but contained only four verbs.

Class I

By the Old English period, new class I weak verbs had stopped being produced, but so many had been coined in Proto-Germanic that they were still by far the most common kind of verb in Old English.[17] These verbs are often recognizable because they feature i-umlaut of the word they were derived from, as in d?man ("to judge") from d?m ("judgment"), blan ("to bleach") from bl?c ("pale"), tellan ("to count") from tæl ("number"), and r?man ("to make room") from r?m ("room"). They are also the source of alterations in Modern English such as feed ~ food, fill ~ full, and breed ~ brood.

Class I weak verbs are not all conjugated the same. Their exact endings depend on a complex combination of factors, mostly involving the length of the stem vowel and which consonants the stem ends in, and sometimes also the history of the word. But the largest number are conjugated the same as d?lan ("to share"):

Conjugation of d?lan
Infinitive d?lan (t?) d?lenne
Indicative Present Past
1sg. d?le d?lde
2sg. d?lst d?ldest
3sg. d?lþ d?lde
pl. d?l d?ldon
Subjunctive Present Past
sg. d?le d?lde
pl. d?len d?lden
sg. d?l
pl. d?l
Participle Present Past
d?lende (?e)d?led

Many verbs ending in a double consonant are conjugated like temman ("to tame"), with the same endings and the same alternation between single and double consonants:

Conjugation of temman
Infinitive teman (t?) temenne
Indicative Present Past
1sg. temme temede
2sg. temest temedest
3sg. temeþ temede
pl. temmaþ temedon
Subjunctive Present Past
sg. temme temede
pl. temmen temeden
sg. teme
pl. temmaþ
Participle Present Past
temmende (?e)temed

Class I weak verbs that end in -rian are conjugated like styrian ("to move"):

Conjugation of styrian
Infinitive styrian (t?) styrienne
Indicative Present Past
1sg. styrie styrede
2sg. styrest styredest
3sg. styreþ styrede
pl. styraþ styredon
Subjunctive Present Past
sg. styrie styrede
pl. styrien styreden
sg. styre
pl. styriaþ
Participle Present Past
styriende (?e)styred

Class II

Class II weak verbs are easily recognized by the fact that nearly all of them end in -ian: hopian ("to hope"), wincian ("to wink"), wandrian ("to wander").

By the Old English period, this was the only productive verb class left. Newly created verbs were almost automatically weak class II.[18]

Unlike weak class I, they never cause i-umlaut, so their stems are usually identical to the stem of the word they were derived from: lufu ("love") -> lufian ("to love"), mynet ("coin") -> mynetian ("to coin"), hwelp ("puppy") -> hwelpian ("[of animals] to give birth").

Their conjugation is also much simpler than all other verb classes. Almost all weak class II verbs have precisely the same endings, completely unaffected by the makeup of the stem or the history of the word. A typical example is lufian ("to love"):

Conjugation of lufian
Infinitive lufian (t?) lufienne
Indicative Present Past
1sg. lufi?e lufode
2sg. lufast lufodest
3sg. luf lufode
pl. lufiaþ lufodon
Subjunctive Present Past
sg. lufi?e lufode
pl. lufi?en lufoden
sg. lufa
pl. lufiaþ
Participle Present Past
lufiende (?e)lufod

Class III

Though it was once much larger, containing many verbs which later became class II, only four verbs still belonged to this group by the period of written texts: habban ("to have"), libban ("to live") sean ("to say"), and hyan "to think." Each of these verbs is distinctly irregular, though they share some commonalities.

Class 3 weak verbs
Class 3 weak verbs Suffixes Habban "to have" Libban "to live" Sean "to say" Hyan "to think"
Infinitives -an habban libban sean hyan
t? -enne t? hæbbenne t? libbenne t? seenne t? hyenne
Participle Present -ende hæbbende libbende seende hyende
Past (?e) -d (?e)hæfd (?e)lifd (?e)sæ?d (?e)hogd
Indicative Present Singular 1st person -e hæbbe libbe see hye
2nd person -st hæfst leofast sæ?st hy?st
3rd person hæfþ leofaþ sæ?þ hy?þ
Plural -aþ habbaþ libbaþ seaþ hyaþ
Past Singular 1st person -de hæfde lifde sæ?de hogde
2nd person -dest hæfdest lifdest sæ?dest hogdest
3rd person -de hæfde lifde sæ?de hogde
Plural -don hæfdon lifdon sæ?don hogdon
Subjunctive Present Singular -e hæbbe libbe see hye
Plural -en hæbben libben seen hyen
Past Singular -de hæfde lifde sæ?de hogde
Plural -den hæfden lifden sæ?den hogden
Imperative Singular -a hafa leofa sæ?e hy?e
Plural -aþ habbaþ libbaþ seaþ hyaþ

Preterite-present verbs

The preterite-presents are verbs whose present tenses look like the past tenses of strong verbs. This resemblance isn't an accident: they descend from old Proto-Indo-European stative verbs, which normally developed into the past tense of the Germanic languages. The preterite-present verbs are an exception to this development, remaining as independent verbs. For example, the first-person present of witan ("to know") originally meant "I have seen", referring to the state of having seen, and by implication "I know". At some point well before Old English, these verbs were given their own past tenses by tacking on weak past endings, but without an intervening vowel. This lack of an intervening vowel then led to alternations in the consonants, and sometimes vowels as well.

There are only a dozen preterite-presents, but most are among the most frequent verbs in the language. They are magan ("can"), s?ulan ("should/must/to owe"), m?tan ("may"), þurfan ("to need"), witan ("to know"), cunnan ("to know/know how"), ?emunan ("to remember"), durran ("to dare"), ?gan ("to own"), dugan ("to be useful"), ?enugan ("to suffice"), and unnan ("to grant").

In spite of heavy irregularities, these can be grouped into four groups of similarly conjugated verbs:

  1. ?gan, durran, m?tan, and witan
  2. Cunnan, ?emunan (outside the past tense), and unnan
  3. Dugan, magan, and ?enugan
  4. S?ulan and þurfan
Preterite-present stems
Preterite-present verbs Participle Indicative Subjunctive Imperative
Class Infinitive (Meaning) Present Past Present Past Present Past Singular Plural
Singular Plural
1 ?gan "to own" ?gende (?e)?gen ?h- ?g- ?ht- ?g- ?ht- ?ge ?gaþ
Durran "to dare" durrende (?e)dorren dearr- durr- dorst- dyrr- dyrst- dyrre durraþ
M?tan "may, to be allowed to" m?tende (?e)m?ten m?t- m?st m?t- m?st- m?te m?taþ
Witan "to know (a fact)" witende (?e)witen w?t- wit- wist- wit- wist- wite witaþ
2 Cunnan "to know (how to)" cunnende (?e)cunnen, (?e)c?þ cann- cunn- c?þ- cunn- c?þ- cunne cunnaþ
?emunan "remember" ?emunende ?emunen ?eman- ?emun- ?emund- ?emun- ?emund- ?emune ?emunaþ
Unnan "grant" unnende (?e)unnen ann- unn- ?þ- unn- ?þ- unne unnaþ
3 Dugan "work with, avail" dugende (?e)dugen deah- dug- doht- dug- doht- ?eduge ?edugaþ
?enugan "to enjoy, use" ?enugende ?enugen ?eneah- ?enug- ?enoht- ?enug- ?enoht- ?enuge ?enugaþ
Magan "can, be able to" mæ?ende (?e)mæ?en mæg- mag- meaht- mæg- miht- mæge magaþ
4 S?ulan "should, must" s?uldende (?e)s?ulen s?eal- s?ul- s?old- s?yl- s?yld- s?yle s?ulaþ
Þurfan "to need" þurfende (?e)þurfen þearf- þurf- þorft- þyrf- þyrft- þyrfe þurfaþ

Anomalous verbs

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.

D?n 'to do' and g?n '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 b?on, comprising the forms beginning with b-.

In the present tense, wesan and b?on carried a difference in meaning. Wesan was used in most circumstances, whereas b?on was used for the future and for certain kinds of general statements.

Anomalous verbs
Anomalous verbs B?on, "to be" Wesan, "to be" D?n, "to do" G?n, "to go" Willan "to want"
Infinitive b?on wesan d?n g?n willan
t? b?onne to wesanne t? d?nne t? g?nne t? willenne
Participle Present b?onde wesende d?nde g?nde willende
Past (?e)b?on (?e)d?n (?e)g?n *(?e)willen
Indicative Present Singular 1st person b?o eom d? g? wille
2nd person bist eart d?st g?st wilt
3rd person biþ is d?þ g?þ wile
Plural b?oþ sind d?þ g?þ willaþ
Past Singular 1st person wæs dyde ?ode wolde
2nd person w?re dydest ?odest woldest
3rd person wæs dyde ?ode wolde
Plural w?ron dydon ?odon woldon
Subjunctive Present Singular b?o s?e d? g? wille
Plural b?on s?en d?n g?n willen
Past Singular w?re dyde ?ode wolde
Plural w?ren dyde ?ode wolde
Imperative Singular b?o wes d? g? wille
Plural b?oþ wesaþ d?þ g?þ willaþ


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.

The following is a list of prepositions in the Old English language. Prepositions may govern the accusative, genitive, dative or instrumental cases.

Old English Definition Notes
æfter after Related to Frisian efter, Dutch achter ("behind"), Icelandic eftir. Ancestor of modern after.
?r before Related to German eher and Icelandic áður. Ancestor of modern ere.
æt at Related to Icelandic ("to, towards"), and more distantly Latin ad and its descendants in the Romance languages. 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, b? 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.
be?eondan beyond Ancestor of modern beyond
behindan behind Ancestor of modern behind. Related to German hinter.
binnan in, within Related to German and Dutch binnen
ben?oðan beneath Ancestor of modern beneath.
betw?onum between Ancestor of modern between
bufan above Ancestor of modern above through compound form onbufan
b?tan without, except Related to Dutch buiten. Ancestor of modern but.
?ac 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
?eond through Ancestor of modern yonder through comparative form ?eondra. 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
int? into Ancestor of modern into
mid with Related to modern German mit
n?ah 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
onb?tan around Ancestor of modern about
onan opposite, against; towards; in reply to Ancestor of modern again. Related to German entgegen
samod together Related to German samt
t? to Ancestor of modern to, related to German zu
t?e?can in addition to, besides
t?foran before Related to Dutch tevoren, German zuvor
t?geagnes towards, against Related to Dutch tegen
t?weard 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
undern?oðan underneath Ancestor of modern underneath
uppon upon, on Not the ancestor of modern upon, which came from "up on".
?tan without, outside of Related to modern Swedish utan, German außen. The adverbial form ?t is the ancestor of modern out.
wiþ against Ancestor of modern with
wiþinnan within Ancestor of modern within
wiþ?tan 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., þ? X, þ? Y instead of "When X, Y").

Word order

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 wr?þum on andan:

wr?þum on andan
hostile (Dative Singular) on/with malice (Dative Singular)
"with hostile malice"

Something similar occurs in line 713 in sele þ?m h?an "in the high hall" (lit. "in hall the high").

Extraposition of constituents out of larger constituents is common even in prose, as in the well-known tale of Cynewulf and Cyneheard, which begins

H?r Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his r?ces ond westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum d?dum, b?ton Hamt?nsc?re; ...
(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 r?ces "of kingdom" (nominative r?ce, "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 þ?, 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:

  1. An invariable complementizer þe
  2. The demonstrative pronoun se, s?o, þæt
  3. The combination of the two, as in se þe

Subordinate clauses tended to use correlative conjunctions, e.g.

Þ? ic h?m ?ode, þ? sl?p 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).

The equivalents of "who, when, where" were used only as interrogative pronouns and indefinite pronouns, as in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit.

Besides þ? ... þ? ..., other correlative conjunctions occurred, often in pairs of identical words, e.g.:

  • þ?r X, þ?r Y: "Where X, Y"
  • þanon X, þanon Y: "Whence (from where/wherefrom) X, Y"
  • þider X, þider Y: "Whither (to where/whereto) X, Y"
  • þ?ah (þe) X, þ?ah 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"
  • þ? X, þ? 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.

See also


  1. ^ Compare their descendents fairer and fairest in Modern English, as in "who is the fairest of them all?"


  1. ^ Cercignani, Fausto (1980). "Early 'Umlaut' Phenomena in the Germanic Languages". Language. 56 (1): 126-136. doi:10.2307/412645. JSTOR 412645.
  2. ^ Quirk, Randolph; Wrenn, Charles Leslie (1957). An Old English Grammar. London: Methuen and Co.
  3. ^ Peter S. Baker (2003). "Pronouns". The Electronic Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. Archived from the original on September 11, 2015.
  4. ^ Curzan, Anne (2003). Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 94.
  5. ^ Curzan, Anne (2003). Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 62.
  6. ^ Quirk, Randolph; Wrenn, C. L. (1994). An Old English Grammar. De Kalb: Northern Illonois University Press. p. 75.
  7. ^ Dolberg, Florian (2019). Agreement in Language Contact: Gender Development in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Philadelphia: John Benjamins. p. 22.
  8. ^ Hogg 2011, p. 15.
  9. ^ Steins, Carl (1998). "Against Arbitrary Features in Inflection: Old English Declension Classes". In Kehrein, Wolfgang; Wiese, Richard (eds.). Phonology and Morphology of the Germanic Languages. Tübingen: Niemeyer. p. 247.
  10. ^ a b Ringe & Taylor 2014, p. 264.
  11. ^ Hogg 2011, p. 168.
  12. ^ Hogg 2011, p. 164.
  13. ^ Sommerer, Lotte (2018). Article Emergence in Old English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 284.
  14. ^ Flamme, Julius (1885). Syntax der Blickling-Homilien (Thesis). University of Bonn. pp. 5-27.
  15. ^ Wülfing, Johann Ernst (1894). Die Syntax in den Werken Alfreds des Grossen. Bonn: Hanstein. pp. 278-85.
  16. ^ Mitchell 1985, p. 134.
  17. ^ Hogg 2011, p. 258.
  18. ^ Hogg 2011, p. 279.


  • Hogg, Richard M. (2011). A Grammar of Old English: Morphology. 2. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Mitchell, Bruce (1985). Old English Syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Moore, Samuel; Knott, Thomas A. (1958) [1919]. Hulbert, James R. (ed.). The Elements of Old English (10th ed.). Ann Arbor, Michigan: George Wahr Publishing Co.
  • Ringe, Don; Taylor, Ann (2014). The Development of Old English. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 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

Further reading

  • 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.

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