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The nominal system of Old English

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The Noun

Grammatical categories. The use of cases

The OE noun had two grammatical categories: number and case. Also, nouns distinguished three genders, but gender was not a grammatical category; it was merely a classifying feature accounting for the division of nouns into morphological classes. The category of number consisted of two members: singular and plural. The noun had four cases: Nominative, Genitive, Dative and Accusative.

The Nom. can be defined as the case of the active agent, for it was the case of the subject mainly used with verbs denoting activity; the Nom. could also indicate the subject characterized by a certain quality or state; could serve as a predicative and as the case of address.

The Gen. case was primarily the case of nouns and pronouns serving as attributes to other nouns. The meanings of the Gen. case were very complex and can only be grouped under the headings “Subjective” and “Objective” Gen. Subjective Gen. is associated with the possessive meaning and the meaning of origin. Objective Gen. is associated with what is termed “partitive meaning” as in sum hund scipa ‘a hundred of ships’.

Dat. was the chief case used with prepositions, e.g. on morзenne ‘in the morning’

The Acc. case was the form that indicated a relationship to a verb. Being the direct object it denoted the recipient of an action, the result of the action and other meanings.

Morphological classification of nouns. Declensions

Historically, the OE system of declensions was based on a number of distinctions: the stem-suffix, the gender of nouns, the phonetic structure of the word, phonetic changes in the final syllables. In the first place, the morphological classification of OE nouns rested upon the most ancient IE grouping of nouns according to the stem-suffixes. Stem-suffixes could consist of vowels (vocalic stems, e.g. a-stems, i- stems), of consonants (consonantal stems, e.g. n-stems), of sound sequences, e.g. -ja-stems, -nd-stems. Some groups of nouns had no stem-forming suffix or had a “zero-suffix”; they are usually termed “root-stems” and are grouped together with consonantal stems, as their roots ended in consonants, e.g. OE man, bōc (NE man, book). Another reason which accounts for the division of nouns into numerous declensions is their grouping according to gender. OE nouns distinguished three genders: Masc., Fem. and Neut. Sometimes a derivational suffix referred a noun to a certain gender and placed it into a certain semantic group, e.g. abstract nouns built with the help of the suffix –þu were Fem. – OE lenзþu (NE length), nomina agentis with the suffix –ere were Masc. – OE fiscere (NE fisher ‘learned man’). The division into genders was in a certain way connected with the division into stems, though there was no direct correspondence between them: some stems were represented by nouns of one particular gender, e.g. ō-stems were always Fem., others embraced nouns of two or three genders. Other reasons accounting for the division into declensions were structural and phonetic: monosyllabic nouns had certain peculiarities as compared to polysyllabic; monosyllables with a long root-syllable differed in some forms from nouns with a short syllable. The majority of OE nouns belonged to the a-stems, ō-stems and n-stems.

The Pronoun

OE pronouns fell under the same main classes as modern pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative and indefinite. As for the other groups – relative, possessive and reflexive – they were as yet not fully developed and were not always distinctly separated from the four main classes.

Personal pronouns

In OE, while nouns consistently distinguished between four cases, personal pronouns began to lose some of their case distinctions: the forms of the Dat. case of the pronouns of the 1st and 2nd p. were frequently used instead of the Acc. It is important to note that the Gen. case of personal pronouns had two main applications: like other oblique cases of noun-pronouns it could be an object, but far more frequently it was used as an attribute or a noun determiner, like a possessive pronoun, e.g. sunu mīn.

Demonstrative pronouns

There were two demonstrative pronouns in OE: the prototype of NE that, which distinguished three genders in the sg. And had one form for all the genders in the pl. and the prototype of this. They were declined like adjectives according to a five-case system: Nom., Gen., Dat., Acc., and Instr. Demonstrative pronouns were frequently used as noun determiners and through agreement with the noun indicated its number, gender and case.

Other classes of pronouns

Interrogative pronounshwā, Masc. and Fem., and hwæt, Neut., - had a four-case paradigm (NE who, what). The Instr. case of hwæt was used as a separate interrogative word hwў (NE why). Some interrogative pronouns were used as adjective pronouns, e.g. hwelc.

Indefinite pronouns were a numerous class embracing several simple pronouns and a large number of compounds: ān and its derivative ǽniз (NE one, any); nān, made up of ān and the negative particle ne (NE none); nānþinз, made up of the preceding and the noun þinз (NE nothing).

The Adjective

The adjective in OE could change for number, gender and case. Those were dependent grammatical categories or forms of agreement of the adjective with the noun it modified or with the subject of the sentence – if the adjective was a predicative. Like nouns, adjectives had three genders and two numbers. The category of case in adjectives differed from that of nouns: in addition to the four cases of nouns they had one more case, Instr. It was used when the adjective served as an attribute to a noun in the Dat. case expressing an instrumental meaning.

Weak and Strong declension

Most adjectives in OE could be declined in two ways: according to the weak and to the strong declension. The formal differences between declensions, as well as their origin, were similar to those of the noun declensions. The strong and weak declensions arose due to the use of several stem-forming suffixes in PG: vocalic a-, ō-, ū- and i- and consonantal n-. Accordingly, there developed sets of endings of the strong declension mainly coinciding with the endings of a-stems of nouns for adjectives in the Masc. and Neut. and of ō-stems – in the Fem., with some differences between long- and short-stemmed adjectives and some remnants of other stems. Some endings in the strong declension of adjectives have no parallels in the noun paradigms; they are similar to the endings of pronouns: -um for Dat. sg., -ne for Acc. sg Masc., [r] in some Fem. and pl endings. The difference between the strong and weak declension of adjectives was not only formal but also semantic. Unlike a noun, an adjective did not belong to a certain type of declension. Most adjectives could be declined in both ways. The choice of the declension was determined by a number of factors: the syntactical function of the adjective, the degree of comparison and the presence of noun determiners. The adjective had a strong form when used predicatively and when used attributively without any determiners. The weak form was employed when the adjective was preceded by a demonstrative pronoun or the Gen. case of personal pronouns. Some adjectives, however, did not conform with these rules: a few adjectives were always declined strong, e.g. eall, maniз, ōþer (NE all, many, other), while several others were always weak: adjectives in the superlative and comparative degrees, ordinal numerals, the adjective ilca ‘same’.

Degrees of comparison

Most OE adjectives distinguished between three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative and superlative. The regular means used to form the comparative and the superlative from the positive were the suffixes –ra and –est/-ost. Sometimes suffixation was accompanied by an interchange of the root-vowel.


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