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 hypothetical Proto-Germanic reconstruction, retaining many of the inflections thought to have been common in Proto-Indo-European and also including characteristically Germanic constructions such as the umlaut.

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, the Old English inflectional system is similar to that of modern German.

Nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners were fully inflected with five grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), 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.[1] 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 antecedent nouns in case, number and gender. Finite verbs agreed with their subject 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 two weak), 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 (vs. the six "tenses," really tense/aspect combinations, of Latin), and they have no synthetic passive voice although it still existed in Gothic.

The grammatical gender of a given noun does not necessarily correspond to its natural gender, even for nouns referring to people. For example, sēo sunne (the Sun) was feminine, se mōna (the Moon) was masculine, and þæt ƿīf "the woman/wife" was neuter. (Compare modern German die Sonne, der Mond, das Weib.) Pronominal usage could reflect either natural or grammatical gender, when it conflicted.



Verbs in Old English are divided into strong and weak verbs. Strong verbs indicate tense by a change in the quality of a vowel, while weak verbs indicate tense by the addition of an ending.

Strong verbsEdit

Strong verbs use the Germanic form of conjugation known as ablaut. In this form of conjugation, the stem of the word changes to indicate the tense. Verbs like this persist in modern English; for example sing, sang, sung is a strong verb, as are swim, swam, swum and choose, chose, chosen. The root portion of the word changes rather than its ending. In Old English, there were seven major classes of strong verb; each class has 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:

  1. ī + one consonant.
  2. ēo or ū + 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 (g̣ +) 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., ō, ā, ēa, a (+ nC), ea (+ lC/rC), occ. ǣ (the latter with past in ē instead of normal ēo). 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 ēo (occ. ē), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.
Stem changes in strong verbs
Class Root weight Infinitive First preterite Second preterite Past participle
I heavy ī ā i
II ēo or ū ēa u o
III see table below
IV light e(+r/l) æ ǣ o
V e(+other) e
VI a ō a
VII heavy ō, ā, ēa, a (+nC), ea (+rC/lC), occ. ǣ ē or ēo same as infinitive

The first preterite stem is used in the preterite, for the first- and third-person singular. The second preterite 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⟩).

The second sound change to affect it was the influence of palatal sounds ⟨g⟩, ⟨c⟩, and ⟨sc⟩. These turned preceding ⟨e⟩ and ⟨æ⟩ to ⟨ie⟩ and ⟨ea⟩, respectively.

The third sound change turned ⟨e⟩ to ⟨i⟩, ⟨æ⟩ to ⟨a⟩, and ⟨o⟩ to ⟨u⟩ before nasals.

Altogether, this split the third class into five 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. g, c, or sc + ie + two consonants.
  5. i + nasal + another consonant.
Stem changes in Class III
Sub-class Infinitive First preterite Second preterite Past participle
a e æ u o
b eo ea
c e
d ie
e i a u

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.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'steal'
Infinitives stelan
tō stelanne
Present indicative
ic stele
þū stilst
hē/hit/hēo stilð
Plural stelaþ
Past indicative ic/hē/hit/hēo stæl
þū stǣle
Plural stǣlon
Present subjunctive Singular stele
Plural stelen
Past subjunctive Singular stǣle
Plural stǣlen
Imperative Singular stel
Plural stelaþ
Present participle stelende
Past participle (ge)stolen

Weak verbsEdit

Weak verbs are formed by adding alveolar (t or d) endings to the stem for the past and past-participle tenses. Examples include love, loved and look, looked.

Originally, the weak ending was used to form the preterite of informal, noun-derived verbs such as often emerge in conversation and which have no established system of stem-change. By nature, these verbs were almost always transitive, and even today, most weak verbs are transitive verbs formed in the same way. However, as English came into contact with non-Germanic languages, it invariably borrowed useful verbs which lacked established stem-change patterns. Rather than inventing and standardizing new classes or learning foreign conjugations, English speakers simply applied the weak ending to the foreign bases.

The linguistic trends of borrowing foreign verbs and verbalizing nouns have greatly increased the number of weak verbs over the last 1,200 years. Some verbs that were originally strong (for example help, holp, holpen) have become weak by analogy; most foreign verbs are adopted as weak verbs; and when verbs are made from nouns (for example "to scroll" or "to water") the resulting verb is weak. Additionally, conjugation of weak verbs is easier to teach, since there are fewer classes of variation. In combination, these factors have drastically increased the number of weak verbs, so that in modern English weak verbs are the most numerous and productive form, although occasionally a weak verb may turn into a strong verb through the process of analogy, such as sneak (originally only a noun), where snuck is an analogical formation rather than a survival from Old English.

There are three major classes of weak verbs in Old English. The first class displays i-mutation in the root, and the second class none. There is also a third class explained below.

Class-one verbs with short roots exhibit gemination of the final stem consonant in certain forms. With verbs in ⟨r⟩, this appears as ⟨ri⟩ or ⟨rg⟩, where ⟨i⟩ and ⟨g⟩ are pronounced [j]. Geminated ⟨f⟩ appears as ⟨bb⟩, and that of ⟨g⟩ appears as ⟨cg⟩. Class-one verbs may receive an epenthetic vowel before endings beginning in a consonant.

Where class-one verbs have gemination, class-two verbs have ⟨i⟩ or ⟨ig⟩, which is a separate syllable pronounced [i]. All class-two verbs have an epenthetic vowel, which appears as ⟨a⟩ or ⟨o⟩.

In the following table, three verbs are conjugated. Sƿebban "to put to sleep" is a class-one verb exhibiting gemination and an epenthetic vowel. Hǣlan "to heal" is a class-one verb exhibiting neither gemination nor an epenthetic vowel. Sīðian "to journey" is a class-two verb.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'put to sleep' 'heal' 'journey'
Infinitives sƿebban hǣlan sīðian
tō sƿebbanne tō hǣlanne tō sīðianne
Present indicative ic sƿebbe hǣle sīðie
þū sƿefest hǣlst sīðast
hē/hit/hēo sƿefeþ hǣlþ sīðað
Plural sƿebbaþ hǣlaþ sīðiað
Past indicative ic/hē/hit/hēo sƿefede hǣlde sīðode
þū sƿefedest hǣldest sīðodest
Plural sƿefedon hǣldon sīðodon
Present subjunctive Singular sƿebbe hǣle sīðie
Plural sƿebben hǣlen sīðien
Past subjunctive Singular sƿefede hǣlde sīðode
Plural sƿefeden hǣlden sīðoden
Imperative Singular sƿefe hǣl sīða
Plural sƿebbaþ hǣlaþ sīðiað
Present participle sƿefende hǣlende sīðiende
Past participle sƿefed hǣled sīðod

During the Old English period, the third class was significantly reduced; only four verbs belonged to this group: habban 'have', libban 'live', secgan 'say', and hycgan 'think'. Each of these verbs is distinctly irregular, though they share some commonalities.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'have' 'live' 'say' 'think'
Infinitives habban libban, lifgan secgan hycgan
tō hæbbenne tō libbenne tō secgenne tō hycgenne
Present indicative
ic hæbbe libbe, lifge secge hycge
þū hæfst, hafast lifast, leofast segst, sagast hygst, hogast
hē/hit/hēo hæfð, hafað lifað, leofað segð, sagað hyg(e)d, hogað
Plural habbaþ libbað secgaþ hycgað
Past indicative ic/hē/hit/hēo hæfde lifde, leofode sægde hog(o)de, hygde
þū hæfdest lifdest, leofodest sægdest hog(o)dest, hygdest
Plural hæfdon lifdon, leofodon sægdon hog(o)don, hygdon
Present subjunctive Singular hæbbe libbe, lifge secge hycge
Plural hæbben libben, lifgen secgen hycgen
Past subjunctive Singular hæfde lifde, leofode sægde hog(o)de, hygde
Plural hæfden lifde, leofoden sægden hog(o)den, hygden
Imperative Singular hafa leofa sæge, saga hyge, hoga
Plural habbaþ libbaþ, lifgaþ secgaþ hycgaþ
Present participle hæbbende libbende, lifgende secgende hycgende
Past participle gehæfd gelifd gesægd gehogod

Preterite-present verbsEdit

The preterite-present verbs are a class of verbs which have a present tense in the form of a strong preterite and a past tense like the past of a weak verb. These verbs derive from the subjunctive or optative use of preterite forms to refer to present or future time. For example, ƿitan, "to know" comes from a verb which originally meant "to have seen" (cf. OE ƿise "manner, mode, appearance"; Latin videre "to see" from the same root). The present singular is formed from the original singular preterite stem and the present plural from the original plural preterite stem. As a result of this history, the first-person singular and third-person singular are the same in the present.

Few preterite-present verbs appear in the Old English corpus, and the forms marked with an asterisk are unattested reconstructions, formed by analogy.

In spite of heavy irregularities, there are four groups of similarly-conjugated verbs:

  1. Āgan, durran, mōtan, and ƿitan
  2. Cunnan, gemunan (outside the past tense), and unnan
  3. Dugan, magan, and genugan
  4. Sculan and þurfan

Note that the Old English meanings of many of the verbs are significantly different from that of the modern descendants; in fact, the verbs "can, may, must", and to a lesser extent "thurf, durr" appear to have chain shifted in meaning.

Conjugation Pronoun 'know, know how to' 'be able to, can' 'be obliged to, must' 'know' 'own' 'avail' 'dare' 'remember' 'need' 'be allowed to, may' 'grant, allow, wish' 'have use of, enjoy'
Modern descendant can, could may, might shall, should wit, wost (archaic) owe, *aught dow, *dight (archaic) *dure, dare *(i-)mune[clarification needed] thurf, tharf (archaic) mote (archaic), must *ann, ould *(i-)now, (i-)night[clarification needed]
Infinitives cunnan magan sculan ƿitan āgan dugan *durran *ge-munan þurfan *mōtan unnan *ge-/ *benugan
tō cunnenne tō magenne tō sculenne tō ƿitenne tō āgenne tō dugenne tō durrenne tō ge-munenne tō þurfenne tō mōtenne tō unnenne tō ge-/benugenne
Present indicative ic/hē/hit/hēo cann mæg sceal ƿāt āh deah dearr geman þearf mōt ann geneah
þū canst meaht scealt ƿāst āhst *deaht dearst gemanst þearft mōst *anst *geneaht
Plural cunnon magon sculon ƿiton āgon dugon durron gemunon þurfon mōton unnon genugan
Past indicative ic cūðe mihte, meahte sceolde ƿisse, ƿiste āhte dohte dorste gemunde þorfte mōste uðe benohte
hē/hit/hēo mihte
þū cūðest meahtest sceoldest ƿissest, ƿistest āhtest dohtest dorstest gemundest þorftest mōstest uðest benohtest
Plural cūðon meahton sceoldon ƿisson, ƿiston *āhton *dohton *dorston *gemundon *þorfton *mōston uþon *benohton
Present subjunctive Singular cunne mæge scyle ƿite āge duge durre gemune þurfe mōte unne *genuge
Plural cunnen mægen scylen ƿiten *āgen *dugen *durren gemunen *þurfen mōten *unnen *genugen
Past subjunctive Singular cūðe mihte sceolde ƿisse, ƿiste *āhte *dohte *dorste gemunde *þorfte *mōste *uðe *benohte
Plural cūðen mihten sceolden *ƿissen, ƿisten *āhten *dohten *dorsten gemunden *þorften *mōsten *uþen *benohten
Imperative Singular cunne mæge scyle ƿite āge duge durre gemune þurfe mōte unne *genuge
Plural cunnaþ mægaþ scylaþ ƿitaþ āgaþ dugaþ durraþ gemunaþ þurfaþ mōtaþ unnaþ *genugaþ
Present participle cunnende mægende sculende ƿitende *āgende *dugende *durrende *gemunende *þurfende mōtende *unnende *genugende
Past participle cunnen/(ge)cūþ mægen sculen (ge)ƿiten *(ge)āgen *dugen *dorren *munen *þurfen mōten *unnen *nugen

Anomalous verbsEdit

Additionally, there is a further group of four verbs which are anomalous: "want" (modern "will"), "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.

Dōn 'to do' and gān 'to go' are conjugated alike; ƿillan 'to want' is similar outside of the present tense.

Tense/mood Pronoun 'do' 'go' 'will'
Infinitives dōn gān ƿillan
tō dōnne tō gānne tō willanne
Present indicative ic ƿille
þū dēst gǣst ƿilt
hē/hit/hēo dēð gǣð ƿile
Plural dōð gāð ƿillað
Past indicative ic/hē/hit/hēo dyde ēode ƿolde
þū dydest ēodest ƿoldest
Plural dydon ēodon ƿoldon
Present subjunctive Singular ƿille
Plural dōn gān ƿillen
Past subjunctive Singular dyde ēode ƿolde
Plural dyde ēode ƿolde
Imperative Singular ƿille
Plural dōþ gāþ ƿillaþ
Present participle dōnde *gānde ƿillende
Past participle gedōn gegān *geƿillan

The verb 'to be' is actually composed of three different stems:

Tense/mood Pronoun sindon ƿesan bēon
Infinitive sindon ƿesan bēon
Present indicative ic eom ƿese bēo
þū eart ƿesst bist
hē/hit/hēo is ƿes(t) bið
Plural sind(on) ƿesað bēoð
Past indicative ic/hē/hit/hēo ƿǣs
þū ƿǣre
Plural ƿǣron
Present subjunctive Singular sīe ƿese bēo
Plural sīen ƿesen bēon
Past subjunctive Singular ƿǣre
Plural ƿǣren
Imperative Singular ƿes bēo
Plural ƿesað bēoð
Present participle *sindonde ƿesende bēonde
Past participle *gesindon *geƿeson gebēon

The present forms of ƿesan are almost never used. Therefore, ƿesan is used as the past, imperative, and present participle versions of sindon, and does not have a separate meaning. The bēon forms are usually used in reference to future actions. Only the present forms of bēon contrast with the present forms of sindon/ƿesan in that bēon tends to be used to refer to eternal or permanent truths, while sindon/ƿesan is used more commonly to refer to temporary or subjective facts. This semantic distinction (made only during the present tense) was lost as Old English developed into modern English, so that the modern verb 'to be' is a single verb which takes its present indicative forms from sindon, its past indicative forms from ƿesan, its present subjunctive forms from bēon, its past subjunctive forms from ƿesan, and its imperative and participle forms from bēon. (Modern German had an analogous, but even more complicated, development for its verb sein.) In late OE and ME, the form earon/earun, from the Old Norse erun, replaced bēoþ and sind (See also List of English words of Old Norse origin).


Old English is an inflected language, and as such its nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners must be declined in order to serve a grammatical function. A set of declined forms of the same word pattern is called a declension. As in several other ancient Germanic languages, there are five major cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and instrumental.

  • The nominative case indicated the subject of the sentence, for example: se cyning means 'the king'. It was also used for direct address. Adjectives in the predicate (qualifying a noun on the other side of 'to be') were also in the nominative.
  • The accusative case indicated the direct object of the sentence, for example: Æþelbald lufode þone cyning means "Æþelbald loved the king", where Æþelbald is the subject and the king is the object. Already the accusative had begun to merge with the nominative; it was never distinguished in the plural, or in a neuter noun.
  • The genitive case indicated possession, for example: the þæs cyninges scip is "the ship of the king" or "the king's ship". It also indicated partitive nouns.
  • The dative case indicated the indirect object of the sentence; To whom or for whom the object was meant. For example: hringas þæm cyninge means "rings for the king" or "rings to the king". Here, the word cyning is in its dative form: cyninge. There were also several verbs that took direct objects in the dative.
  • The instrumental case indicated an instrument used to achieve something, for example: lifde sƿeorde, "he lived by the sword", where sƿeorde is the instrumental form of sƿeord. 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.

The small body of evidence available for Runic texts suggests that there may also have been a separate locative case in early or Northumbrian forms of the language (e.g., ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁ on rodi "on the Cross").[2]

In addition to inflection for case, nouns take different endings depending on whether the noun was in the singular (for example, hring "one ring"') or plural (for example, hringas "many rings"). Also, some nouns pluralize by way of Umlaut, and some undergo no pluralizing change in certain cases.

Nouns are also categorized by grammatical gender – masculine, feminine, or neuter. In general, masculine and neuter words share their endings, while feminine words have their own subset of endings. The plural of some declension types distinguishes between genders, e.g., a-stem masculine nominative plural stanas "stones" vs. neuter nominative plural scipu "ships" and word "words"; or i-stem masculine nominative plural sige(as) "victories" vs. neuter nominative plural sifu "sieves" and hilt "hilts".

Furthermore, Old English nouns are divided as either strong or weak. Weak nouns have their own endings. In general, weak nouns are less complex than strong nouns, since they had begun to lose their system of declension. However, the various noun classes are not totally distinct from one another, and there is a great deal of overlap between them.

Descriptions of Old English language grammars often follow the NOM-ACC-GEN-DAT-INST case order.

Strong nounsEdit

Here are the strong declensional endings and examples for each gender:

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative -as -u/– -u/– -a
Accusative -e -a/-e
Genitive -es -a -es -a -a
Dative -e -um -e -um -um

For the '-u/–' forms above, the '-u' is used with a root consisting of a single short syllable or ending in a long syllable followed by a short syllable, while roots ending in a long syllable or two short syllables are not inflected. (A long syllable contains a long vowel or is followed by two consonants. Note also that there are some exceptions; for example, feminine nouns ending in -þu such as strengþu 'strength'.)

Example of the strong noun declension for each gender
Case Masculine
engel 'angel'
scip 'ship'
sorg 'sorrow'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative engel englas scip scipu sorg sorga
Accusative sorge sorga/sorge
Genitive engles engla scipes scipa sorga
Dative engle englum scipe scipum sorgum

Note the syncope of the second e in engel when an ending follows. This syncope of the vowel in the second syllable occurs with two-syllable strong nouns, which have a long vowel in the first syllable and a second syllable consisting of a short vowel and single consonant (for example, engel, ƿuldor 'glory', and hēafod 'head'). However, this syncope is not always present, so forms such as engelas may be seen.

Weak nounsEdit

Here are the weak declensional endings and examples for each gender:

Case Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -a -e -an
Accusative -an -e
Genitive -an -ena
Dative -an -um
Example of the weak noun declension for each gender
Case Masculine
nama 'name'
ēage 'eye'
tunge 'tongue'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative nama naman ēage ēagan tunge tungan
Accusative naman tungan
Genitive naman namena ēagan ēagena tungan tungena
Dative namum ēagum tungum

Irregular strong nounsEdit

In addition, masculine and neuter nouns whose main vowel is short æ and end with a single consonant change the vowel to a in the plural (a result of the phonological phenomenon known as Anglo-Frisian brightening):

Example: dæg 'day' (masculine)
Case Singular Plural
Nominative dæg dagas
Genitive dæges daga
Dative dæge dagum

Some masculine and neuter nouns end in -e in their base form. These drop the -e and add normal endings. Note that neuter nouns in -e always have -u in the plural, even with a long vowel:

Example of the strong noun declensions ending in -e
Case Masculine
ende 'end'
stȳle 'steel'
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative ende endas stȳle stȳlu
Genitive endes enda stȳles stȳla
Dative ende endum stȳle stȳlum

Nouns ending in -h lose this when an ending is added, and lengthen the vowel in compensation (this can result in compression of the ending as well):

Example of the strong noun declensions ending in -h
Case Masculine
mearh 'horse'
feorh 'life'
scōh 'shoe'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative mearh mēaras feorh scōh scōs
Genitive mēares mēara fēores fēora scōs scōna
Dative mēare mēarum fēore fēorum scō scōm

Nouns whose stem ends in -ƿ change this to -u or drop it in the nominative singular. (Note that this '-u/–' distinction depends on syllable weight, as for strong nouns, above.)

Example of the strong noun declensions ending in -ƿ
Case Neuter
smeoru 'grease'
sinu 'sinew'
lǣs 'pasture'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative smeoru sinu sinƿa lǣs lǣsƿa
Accusative sinƿe sinƿa, -e lǣsƿe lǣsƿa, -e
Genitive smeorƿes smeorƿa sinƿa lǣsƿa
Dative smeorƿe smeorƿum sinƿum lǣsƿum

A few nouns follow the -u declension, with an entirely different set of endings. The following examples are both masculine, although feminines also exist, with the same endings (for example duru 'door' and hand 'hand'). Note that the '-u/–' distinction in the singular depends on syllable weight, as for strong nouns, above.

Example of the -u declension
Case Masculine
sunu 'son'
feld 'field'
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative sunu suna feld felda
Genitive suna felda
Dative suna sunum felda feldum

Mutating strong nounsEdit

There are also some nouns of the consonant declension, which show i-umlaut in some forms.

Example of the strong noun declensions with i-shift
Case Masculine
fōt 'foot'
hnutu 'nut'
bōc 'book'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative fōt fēt hnutu hnyte bōc bēc
Genitive fōtes fōta hnyte, hnute hnuta bēc, bōce bōca
Dative fēt, fōte fōtum hnutum bēc, bōc bōcum

Other such nouns include (with singular and plural nominative forms given):

Masculine: tōþ, tēþ 'tooth'; mann, menn 'man'; frēond, frīend 'friend'; fēond, fīend 'enemy' (cf. 'fiend')

Feminine: studu, styde 'post' (cf. 'stud'); hnitu, hnite 'nit'; āc, ǣc 'oak'; gāt, gǣt 'goat'; brōc, brēc 'leg covering' (cf. 'breeches'); gōs, gēs 'goose'; burg, byrg 'city' (cf. 'borough', '-bury' and German cities in -burg); dung, dyng 'prison' (cf. 'dungeon' by way of French and Frankish); turf, tyrf 'turf'; grūt, grȳt 'meal' (cf. 'grout'); lūs, lȳs 'louse'; mūs, mȳs 'mouse'; neaht, niht 'night' Feminine with loss of -h in some forms: furh, fyrh 'furrow' or 'fir'; sulh, sylh 'plough'; þrūh, þrȳh 'trough'; ƿlōh, ƿlēh 'fringe'. Feminine with compression of endings: , 'cow' (cf. dialectal plural 'kine')

Neuter: In addition, scrūd 'clothing, garment' has the umlauted dative-singular form scrȳd.

Nouns of relationshipEdit

Nouns of relationship
Case Masculine
fæder 'father'
brōðor 'brother'
mōdor 'mother'
sƿeostor 'sister'
dohtor 'daughter'
Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative fæder fæd(e)ras brōðor (ge)brōðor mōdor mōdra/mōdru sƿeostor (ge)sƿeostor, -tru, -tra dohtor
Genitive fæd(e)ra (ge)brōðra mōdra (ge)sƿeostra dohtor dohtra
Dative fæderum brēðer (ge)brōðrum mēder mōdrum (ge)sƿeostrum dehter dohtrum

Neuter nouns with -r- in the pluralEdit

Example: lamb 'lamb' (neuter)
Case Singular Plural
Nominative-Accusative lamb lambru
Genitive lambes lambra
Dative lambe lambrum

Other such nouns: ǣg, ǣgru egg (ancestor of the archaic or dialectal form ey, plural eyren; the form egg is a borrowing from Old Norse); bread, breadru 'crumb'; cealf, cealfru 'calf'; cild 'child' has either the normal plural cild or cildru (cf. 'children', with -en from the weak nouns); hǣmed, hǣmedru 'cohabitation'; speld, speldru 'torch'.


Adjectives in Old English are declined using the same categories as nouns: five cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), and two numbers (singular, plural). In addition, they can be declined either strong or weak. The weak forms are used in the presence of a definite or possessive determiner, while the strong ones are used in other situations. The weak forms are identical to those for nouns, while the strong forms use a combination of noun and pronoun endings:

The strong adjective declension
Case Singular Plural
Feminine Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine
Nominative -u/– -u/– -e, -a -e
Accusative -e -ne
Genitive -re -es -ra
Dative -um
Instrumental -e -um

For the '-u/–' forms above, the distinction is the same as for strong nouns.

Example of the strong adjective declension: gōd 'good'

Case Singular Plural
Feminine Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine
Nominative gōd gōde, -a gōde
Accusative gōde gōdne gōd
Genitive gōdre gōdes gōdra
Dative gōdum
Instrumental gōde gōdum
Example of the weak adjective declension: gōd 'good'
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative gōda gōde gōdan
Accusative gōdan gōde
Genitive gōdan gōdena
Dative gōdum

Note that the same variants described above for nouns also exist for adjectives. The following example shows both the æ/a variation and the -u forms in the feminine singular and neuter plural:

Example of the strong adjective declension: glæd 'glad'
Case Singular Plural
Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine
Nominative gladu glæd glæd glade, -a gladu glade
Accusative glade glædne
Genitive glædre glades glædra
Dative gladum
Instrumental glade gladum

The following shows an example of an adjective ending with -h:

Example of the strong adjective declension: hēah 'high'
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative hēah hēa
Accusative hēane hēah
Genitive hēas hēare hēara
Dative hēam hēam
Instrumental hēa

The following shows an example of an adjective ending with -ƿ:

Example of the strong adjective declension: gearu 'ready'
Case Singular Plural
Feminine Masculine Neuter Masculine-Feminine
Nominative gearu gearƿe
Accusative gearƿe gearone gearu
Genitive gearore gearƿes gearora
Dative gearƿum
Instrumental gearƿe gearƿum

Definite articles and demonstrativesEdit

Old English had two main determiners: se, which could function as both 'the' or 'that', and þes for 'this'.

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

Modern English 'that' descends from the neuter nominative/accusative form,[3] and 'the' from the masculine nominative form, with 's' replaced analogously by the 'th' of the other forms.[4] The feminine nominative form was possibly the source of Modern English 'she'.[5]

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative þes þis þēos þās
Accusative þisne þās
Genitive þisses þisse, þisre þisra
Dative þissum þissum
Instrumental þȳs *þīes *þīos


Most pronouns are declined by number, case and gender; in the plural form most pronouns have only one form for all genders. Additionally, Old English pronouns preserve the dual form (which is specifically for talking about groups of two things, for example "we two" or "you two" or "they two"). These were uncommon even then, but remained in use throughout the period.

First person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative ic, īc ƿē ƿit
Accusative mec, mē ūsic, ūs uncit, unc
Genitive mīn ūre uncer
Dative ūs unc
Second person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þū git
Accusative þec, þē ēoƿic, ēoƿ incit, inc
Genitive þīn ēoƿer incer
Dative þē ēoƿ inc
Third person
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine Feminine
Nominative hit hēo hīe hēo
Accusative hine hīe hīo
Genitive his hire hiera heora
Dative him him

Many of the forms above bear strong resemblances to their contemporary English language equivalents: for instance in the genitive case ēoƿer became "your", ūre became "our", mīn became "mine". Some forms do not match their modern equivalents due to dissimilation. The feminine nominative hēo was at some point replaced with the feminine nominative article sēo, yielding "she"; whereas the h in plural forms such as hīe was replaced with þ under Norse influence as it evolved (a slower development that was not complete until well into the Middle English period), yielding "they, them, their".


Prepositions (like Modern English words by, for, and with) often follow the word which they govern, in which case they are called postpositions. Also, if the object of a preposition was marked in the dative case, a preposition may conceivably be located anywhere in the sentence.[citation needed]

The following is a list of prepositions in the Old English language. Many of them, particularly those marked "etc.", are found in other variant spellings. Prepositions may govern the accusative, genitive, dative or instrumental cases.

Old English Definition Notes
æfter after; along, through, during; according to, by means of; about Ancestor of modern after; related to Dutch achter = behind, after
ǣr before Related to modern German ehe and Dutch (vooral)eer, ancestor of modern ere
æt at, to, before, next, with, in, for, against; unto, as far as Ancestor of modern at
and against, before, on Related to Dutch aan (e.g. tegenaan)
andlang along Ancestor of modern along, related to modern German entlang
beæftan after, behind; without Ancestor of modern (nautical) abaft
be, bī by, near to, to, at, in, on, upon, about, with; of, from, about, touching, concerning; for, because of, after, by, through, according to; beside, out of Related to modern German bei, ancestor of modern by
befōran before Ancestor of modern before, related to modern German bevor
begeondan beyond Ancestor of modern beyond
behindan behind Ancestor of modern behind, related to modern German hinter
beinnan in, within Related to modern German and Dutch binnen
beneoðan beneath Ancestor of modern beneath, cf. Dutch beneden
betƿeonum, betƿeox, etc. betwixt, between, among, amid, in the midst. Ancestors of modern between and betwixt respectively
bīrihte near
būfan above Ancestor of modern above through compound form onbúfan
būtan out of, against; without, except Related to modern Dutch buiten
eāc with, in addition to, besides Related to modern German auch and Dutch ook, ancestor of modern (archaic) eke
for for, on account of, because of, with, by; according to; instead of. Ancestor of modern for, related to modern German für
fōr, fōre before Related to modern German vor, bevor and Dutch voor
fram from; concerning, about, of Ancestor of modern from
gemang among Ancestor of modern among
geond through, throughout, over, as far as, among, in, after, beyond Ancestor of modern yonder through comparative form geondra. Related to Dutch ginds and (archaic) ginder
in in, on; into, to Ancestor of modern in, related to German and Latin in
innan in, into, within, from within Related to modern German innen
intō into Ancestor of modern into
mid with, against Ancestor of modern amid through related form onmiddan (cf. Dutch onmiddellijk), related to modern German mit
neāh near Ancestor of modern nigh. Dutch naar (via nader), German nah(e)
nefne except
of of, from, out of, off Ancestor of modern of and off
ofer above, over; upon, on; throughout; beyond, more than Ancestor of modern over
on on; in, at Ancestor of modern on
onbūtan about Ancestor of modern about
ongeagn, etc. opposite, against; towards; in reply to Ancestor of modern again. Related to German entgegen
onuppan upon, on
to, unto, up to, as far as Related to Dutch and Frisian op and to modern German auf
samod with, at Related to modern German samt, mitsamt
to, at Ancestor of modern to, related to modern German zu
tōeācan in addition to, besides
tōforan before Related to Dutch tevoren, German zuvor
tōgeagnes towards, against Related to Dutch tegen
tōmiddes in the midst of, amidst Related to Dutch temidden
tōƿeard toward Ancestor of modern toward
þurh through Related to modern German durch, ancestor of modern through
ufenan above, besides
under under Ancestor of modern under, related to modern German unter
underneoþan underneath Ancestor of modern underneath
uppan upon, on Not the ancestor of modern upon, which came from "up on".
ūtan without, outside of Related to modern Swedish utan, Dutch uit and German außen, außer. The adverbial form ūt is the ancestor of modern out.
ƿið towards, to; with, against; opposite to; by, near Ancestor of modern with
ƿiðæftan behind
ƿiðer against Related to modern German wider
ƿiðinnan within Ancestor of modern within
ƿiðforan before
ƿiðūtan without, outside of Ancestor of modern without
ymb, ymbe about, by Related to modern German um and Latin ambi
ymbūtan about, around; concerning


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., þā X, þā Y instead of "When X, Y").

Word orderEdit

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 Beoƿulf line 708 ƿrāþum on andan:

ƿrāþum on andan
hostile (Dative Singular) on/with malice (Dative Singular)
"with hostile malice"

Something similar occurs in line 713 in sele þām hēan "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 Cyneƿulf and Cyneheard, which begins

Hēr Cyneƿulf benam Sigebryht his rīces ond Ƿestseaxna ƿiotan for unryhtum dǣdum, būton Hamtūnscīre; ...
(Literally) "Here Cyneƿulf deprived Sigebryht of his kingdom and West Saxons' counselors for unright deeds, except Hampshire"
(translated) "Here Cyneƿulf and the West Saxon counselors deprived Sigebryht of his kingdom, other than Hampshire, for unjust actions"

Note how the words ond Ƿestseaxna ƿiotan "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 rīces "of kingdom" (nominative rīce, "kingdom"), whereas ƿiotan "counselors" is in the nominative case and therefore serves a different role entirely (the genitive of it would be ƿiotana, "of counselors"); for this reason the interpretation that Cyneƿulf deprived Sigebryht of the West Saxon counselors was not possible for speakers of Old English. Note that the Old English sentence still isn't in theory perfectly unambiguous, as it contains one more word in the genitive: Ƿestseaxna ("of West Saxons", nominative Ƿestseaxan "West Saxons"), and the form ƿiotan "counselors" may also represent the accusative case in addition to the nominative, thus for example creating the grammatical possibility of the interpretation that Cyneƿulf 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 Beoƿulf, 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 þā, 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.


Because of its similarity with Old Norse, it is believed that 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 clausesEdit

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, sēo, þat
  3. The combination of the two, as in se þe

Preposition-fronting ("The man with whom I spoke") did not normally occur.

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

Þā ic hām ēode, þā slēp 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 þā ... þā ..., other correlative conjunctions occurred, often in pairs of identical words, e.g.:

  • þǣr X, þǣr Y: "Where X, Y"
  • þanon X, þanon Y: "Whence (from where/wherefrom) X, Y"
  • þider X, þider Y: "Whither (to where/whereto) X, Y"
  • þēah (þe) X, þēah 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"
  • þȳ X, þȳ 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 alsoEdit


  1. ^ Peter S. Baker (2003). "Pronouns". The Electronic Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. Archived from the original on September 11, 2015. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  2. ^ Page, An Introduction to English Runes, Boydell 1999, p. 230
  3. ^ "That". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
  4. ^ "The". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.
  5. ^ "She". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 28 June 2010.


Further readingEdit

  • 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.