Revived Genders and Articles
This writ delves into English's older inflections (mainly those of nouns and adjectives) and how they might have developed if they had been kept to a greater extent.
The most obvious difference between Old English and New English is the amount of inflection present. The former has a great level of inflection and is comparable to modern German, whereas the latter has very few inflections.
Old English, like other Germanic tongues such as Dutch and German, had grammatical gender; there were three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and the gender of nouns did not need to correspond to the natural gender of what they referred to. For example:
- OE dæg (day) - masculine
- OE sunne (sun) - feminine
- OE scip (ship) - neuter
As in New English, Old English nouns were inflected for number. The main difference is that there was a greater variety in plural endings, and which ending was used depended on the noun's declension. For example:
- OE cyning (king) - cyningas (strong a-stem)
- OE oxa (ox) - oxan (weak)
- OE tōþ (tooth) - tēþ (i-mutation)
Old English also had extensive inflections for case. There were five: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, and instrumental. Nouns had different inflections for case on the basis of declension, e.g., the dative singular forms of cyning and oxa were cyninge and oxan, respectively. Each case had numerous functions, but to put it straightforwardly:
- The nominative is the case of the subject, e.g., sē cyning lufaþ þā cwēn. (the king loves the queen)
- The accusative is the case of the direct object, e.g., sē cyning lufaþ þā cwēn. (the king loves the queen)
- The dative is the case of the indirect object, e.g., sē cyning sende þām were ǣrendgewrit. (the king sent the man a letter)
- The genitive is the case that shows such relationships as possession or source, e.g., ic geseah þæs cyninges þeġn. (I saw the king's servant)
- The instrumental is the case that shows the means by which something is done, e.g., hē slōg þone wer grēate stāne. (he struck the man with a great stone)
In New English, only the nominative, the accusative, and the genitive have survived, and even then, only the accusative is distinct in the personal pronouns; the dative merged with the accusative, and the instrumental (which was formally indistinguishable from the dative in nouns) had become lost by Middle English times.
The definite article in Old English had many inflections to show gender, case, and number:
|Dative||þǣm, þām||þǣm, þām||þǣre||þǣm, þām|
|Instrumental||þȳ, þon||þȳ, þon||-||-|
If we were to slavishly update the phonetics of these words to suit Modern English, we might get the following.
|Dative||theam, thome||theam, thome||there||theam, thome|
|Instrumental||thy, thon||thy, thon||-||-|
The table above is a very conservative version of this idea, far more complex than any Germanic language today. Icelandic and German are more held back than most other European tongues, yet even they would not go so far as to hold an instrumental case. Indeed, I would call the above table the most conservative that the tongue could possibly be.
Let us for a moment delve into a less conservative version of this system. If we were to base it on what the forms became in Middle English's southern dialects, we might get the following.
- The s in se and seo became th by analogy.
- The accusative feminine was used in a few rare instances for the nominative in Middle English. For our purposes, it is supposed that speakers would have wanted to separate the feminine from the masculine in the nominative and so would have substituted the accusative for the nominative.
- The m in the Old English dative forms was reduced to n in Middle English, and so the dative form that would have become them ended up becoming then instead.
- The dative þām was used in the word forþām (a conjunction meaning because), which lived up to Early New English as the dialectal word forthen.
- The accusative and dative masculine already began to fall together in Middle English, so it can be assumed that the accusative and the dative would have merged into then.
- The plural nominative form lived up to Early New English in the form of tho as a plural demonstrative pronoun and adjective (essentially acting as an earlier form of those).
- The instrumental had already become formally indistinguishable with the dative in Old English nouns, and it had become functionally lost in Middle English. Remnants of instrumental forms are why and the in the more, the merrier.
- This table also assumes that the definite article can be used as a demonstrative; that became restricted as a demonstrative when it stopped being used as a neuter article, after which the lost its demonstrative use.
The above forms closely match the German definite article's forms, but the masculine nominative singular is the and not ther, which would correspond to German der, and the dative masculine and neuter is then instead of them, which would correspond to German dem. However, since the only current formal distinctions in nouns are in the genitive and the plural, the following is more realistic:
The modern pronunciation of thes would likeliest be /ðəz/. Since the word was naturally unstressed, the last consonant would have naturally become voiced, as seen in the plural and genitive ending -s and the genitive his. Likewise, from its being naturally unstressed, ther would be said as /ðər/ (as seen in other).
Keep in mind that the inflectional system had already been discarded in other dialects of Middle English. Chaucer's English had only one version of the, not unlike our English today. By the mid-14th century, the old forms had dropped out of the Southern dialects.
The indefinite article is much less exciting to delve into. Old English did not use an article to convey indefiniteness, but on some occasions, ān (a numeral meaning one) was used in a sense that could be translated as a certain. The declension of ān was:
In Middle English, the same word began to be used as an indefinite article, and an unstressed form developed. The original form became one, whereas the unstressed variant became an, and the two are now generally separated in their function.
Judging by the Middle English forms of an, we might have the following if the indefinite article were inflected for case as well.
The genitive form was also used as an adverb, and the adverb later became once, but one can see that it is more associated with the numeral than with the indefinite article, so we can have a separation between ans and once as well.
Let us see how nouns, which were more conservative, handled these cases in Early Middle English. Here is how stone (a strong a-stem) and ox were declined in Old English.
|Strong (stone)||Singular||Plural||Weak (ox)||Singular||Plural|
In Middle English, the inflectional endings' distinct vowels had already been reduced to e, and the dative plural ending was reduced to -en, whence the declension in the earlier parts of Middle English was:
|Strong (stone)||Singular||Plural||Weak (ox)||Singular||Plural|
But how did these declensions change over time in Middle English? For strong nouns, the declension became much less complicated. The dative plural and the genitive plural both came to have the same form as the nominative-accusative plural, and the dative singular became identical to the nominative-accusative singular. Since there was no longer any formal distinction between the accusative and the dative in nouns and pronouns, the accusative and dative cases merged into one accusative case, which yields us our modern declension.
For weak nouns, the -en forms were gradually forsaken, and so the distinction between strong and weak nouns became lost. Most weak nouns adopted the strong noun declension, whence the plural of tongue is no longer tonguen. The -en suffix is now found only as a plural ending in oxen, brethren, and children, but the genitive plural has adopted the strong genitive -s, and so the genitive plural of ox is oxen's.
Think about teachers' teacher's teachers and how none of those words are said differently, yet they mean unlike things, and are used in different places. While I think it would be lovely to bring back -en, nothing can be done about schwa. But what if the followed the above pattern in New English?
|Regular (stone)||Singular||Plural||Irregular (ox)||Singular||Plural|
|Nominative, Accusative||the stone||thoe stones||Nominative, Accusative||the ox||thoe oxen|
|Genitive||thes stones||ther stones||Genitive||thes oxes||ther oxens|
The definite article is enough to show which case and number the noun is, so there is no need for an apostrophe to betoken the genitive (but we can keep it for a few things like abbreviations and names of letters, e.g., Jr.'s, p's).
The Old English genitive could be placed before or after the noun to which it was attached; in effect, it was the equivalent to of the. The former order is seen in þæs cyninges brōþor (the king's brother), and the latter in heafod ealra haligra manna (head [leader] of all holy men; everything after heafod is genitive). The latter construction is the usual order in German, e.g., das Buch des Mannes (the man's book).
With the revived forms thes and ther, we have an alternative to the usual genitive order and the of construction. For example (the apostrophe marking the genitive is not used):
- That is the master's hat. > That is thes masters hat. / That is the hat thes masters.
- The blackbird's feathers > Thes blackbirds feathers / Thoe feathers thes blackbirds
- The bee's knees > Thes bees knees / Thoe knees thes bees
- I pull the cow's udders. > I pull thes cows udders. / I pull thoe udders thes cows.
Likewise, with ans, the indefinite article's revived genitive form:
- A man's tale > Ans mans tale / The tale ans mans
- A woman's house > Ans womans house / The house ans womans
Note that in English, in a series of words, the article can sometimes be left out, e.g., the king and (the) queen. However, since we wish to reserve the for the singular only, in our new system, the article must be repeated, i.e., the correct version is now the king and the queen.
As an exception, if the compound noun refers to the same thing, then the article is not repeated, e.g., the secretary and treasurer, a statesman and scholar (in each example, the compound noun refers to one person only). Of course, in some cases, the article may be kept, e.g., he is a statesman and (a) scholar (predicative nominative), Shakespeare, a playwright and (a) poet, is widely known (appositive).
Adjectives were declined to show agreement in case, number, and gender with the nouns that they modified. For example:
- NE a great king - OE grēat cyning
- NE great kings - OE grēate cyningas
- NE the great king - OE sē grēata cyning
- NE the great kings - OE þā grēatan cyningas
In Old English, adjectives had two declensions: strong and weak. The weak declension was used if the adjective were used alongside the definite article, a demonstrative adjective, or a possessive adjective; otherwise, the strong declension was used. Hence, in the last two above examples, the adjective was in the weak declension.
Let us see how the adjective good was declined in Old English and the early parts of Middle English.
|Case||Masculine||Neuter||Feminine||Mas. plural||Neu. plural||Fem. plural|
|Case||Masculine||Neuter||Feminine||Mas. plural||Neu. plural||Fem. plural|
As one can see, in the transition from Old English to Middle English, the vowel in all inflectional endings was reduced to e, and the dative plural ending was reduced to -en.
This system later broke down in Middle English, such that case and gender were no longer inflected for, and god and gode were the only forms used. The former was used only in the strong declension's singular number; the latter was used everywhere else. And of course, once last e was dropped, adjectives in general stopped being inflected except for degree.
Though we cannot bring back schwa, there are some forms that we can still use. Since nouns are inflected to show number and the genitive case, maybe we can have the following declension (the comparative and the superlative are shown as well):
|Nominative, Accusative||good, better, best||good, better, best|
|Genitive||goods, betters, bests||gooder, betterer, bester|
The forms are from the strong declension. In fact, the genitive plural ending, -er, survives in the obsolete word alderliefest (wherein alder is a corrupted form of aller, the genitive plural of all).
Using the definite article's revived inflectional forms, we get:
- the prideful lord's mind > thes pridefuls lords mind / the mind thes pridefuls lords
- the stronger knight's sword > thes strongers knights sword / the sword thes strongers knights
- the richest baker's house > thes richests bakers house / the house thes richests bakers
- the English businessmen's ships > ther Englisher businessmens ships / thoe ships ther Englisher businessmens
- the taller children's whining > ther tallerer childrens whining / the whining ther tallerer childrens
- the greatest castles' stewards > ther greatester castles stewards / thoe stewards ther greatester castles
Note: when an adjective is used as an abstract singular noun or a collective plural noun, the above inflections are used.
- The appeal of the sublime > Thes sublimes appeal / The appeal thes sublimes
- The belongings of the rich > Ther richer belongings / Thoe belongings ther richer
- The children of the poor > Ther poorer children / Thoe children ther poorer
Note that for a few, even though it contains the indefinite article, because it is followed by a plural noun, the genitive is a fewer; it helps to think of a few as afew. Likewise, the genitive version of a good / great many is a good / great manier (the phrase is treated as one word).
- A few men's tales > A fewer mens tales / The tales a fewer mens.
- A great many children's parents > A great manier childrens parents / The parents a great manier childrens.
For adjectives ending with er, the comparative (e.g., bitterer) would have -ererer as the genitive plural ending. Because this sounds rather awkward, we can allow contraction here, i.e., the genitive plural of bitterer is instead bittrerer.
English has two demonstratives: this (plural these) and that (plural those). The former was inflected for case, gender, and number in Old English, and so let us see what the forms for this were:
The feminine genitive, dative, and instrumental singular later had as a variant þissere, and the genitive plural þisra. Also, þǣs was used as an uncommon variant of þās. In the early parts of Middle English, the inflections had been leveled, so we get the following:
The plural form, thos, was later associated with tho, the plural of the and that, and an e was added to thos, which yielded those. As for the plural of this, a new form thes appeared, and it seems to have come from þǣs. The form became these, whence the current system of demonstratives.
If we adopt the genitive forms, then we can have this as the new declension for this:
We assume that the genitive plural would have been changed by analogy with the plural form.
As for that, the genitive forms would be the same as those of the in our new declension, since that was originally the neuter singular for the definite article and demonstrative. Since the and that are cleanly separated in New English, and it would be troublesome to let them have the same genitive forms, we can imagine the following new forms instead:
These forms are made by analogy with those of this, whose opposite that later became. However, keep in mind that there is no historical precedent whatsoever for these genitive forms.
In Old English, the numbers from one to three were declined. The new declension of one is easy to figure out; given the Old English forms, the genitive form would be ones, e.g., one man's trash is now ones mans trash or the trash ones mans.
The number two (which is always plural because of its meaning) is trickier to pinpoint. The Old English declension was:
The genitive had twēgra as an alternative. In Early Middle English, we have the following forms: tweien (which later became twain), two, tweire, and twom. The genitive form would have likely become twair.
Interestingly, twain has survived, despite Middle English's breakdown of gender. It would be rather interesting to have both twain and two be used on the basis of the noun's gender, e.g., twain men, two women, two houses. But since no other adjective is now inflected to show gender, and the two words had already become mere synonyms in Middle English, we ought not to follow this distinction.
As for three, the Old English declension was:
In Early Middle English, the following forms survived: thre (among variants), threm from the dative. The genitive had not survived, but would have likely become threer.
To put it all together, the declension for the numbers 1, 2, and 3 is:
|Nominative, Accusative||one||two, three|
The other numbers were only occasionally inflected in Old English, and their genitive ending was -a, which would have become -e in Middle English and then would have disappeared since we no longer have last schwa. Hence, all numbers starting from four are indeclinable, which happens to mostly match how Latin (a highly inflected tongue) does it.
- The two men's hats > Ther twair mens hats / Thoe hats ther twair mens
- The three brothers' home > Ther threer brothers home > The home ther threer brothers
- But: The four women's clothes > Ther four womens clothes > Thoe clothes ther four womens
Note: when a number is used by itself with its adjectival meaning, then it is still conjugated like an adjective.
- The two's houses are red. > Ther twair houses are red / Thoe houses ther twair are red.
- The man took the three's book. > The man took ther threer book / The man took the book ther threer.
But when it is used as a noun referring to the number itself, it is declined like any other noun.
- The three's (3's) font is unfitting. > Thes threes font is unfitting. / The font thes threes is unfitting.
In Old English, ordinal numbers were always declined weak, the lone exception being ōþer (which meant second and became other). Because other has a different meaning now, many Anglishers resort to such formations as twoth (two + -th as in fourth) and twithe (twi- as in twilight). For our purposes, we shall use twithe.
In any case, we suppose that the ordinals would now be declined like other adjectives, and so the declension for the first three ordinals is:
|Nominative, Accusative||first, twithe, third||first, twithe, third|
|Genitive||firsts, twithes, thirds||firster, twither, thirder|
The Old English genitives of the first and second persons were mīn, þīn, ūre, and ēower, and from them were gotten the possessive adjectives, which were always declined in the strong declension.
What exactly is the difference between genitive pronouns and possessive adjectives? It is apparent in more inflectional speeches such as German, Icelandic, and Latin. For instance, in Latin, possession is expressed with the genitives of nouns, but for personal pronouns, possessive adjectives are used instead, e.g., the Latin for my father is pater meus. But the genitives of the personal pronouns are used for other functions of the genitive such as the the objective genitive, e.g., odium meī (my hatred; that is, hatred directed at me).
In Old English, a similar distinction was found; the possessive adjectives were used to show possession, but the genitives were used with certain verbs, adjectives, and prepositions, and showed other functions of the genitive such as the partitive genitive, e.g., ēowerum heortum (your hearts; ēower is declined as an adjective), ān ēower (one of you; ēower is not declined, as it is a genitive).
In Middle English, mine and thine gradually lost their n, which yielded my and thy, and the older forms were kept as absolute forms (in older modern speech, they were also used before nouns beginning with vowels, e.g., mine eyes, thine opinion). Using the old inflected forms for the Old English possessive adjectives, we might have the following declensions for my, thy, our, and your (if we treat them as adjectives and not genitives):
|Nominative, Accusative||my, thy, our, your||my, thy, our, your|
|Genitive||mines, thines, ours, yours||miner, thiner, ourer, yourer|
Of course, an alternative option is that we treat them as the genitives of the personal pronouns instead and give them no inflections.
His and her were not possessives in Old English; instead, they were the genitives of the third-person singular masculine, feminine, and neuter pronouns. Its was a later innovation, and their is a Scandinavian loanword (the native equivalent might have become here). Occasionally in Old English and Early Middle English, his and the old genitive plural were inflected as possessive adjectives, but on the whole, they were not inflected. Hence, we can simply keep them uninflected and treat them as genitives of the third-person pronouns.
In English, we inflect the genitive noun nearer the head noun, e.g., King Alfred's castle, John the butler's cat. In Old English, however, both the genitive noun and the title were inflected, e.g., Ælfrēdes cyninges (literally Alfred's king's). However, the practice of having both nouns be explicitly inflected for the genitive likely would have been dropped; even in modern German, there are many instances where only one of the two is inflected. Using the German system as a basis, we can thus come up with a few rules for inflecting titles with genitive nouns.
Title: noun, e.g., King Alfred's castle:
- Title + Name + Head noun - only the name is inflected, i.e., King Alfreds castle.
- Head noun + Title + Name - only the name is inflected, i.e., the castle King Alfreds.
Title: definite article + noun / adjective, e.g., Edward the Confessor's death, Ivan the Terrible's mother:
- Name + Title + Head noun - only the title is inflected, i.e., Edward thes Confessors death, Ivan thes Terribles mother.
- Title + Name + Head noun - both are inflected, i.e., thes confessors Edwards death, thes terribles Ivans mother.
- Head noun + Name + Title - only the title is inflected, i.e., the death Edward thes Confessors, the mother Ivan thes Terribles.
- Head noun + Title + Name - only the title is inflected, i.e., the death thes confessors Edward, the mother thes terribles Ivan.
In short, if the title has no definite article, the name is always inflected. But if the title has one, and the name does not go right before the head noun, then the name remains uninflected.
There is one exception: if the apposition between the nouns is nonessential, then both may be inflected, regardless of position, e.g., William Shakespeare('s), an Englishman's, works becomes William Shakespeare(s), ans Englishmans, works or the works William Shakespeare(s), ans Englishmans.
Also, if two common nouns are in apposition, both must be inflected since the apposition must be nonessential, e.g., this book is the professor's, an Englishman's becomes this book is thes professors, ans Englishmans (Englishman is in apposition to professor).
So far, all the newly revived inflections have mainly been about the genitive case, since they are handy for helping us distinguish which case and which number the word teachers is in spoken speech. This fits the number of distinguishable cases for nouns. However, for personal pronouns, there are three clearly distinguishable cases, as they have special forms for the accusative. What if we extend our inflectional system to show the accusative as well, then? Let us see what our newly revived accusative forms, based on the forms given above, would be:
- Definite article: then (/ðən/)
- Indefinite article: annen
- Demonstratives: thissen, thatten, thesen, and thosen
- Adjective (e.g., good): gooden, bettern, besten
- Numerals: onen, twom, threem (all other numerals are uninflected)
All the above forms (except thatten, thesen, and thosen, which we have formed by analogy) are what the early Middle English inflections for the accusative would have likely become. As one can see, the accusative ending is mainly -en; the -m in some forms is etymologically from the dative, but in all likelihood, they would have become used for the accusative later (as him is used for the accusative, even though it was originally used only for the dative). The same accusative inflections are used for both numbers.
Our modern noun declension came from the strong noun declension, which often did not distinguish the accusative from the nominative; only in the feminine singular was the accusative distinguishable from the nominative, but such forms were later leveled with the nominative forms because the distinct vowels were all reduced to e. Hence, there is no accusative ending to bring back for nouns.
The accusative acts as the object of verbs and prepositions and is more or less simple to use.
- I saw the man. > I saw then man.
- Bob does not like this music. > Bob does not like thissen music.
- The thief stole a green book. > The thief stole annen greenen book.
- The woman gave the man a kiss. > The woman gave then man annen kiss.
- I want to see something fun. > I want to see something funnen.
The accusative is also used as the complement of factitive verbs.
- We made him the leader. > We made him then leader.
- I thought her a fool. > I thought her annen fool.
- He called us hard workers. > He called us harden workers.
- I made her very happy. > I made her very happien.
- I deemed him unworthy. > I deemed him unworthien.
Accusatives in apposition to each other are inflected.
- I saw Elizabeth, then Britishen queen.
Retained objects (which are found in the passive voice construction) are also accusative.
- I was given a cheap book. > I was given annen cheapen book.
- He was asked a weird question. > He was asked annen weirden question.
- She was told the sad tale. > She was told then sadden tale.
Also, expressions such as good morning are in the accusative, i.e., they are now gooden morning and so forth (compare them with the German guten Morgen). The reason is that they were originally shortened forms of such expressions as I wish you a good morning, whence the accusative form for the adjective.
There is one slightly tricky part, however: whenever a noun is used as an adverb, it is of the accusative case, and so any adjectives, articles, demonstratives, and numerals are inflected accordingly.
- I walked three miles. > I walked threem miles.
- Many days later, the king came to town. > Manien days later, the king came to town.
- I will catch him the next time I see him. > I will catch him then nexten time I see him.
- The whole journey, Sam complained. > Then wholen journey, Sam complained.
- I headed over to Japan that fateful day. > I headed over to Japan thatten fatefullen day.
Note that words such as this, that, much, and so forth, when used as ordinary adverbs by themselves, are not inflected.
- I swear to you that the beast was this high.
- He cannot be that stupid.
- I did not like it much.
- I little enjoyed the show.
- He came early.
In short, the accusative case's functions are:
- Objects of verbs and prepositions.
- Complement of factitive verbs.
- Apposition to accusative.
- Retained objects.
- Elliptical expressions such as good morning.
- Adverbial accusatives.