Table of Contents

Chapter 6: Word Order and Cases

Now that you have made yourself familiar with the parts of speech and the way different types of words function in a sentence to make meaning, we are ready to move on to Old English itself.

Modern English is what is called an analytic language. For the most part, it uses the order of words in a sentence to indicate grammatical and logical relationships.


The dog ate the cat

means something very different from

The cat ate the dog.

Both sentences are made up of the same words, but they mean totally different things. Why? Because we have used the arrangement of words in the sentence to specify which word is the subject and which is the direct object.

In the first example, we know that "dog" is the subject of the sentence because it comes before the verb. Likewise, we know that "cat" is the object of the sentence (it receives the action) because it comes after the verb ("ate").

Things didn't work exactly this way in Old English.

Old English (like Latin, Greek, Russian and many other languages) is an inflected language. Instead of relying on word order to indicate relationships, Old English attaches endings to each word to indicate relationships. These endings are called inflections.

Different endings mark words as subjects (the thing performing an action), direct objects (things directly receiving the action), indirect objects (things indirectly receiving the action), objects of prepositions, and genitives (things possessed by other things).

(If you aren't sure you completely understand these different word functions, go back to the previous chapter and look over the explanations. If you haven't already, you can do some practice exercises).

Because word endings indicate grammatical relationships, word order is not nearly as important in Old English as it is in Modern English. Therefore words in a sentence can be arranged in various ways without changing the meaning of a sentence (there are of course some limits in this flexibility. The study of these rules and regularities is the field of Old English syntax. In general, syntax in poetry is more flexible than syntax in prose).

Thus, in Old English

Dog+(subject ending) ate cat+(object ending).

means exactly the same thing as:

Cat+(object ending) ate dog+(subject ending).

and also the same thing as:

Ate dog+(subject ending) cat+(object ending).

and also the same as:

cat+(object ending) dog+(subject ending) ate.

On the other hand,

Dog+(object ending) ate cat+(subject ending)

means something entirely different.

Don't panic: we do in fact use endings in Modern English to indicate grammatical function (think of "-ing", "-tion", "-ly", "-y" and others).

To understand Old English, you do not need to learn (very much) about word order. You do, however, need to learn your endings and their grammatical functions. Here are some exercises to practice using endings to determine the sense of a sentence.

Endings for nouns, pronouns and adjectives in Old English are divided into five categories of grammatical function called cases. A list and brief description is given below. Click on each case for further information.

Nominative: The naming case, the nominative is used for subjects and for predicate nominatives (words that rename the subject of a sentence).

Genitive: The possession case, the genitive case is used to indicate ownership.

Accusative: The direct object case, the accusative is used to indicate direct receivers of an action. The accusative case also indicates "motion towards," can be the object of a preposition such as "to," and can indicate the passage of time.

Dative / Instrumental: The indirect object and prepositional case, the dative/instrumental is used to indicate indirect receivers of action and objects of prepositions. The dative is also used to indicate the locations of non-moving objects (locative dative) and the instrumental identifies things that are being used ("instruments").

A list of all the possible endings for a word is called a declension. In Old English, nouns, pronouns and adjectives are all declined; that is, they change their endings based upon their grammatical function (or the grammatical function of the words they modify) in the sentence.

We use cases in Modern English when we use "he" or "she" as the subject of a sentence but "him" or "her" as the direct object (similarly, "who" for subjects and "whom" for objects). In Old English cases are used more consistently and logically than in Modern English.

The Nominative Case

(words in the Nominative are marked in navy blue)

The Nominative is the naming case, used for the subject of the sentence.

Nominative nouns can be singular:

Alfred is my name.

"Alfred" is the subject of the sentence, so "Alfred" would be in the nominative.

or plural:

The brothers divided the kingdom.

"Brothers" is the subject of the sentence, so "brothers" would be in the nominative case.

In Old English, nouns, pronouns and adjectives can all take the nominative case.

If the main noun is in the nominative, the pronouns and adjectives grammatically related to that noun will also be in the nominative. This principle is called case agreement among nouns, demonstratives and adjectives.

That great king ruled the kingdom.

"King" is the subject of the sentence, so it is in the nominative. "That" and "great" describe "king", so they are also in the nominative.

Having "that" and "great" in the nominative as well as "king" is an example of case agreement among adjectives, pronouns and nouns.

Note: Dictionaries and glossaries list words in their nominative forms.

The Genitive Case

(words that would be in the genitive case in Old English are marked in green)

The Genitive is the possession case, used to indicate that one thing is owned by, controlled by, or connected to or part of another.

In Modern English we indicate genitives by using apostrophe-s ('s) or the preposition "of".

Alfred's kingdom was famous.

This sentence can also be phrased:

The kingdom of Alfred was famous.

The kingdom is the subject of the sentence and is in the nominative case.

Because the kingdom belongs to Alfred, "Alfred" is in the genitive case.

Genitives can be singular (as above) or plural:

The swords of the men were sharp.

This sentence can also be phrased:

The men's swords were sharp.

In Old English, adjectives and pronouns can also take the genitive case:

His sword was sharp. (or, The sword of him was sharp.)

The power of that large kingdom was great.

"Sword" and "power" are the subjects of the sentences, so they are in the nominative case.

"His" is a genitive pronoun referring to the sword.

"Of his large kingdom" is a a phrase composed of a demonstrative pronoun ("that") an adjective ("large") and a noun ("kingdom"), all in the genitive and all of which refer to the word "power".

Having "that," "large," and "kingdom" in the genitive case is an example of an example of case agreement among adjectives, pronouns and nouns.

In Old English, adjectives and pronouns also can take the Instrumental Case if they are linked to an instrumental noun (or, if they are stand-alone pronouns, if they are being used as an instrument).

Alfred killed the Viking with that trusty sword

"Alfred" is the subject of the sentence because he is performing the action.

"sword" is the means by which the action was accomplished, so it is in the instrumental case.

"that" is a demonstrative pronoun the refers to the sword, so it is in the instrumental case.

"Trusty" is an adjective that, because it refers to the sword (which is the means by which the action is accomplished) is also in the instrumental case.

Having "that" and "trusty" in the instrumental case as well as "sword" is an example of case agreement among adjectives, pronouns and nouns.

Quick Review of Cases

The endings on a word indicate which case it belongs to. In turn, the case indicates what function the word is performing in the sentence, whether it is the subject (nominative), the direct object (accusative), the indirect object or object of a preposition (dative), or if it is a possessive (genitive) form

Click here for some exercises to practice recognizing cases.

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