Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 8.1. Quick Start 8.2. Strong adjectives 8.3. Weak adjectives 8.4. Comparison of adjectives 8.5. The adjective in the noun phrase

8. Adjectives

8.1. Quick Start

Surely the oddest grammatical feature belonging to the Germanic languages is that they can inflect almost any adjective in either of two very different ways. If the adjective follows a demonstrative pronoun, possessive adjective, or genitive noun or noun phrase, one of the so-called “weak” endings is added to it; otherwise it is given a “strong” ending.

In Old English it is difficult to discern a distinction in meaning between the strong and weak adjectives, though there must originally have been one. But the distinction is widespread (all the early Germanic languages have it) and surprisingly durable: strong and weak adjectives were still distinguished in Chaucer’s English, and they are distinguished even now in German.

At this point you may be grumbling that we have arbitrarily doubled the amount of memorization required to learn the adjectives. If so, calm down: adjectives are really quite easy. The weak adjectives are almost exactly the same as the weak nouns. Most of the strong adjective endings resemble those of either the strong nouns or the demonstrative pronouns. In this chapter you will see almost no endings that you have not seen before.

Indeed (though some Old English teachers may not approve of our telling you so), you may find it possible to read Old English prose pretty well without having put in a lot of work on adjectives. In a noun phrase like þæs æðelan bōceres ‘the noble scholar’s’, you can get the information that the phrase is genitive singular from either the demonstrative pronoun or the noun. The weak adjective æðelan doesn’t tell you much. In a phrase like ġeonge prēostas ‘young priests’, the strong ending of the adjective ġeonge is less ambiguous, but it is also redundant: you can get all the information you need from the noun. It becomes important to recognize the adjective’s ending when it gets separated from its noun:

hē lēt him þā of handon   lēofne flēogan
hafoc wið þæs holtes
[he then let his beloved hawk fly from his
hands towards the woods]   (The Battle of Maldon, ll. 7-8.)

Here hafoc hawk’ is the accusative direct object of lēt ‘let’. The adjective lēofne ‘beloved’ is separated from this noun by the infinitive flēogan ‘fly’, and so it is helpful that lēofne has the masculine accusative singular ending -ne so that you can associate it correctly with its noun. You will run into this kind of situation more often in poetry than in prose.

Table 8.1 summarizes the adjective endings.

Table 8.1. Adjective endings
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative -u / —
accusative -ne -e
genitive -es -es -re
dative -um -um -re
instrumental -e -e  
plural nominative -e -u / — / -e -a / -e
genitive -ra -ra -ra
dative -um -um -um
singular nominative -a -e -e
accusative -an -e -an
genitive -an -an -an
dative -an -an -an
plural nominative -an -an -an
genitive -ra / -ena -ra / -ena -ra / -ena
dative -um -um -um

8.2. Strong adjectives

Table 8.2 shows the strong endings attached to an adjective with a long stem. (Forms in bold type should be compared with the demonstrative pronouns, others with the strong nouns.)

Table 8.2. Strong adjectives (long stems)
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative gōd ‘good’ gōd gōd
accusative gōdne gōde
genitive gōdes gōdre
dative gōdum
instrumental gōde  
plural nominative gōde gōd, gōde gōda, -e
genitive gōdra
dative gōdum

The adjectives are subject to the same kinds of transformations that affect the nouns. Those with long stems differ from those with short stems (table 8.3) in that the feminine nominative singular and the neuter nominative/accusative plural end in -u (see 6.1.1 for an explanation).

Table 8.3. Strong adjectives (short stems)
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative hwæt ‘vigorous’ hwæt hwatu
accusative hwætne hwate
genitive hwætes hwætre
dative hwatum
instrumental hwate  
plural nominative hwate hwatu, -e hwata, -e
genitive hwatra
dative hwatum

Table 8.3 also shows that when the vowel of an adjective with a short stem is æ or ea, it alternates with a, as has already been discussed in connection with nouns. In some other adjectives, h is dropped between voiced sounds, so, for example, the masculine accusative singular of hēah ‘high’ is hēane and the feminine nominative singular is hēa.

The masculine/neuter dative singular ending -um may cause confusion, for this is also the ending of the dative plural nouns and adjectives, and you may already have come to think of it as plural. Remember it this way: -um is always dative, and in nouns it is always plural.

8.3. Weak adjectives

The weak adjectives (table 8.4) are almost exactly like the weak nouns. The difference is that the ending of the genitive plural of a weak adjective is usually the same as that of a strong adjective.

Table 8.4. Weak adjectives
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative gōda ‘good’ gōde gōde
accusative gōdan gōdan
genitive gōdan
plural nominative gōdan
genitive gōdra, -ena
dative gōdum

There is no distinction between long and short stems, except that æ or ea in a short root syllable always becomes a, so the weak masculine nominative singular of hwæt ‘vigorous’ is hwata. Because all weak endings begin with vowels, h is always dropped at the end of a root syllable (as with some nouns), so the weak nominative/accusative plural of hēah ‘high’ is hēan. As with nouns and strong adjectives, the second syllable of a two-syllable adjective can be syncopated, so the weak nominative/accusative plural of hāliġ ‘holy’ is hālgan.

Comparative adjectives and ordinal numbers (except for ōðer ‘second’) are always declined weak.

8.4. Comparison of adjectives

The comparative adjective is made by adding -r- between the root syllable and the inflectional ending, which is always weak regardless of context. The superlative is made by adding -ost, which may be followed by either a weak or a strong inflection. Examples:

heard ‘hard, fierce’ heardra heardost
milde ‘kind’ mildra mildost
hāliġ ‘holy’ hāliġra hālgost
sweotol ‘clear’ sweotolra sweotolost

Some adjectives have i-mutation in the comparative and superlative forms, and in these cases the superlative element is usually -est. For example:

eald ‘old’ ieldra ieldest
ġeong ‘young’ ġinġra ġinġest
hēah ‘high’ hīera hīehst
lang ‘long’ lenġra lenġest
strang ‘strong’ strenġra strenġest

You may occasionally encounter unmutated forms, e.g. strangost ‘strongest’.

A few adjectives have anomalous comparative and superlative forms; these are still anomalous in Modern English, though sometimes in different ways:

gōd ‘good’ betera betst
  sēlra sēlest
lȳtel ‘small’ lǣssa lǣst
miċel ‘large’ māra mǣst
yfel ‘bad’ wiersa wierrest, wierst

Modern English has lost the alternative comparative and superlative sēlra ‘better’ and sēlest ‘best’.

Comparative adjectives sometimes cause problems for students who are not on the lookout for them, or who confuse comparative -r- with the -r- of the feminine genitive/dative singular ending -re or the genitive plural -ra. The Old English comparative -r- may not look enough like the Modern English comparative -er to be easy for you to detect. The only solution to the problem is to be alert when you read.

8.5. The adjective in the noun phrase

Just as a pronoun can help you figure out the gender, case and number of a noun phrase (§6.1.4), so can an adjective. This is particularly true of strong adjectives, which have less ambiguous endings than weak ones. An extreme yet representative example involves the nouns fæder ‘father’, which has no ending in any singular case (§6.3.2), and sunu ‘son’, which has -a in both the genitive and dative (§6.3.1):

Ōðer is se hād ælmihtiġes fæder, ōðer is ælmihtiġes suna.
[One is the person of the almighty father, the other (that) of the almighty son.]

The adjective endings in -es tell us that both noun phrases, ælmihtiġes fæder and ælmihtiġes suna, are genitive singular, even though the nouns are ambiguous. The weak adjective, which is sometimes used without a pronoun in poetry, can occasionally be useful in the same way:

Gomela Scylfing hrēas heoroblāc.
[The old Swede fell, battle-pale.]
(Beowulf, ll. 2487–8)

The weak ending -a marks the noun phrase Gomela Scylfing as nominative. It is more common, of course, for the weak adjective to be preceded by a pronoun, and in such cases the pronoun will be more help than the adjective:

Hwæt wite ġē be þām gōdan men?
[What do you know about that good man?]

The adjective gōdan and the noun menn could together be dative singular or nominative/accusative plural; but the pronoun þām in the noun phrase þām gōdan menn rules out everything but dative singular.

The examples given here and in §6.1.4 are very simple. A noun phrase can also contain embedded clauses and prepositional phrases; but usually the nouns, pronouns and adjectives will be most helpful in determining the function of the phrase in the sentence.