Learn Old English

old english

A Quick Note On The Alphabet Before You Begin

Old English letters are usually pronounced the same way we pronounce them in modern English, however, below you will find the three Old English letters no longer used in modern English. To hear their pronunciation, select their IPA symbol.

Old English Letters
Letter Name Pronunciation IPA 
Ð / ð Eth TH (as in this)
Þ / þ Thorn TH (as in thick)
Æ / æ Ash A (as in cat)

Old English has no silent letters, so you should pronounce every letter in a word. Remember, when in doubt, pronounce the word like you would in modern English. So long as you remember to pronounce every letter, how we pronounce the word in modern English is usually a good guide on how to pronounce in Old English.

Introduction to Old English Cases – Learn Old English

In modern English, word order is generally what determines the role of a word in a sentence. Modern English word order generally follows the pattern: subject, verb, object.

The dog
Subject
bites
Verb
the man
Direct Object
The man
Subject
bites
Verb
the dog
Direct Object

For example, in ‘the dog bites the man’, the dog is the subject (what is performing the action); bites is the verb (the action); and the man is the direct object (the object being acted upon). If you reverse the order of the words, the man bites the dog, the meaning of the sentence changes. This is not strictly true for Old English.

Old English is an inflected language. What this means is that the endings of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives change depending on their grammatical function, or case. How a word declines also depends on its number; its grammatical gender; and its grammatical strength. Grammatical gender and strength are not related to the meaning of the word and will be explored in more detail in later modules.

There are four major cases:
The Nominative Case indicates the subject of the sentence.
The Accusative Case indicates the direct object of a sentence.
The Genitive Case indicates possession.
The Dative Case indicates the indirect object of a sentence.

You can see case systems in many modern languages such as Icelandic, Russian or German, though modern English has mostly lost its inflectional case system. Using strong masculine nouns, let’s look at how Old English cases work in more detail.

Nominative and Genitive Strong Nouns

The terms nominative and genitive refer to the grammatical role or ‘case’ of a noun. The nominative is used for the subject of a sentence and the genitive is used to denote possession or a specific relationship. In þæs cyninges þegen – The King’s thane, the thane is the subject, and he ‘belongs’ to the king, so þegen is in the nominative and cyninges is in the genitive.

þæs cyninges
Genitive
þegen
Nominative

The ending a noun takes is not just determined by its role in a sentence, but also its number. For example, in þæs cyninges biscopas – the king’s bishopsbiscop has an ‘as’ ending, which is different to þegen above. This is because þegen is singular while biscopas is plural.

þæs cyninges
Genitive
biscopas
Nominative

The genitive case also has a plural form, as can be seen in þara cyninga biscopas — the kings’ bishops. In this sentence there are multiple bishops belonging to multiple kings so the endings of cyning changes to cyninga.

þara cyninga
Genitive
biscopas
Nominative

In many ways, Old English can be quite similar to modern English. The singular form of the nominative is the ‘plain’ form of the word, and is what you will use to look up words in dictionaries. The nominative form of strong masculine nouns such as cyningbiscopþegen and stan all add ‘as’ to become plural, much like how (s) is added to the end of most nouns to make them plural in modern English. Similarly, the singular genitive is made by adding ‘es’, much like how (‘s) is added in English. The plural genitive is the one that differs the most, as in modern English we’d write it as (kings’), adding an apostrophe after the s, while Old English simply adds the suffix ‘a’.

This can best be visualised by use of a table or paradigm like the one below. Select biscopþegen, or stan (‘stone’) to see their declensions.

Strong Masculine Nouns
Singular Plural
Nominative se cyning þa cyningas
Genitive þæs cyninges þara cyninga

You now know the basics of the nominative and genitive cases. The next thing to do is practice what you have learned. Feel free to use the table to help you with the first batch of questions. You can hide the table at any point by clicking the orange ‘Hide Table’ button. Otherwise you can continue on to the next topic.

 Return to Introduction to CasesContinue to Acc and Dat Strong Masc Nouns 


Test Your Declensions

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

Ða þegnas ond se (cyning)  comon fram þæm beorgum — The thanes and the king came from the mountains
He cyste þæs (biscop sweartne stan — He kissed the bishop’s black stone
Giet wæs se (cyning Ælfred geong⁠ — Yet the king Alfred was young
Se (þegen ond þa biscopas comon fram Readingum — The thane and the bishops came from Reading
Ðara (biscop preostas ferdon to þæm halige stede mid him — The bishops’ priests went to the holy place with them

Accusative and Dative Strong Masculine Nouns

A verb is a word used to describe an action or a state, and a verb which acts upon something is a transitive verb. For example, in the sentence ‘The king throws the spear’, the subject is ‘The king’, the verb is ‘throws’ and the direct object is ‘the spear’. Similarly, in the sentence ‘The king goes to Reading’, the subject is ‘the king’, the verb is ‘goes’ and the indirect object is ‘Reading’.

direct object is a noun that is directly acted upon by a verb, while an indirect object identifies ‘to’ or ‘for’ what the action of the verb is performed, as well as who/what is receiving the direct object. In Old English, whether a noun is a direct or indirect object affects which case it takes, with direct objects taking the accusative case and indirect objects taking the dative case.

 

Ðæs cyninges
Genitive
þegen
Nominative
sloh
Verb
þone biscop
Accusative
on
Prep.
Readingum
Dative

So, in the above sentence, ‘the king’s thane slew the bishop in Reading’, the bishop is directly receiving the action of the verb while Reading is not directly receiving the action. An easy way to identify the dative case is the use of prepositions.

A preposition is a word that indicates the location of a noun, for example ‘to’, ‘in’, ‘from’, or a relationship between a noun and pronoun, such as ‘about’, ‘instead of’, or ‘after’. In the graphics on this page, the preposition is coloured white.

Ðæs cyninges
Genitive
þegnas
Nominative
ferþ
Verb
to
Prep.
Readingum
Dative

As can be seen in the above sentence, ‘the king’s thanes go to Reading’, what ending a noun takes is determined not just by its role in a sentence, but also its number. Compare the singular þegen in the first graphic with the plural þegnas in the second.

Strong Masculine Nouns
Singular Plural
Accusative þone cyning þa cyningas
Dative þæm cyninge þæm cyningum

You now know the basics of the accusative and dative cases. The next thing to do is practice what you have learned. Feel free to use the table to help you with the first batch of questions. You can hide the table at any point by clicking the orange ‘Hide Table’ button. Otherwise you can continue on to the next topic.

 Return to Nom and Gen Strong Masc NounsContinue to Demonstratives 


Test Your Declensions

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

On þis daege, Æðelred cyning ferde to þæm (tun mid his broðrum — On this day, King Ethelred went to the town with his brothers
Se biscop ferde fram þæm (þegen to þæm cyninge — The bishop went from the thane to the king
Se biscop ferþ to þæm haligan (stede ⁠ — The bishop goes to the holy place
Hie þreowon þa (gar to þæm wicingum⁠ — They threw the spears at the vikings
Ða biscopas geafon þone (stan to þæm þegne — The bishops gave the stone to the thane

Nominative and Genitive Demonstrative Pronouns

You may have noticed that in the paradigm table for strong masculine nouns that the nouns were preceded by seþaþoneþaraþæs and þæm. These are demonstratives and function in the same way as the definite article ‘the’ or the demonstrative pronouns ‘that’ and ‘those’.

Strong Masculine Demonstratives
Singular Plural
Nominative se þa
Accusative þone þa
Genitive þæs þara
Dative þæm þæm

A noun and all its modifiers, including demonstrative pronouns, always share the same case, gender and number. This is called case harmony and means that demonstratives are a good way of figuring out the case a noun is in.

se cyning
Singular Nominative
þa cyningas
Plural Nominative
þone cyning
Singular Accusative
þa cyningas
Plural Accusative
þæs cyninges
Singular Genitive
þara cyninga
Plural Genitive
þæm cyninge   
Singular Dative
þæm cyningum
Plural Dative

Old English does not generally have an indefinite article (what would be the modern English ‘a’ or ‘an’), though sum — some and an — one, occasionally function in this role.

 Return to Acc and Dat Strong Masc NounsContinue to Strong Masc Nouns and Cases Overview 


Test Your Declensions

In the textboxes below, enter the demonstrative pronoun you believe goes with the noun.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

He cwæð þæt he bude on  landum norþweardum wiþ þa Westsæ⁠ — He said that he lived in the lands northward along the west sea
On þissum geare sende he þone ealdan biscop Wulfstan to  stede þe wæs genemened Readingum – On this year he sent the old Bishop Wulfstan to the place that was called Reading
Se biscop grete  cyning — The abbot greets the king
Se þegen sloh  biscop in þæm tune þe wæs genemned Stanford — The thane slew the bishop in the town called Stamford
Se cyning ferþ to  tune — The king goes to the town

Cases and Strong Masculine Nouns Overview

To recap what we have covered in the previous topics, Old English is an inflected language and so uses a case system similar to that of modern Icelandic, Russian or German. This means the ending of nouns, adjectives and demonstratives change to indicate the grammatical function of the word. For example, whether it is the subject, the direct objectindirect object, or a possessive.

There are four main Old English cases: the nominative, accusative, genitive and dative.

Nominative and Accusative

The nominative is used for the subject of a sentence. A subject is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something. The accusative is used for a direct object, that is the person or thing which is the direct recipient of the action of the verb. A verb which is directly acting on an object is known as a transitive verb.

Se cyning
Nominative
grete
Verb
þone biscop
Accusative

In Old English, nouns in the nominative and accusative cases are often declined in the same way. If it isn’t clear from context, the best way of telling the singular nominative and accusative masculine nouns apart is by checking for the demonstrative ‘se’ (nominative) or ‘þone’ (accusative). For example, in the below sentence, even though the word order does not match the word order of the above sentence, and there are no identifiable endings, you can see which is the subject and the direct object by using the demonstratives.

Þone biscop
Accusative
grete
Verb
se cyning
Nominative

The plural versions of the nominative and accusative are always the same, both in how they decline and in the demonstratives they use.

 

Nominative and Accusative Strong Masculine Nouns
Singular Plural
Nominative se cyning þa cyningas
Accusative þone cyning þa cyningas

Genitive

The genitive is the case of possession and signifies a specific relationship between two words. It can be used both subjectively — the king’s thane saw the stone — and objectively — He is king of kings.

Þæs cyninges
Genitive
þegen
Nominative
seah
Verb
þone stan
Accusative
He
Nominative
is
Verb
þara cyninga
Genitive
cyning
Accusative

An easy way to tell if something should be in the genitive is to see if you can place ‘of’ in the sentence. So ‘þa cyninges bearnas’ could be translated as ‘the king’s children’ or ‘the children of the king’. Similarly, ‘Sanctes Eadmundes mæssedæg’ could be translated as ‘Saint Edmund’s Day’ or ‘The day of Saint Edmund’. Note that Edmund doesn’t really ‘possess’ his mass day: the genitive is indicating the close association.

The genitive is also used when referencing a part of a whole, for example ‘ælc þara manna – each of the men’. You will generally encounter the partitive genitive with most expressions of number, quantity or partition. For example: fela manna – many mentwelf mila lang – twelve miles long.

Genitive Strong Masculine Nouns
Singular Plural
Genitive þæs cyninges þara cyninga

Dative

The dative is the case of the indirect object. An indirect object is a word which is not the direct recipient of an action, but is still affected by the verb.

Se cyning
Nominative
geaf
Verb
þa beagas
Accusative
to
Prep.
his
Genitive
þegne
Dative

In the above sentence, beagas – rings are what is being directly acted upon as they are what are being given, so they are in the accusative. However, they are being given to the thane, so he is still affected by the verb indirectly, meaning þegen belongs in the dative case.

The Dative is a versatile case and can apply in many situations. An easy way to figure out if something is in the dative is to check for the demonstrative þæm, or to check for a preposition such as ‘to’ or ‘fram’.

Se cyning
Nominative
com
Verb
fram
Prep.
Æcesdune
Dative
on
Prep.
West-Seaxe
Dative
Dative Strong Masculine Nouns
Singular Plural
Dative þæm cyninge þæm cyningum

It is important to understand how cases work, and to be able to identify which case a word is in, so as to understand the meaning of a sentence. While Old English often follows the subject verb object order of modern English syntax, there can often be exceptions, especially in poetry.

The differing word order does not affect meaning, but word order can be used to change emphasis. That being said, in Old English the subject does generally come first, or at least very early in the sentence, the same way it does in modern English.

There are some common differences in word order which should be watched out for. For example, possessives often come after the noun they modify, especially in direct address:

Old EnglishFæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum
Direct transFather ours you who are in heaven
Modern EngOur Father who art in heaven

Always remember that Old English has case harmony, so even if a word comes slightly earlier or later in a sentence than you might expect, it can generally be paired to the correct noun by comparing the case endings.

Strong Masculine Noun
Singular Plural
Nominative se cyning þa cyningas
Accusative þone cyning þa cyningas
Genitive þæs cyninges þara cyninga
Dative þæm cyninge þæm cyningum

You can download a pdf of this module using the link below. The pdfs also contain a glossary of all nouns and verbs used in the module, as well as additional paradigms. Otherwise, feel free to continue on to the next module.

 Return to DemonstrativesDownload a PDF of this moduleContinue to Weak Verbs 

Test Your Declensions

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

Se cyning sloh þa (þegen — The king slew the thanes
Se (biscop com fram þæm tune — The bishop came from the town
Giet wæs se (cyning Ælfred geong⁠ — The king Alfred was still young
Se cyning ferþ to þæm (beorg — The king goes to the mountains

Ða (cyning ond þa biscopas wæron on Æscesdune — The kings and the bishops were in Ashdown

ntroduction to Weak Verbs

There are two main types of verbs in Old English: Strong verbs, and Weak verbs. Verbs must agree with their subject, but do not decline the way nouns do as they are not affected by case. They instead follow regular patterns called conjugation, and are inflected for personnumbertense and mood. For now, we will only be concerned with the indicative mood.

There are only two tenses in Old English, present and past, and grammatical strength is related to how verbs change to form the past tense.

Strong verbs form their preterite by means of a change in the stem-vowel. For example, in modern English, sing becomes sang and run becomes ran because these are descended from strong verbs.

Weak verbs, on the other hand, form their preterite by adding -de in the singular and -don in the plural. This is illustrated below using the verb lufian – to love. Modern English verbs which form their preterite using -ed, like paintedwaitedneeded, are descended from these weak verbs.

Ic
Personal
Pronoun
lufie
Present
Tense
þe
Direct
Object
Hie
Personal
Pronoun
lufiaþ
Present
Tense
þe
Direct
Object
Ic
Personal
Pronoun
lufode
Past
Tense
þe
Direct
Object
Hie
Personal
Pronoun
lufodon
Past
Tense
þe
Direct
Object

There are three classes of weak verbs, and which class a verb is in depends on the ending of its infinitive:

Class I weak verbs have an infinitive ending in -an or -rian.
Class II weak verbs have an infinitive ending in -ian (except -rian, which is Class I).
Class III weak verbs are more unpredictable, and often combine features of the first two weak classes. There are only four Class 3 verbs: habban – to havelibban – to livesecgan – to say and hycgan – to think.

If you want to look up a verb in a dictionary, you need to use the infinitive of the verb. In Modern English this would be ‘to love’, ‘to go’, ‘to drink’. In Old English, the infinitive generally ends in ‘an’hieran – to hearferan – to golufian – to love. Verbs conjugate through a mixture of inflectional suffixes or stem-modifications, which will be explained in the coming topics.

Before we dive into Weak Verbs, though, it is necessary to take a look at the personal pronouns that are used with them.

Personal Pronouns

Before you start exploring verb conjugation tables, it is necessary to recognise the Old English personal pronouns which accompany the verbs. Personal pronouns take different forms depending on numbercase, and grammatical gender. For now let’s just look at the nominative forms of the pronouns in the table below.

Personal Pronouns
Old English Modern English
1st Person Singular Ic I
2nd Person Singular Þu You
3rd Person Singular He / Heo / Hit He / She / It
1st Person Plural We We
2nd Person Plural Ge Ye / You
3rd Person Plural Hie They

You may notice in the sentence below that ‘you’ in the first sentence is spelled ‘þe‘. This is the accusative form of the pronoun ‘þu‘, and these forms will be explored in a later module. For now, it is enough to know that pronouns decline like regular nouns. It is important to note that a verb always agrees with its subject. This means the form of the verb changes depending on its subject. So while in modern English, ‘I love you’ and ‘you love me’ use the same form of the verb, in Old English it changes. You can see this change in the two sentences below.

Ic
Personal
Pronoun
lufie
1st Person
Verb
þe
Direct
Object
Þu
Personal
Pronoun
lufast
2nd Person
Verb
me
Direct
Object

As you can see, Old English personal pronouns are not that different to modern English ones. You can practice using personal pronouns below. When you’re ready, let’s take a look at Weak Verbs I and see how Old English verbs work in more detail.

 Return to Introduction to Weak VerbsContinue to Weak Verbs I 


Test Your Conjugations!

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

Ne ondrædaþ  ⁠ — Fear ye not
Drihtnes is eorðe, and eall þæt  mid gefyld is⁠ — The Earth is the Lord’s, and all that she is filled with
 hit forsoc⁠ — He refused it
Gyt flæscmettum ic bruce, forðam cild  eom⁠ — I still partake of meat, because I am a child

Hæbbe  hit on handa⁠ — I have some of it in my hand

Weak Verbs I

Class I weak verbs have an infinitive ending in -an or -rian. For example, ‘fremman – to do‘, ‘nerian – to save‘, ‘hieran – to hear‘, ‘feran – to go‘, ‘sendan – to send‘, ‘læran – to teach‘. When conjugated, the third-person present singular ends in ‘‘ or ‘-eþ‘, and present plural ends in ‘-aþ‘. Examine the form of the verb in the first sentence, ‘the king goes to the mountain’, vs the second, ‘the kings go to the mountain’.

Se cyning
3rd Person Singular Subject
ferþ
3rd Sg. Verb
to
Prep.
þæm beorgum
Indirect Object
Þa cyningas
3rd Person Plural Subject
feraþ
3rd pl. Verb
to
Prep.
þæm beorgum
Indirect Object

All weak verbs form their preterite by adding ‘-de‘ in the singular and ‘-don‘ in the plural. Compare the below sentence: ‘I go to the mountains’ vs ‘I went to the mountains’.

Ic
Subject 
fere
Present Verb
to
Prep.
þæm beorgum
Indirect Object
Ic
Subject
ferde
Past Verb
to
Prep.
þæm beorgum
Indirect Object

Since Modern English verbs do not conjugate as heavily, it can be difficult for speakers get used to the variety of suffixes in Old English. However, due to the flexibility of word order in Old English, often the conjugation of the verb is the only way to tell what subject the verb is linked to, as the subject may come after the verb, or may even not be present. For example, in the sample below, the subject only appears in the first part of the sentence: ‘I heard the Lord and went to him’.

Ic
Subject
hierde
Past Verb
þone drihten
Direct Object
ond
Conjunction
to
Prep.
Him
Indirect Object
ferde
Verb

You will notice that while all Class I weak verbs are similar and have the same endings, there are some minor variations in the letter before the stem. How a word changes depends on whether there is a long vowel or a short vowel, and whether or not there is a double consonant. As a result, Class I verbs are traditionally divided into two subclasses.

Subclass A are verbs like ‘fremman‘ and ‘nerian‘:

  1. Fremman‘ has a short vowel followed by two consonants
  2. Nerian‘ has a short vowel followed by an ‘ri

Subclass B are verbs are like ‘hieran‘:

  1. Hieran‘ has a long vowel followed by a single consonant.

Note the changes before the suffix in the examples below. ‘Fremman‘ loses its second ‘m‘ and ‘nerian‘ loses its ‘i‘ in the second and third person singular present, and every preterite form. You’ll notice ‘hieran‘ loses its inflectional ‘e‘ in the same places.

Weak Verbs Class I
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic fremme Ic fremede
2nd Person Singular Þu fremest Þu fremedest
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo fremeþ He/Hit/Heo fremede
1st Person Plural We fremmaþ We fremedon
2nd Person Plural Ge fremmaþ Ge fremedon
3rd Person Plural Hie fremmaþ Hie fremedon

Now that you know the basics of Class I Weak Verbs, the next thing to do is practice what you have learned. Feel free to use the table to help you with the first batch of questions. You can hide the table at any point by clicking the orange ‘Hide Table’ button. Otherwise you can continue on to the next topic.

 Return to Personal ProunounsContinue to Class II Weak Verbs 


Test Your Conjugations!

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

We (læran eald Englisc on þæm minstere⁠ — We teach Old English in the monastery
Hie (feran ofer sæ⁠ — They go overseas
Hie hergiaþ ond to scipe (lædan ⁠ — They harry and carry off the plunder to their ships
We (fremman swa ond Frean hierde⁠ — We did so and obeyed the lord

Ic (læran leden ond grecisc⁠ — I taught Latin and Greek

Weak Verbs II

Class II weak verbs have an infinitive ending in -ian, for example, ‘lufian – to love‘, and ‘bodian – to announce/preach‘. They are similar in form to Class I verbs as they have exactly the same inflectional endings, but class II weak verbs have a vowel before the ending (-ian in the infinitive becomes –iaþ in plural, and –ode in past tense). Examine the sentence below in the present tense: ‘He hears that she loves you’

He
Personal
Pronoun
hierþ
Class I
Verb
þæt
Relative
Pronoun
heo
Personal
Pronoun
lufaþ
Class II
Verb
þe
Direct
Object

The preterite of Class II verbs is identical to the preterite conjugation of Class I verbs, except for the fact an ‘o‘ is added before the suffix. Examine the sentence below in the past tense:‘He heard that she loved you’.

He
Personal
Pronoun
hierde
Class I
Verb
þæt
Relative
Pronoun
heo
Personal
Pronoun
lufode
Class II
Verb
þe
Direct
Object

It should be noted that most verbs ending in -rian belong not to Class II but to Class I. The exceptions to this are ‘andswarian – to answer‘, ‘gadrian – to gather‘, and ‘timbrian – to build‘, which conjugate the same as other Class II verbs.

Ic
Personal
Pronoun
timbrie
Present
Tense
husas
Direct
Object
Ic
Personal
Pronoun
timbrode
Past
Tense
þæt
Demonstrative
Pronoun
hus
Direct
Object

In the conjugation table below, you will find the verbs ‘lufian – to love‘, ‘andswarian – to answer‘, ‘timbrian – to build‘, ‘ricsian – to rule‘ and ‘bodian – to preach‘. Note where the ‘i‘ disappears and where an ‘o‘ is added. Aside from these changes, the Class I and Class II weak verbs conjugated the same. For example, you will also notice that ‘lufian – to love‘ loses its ‘i‘ in the same conjugations where ‘hieran‘ loses its second ‘e‘.

Weak Verbs Class II
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic lufie Ic lufode
2nd Person Singular Þu lufast Þu lufodest
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo lufaþ He/Hit/Heo lufode
1st Person Plural We lufiaþ We lufodon
2nd Person Plural Ge lufiaþ Ge lufodon
3rd Person Plural Hie lufiaþ Hie lufodon

Now that you know the basics of Class II Weak Verbs, the next thing to do is practice what you have learned. Feel free to use the table to help you with the first batch of questions. You can hide the table at any point by clicking the orange ‘Hide Table’ button. Otherwise you can continue on to the next topic.

 Return to Class I Weak VerbsContinue to Class III Weak Verbs 


Test Your Conjugations!

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

Ne mæg middaneard eow hatian ac he (hatian me⁠ — The world may not hate you, but he hates me
Hie (lufian mid lacum ða ðe læs agon⁠ — They show love with offerings to they who possess less
Ic (timbrian min hus on ðæm beorgum⁠ — I built my house in the mountains
Ðæt folc (gaderian mid micle menio ðæra fugela⁠ — The people gathered a great number of the birds

Eala ðu scippend heofones ond eorþan! Ðu ðe on ðæm ecan setle (ricsian !⁠ — Oh you the creator of heaven and earth! You who

Weak Verbs III

Class III consists of four verbs: ‘habban – to have‘, ‘libban – to live‘, ‘secgan – to say‘, and ‘hycgan – to think/to intend‘. These verbs do not conjugate in the same way as each other, and can combine features of the first two weak classes, so they need to be learned individually. Since these verbs are very common, there are many variant spellings but the ones below are the most common. Note that the endings are the same as for other weak verbs.

Weak Verbs Class III
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic hæbbe Ic hæfde
2nd Person Singular Þu hæfst Þu hæfdest
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo hæfþ He/Hit/Heo hæfde
1st Person Plural We habbaþ We hæfdon
2nd Person Plural Ge habbaþ Ge hæfdon
3rd Person Plural Hie habbaþ Hie hæfdon

Now that you know the basics of Class III Weak Verbs, the next thing to do is practice what you have learned. Feel free to use the table to help you with the first batch of questions. You can hide the table at any point by clicking the orange ‘Hide Table’ button. Otherwise you can continue on to the next topic.

 Return to Class II Weak VerbsContinue to Weak Verbs Overview 


Test Your Conjugations!

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

Hie be urum larum (libban ⁠ — They live according to our instructions
Heo (hycgan georne ðæt hire mægþhad clæne geheolde⁠ — She earnestly intended to keep her maidenhood pure
Swa (secgan ðæs huses hlaford⁠ — The lord of this house says so
Ic be me (secgan ðis sarspell⁠ — I tell this lament about myself

Wynnum ond þeawum ic (libban ⁠ — I lived joyously and virutously

Weak Verbs Overview

To recap what we’ve covered, weak verbs are the largest category of Old English verbs. They are considered grammatically weak as they form their preterite by adding a dental suffix (‘d‘ or ‘t‘) to the stem of the word. Weak verbs are subdivided into three sub-classes depending on the ending of their infinitive.

Class I

Class I weak verbs have an infinitive ending in ‘an‘ or ‘rian‘. When conjugated, the third-person present singular ends in ‘þ‘, and the present plural ends in ‘‘, while the past is formed using ‘d‘, or ‘t‘ to the end of the stem. Examine the below sentences, ‘He commits crimes’ and ‘She saved his life’.

He
Subject
fremeþ
Present Tense
firene
Direct Object
Heo
Subject
nerede
Past Tense
his
Pronoun
feorh
Genitive

While the endings of Class I verbs are the same, there are slight modifications to the stem which occur depending on if the stem has a double consonant, a short vowel sound, or a long vowel sound. These are exemplified by fremman – to do, nerian – to save and hieran – to hear.

The changes in the stem can be summarised as follows:

  • Verbs with a short vowel sound and a double consonant, like cnyssan or trymman, conjugate like fremman.
  • Verbs which end in ‘rian‘, like derian or werian, conjugate like nerian.
  • Verbs with a long vowel and a single consonant, like deman or feran, conjugate like hieran.

It should be noted that verbs with a short vowel and two consonants which are not the same, such as sendan, conjugate like hieran, though the ‘dd’ which would appear in the preterite is simplified to ‘d‘. See A note on double d’s for more information.

Class II

Class II weak verbs have an infinitive ending in ‘ian‘ (except when preceded by ‘r’ as ‘rian’ verbs are generally Class I, like nerian). There are three ‘rian‘ verbs which conjugate like lufian instead of nerian. These are andswarian – to answer, gadrian – to gather, and timbrian – to build.

The main difference between Class I and Class II verbs are the present plurals end in ‘iaþ‘ and the preterite suffix is preceded by an ‘o‘. Examine ‘They reign forever’ and ‘He preached in Judea’:

Hie
Subject
ricsiaþ
Present Tense
on
Prep.
ecnesse
Indirect Object
He
Subject
bodode
Past Tense
on
Prep.
Iudea
Indirect Object

Examining the table below, you’ll notice the ‘i’ disappears in the 2nd and 3rd singular present, and all preterite forms. This is the same place where fremman drops its second ‘m’nerian its ‘i’, and hieran its ‘e’.

Class III

Class III weak verbs have an infinitive ending in ‘an‘ and no vowel before the dental suffix. They are more unpredictable in their conjugation and often combine features of the first two weak classes. There are only four Class III verbs: habban – to have, libban – to live, secgan – to say and hycgan – to think/intend. How they conjugate is irregular so they just have to be learned individually. Two examples, ‘They have much power’ and ‘She lived virtuously’, are included below.

Hie
Subject
habbaþ
Present Tense
micel
Quantifier
weald
Direct Object
Heo
Subject
lifde
Past Tense
þeawum
Adjective

Understanding which suffix goes with which person, number or tense is vital for understanding which subject a verb is connected to in a sentence. Old English does not rely on word order as strictly as modern English, so the subject can come after the verb, or sometimes even be dropped from a long sentence. Always remember that in Old English, verbs agree with their subject, so even if a word comes slightly earlier or later in a sentence than you might expect, it can generally be paired to the correct noun by comparing the endings.

Weak Verbs Class I
Present Tense Past Tense
1st Person Singular Ic fremme Ic fremede
2nd Person Singular Þu fremest Þu fremedest
3rd Person Singular He/Hit/Heo fremeþ He/Hit/Heo fremede
1st Person Plural We fremmaþ We fremedon
2nd Person Plural Ge fremmaþ Ge fremedon
3rd Person Plural Hie fremmaþ Hie fremedon

Introduction to Strong Neuter and Feminine Nouns

We have already seen the declensions of Strong Masculine Nouns in the first module. However, there are two further grammatical genders: Neuter and Feminine. These categories are purely grammatical and are determined on morphological grounds rather than referential ones. For example, while cwen – queen is ‘feminine’, wif – woman is ‘neuter’ and wifhand – heiress is ‘masculine’. Similarly, referentially gender-neutral nouns like those for ‘child’ can be neuter like bearn or cild, but they can also be feminine like byren.

There is unfortunately no easy way of telling which grammatical gender a word belongs to, they just need to be learned.

To quickly review the function of cases, the nominative form is used for the subject of a sentence. The genitive indicates possession. The accusative indicates a direct object. The dative indicates an indirect object.

Cases Overview
Case Old English Function
Nominative Þæt scip The ship (subject)
Accusative Þæt scip The ship (direct obj)
Genitive Þæs scipes The ship’s (possessive)
Dative Þæm scipe The ship (indirect obj)

Now that we’ve reaffirmed how cases work, let’s take a look at Strong Neuter Nouns and see their differences to Strong Masculine Nouns in more detail.

Strong Neuter Nouns

Neuter nouns are nouns which end in consonants but whose plurals use ‘u’ instead of ‘as’. In fact, the only real difference between masculine and neuter nouns is that the nominative and accusative plurals sometimes use ‘u’ or drop the suffix altogether. The rest of the paradigm is identical. Examine the two sentences below: ‘The kings saw the ships’ and ‘The thanes took the cups’.

Þa cyningas
Plural Subject 
seah
Past Verb
þa scipu
Plural Direct Object
Þa þegnas
Plural Subject
feng
Past Verb
þa fatu
Plural Direct Object

Nominative plurals and accusative plurals of the Strong Neuter declension use -u only after short syllables. A short syllable is one which ends with one short vowel and one consonant, for example, scip and god.

Neuter nouns with long syllables have no ending. A long syllable can be a short vowel and two consonants, like word, a long vowel with one consonant, like wif, or two vowels, like bearn.

So scip – ship and god – deity become scipu and godu in the nominative and accusative plural, while word – wordwif – woman, and bearn – child stay as wordwif, and bearn in the nominative and accusative plural. Examine the two sentences below: The bishop heard the words of the king and The thanes saw the children and compare them to the two sentences above.

Þa biscopas
Plural Subject 
hierde
Past Verb
þæs cyninges
Posessive
word
Plural Direct Object
Þa þegnas
Plural Subject
seah
Past Verb
þa bearn
Plural Direct Object

As you may have noticed, the lack of a suffix for plural neuter nouns can sometimes make it difficult to know whether a word is in the singular or the plural. If it cannot be infered from context, look for a plural demonstrative pronoun such as þa in the example above.

How a word is pronounced plays a major role in how it is declined, so examine the stems of scip – ship, word – word, bearn – child, wif – woman, and god – deity in the following table closely and consider which ones have a suffix and which do not, and what this might mean for how they are pronounced.

Strong Neuter Nouns
Singular Plural
Nominative þæt scip þa scipu
Accusative þæt scip þa scipu
Genitive þæs scipes þara scipa
Dative þæm scipe þæm scipum

 Return to Intro to Strong Neuter and Feminine NounsContinue to Strong Neuter Demonstratives 


Test Your Declensions

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

He Noe gebletsade and his (bearn ⁠ — He blessed Noah and his child
Seo is sæd ærest þara (wif in Norþanhymbra mægþe ðæt heo munuchade onfenge⁠ — She is said to have been one of the first women in Northumbria to have taken nun-hood
He ærest sceop eorþan for his (bearn ⁠ — He first shaped the earth for his children
We willaþ mid þæm sceattum us to þæm (scip gangan⁠ — We wish to go to the ship with the treasure
Godes (bearn þrowode on þære rode⁠ — God’s son suffered on the cross

Strong Neuter Demonstratives

Neuter demonstratives are very similar to Masculine demonstratives, differing in only two respects. The demonstrative pronoun for the nominative and accusative singular is þæt instead of se and þone. The Strong Neuter plural demonstratives are identical to the Strong Masculine plural demonstratives.

Strong Neuter Demonstratives
Singular Plural
Nominative þæt þa
Accusative þæt þa
Genitive þæs þara
Dative þæm þæm

While demonstratives are not a perfect way of telling which gender a noun is due to the amount of overlap between categories, a noun and all its modifiers, including demonstrative pronouns, always share the same case, gender and number. This is called case harmony and means that demonstratives are a good way of figuring out the case a noun is in.

þæt scip
Singular Nominative
þa scipu
Plural Nominative
þæt scip
Singular Accusative
þa scipu
Plural Accusative
þæs scipes
Singular Genitive
þara scipa
Plural Genitive
þæm scipe   
Singular Dative
þæm scipum
Plural Dative

You can practice strong neuter demonstratives below.

 Return to Strong Neuter NounsContinue to Strong Feminine Nouns 


Test Your Declensions

In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

He geaf  wifes boc to þæm biscope – He gave the woman’s book to the bishop
He spræc to  wif⁠ — He spoke to the woman
 scipu ferdon to þæm tune – The ships went to the town
Ða menn ferdon to  scipe mid þæm sceattum – The men went to the ship with the treasure

He wolde  godu geseon – He wanted to visit the gods

Strong Feminine Nouns

Feminine nouns are significantly different to both Masculine and Neuter nouns in how they decline and the demonstratrive pronouns they use. However, within their own category, the cases are very similar to each other. For example, the accusative, genitive and dative singular endings for Strong Feminine Nouns are ‘e’, and the nominative, accusative, and genitive plural endings are ‘a’. All the nouns in the following sentences are feminine, ‘seo cwen geaf þa giefe to þære idese – the queen gave the gift to the lady‘ and ‘Þa cwena geaf þa giefa to þæm idesum – The queens gave the gifts to the ladies‘. Examine each of their endings and note the differences between the singular and plural.

Seo cwen
Singular Subject 
geaf
Past Verb
þa giefe
Singular Direct Object
to
Prep.
þære idese
Singular Indirect Object
Þa cwena
Plural Subject 
geaf
Past Verb
þa giefa
Plural Direct Object
to
Prep.
þæm idesum
Plural Indirect Object

For the nouns which have a ‘u’ in the nominative singular, remember to drop the ‘u’ when you are adding other suffixes. For example, in the plural, giefu ends in ‘a’ becoming giefa.

Seo giefu
Singular Subject
þære
Demonstrative
halgan
Adjective
idese
Genitive
Þa giefa
Plural Subject 
þære
Demonstrative
halgan
Adjective
idese
Genitive

In the below table you will find the declensions for the nouns ‘cwen – queen‘, ‘giefu – gift‘, ‘lufu – love‘, ‘ceaster – city‘ and ‘ides – lady‘. Use the table to help you complete the questions below. Once you are feeling confident, you can hide the table by pressing the orange ‘Hide Table’ button.

Strong Feminine Nouns
Singular Plural
Nominative seo cwen þa cwena
Accusative þa cwene þa cwena
Genitive þære cwene þara cwena
Dative þære cwene þæm cwenum

Strong Feminine Demonstratives

Feminine demonstratives used for plural nouns are identical to those used by Strong Neuter and Masculine nouns. The most significant difference in pronouns is with the singular demonstratives.

Strong Feminine Demonstratives
Singular Plural
Nominative seo þa
Accusative þa þa
Genitive þære þara
Dative þære þæm

As seen earlier, the suffixes used for feminine nouns are very similar for each of the cases, with singular accusative, genitive and dative nouns taking an ‘e’ ending and plural nominative, accusative and genitive taking an ‘a’ ending. This makes it more difficult to tell which case a noun is in when it is plural, though the demonstratives are more reliable and distinct for singular nouns.

seo giefu
Singular Nominative
þa giefa
Plural Nominative
þa giefe
Singular Accusative
þa giefa
Plural Accusative
þære giefe
Singular Genitive
þara giefa
Plural Genitive
þære giefe   
Singular Dative
þæm giefum
Plural Dative

You can practice strong feminine demonstratives below.

Variant Declensions

While almost all nouns follow the declensions seen previously, sometimes declensions can cause variations in the stem of the noun. You have already seen some of these variations in previous topics and these variations generally happen for one of two reasons: first it makes a word easier to pronounce, or second it’s the result of a sound change that happened over time. Luckily, these variations tend to be regular, making them easy to spot, and they do not affect the inflectional suffix.

Disyllabic nouns

Under certain circumstances, nouns with two syllables, or ‘disyllabic nouns’, lose the unstressed vowel of their second syllable when an inflectional ending adds a syllable. We saw this with the feminine noun, ‘ceaster‘, and the masculine noun, ‘þegen‘ which loses their second ‘e’ when declined. This is known as syncopation and the rule applies across all genders. For example, look at ‘fugol – bird‘ in the sentence below.

We
Subject
lufiaþ
verb
þa fuglas
direct object
on
Prep.
þære ceastre
Indirect Object

Syncopation is more likely to happen if the central consonant is a soft sound, like the [j] in ‘þegen‘, the [ɣ] in ‘fugol‘, or the [w] in ‘sawol‘. It can also happen if the word has a heavy syllable followed by a light syllable. A heavy syllable is a syllable with a long vowel and a consonant or a short vowel and two consonants. For example, ‘heafod – head‘ has a heavy syllable followed by a light syllable, so it loses the ‘o‘ when conjugated. It also commonly occurs when the second syllable ends in a vowel or vowel sound. For example, in the adjective ‘halig‘ the ‘g‘ is soft so it drops its ‘i‘ when declining.

Nouns ending in a vowel

Nouns which end in a vowel (except u) are generally weak. However, there are a handful of exceptions and when a strong noun ends in a vowel, like ‘ende – end‘, ‘stede – place‘, ‘rice – kingdom‘, ‘wite – punishment‘, or ‘clawu – claw‘, they drop their vowel when a suffix is added.

He
Subject
wealdeþ
verb
wite
direct object
mid
Prep.
isenum
Adjective
clawum
Indirect Object

Nouns with a stem ending in ‘h’

Nouns that have a stem ending in ‘h‘ lose it when declined. This can happen one of two ways. If the noun ends in a (consonant + h), like ‘mearh – horse‘, ‘wealh – foreigner‘ and ‘feorh – life‘, the noun loses the ‘h’ when declined.

If the noun ends in a (vowel + h), like ‘scoh – shoe‘ and ‘feoh – cattle/wealth‘, the word loses the ‘h’ and the unstressed vowel when declined. For example, the plural accusative form of the strong masculine noun ‘scoh‘ is ‘scos‘ not ‘scoas‘, even though the usual strong masculine plural accusative ending is ‘as‘, because the ‘a‘ is dropped. However, you should note that ‘feoh‘ only has a singular form, much like the modern words ‘cattle’ and ‘wealth’ do not have plural forms.

Þa wealas
Subject
habbaþ
verb
scos
direct object
ond
Prep.
mearas
Direct Object

Nouns with ‘æ’ in the stem

Monosyllabic nouns with a short ‘æ‘ in the stem, such as ‘hwæl – whale‘, ‘fæt – cup‘, and ‘dæg – day‘, undergo a sound-change to ‘a‘ when declined in the plural. This is because the plural suffixes contain the back vowels ‘a‘ and ‘u‘. Words with a long ‘æ’, such as ‘dæd – deed‘, ‘læcce – leech‘, or ‘dæl – part‘ retain their ‘æ‘ in the plural. (For a refresher on long and short vowel sounds, see the pronunciation guide.)

Se horshwæl
Subject
biþ
verb
læssa
Adjective
ðonne
Prep.
oðre
Rel. Pronoun
hwalas
Direct Object

As can be seen from the above examples, while the suffixes generally remain the same for all the nouns, where the addition of a suffix would make the word more difficult to say there are slight modifications in the stem to it easier to pronounce. You can practice the variant noun declensions

Strong Nouns Overview

To recap what we have learned, all nouns are subdivided into three grammatical categories called genders. These categories are purely grammatical and are not determined by the meaning of the words, so they just have to be learned. The gender of a word changes which inflectional suffix it takes and which demonstrative pronoun it uses. Strong Nouns have many inflection variants.

The inflectional suffix taken by a noun depends on its case. The case of a noun is determined by its function in a sentence. A subject takes the nominative, a direct object takes the accusative, a possessive takes the genitive and an indirect object takes the dative.

Lastly, nouns decline differently depending on whether they are singular or plural. Examine the sentence ‘se cyning ond þa idesa ferdon to þæm scipe – the king and the lady went to the ship.

Se cyning
Masculine Subject
ond
Conj
þa idesa
Feminine Subject
ferdon
Verb
to
Prep.
þæm scipe
Neuter Indirect Object

While the various demonstratives and suffixes may seem like a lot to remember, there are many similarities between the genders. For example, the demonstrative pronoun ‘þæm‘ always signifies the dative, and the ‘um‘ ending always signifies the dative plural. Similarly, the demonstrative pronoun ‘þara‘ and the suffix ‘a‘, always signify the genitive plural. While the dative declensions for masculine, neuter and feminine nouns are identical, you only ever see the demonstrative pronoun ‘þære‘ with feminine nouns.

Now that you understand how all strong nouns decline, and the stem variations these declensions can cause, it is time to practice strong masculine, netuer and feminine nouns together. Feel free to use the table below to help you with the first batch of questions. You can hide the table at any point by clicking the orange ‘Hide Table’ button.

If you want to practice all noun forms, including variant declensions, select the ‘With Variant Declensions‘ option beside ‘Test Your Declensions’. You can toggle back to just the basic noun forms by selecting ‘Just Basic Nouns‘. You can download a pdf of this module using the centre link below. The pdfs also contain a glossary of all nouns used in the module. Otherwise, feel free to continue on to the next module using the link on the right.

 Return to Variant DeclensionsDownload a PDF of this moduleContinue to Pronouns 

Test Your Declensions

 
In the textboxes below, fill out the fully declined version of the word in brackets.

   Use these buttons to insert thorn, ash and eth when you have an input selected.

Ða godu fram Egiptum landum beoþ fremede (god — The gods from Egypt are strange gods
Ðæs cyninges (word is soþ⁠ — The king’s word is truth
He wunaþ in þæs (cyning tune — He lives in the town of the king
Ðæs cyninges (þegen ferdon to þæm tune — The king’s thanes went to the town
Ðæt hie ælmihtiges (giefu anforleten⁠ — That they might lose the almighty’s gifts
MATERIALS PDF

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strongnouns

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RESOURCES

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