Old English was a
moderately inflected language,
using an extensive case system similar to that of modern German.
Middle and Modern English lost progressively more of the Old English
inflectional system. The English possessive indicator 's (as in
"Jane's book") is a remnant of the Old English genitive
Case is the inflection of
nouns, pronouns and adjectives to signal their functions in sentences
distinctions such as king/king's, I/me/my, he/him/his and we/us/our
have descended to us directly from Old English, though over the
centuries the number of distinct case forms, and even the number of
cases, has declined. Old English had four: nominative, accusative,
The subject of any sentence or clause will be in the nominative case.
The complement is always in the nominative.
Sēo sunne is swīðe
brād. [The sun is very broad]
In this sentence both
sunne (the subject) and brād (the complement) are in the nominative
Ġeseoh ðū, cyning, hwelċ ðēos lār sīe. [See, king, what kind
of teaching this is]
In this sentence
cyning 'king' is nominative.
Direct objects of
transitive verbs are usually in the accusative case.
His āgen swustor bebyrġde
his līċ. [His own sister buried his corpse]
Thus in this sentence līċ
'corpse' is accusative.
Most genitives fall
into one of three categories:
ðæs cyninges sweord [the king's sword]
The partitive genitive represents the whole collection of things to
which a particular thing or subset of things belongs. ealra cyninga
betst [best of all kings]
This genitive attributes a quality to a thing. ðæt lamb sceal bēon
hwītes hīwes. [the lamb must be of a white color]
In all of the
Germanic languages the dative case is an amalgam of several older
cases that have fallen together: dative, locative, ablative, and
instrumental. Old English retains traces of the instrumental case,
but for the most part that too has fallen together with the dative.
The objects of
(æfter, æt, be, fram, mid, of, tō) are usually or always in the
dative case. But the dative can be used without prepositions:
Indirect object: Ġif him his sweord [Give him his sword] Benam hē
him his bisceopscīre [He took his bishopric away from him]
Some verbs have their direct objects in the dative case. him hīerde
Him wæs ġeōmor sefa [Theirs was a sad mind (i.e. Their minds were
ġē bēoð ðonne enġlum gelīċe [and you will then be like the
for ðan iċ hine
sweorde swebban nelle [therefore I will not kill him with a sword]
scealt yfelum dēaðe sweltan [you must die by a wretched death]
case indicated an instrument used to
achieve something, for example lifde
sweorde, "he lived by the sword",
is the instrumental form of sweord.
During the Old English period, the instrumental was falling out of
use, having largely merged with the dative. Only pronouns and strong
adjectives retained separate forms for the instrumental.