Cases, Inflection, and Pronouns

Cases and Inflection

Consider the following sentence: "The girl saw the dog". How can you tell that this sentence does not mean that the dog is seeing the girl? The answer is obvious to an English speaker. "Girl" comes before the verb, and "dog" comes after it, and this arrangement tells us that the "girl" is performing the action of verb, and the "dog" is receiving the action. We say that the one who is performing the action of the verb is the "subject" of the verb. So "girl" is the "subject" of "saw". The dog, however, is the "object" of the verb, since it's the object of the action. And in English, we generally show these functions -- subject and object -- by position relative to the verb. The subject of the verb tends to come before the verb, the object tends to come after it.

But position isn't the only way we show which word is the subject and object of a verb. Now consider this sentence: "Him I like, them I despise". Obviously this sentence has an usual arrangement for rhetorical purposes, but how can you tell who is doing what to whom? Even though English grammar shows grammatical relationship between words in a sentence mainly by position, in many instances a change in the word itself provides you additional help. The word "him", although it comes first in the sentence, is not the subject because its form -- "him" instead of "he" -- is not the one used to indicate that it's the subject of the verb. We use the form "he" to show that. Furthermore, the word "I" is the form we use when the first person is subject of the verb. Hence, the words "he" and "I" change their forms as their grammatical function in the sentence changes. The change in form of a word to show grammatical functions is called "inflection".

The English personal pronouns change quite a lot to show you how they're being used in the sentence. Watch.

                          FORM            FUNCTION

                          I               subject
                          me              object (something is
                                          being done to it)
                          my              possessor (it owns
First Person Pronoun
                          we              subject
                          us              object
                          our             possessor

                          you             subject
                          you             object
                          your            possessor
Second Person Pronoun
                          you             subject
                          you             object
                          your            possessor

                          he,she,it       subject
                          him,her,it      object
                          his,her,its     possessor
Third Person Pronoun
                          they            subject
                          them            object
                          their           possessor

This inflection (change of form to show grammatical function) in the pronouns is very useful for helping us to understand each other -- although, as you can see, the second person pronoun "you, etc" doesn't inflect nearly so much as the first and third. The plural forms are even identical to the singular forms. We can still get by.

In English, inflection is rather limited, and we rely on position mainly to tell us what the words in the sentence are doing to each other. The only grammatical functions that involve a change in form for all nouns is the possessive case and the plural forms, where we attach an "-s" to the end of the word. (In written English we even include an apostrophe "'" mark to help us see the difference between a pluralized noun and a noun that's in the possessive case.) For example

            SINGULAR                          PLURAL

     apple           subject           apples          subject
     apple           object            apples          object
     apple's         possessor       apples'         possessor

Watch how we combine position with inflection in English to make sense to one another. As you can see, position is the principal guide.

"These apples' [plural, possessor] cores are hard, but apples [plural, subject] are usually soft. When you [singular, subject] buy apples [plural, object], you [singular, subject] should first pick up each apple [object, singular] and bounce it [singular, object] off the floor several times. Then check its [singular, possessor] skin. If it [singular, subject] is bruised, discretely put it [singular, object] back with the other apples [plural, object], making certain that no one [singular, subject] is watching you [singular, object]".

Unlike English, languages which rely primarily on inflection of words to show grammatical relationship are called "inflected" languages. Modern English, though it has some inflection, is not an inflected language. Old English, is more inflected than Modern English but less inflected than Latin. It relies partly on changes in the words themselves to indicate their grammatical function in a sentence, and partly on other things like word order.

The different grammatical functions a word can have in a sentence is called "case". In Modern English there are three recognizable different cases, that is grammatical functions, a word can have: the subjective case, the possessive case, and the objective case. So we say there are three cases in Modern English. In Old English there are four difference cases. Here are the Old English cases. (Don't try to memorize them all at once here. Just read through the list; there will be plenty of time to firm up your familiarity of them.)


           Nominative         (Subjective)
      Accusative          (Objective Case)
      Genitive            (Possessive Case)
      Dative              (Object of words like "to" or "for")

Compare this with the six case that exist in Latin:


           Nominative     (Subjective)
     Accusative     (Objective Case)
     Genitive       (Possessive Case)
     Dative         (Object of words like "to" or "for")
     Ablative       (Adverbial Usages: "by", "with")
     Vocative       (Direct Address)

We'll look at the way these cases are used in Old English in the next part of these notes, although some of them won't be difficult at all: the nominative, genitive, and accusative cases are almost the same as their English counterparts. The dative will need some explanation. Before then, however, let's look at how a Old English noun inflects to show all these different cases.

Let's look at some Modern English pronouns which inflect to show the three different cases. Do you remember "they, them, their, ?" The pronoun is inflecting through its different cases, but we can definitely spot a pattern of similarity among the three forms. There is a definite root of the word. The root (that is, the part of the word that contains the meaning of the word) is "the-" to which then the endings "-y", "-m" and "-ir". So we could say that the word is inflecting by adding certain case endings to a stem. The stem contains the core of the meaning of the word, and the endings merely inflect or alter its grammar.


Personal Pronouns

So how does this work in Old English. Let's look again at the personal pronouns:

              MODERN ENGLISH  CASE            OLD ENGLISH

1st Person
Singular      I               Nominative      ic
              me              Accusative      me, mec
              my (mine)       Genitive        min
              me              Dative          me

Plural        we              Nominative      we
              us              Accusative      us
              our             Genitive        ure
              us              Dative          us

2nd Person
Singular      you  (thou)     Nominative      u
              you  (thee)     Accusative      e, ec
              your (thine)    Genitive        in
              you  (thee)     Dative          e

Plural        you             Nominative      ge
              you             Accusative      eow
              your            Genitive        eower
              you             Dative          eow

3rd Person
Singular      he              Nominative      he
              him             Accusative      hine
              his             Genitive        his
              him             Dative          him

              she             Nominative      heo, hio
              her             Accusative      hie, hi
              her             Genitive        hire
              her             Dative          hire

              it              Nominative      hit
              it              Accusative      hit
              its             Genitive        his
              it              Dative          him

Plural        they            Nominative      hie, hi
              them            Accusative      hie, hi
              their           Genitive        hira, hiera, heora, hiora
              them            Dative          him, heom

Old English also has another type of personal pronoun which has not survived into Modern English. These pronouns cover the special case of two people, as in "we two went to the cinema" or "you two went to the cinema". These two phrases sound correct in Modern English. However, consider the phrase "they two went to the cinema". This does not sound correct. Similarly in Old English the dual pronouns can only be used for the first and second persons. Their forms are shown below:

              MODERN ENGLISH  CASE            OLD ENGLISH

1st Person
Dual          we two          Nominative      wit
                              Accusative      unc
                              Genitive        uncer
                              Dative          unc

2nd Person
Dual          you two         Nominative      git
                              Accusative      inc
                              Genitive        incer
                              Dative          inc


A language whose nouns show their grammatical function in the sentence by changes in the noun itself, and not by position, is called an inflected language. The different grammatical functions a language recognises are called cases. In Modern English, there are three cases. They are the subjective, the possessive, and the objective. In Old English there are four cases. They are the nominative, accusative, genitive and dative cases. In Latin, there are six: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative. Thus Old English is more inflected than Modern English, but less so than Latin.

Translation Of The Cases

Before considering nouns in more detail, I'm going to give you now is just the bare outline of how the cases can be translated into English. There will be plenty of time for further refinement in the future -- and we'll have to do some refinement -- but for the time being, these guide lines will get you well on your way.

Nominative Case

A noun in the nominative case is often the subject of a verb. For example, in the English sentence "The tree fell on my car", the "tree" is in the nominative case because it's the subject of the verb "fell". If this were an Old English (or Latin) sentence, the word tree would be in the nominative case form. The rule of thumb for now is that if you see a noun in the nominative case, try to translate it as the subject of the verb in its sentence.

Accusative Case

The noun which is directly affected by the action of a verb is put into the accusative case. In English we call this case the "direct object" which is a little more descriptive of its function. It's the direct object of some action. In the example above, the "ball" is in the accusative case because it's the direct object of George's action of giving. In Old English, therefore, the word for ball would have the characteristic accusative case ending attached to its stem. The accusative case is also used after some prepositions, but we'll look at that later.

Genitive Case

This case shows that one noun belongs to another noun. The noun which is the owner is put into the genitive case. Like this in English: "The car's door is open". "Door" is the nominative case because it's the thing which is open -- it's the subject of the verb "is" -- and the door belongs to the car, so "car's" is put into the genitive case. So for now, every time you see the genitive case, translate the noun with the English preposition "of" or use the genitive marker "'s". For example, if the Old English word dure is in the genitive case, translate it either as "the door's" or "of the door".

Dative Case

The dative case shows that a noun is indirectly affected by the action of the sentence. Take for example, in the English sentence "George gave the ball to the girl". George is the subject of "give" and the thing George is giving is the "ball". So the thing most directly affected by George's action is the ball. It's the direct recipient of the action. But George then gave the ball to the girl, so the girl is also being affected, but only indirectly. Therefore, the girl is the "indirect object" of the action of the sentence. English can also indicate the indirect object simply by position: by putting the indirect object before the direct object. Like this: George gave the girl the ball. In Old English, the word for "girl" would be in the dative case, and so would have the dative case ending of the declension to which the word "girl" belongs. So the form would be "puellae". Again, a rough rule of thumb: when you see the dative case, try to translate it with the prepositions "to" or "for" and see which of the two makes the most sense.

So let's put all this together into a chart you can use when you're translating a Old English sentence. The sooner you've memorized this guidelines, the easier it'll be for you to work through Old English sentences:

the subject of a verb
the direct object of a verb or object of a preposition
use "of" or "-'s" ("-s'") for the plural
use "to" or "for", or put the noun before the direct object

Demonstrative Pronouns

Consider the following expressions:

                this man        that man
                these men       those men 

The words "this", "these", "that", and "those" are obviously telling you a little something more about "man" or "men ". They are indicating the relative spacial location "man" or "men " have to the speaker. When we say "this man" or the plural "these men", we are referring to the man or men which are nearby: "this man right here"; "these men right here". For the most part, when we say "that man" or "those men", we mean men which are some distance from us: "that man over there", or "those men over there". It would sound odd for someone to say "that man right here" or "these men way over there". So the words "this", "these", "that", and "those", are telling us more about the words they're attached to; that is, they qualify or modify their nouns. And we call words which modify other nouns "adjectives".

As you know, in Modern English adjectives hardly ever change their form to "agree" with the thing they're modifying.
                     "tall tree" and "tall trees"
                     "bad boys" and "bad girls"

This is different from Old English adjectives, which must change endings to show the different numbers, genders, and cases of the nouns they modify. But look again at the adjectives "this" and "that". When the nouns they modify become plural, the adjective itself changes form: from "this" to "these"; from "that" to "those". These two are the only adjectives in Modern English which actually change their forms to match a grammatical feature of the nouns they're modifying. They have slightly different forms to indicate a change in number of the nouns they modify.

So, these words are adjectives, since they qualify nouns, and since their main purpose is to "point out" the nouns, we call them "demonstrative adjectives" because they "point out" or "point to" (Latin "demonstrare"). This is very important to remember: these words are "demonstrative adjectives".

So let's start with the demonstrative se "that". Its forms are:

The words this, an, that, and the all qualify their nouns in some way. It is worth looking at the different ways that they operate:

this man a unique man here
that man a unique man somewhere else
a man any man -
the man a unique man -
We now know how to say "this", "that", "these" and "those". But what about "the" or "a"? How do we say these in Old English?

The demonstrative se in Old English serves a dual purpose. It can be used as a definite article (Modern English the), or it can be used as the demonstrative pronoun that.

Hwa is the interrogative "who?" or "what?". It can also be used as the indefinite "anyone, someone". Its forms are: