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Language Class 2: Nouns and Case

Nouns can be either common or proper, and either abstract or concrete:

Common nouns name general things, while proper nouns name specific (often unique) things. These terms can refer to many different categories - people (a teacher, Anna), places (a city, Oxford), times (a month, February), companies (a newsagent, W H Smith), products (a computer, a Compaq).

Concrete nouns name things that can be experienced with one or more of the senses, while abstract nouns name things which cannot be experienced in these ways, such as emotions, feelings or qualities.

Pronouns are words that substitute for a noun or noun phrase. In Modern English, they include I/me/mine, we/us/ours, etc. There are many different types of pronoun, and we will look at them in depth later in the course.

In inflected languages, elements of Noun Phrases (nouns, pronouns, determiners, adjectives) can vary in form in order to express their relationships within a sentence - as subject or object of a verb, or as attribute to a noun, for example. These variations are referred to as "cases".

Old English has four main cases - the nominative, the accusative, the genitive, and the dative - plus a little-used fifth, the instrumental.

Abbreviations used: n = nominative; a = accusative; g = genitive; d = dative; i = instrumental; s = singular; p = plural. So ns. = nominative singular; gp. = genitive plural.


1. Subject in a clause
2. Complement in a clause
3. Vocative
[1. se (ns.)] bið [2. godes (gs.) wiðersaca (ns.)]
he is God's adversary
[1. ic (ns.)] eom [2. se liflica hlaf (ns.)]
I am the living bread
[1. se haliga Andreas (ns.)] þa aras
the holy Andrew then arose
[3. leofan (np.) men (np.)], understandað swyðe georne
dear men, understand very well


1. Direct object in a clause
2. Object of some prepositions
3. In expressions of measurement and degree
• an [1. þing (as.)] ic eow secge gyt to gewisse
one thing I will yet say to you for certain
• ne byrhð se gesibba þonne [1. gesibban (as.)]
then kinsman will not protect kinsman
• ures drihtnes þegnas agunnon sprecan wið [2. hine (as.)]
our Lord's disciples began to speak with him
• god him geðafað þæt for manna gewyrhtum þæt he [3. sume hwile (as.)] mot swa wodlice derian
because of the people's deeds God will allow him to injure them violently for a certain time


1. Possessive (indicating that x belongs to y)
2. Partitive (indicating that y is one of x)
3. Descriptive
4. Adverbial
• se Cyneheard wæs [1. þæs Sigebryhtes (gs.)] broþur
that Cyneheard was that Sigebryht's brother
• ond [2. hiera (gp.)] se æþeling gehwelcum feoh ond feorh gebead
and the Prince offered each of them [hiera gehwelcum] money and life
• micel mengeo [1. Godes (gs.)] [2. ðiowa (gp.)]
a great multitude of God's servants
[3. hwites lichaman and fægeres andwlitan (gs.)] menn
men white of body and fair of countenance
• him lof singe þurh gedefne dom [4. dæges ond nihtes (gs.)]
with befitting honour I sing his praise day and night
• hi þa [4. unþances (gs.)] æteowdon him þa duru under þære flore
they then unwillingly revealed to him the door under the floor


1. Indirect object in a clause
2. Indicating possession (similar to genitive, 1)
3. Comparison
4. Prepositional relationships
• he [1. him (ds.)] his bearn forgeaf
he gave him his son
• Hieu hine offerde and [1. him (ds.)] his feorh benam
Jehu overtook him and took his life from him
[2. him (ds.)] wæs wuldres dream
his was the joy of heaven
• gelic wæs he [3. þam leohtum steorrum (dp.)]
he was like the bright stars
• ne ondræde ic hwæt man [4. me (ds.)] do
I do not fear what man may do to me


This case is distinct only in nominative masculine singular adjectives. You will encounter it very rarely.
1. Expresses means/manner
2. Expresses accompaniment
3. Expresses time
• ond he forðon [1. fægre ænde (is.)] his lif betynde & geendade
and he therefore finished and concluded his life with a beautiful end
• hie selfe oþflugon to anum tune [2. lytle werode (is.)]
he himself escaped to a village with a little force
[3. ælce (is.)] dæge he us fedeð
every day he feeds us

When considering a preposition, you will need to know what case its object can take, and whether its meaning changes depending on the case of the object. See chapter 10.5 of Peter Baker's E-intro to Old English for a list of prepositions and their cases.


A. Read the following passage, and complete the exercises that follow:

There was in this abbess's monastery a certain brother, particularly remarkable for the grace of God, who was wont to make pious and religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of Scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility, in English, which was his native language. By his verses the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven. Others after him attempted, in the English nation, to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men, but from God; for which reason he never could compose any trivial or vain poem, but only those which relate to religion suited his religious tongue; for having lived in a secular habit till he was well advanced in years, he had never learned anything of versifying; for which reason being sometimes at entertainments, when it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turns, when he saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from table and returned home. Having done so at a certain time, and gone out of the house where the entertainment was, to the stable, where he had to take care of the horses that night, he there composed himself to rest at the proper time; a person appeared to him in his sleep, and saluting him by his name, said, "Caedmon, sing some song to me." He answered, "I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place because I could not sing." The other who talked to him, replied, "However, you shall sing." - "What shall I sing?" rejoined he. "Sing the beginning of created beings," said the other. Hereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus : We are now to praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory. How He, being the eternal God, became the author of all miracles, who first, as almighty preserver of the human race, created heaven for the sons of men as the roof of the house, and next the earth. This is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness. Awaking from his sleep, he remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added much more to the same effect in verse worthy of the Deity.

A1. Locate three examples each of proper nouns, abstract nouns and concrete nouns.
A2. Find three examples each of post-modified and pre-modified nouns.
A3. State what you would expect to be the case in Old English of the nouns/pronouns in the following examples:
• This is the sense
• This abbess's monastery
• He never could compose any trivial or vain poem
• Verses to the praise of God
• He did not learn the art of poetry from men

B. Translate the following, and note the case(s) of the words in red:
• þæt is seo stow
• drihten me is on fultume
• Ond hire wæs micel wund
• ic eom anhaga
• ne mæg byrnan hring æfter wigfruman wide feran
• ða com oðer dæg, leoht æfter þeostrum
• mid þy ic þe wolde cwealm afeorran
• siendon we towrecene geond widne grund
• me coman to silhearwan atelices hiwes
• gesceawa ælce dæge þæt þin utgong & micge sie gesundlic
• me seredon ymb secgas monige dæges and nihtes
• wealdend god worhte æt frymðe on þy sylfan dæge sunnan and monan