Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 6.1. Quick Start
6.1.1. Strong nouns 6.1.2. Weak nouns 6.1.3. Athematic nouns 6.1.4. The noun phrase
6.2. More about strong nouns
6.2.1. Two-syllable nouns 6.2.2. Nouns with changes in the stem syllable 6.2.3. Nouns with -w- or -ġ- before the ending
6.3. Minor declensions
6.3.1. u-stem nouns 6.3.2. Nouns of relationship 6.3.3. Nouns with -r- plurals 6.3.4. Nouns with -þ- endings

6. Nouns

6.1. Quick Start

In Modern English almost all nouns are declined (their forms listed) in pretty much the same way: we add ‑s to make plurals and ‑’s to make possessives. There are notable exceptions, however. The plural of ox is not oxes, but oxen, and the plural of child has the same ending, but preceded by ‑r-. And of course several very common nouns make plurals by changing their vowels: for example, tooth/teeth and mouse/mice.

Our nouns with -s plurals, nouns with -en plurals, the noun with -r-, and the nouns that change their vowels belong to different declensions—classes of nouns that are declined in similar ways. Though we have just one major declension in Modern English and a few minor ones, in Old English there were several major declensions and several more minor ones. You must learn the forms for each of the major declensions, and you should acquire enough knowledge of the minor ones to enable you to be on the lookout for them.

In Modern English we do not think of nouns as having gender; rather, the things they refer to have gender (or they do not, in which case they are “neuter”). But gender is an attribute of every Old English noun, and the grammatical gender of a noun does not necessarily correspond to the natural gender of the thing it refers to. For example, wīf ‘woman’ is neuter and wīfman ‘woman’ is masculine; and nouns that refer to inanimate objects are very often masculine or feminine (for example, masculine stān ‘stone’, feminine benċ ‘bench’). Further, different endings are added to nouns of different gender (for example, the nominative plural of masculine wer ‘man’ is weras, of neuter scip ‘ship’ scipu, and of feminine cwēn ‘queen’ cwēna).

You can make the job of learning the nouns easier by looking for patterns within the paradigms. Take particular note of these:

You should also look for resemblances between the noun and pronoun paradigms. The more patterns and resemblances you find, the less you’ll have to memorize.

Most nouns fall into one of two major declensions, conventionally called “strong” and “weak.” There are also several minor declensions; we’ll look at one of these (the “athematic” nouns) in the Quick Start section and save the others for later.

6.1.1. Strong nouns

Table 6.1 shows the basic endings of the strong nouns. Notice how much duplication there is in this table.

Table 6.1. Strong noun endings
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative -u / —
accusative -e
genitive -es -es -e
dative -e -e -e
plural nominative -as -u / — -a, -e
genitive -a -a -a
dative -um -um -um

Often one cannot tell the gender of a noun from its ending: strong masculines and neuters differ only in the nominative/accusative plural, and gender is never distinguished in the dative singular or in the genitive and dative plural. Further, one cannot always tell the case: nominative and accusative singular are not distinguished in masculine and neuter nouns, accusative, genitive and dative singular are not distinguished in feminine nouns, and nominative and accusative plural are never distinguished at all.

Table 6.2. Strong masculines and neuters
  masculine short neuter long neuter
singular nominative stān ‘stone’ scip ‘ship’ þing ‘thing’
genitive stānes scipes þinges
dative stāne scipe þinge
plural nominative stānas scipu þing
genitive stāna scipa þinga
dative stānum scipum þingum

Table 6.2 adds these endings to several common masculine and neuter nouns. It also shows that the neuter nominative/accusative plural ending -u appears only after short syllables; neuters with long syllables have no ending.

An endingless plural may seem a great inconvenience at first—how will you be able to tell a plural when you see it? In practice, you’ll find that one of three things will be true when you come across an endingless neuter: (1) a nearby pronoun will tell you what you need to know (þæt þing singular, þā þing plural—see §6.1.4); (2) the context will make clear whether the noun is singular or plural; or (3) it won’t matter. If you stay alert to the likelihood that some plural nouns will lack endings, you won’t get into trouble.

Although the nominative and accusative are always the same for strong masculines and neuters, you may often find the case of a masculine singular noun by looking at the pronoun in front of it (if there is one): se stān or þes stān is nominative, while þone stān or þisne stān is accusative. Since the nominative and accusative are the same for all neuter words—nouns, pronouns and adjectives—you must rely on context to tell whether a neuter is nominative or accusative.

The nominative/accusative singular of masculine and neuter nouns often ends in -e: ende ‘end’, wine ‘friend’, spere ‘spear’, etc. These forms look the same as the dative singular; do not be confused by the resemblance.

Feminine nouns (table 6.3) look much less familiar than masculines or even neuters. The feminines do not have the masculine/neuter genitive -es or the masculine plural -as, which give us the dominant Modern English noun endings, and so the strong feminine declension seems to be furnished with none of the comforts of home. The good news, on the other hand, is that the strong feminines have relatively few endings, so you have less to memorize.

Table 6.3. Strong feminines
  short stem long stem
singular nominative ġiefu ‘gift’ sorg ‘sorrow’
accusative ġiefe sorge
plural nominative ġiefa, -e sorga, -e
genitive ġiefa sorga
dative ġiefum sorgum

Like the strong neuters, the strong feminines come in short and long varieties. The ending -u appears in the nominative singular after short syllables, but is dropped after long ones. Sometimes, however, the ending gets restored, for example, in lenġu ‘length’, iermðu beside iermð ‘misery’, and brǣdu beside brǣd ‘breadth’.

Among the strong feminine nouns are a great many that represent abstract concepts, made from adjectives and other nouns. These include nouns ending in such as strengþ ‘strength’ and hǣlþ ‘health’, those ending in -ness such as clǣnness ‘cleanness’ and ġīferness ‘greed’, and those ending in -ung such as leornung ‘learning’ and ġeōmrung ‘groaning’.

6.1.2. Weak nouns

Table 6.4 shows the endings of the weak declension, ancestor of the Modern English nouns with anomalous plural -en.

Table 6.4. Weak noun endings
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative -a -e -e
accusative -an -e -an
genitive -an -an -an
dative -an -an -an
plural nominative -an -an -an
genitive -ena -ena -ena
dative -um -um -um

These nouns make even fewer distinctions of gender and case than the strong nouns do: the rule that neuter words do not distinguish between nominative and accusative accounts for its having accusative singular -e where the masculine and feminine have -an;[1] otherwise, the only difference among the genders is that the masculine nominative singular ends in -a while the neuter and feminine end in -e. Most case endings are simply -an. Table 6.5 adds these endings to three common nouns.

Weak neuters are actually quite rare: only ēage ‘eye’ and ēare ‘ear’ are attested.
Table 6.5. Weak nouns
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative nama ‘name’ ēage ‘eye’ tunge ‘tongue’
accusative naman tungan
genitive ēagan
plural nominative naman ēagan tungan
genitive namena ēagena tungena
dative namum ēagum tungum

The fact that most forms end in -an can cause problems for the student who expects to be able to find out the case and number of a noun from its inflection. When in doubt about a weak noun ending in -an, look first for a pronoun or adjective that agrees with it. The noun in þæs guman can only be genitive singular, and the phrase should thus be translated ‘the man’s’; in godfyrhte guman, the strong nominative/accusative plural adjective tells us that the phrase must be translated ‘God-fearing men’. But what about a noun that lacks modifiers, as in the phrase eorðan bearnum (Cædmon’s Hymn l. 5)? A noun that, like eorðan, comes just before another noun has a good chance of being a genitive, and in fact this phrase should be translated ‘the children of earth’. But ultimately the context will help you decide. If you haven’t yet found the subject of the clause you’re reading and the verb is plural, consider the possibility that the noun in -an is a plural subject:

þæs ne wēndon ǣr   witan Scyldinga
[the wise men of the Scyldings had not expected that]
(Beowulf l. 778)

Similarly, if the verb wants an object, consider that as a possibility. In short, find out what’s missing in the clause and try the noun in that function. Don’t lose heart: remember that writers of Old English, when they wanted to be understood, did not write clauses containing unresolvable ambiguities. After you’ve puzzled out a few difficult instances of weak nouns, you should start to get the hang of them.

6.1.3. Athematic nouns

The athematic nouns are those that sometimes have i-mutation of the root vowel instead of an ending.[2] They are the ancestors of Modern English nouns like man/men and tooth/teeth (see table 6.6).

The inflections of Indo-European nouns were generally added to a “stem” built from a “root” syllable and a “thematic element” (a sort of suffix). The athematic nouns are so called because they are descended from a class of Indo-European nouns that lacked thematic elements.
Table 6.6. Athematic nouns
  masculine short feminine long feminine
singular nominative mann ‘man’ hnutu ‘nut’ bōc ‘book’
genitive mannes hnyte bēċ
dative menn
plural nominative menn hnyte bēċ
genitive manna hnuta bōca
dative mannum hnutum bōcum

The distribution of mutated forms differs in Old and Modern English: some mutated forms appear in the singular, while some plurals are unmutated. Also, as you might guess from the presence in the table of hnutu and bōc, which are no longer athematic, this declension once contained more nouns than it does now. In fact, in the Old English period some of the athematic nouns were already beginning to move into the strong declensions: feminine āc ‘oak’, for example, has for the dative singular both ǣċ and strong āce.

Several nouns that end in -nd, especially frēond ‘friend’, fēond ‘enemy’, are declined like the athematic nouns, though they are not, technically speaking, members of this declension. Several of these have partly or entirely gone over to the strong declension; for example, you are about as likely to encounter the plural frēondas as frīend.

6.1.4. The noun phrase

The simplest noun phrase (§3.2) consists of one of the pronouns that can be used as modifiers (usually a demonstrative or possessive) followed by a noun; the pronoun must agree with the noun in gender, case and number (see further §11.4). It is therefore possible to think of gender, case and number as properties of the whole phrase. Thinking of the noun phrase in this way will make reading significantly easier. It is often impossible to be sure of the case and number of a noun, but even a simple noun phrase consisting of pronoun and noun will rarely be ambiguous. For example, when the noun cyning ‘king’ has no ending, you may be in doubt whether to take it as the subject of a verb (nominative singular) or the object (accusative singular). But a demonstrative pronoun will resolve the ambiguity:

Þā sende se cyning Lēofsiġe ealdorman tō þām flotum.
[Then the king sent the nobleman Leofsige to the seafarers.]

The nouns cyning, Lēofsiġe and ealdorman are ambiguous: from them alone you can’t tell whether the king sent Leofsige or Leofsige sent the king to the vikings. But the noun phrase se cyning contains the unambiguously nominative singular pronoun se (§5.1.3), so it is the subject of sende: the king sent Leofsige. Here is another example:

Þā ġeflīemde Ælfred cyning þone here.
[Then King Alfred put to flight the (viking) army.]

The nouns Ælfred, cyning and here are all ambiguous, but the noun phrase þone here contains the accusative singular pronoun þone and so must be the object of the verb ġeflīemde. Strong feminine nouns are often ambiguous because three singular forms end in -e and three plural forms in -a. But you can often resolve the ambiguity by looking at the rest of the noun phrase:

Hē worhte þā healle ǣrest on ēastdǣle and þā ōþre ġebytlu beæftan þǣre healle.
[He built the hall first, in the eastern part, and then the other buildings behind the hall.]

Sēo byrðen ðissa eorðlicena sorga hine ġeswenċte.
[The burden of these earthly sorrows afflicted him.]

In the first sentence, the ending of healle marks it as accusative, dative or genitive singular. But the pronoun þā shows that the first instance is accusative, while þǣre shows that the second instance is either genitive or dative (in this case dative is more appropriate for the object of the preposition beæftan). In the second sentence, sorga could be nominative, accusative or genitive plural, but the pronoun þissa marks it as genitive (so does the ending of the adjective eorðlicena—see §§8.1, 8.3, and especially §8.5).

Careful attention to the noun phrase can also help you resolve the ambiguity of the endingless neuter plural, discussed above:

Þā ġeseah hē þā wīf and hira lȳtlingas, and cwæð, ‘hwæt synd ðās?’
[Then he looked at the women and their children, and said, ‘what are these?’]

Wīf might be singular or plural, but the context signals its number in two ways: first þā in the noun phrase þā wīf (singular would be þæt), and then the genitive plural pronoun hira referring backward to it (for the singular most writers would use feminine hire ‘her’ even though wīf is neuter).

6.2. More about strong nouns

6.2.1. Two-syllable nouns

Two-syllable nouns have syncopation (loss of a vowel) in the second syllable when the first syllable is long and an ending follows, as table 6.7 shows. The syncopated vowel often gets restored, so you should not be surprised to see enġeles or hēafodes.

Table 6.7. Two-syllable strong nouns
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative enġel ‘angel’ hēafod ‘head’ sāwol ‘soul’
genitive enġles hēafdes sāwle
dative enġle hēafde
plural nominative enġlas hēafdu sāwla, -e
genitive enġla hēafda sāwla
dative enġlum hēafdum sāwlum

6.2.2. Nouns with changes in the stem syllable

The consonant that ends a noun may change if an ending follows. A simple example of this kind of change is Modern English wolf, plural wolves. The same change, from an unvoiced to a voiced spirant ([f] to [v], [s] to [z], [θ] to [ð]), takes place in Old English whenever a voiced sound precedes and an ending follows, though this change is rarely reflected in the spelling.

In addition, as mentioned earlier, c alternates with ċ and g with ġ depending on whether the inflectional syllable contains a back vowel, and the sc pronounced [ʃ] (like Modern English sh) alternates with the sc pronounced [sk].

When an ending begins with a back vowel (a, o, u), æ or ea in a short root syllable becomes a. That is why dæġ ‘day’ alternates with dagas ‘days’ and ġeat ‘gate’ with gatu ‘gates’ in table 6.8. The a of the plural is sometimes changed back to æ or ea by analogy with the singular, so you will see æscas as well as ascas and hwælas ‘whales’ as well as hwalas.

Table 6.8. Masculines and neuters with changed stems
  masculine neuter
singular nominative dæġ ‘day’ æsc ‘ash tree’ ġeat ‘gate’
genitive dæġes æsces ġeates
dative dæġe æsce ġeate
plural nominative dagas ascas gatu
genitive daga asca gata
dative dagum ascum gatum

Feminines like sacu ‘strife’ should have -æ- rather than -a- in the root syllable before the ending -e: accusative singular sæce, etc. Such forms do occur, but one frequently finds -a- before -e as well.

Old English does not permit h to fall between voiced sounds; it is always dropped in that environment, and the preceding vowel is lengthened. The loss of h produces nouns like those in table 6.9.

Table 6.9. Masculines ending in h
singular nominative wealh ‘foreigner’ feoh ‘money’
genitive wēales fēos
dative wēale fēo
plural nominative wēalas
genitive wēala fēona
dative wēalum

A vowel at the beginning of an ending is always dropped when no consonant remains after the loss of h; so you’ll see forms like dative singular fēo. We expect the genitive plural to look exactly like the dative singular, but Old English resolves the ambiguity by borrowing the ending -ena from the weak declension.

6.2.3. Nouns with -w- or -ġ- before the ending

Some nouns add -w- or -ġ- before the ending; but when there is no ending the w appears as -u or -o (lost after a long syllable) and the ġ as -e. These nouns are illustrated in table 6.10.

Table 6.10. Nouns with -w- or -ġ-
  masculine neuter feminine
singular nominative here ‘army’ searu ‘skill’ beadu ‘battle’
accusative beadwe
genitive herġes searwes beadwe
dative herġe searwe
plural nominative herġas searu beadwa, -e
genitive herġa searwa beadwa
dative herġum searwum beadwum

Words like here are quite rare, and nouns with -w- are usually neuter or feminine. These nouns will cause you little trouble if you remember that the headword form in your glossary or dictionary lacks the -w-.

6.3. Minor declensions

The minor declensions contain relatively few nouns, but the ones they contain tend to be common. As a declension is disappearing from a language, the nouns it contains move into the major declensions. The last nouns to leave these minor declensions are usually the ones in daily use, like Modern English man/men, tooth/teeth and child/children, for the familiarity of the words keeps their inflections from coming to seem strange. So although the minor declensions contain few nouns, you are likely to encounter most of them in the course of your reading.

6.3.1. u-stem nouns

This declension contains only masculines and feminines, and they are declined alike. There is, on the other hand, a distinction between short stems and long stems in the nominative singular, so table 6.11 illustrates one short stem and one long stem without regard to gender.

Table 6.11. u-stem nouns
  short stem long stem
singular nominative sunu ‘son’ hand ‘hand’
genitive suna handa
plural nominative suna handa
genitive suna handa
dative sunum handum

Often u-stem nouns use a mix of forms, some of them being from the strong declensions. For example, winter was originally a u-stem, but one frequently sees strong genitive singular wintres.

6.3.2. Nouns of relationship

The nouns of relationship that end in -r belong here: fæder ‘father’, mōdor ‘mother’, brōðor ‘brother’, sweostor ‘sister’, dohtor ‘daughter’. These have endingless genitive singulars and usually i-mutation in the dative singular (table 6.12).

Table 6.12. Nouns of relationship
  masculine feminine
singular nominative brōðor ‘brother’ dohtor ‘daughter’
dative brēðer dehter
plural nominative brōðor dohtor
genitive brōðra dohtra
dative brōðrum dohtrum

The feminines here are exceptions to the rule that the genitive and dative singular must always be the same in feminine words. Fæder and mōdor have partly gone over to the strong declensions, in that the nominative/accusative plurals are fæderas and mōdra. Fæder and sweostor lack mutated vowels in the dative singular.

6.3.3. Nouns with -r- plurals

The -r- of Modern English children shows that it once belonged to this declension, and in fact we find a plural ċilderu or ċildra in early West Saxon and similar forms in some other dialects. But in late West Saxon the word ċild has gone over to the strong neuters. Several neuter nouns remain in this declension, though, even in late West Saxon (table 6.13). Like lamb are ċealf ‘calf’ and ǣġ ‘egg’. Scattered instances of other words (including ċild in early texts) show that this declension was once somewhat larger.

Table 6.13. Nouns with -r- plurals
  singular plural
nominative lamb ‘lamb’ lambru
genitive lambes lambra
dative lambe lambrum

6.3.4. Nouns with -þ- endings

The genitive/dative singular and all plural forms of these nouns contain the element -þ-, as you can see in table 6.14, which shows poetic words for ‘man, warrior’ and ‘maiden’.

Table 6.14. Nouns with -þ- endings
  masculine feminine
singular nominative hæle ‘man, warrior’ mæġþ ‘maiden’
genitive hæleþes
dative hæleþe
plural nominative hæleþ mæġþ
genitive hæleþa mæġþa
dative hæleþum mæġþum

In these nouns the -þ- element is in the process of being re-analyzed as part of the word itself rather than as part of the inflectional ending; that is why we find -þ- in the nominative singular (often for hæle, always for mæġþ). Other nouns belonging to this declension are ealu ‘ale’ (genitive/dative singular ealoþ) and mōnaþ ‘month’, which has entirely gone over to the strong nouns except in the nominative/accusative plural, where we find mōnaþ as well as mōnþas.