Diachrone Inflection - An Outline of the Development of the Inflectional System from Old English to Modern English

Seminar Paper, 2006

28 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Diachrone Inflection

2. Old English
2.1. Nouns
2.1.1. Case and gender.
2.1.2. Noun declension of nouns with vowel stems
2.1.3. Noun declension of nouns with consonant stems
2.1.3. Forms of the definite article “the”
2.2. Adjectives
2.2.1. Adjectival declension of adjectives modifying masculine nouns
2.2.2. Adjectival declension of adjectives modifying feminine nouns
2.2.3. Adjectival declension of adjectives modifying neuter nouns
2.2.4. Comparative and superlative
2.3. Personal pronouns
2.4. Verbs
2.4.1. Present conjugation: indicative and subjunctive
2.4.2. Conjugation of weak verbs
2.4.3. Conjugation of strong verbs
2.4.4. Preterite conjugations

3. Middle English
3.1. Nouns
3.2. Adjectives
3.3. Personal Pronouns
3.4. Verbs
3.4.1. Present conjugations: indicative and subjunctive
3.4.2. Preterite conjugations

4. Early Modern English
4.1. Nouns
4.2. Adjectives
4.3. Personal Pronouns
4.4. Verbs

5. Modern English

6. Summary

7. Bibliography

1. Diachrone Inflection

Diachrone analyses of a language analyze the state of a language at different periods of time or its development throughout time.

Today English is a language that is almost uninflected, but this has not always been the case. The Old English language had many inflectional distinctions, which got almost totally lost throughout time.

In this research paper I will show the different states of the inflectional system in the Old, Middle, Early Modern and Modern English. Furthermore, there will be shown and clarified the dramatic loss of inflectional distinctions in the English language.

The tables in this research paper are partly adapted from books, partly slightly modified and partly created on my own by summarizing information of texts or results of this research paper in a table.

2. Old English

The Old English period lasts from about 450 to 1150. Nevertheless, there is hardly any documentation before 700. The earliest texts are glossaries of Latin words that were translated into English as well as inscriptions and a few poems. And even of these texts only a few have survived (Jucker 15).

In contrast to Modern English, Old English makes use of morphs that carry more than one unit of lexical or grammatical information for the inflection of words (Singh 78) and has far more inflectional endings. Furthermore Old English distinguishes different grammatical features of nouns/adjectives/pronouns and verbs than Modern English. For example, Old English distinguishes between indicative and subjunctive mood with verbs and different cases with nouns, but does not mark the passive, the perfect or the future through inflection (Fischer 40; Jucker 27-28):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(* There was also made a distinction between weak and strong adjectives)

(** Instrumentals occured in certain parts of the adjective and pronoun declension (Fischer 40) )

In the following chapters the focus will be on the expression of these grammatical features and more precisely on the declension of nouns, adjectives and pronouns as well as on the conjugation of verbs.

2.1. Nouns

2.1.1. Case and gender

Since the distinctions of case and gender do not exist any more in Modern English these distinctions shall be briefly explained here.

The cases that exist in the declension of nouns are nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. Each case has a separate inflectional ending (case ending) which indicates “the function of relationship of words to other words in the sentence” (Culpeper 48):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(source: Culpeper 48)

When we talk about gender we must be aware of the fact that the gender of a word must not necessarily be the same as the gender of the object or person that it expresses. The noun “wif” (“woman”, “wife”) was despite of all its femaleness neuter and referred to as “hit” (“it”). Nevertheless there is a general tendency of congruency.

There can be made a general distinction between two categories of nouns: “human animates” (e.g. man, woman, boy, girl) and “non-animated” (e.g. table, chair, house, street). In the category of “human animates” words generally have a natural gender (e.g. “guma” (“man”) masculine), whereas words belonging to the category of “non-animates” have a grammatical gender that is rather arbitrary (e.g. “boc” (“book”) is feminine) (Singh 79-80).

2.1.2. Declension of nouns with vowel stems

Nouns were inflected according to which stem-group they belonged to in proto-Germanic. (Singh 81)

First of all we can take a look at nouns with vowel stems (the proto-Germanic translations are taken from Robert Longman’s website “A Proto-Germanic wordhoard” <http://members.aol.com/rlongman1/protoger.html>).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(source: Fischer 40)

As it can be relatively clearly be seen, the Modern English possessive suffix –‘s as well as the plural suffix –s derive from the Old English masculine a-stem declension (Singh 82).

2.1.3. Declension of nouns with consonant stems

The second declension group includes words that belong to a consonant stem.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(source: Fischer 40)

The n-stem plural is still used in Modern English but there are only single examples like oxen or the very restricted brethren (Singh 82).

2.1.4. Definite article “the”

Like nouns also the definite articles that were linked to them had to be declined. In the singular there are different articles for masculine, feminine and neuter words, in the plural (like in Modern German) the forms are identical for all three genders. A striking feature of Old English definite articles and their inflected forms is that they strongly resemble the Modern German articles (Jucker 26).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(source: Jucker 27)

In this table the initial letter ð was changed to þ because the second variation can be found more often in the literature (Fischer 41; Singh 83).

(note: for the letter ǣ the font Arial Unicode was used because this letter does not exist in Times New Roman)

2.2. Adjectives

Like the definite article “the” also adjectives had to “show agreement with the case, gender, and number of the nouns they modified”. (Another similarity to the definite articles is that all three genders have the same endings for weak forms in the plural.) There has to be made a distinction between strong and weak forms of adjectives. Weak forms are used for the expression of definite or specific entities (e.g. the tall man, my lovely wive, this sharp sword). Strong forms are used when there is no specific reference (e.g. sharp swords, a sharp sword) (Singh 83).

There are different strong and weak adjectival declensions for adjectives that modify a masculine, feminine or neuter noun. These declensions are described in the next three chapters; the inflectional endings are in bold. For the different declensions the adjective “dol” (foolish) is used as an example along with the nouns cyning (king, masculine, a-stem), ides (woman, feminine, o-stem) and cild (child, neuter, r-stem). The following tables include information both from Fischer and Singh

2.2.1. Declension of adjectives modifying masculine nouns

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(sources: Fischer 41, Singh 83).


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Diachrone Inflection - An Outline of the Development of the Inflectional System from Old English to Modern English
University of Innsbruck  (Department of English)
English Word Formation
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Diachrone, Inflection, Outline, Development, Inflectional, System, English, Modern, English, Word, Formation, Verbs, Nouns, Adjectives
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Stefan Hinterholzer (Author), 2006, Diachrone Inflection - An Outline of the Development of the Inflectional System from Old English to Modern English, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/65852


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