NB: Anything in quotation marks (and perhaps some not) has been taken from Roger Lass’s chapter in the Cambridge History of the English Language, volume 2!


Inflectional morphology

o      “the system of word-level devices (affixes etc.) used by a language for signaling grammatical categories like tense, number, person;

o      the structure of certain closed paradigmatic sets like personal pronouns.”


Inflectional morphology has two broad functions:

(a)             “the actual marking of grammatical categories on words” (e.g. cat-s = cat- ‘plural’)

(b)            “establishing ‘linkages’ of various kinds between items in the sentence or discourse,” e.g.

a.     agreement or concord: I walk-ø vs he walk-s

b.     government: I saw him, not *I saw he

c.     anaphora: The man scratched his head


Some definitions


Agreement or concord: “a type of grammatical relationship between two or more elements in a sentence, in which both or all elements show a particular feature. For example, in English a third person singular subject occurs with a singular verb...”


Government: “a type of grammatical relationship between two or more elements in a sentence, in which the choice of one element causes the selection of a particular form of another element.” E.g. a transitive verb takes a pronoun in the objective case as its object, I saw him.


Anaphora: “The use of a word or phrase which refers back to another word or phrase which was used earlier in a text or conversation. ... For example, in the sentence Tom likes ice cream but Bill can’t eat it, the word it refers back to ice cream; it is a substitute for ice cream, and ice cream is the antecedent of it.


The big change from OE to ME


“Our starting-point, Old English, is a highly synthetic inflecting language. The Middle English evolution consists primarily in a shift towards a more analytic structure, eventually approaching that of today’s language, which, except for the pronoun and some residues in the verb and noun, is close to isolating.” (Lass 94, in the ME volume of the Cambridge History of the English Language)


“analytic [=isolating]  A term referring to language … to indicate an organization through separate words in a particular order rather than one through affixes in words, which is referred to as synthetic. Grammatically, more lovely is analytic as compared with lovelier, which is synthetic.” (CHEL2 608).




English has a tendency for each part of speech to have one dominant parameter

(a)             number in the noun phrase: that cat vs those cats 

(b)            tense in the verb phrase: we love cats vs they loved cats 


How do they get that way? 2 major bases of morphological change

(a)             sound change

(b)            analogy: existing forms change on the basis of association with other, preexisting forms


Morphological analogy


(a)             extension: “the application of a process outside its original domain,” such as the extension of the plural marker from the OE masculine a-stem nouns into other noun classes.

(b)            leveling: “the ironing out of allomorphy within a paradigm.” For instance, by ME the mutated plurals had the unmutated vowel in the singular and the mutated vowel in the plural. (Cf. OE Ds tēð, Dp tōðum)



The noun phrase from Old to Middle English:

some representative examples to talk about

(anything not from the Millward workbook is from George Rigg’s ...Historical Reader)


ME And as Moyses reride vp a serpent in desert


OE And swa swa Moyses ða næddran up-ahof on ðam westene

PDE And just as Moses raised up a serpent in the wilderness



[And the Lord God said to the serpent ... ]

ME Y schal sette enemytees bitwixe thee and the womman,

and bitwixe thi seed and hir seed;

sche schal breke thin heed, and thou schalt sette aspies to hir heele.


OE Ic sette feondrædene betwux ðé and ðam wífe

and ðínum ofspringe and hire ofspringe;

héo tobrytt ðin héafod and ðú syrwst ongéan hire ho.



[After eating the apple...]

ME: And the i3en of bothe weren openid; and whanne thei knewen that thei weren nakid, thei sewiden the leeues of a fige tre, and maden brechis to hem silf.


OE And heora begra eagan wurdon geopenode; hi oncneowon ðá ðæt

nacode wæron, and sywodon him ficléaf and worhton him wædbréc.



[Enter the Good Samaritan]

ME: But a Samaritan, goynge the weie, cam bisides hym;

and he si3 hym, and hadde reuthe on hym


OE: Đá ferde sum Samaritanisc man wið hine;

þa hé hine geseah, þá wearð hé mid mildheortness ofer hine ástyred.




The noun phrase


·       in theory, “OE nouns ‘were inflected for case, number and gender’ or ‘had three genders, four cases and two numbers.”

·       in practice, even in OE, “it was virtually impossible for any single noun form to be uniquely marked for all three”

·       in practice, “there is in most cases nothing in the form of the noun itself to indicate” gender

o      “most of the endings were multiply ambiguous”

o      -an marked all non-nominative weak forms except genitive/dative plural”

o      “­-e is the worst: marks no less than ten possible case/number/declension combinations”


But “certain endings were more closely tied to particular categories”. E.g.

o      –as could only be a plural

o      –es only a genitive singular


What sound changes in ME further eroded noun morphology?


In final unstressed syllables,

·       collapse of vowels to –e (and subsequent disappearance)

·       merger of final /m/ and /n/


OE noun inflections

Early ME

Late ME
















Table from Lass p. 105


“It is clear that if any distinctions were to be maintained, the natural candidates would be the few likely to remain phonetically stable and perceptually salient”

o      as –en, the –an of the n-stems (‘weak’ nouns)

o      didn’t die out completely

o      as –(e)s, the –as/-es of the a-stems (‘strong masculine’ nouns)

o      ultimately victorious ancestor of PDE –s (plural, possessive)


How did the erosion of inflections affect the a-stem ‘strong’ masculine noun class, with some of the most distinctive inflections?

Case functions

OE masculine a-stem

Early ME

Late ME

sg. Nom/Acc




sg. Dative



sg. Genitive




pl. Nom/Acc


pl. Dative


ston-en, -es

pl. Genitive


ston-e, -es

Table from Lass, p. 109

But there was still perceptible variation in ME between –s and –n as a plural marker


Caxton’s ‘egg’ anecdote (Crystal p. 57): “And ... a mercer cam into an hows and axed for mete, and specyally he axyd after eggys And the good wyf answerde. that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry. for he also coude speke no frenshe. but wold haue hadde egges / and she vnderstode hym not / And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren / then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel / Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte. egges or eyren / certaynly it is harde to playse euery man / by cause of dyuersite & chaunge of langage.”



Nouns: mostly plurals


No matter what their OE noun class, most ME nouns have plurals in –es

·       the masculine a-stems were the most common noun class in OE

·       the –s ending was “phonetically stable and perceptually distinct”

o      OE word ‘words’ becomes ME wordes

o      OE bec ‘books’ becomes ME bookes

o      Problems 141:

·       sterres 3, swikes 14 were both weak nouns in OE (steorran, swican)

·       landes 6 was a strong neuter long-stem (pl. land)

·       the productivity of –s as a plural confirmed by some back-formations

o      OE pise (pl. pisen) reanalyzed in ME as a plural: new sg. pea

o      French loanword cerise ‘cherry’ reanalyzed as pl: new sg. cherry, pl. cherries


But there are also some plurals in –n (inflection of the OE ‘weak’ nouns)

o      e.g. in Chaucer we find nouns taking –n plurals, sometimes in variation with –s plurals

o      former OE weak nouns like “thyne outter (e)yen” (MW 173)

o      former OE strong nouns like shoo-n/s ‘shoes’

o      -n occasionally reinforced even less transparent plural markers

o      OE cild ‘children’ -> late OE cildru; then childre-n

§       read the OED entry for child – it’s more complicated than that!

§       -s in the north, -en in the south

o      had a particularly good run in the West Midlands (ex MW 162-3, Problems 142-3)

o      some OE words that didn’t have –an plurals acquire them

§       MW p. 162: earmthen ‘miseries’ (OE yrmðu, indecl.)

§       P p. 143: ON loanword bon-en “prayers, boons”

o      in the excerpt below, unhistorical ‘-n’ plurals are underlined (OE draca, pl. dracan is less remarkable, since the –en is historical)


“Sawles Warde, Description of Hell” (late 12th century)—from Rigg


wið alles cunnes pinen, ant iteilede draken grisliche as deoflen

with every kind of torture, and dragons with tails, as terrible as devils,

þe forswolheð ham ihal ant speoweð ham eft ut ...

which swallow them whole and then spew them out again ...


And some mutated plurals survive from OE

·       e.g. teeth, feet

o      by ME, mutated vowel leveled throughout the plural

§       (recall that OE dative sg. tēþ, dative plural tōþum)

·       ME developments not relevant to PDE:

o      might get reinforced with another plural marker

§       OE , plural : now cows, but in southern ME, reinforced with –n

·       Chaucer has a ‘double plural’ keen ‘cows’

·       cf. ‘lean kine’ in the Old Testament

1.    like OE cild “children”

o      or augmented from ON

§       OE hand, plural handa -> ME handen, hands

·       ON plural was hendr, shows up in northern ME as hend


Zero plural found

·       OE heavy-stemmed neuter a-stems:

o      deer, sheep, swine

o      hors; thing; yeer, winter

§       Problems 142: hire word “her words”

§       MW 163: swuch thing ‘such things’

§       MW 172: “That apon drownit horß and men

§       MW 175: “And hem she yaf hir moebles and hir thyng

§       [And (to) them she gave her furniture and her things]

·       extends to some French loans: ca(a)s ‘cases’, vers ‘verses’


What’s left of the case system?



o      singular predominantly –(e)s, from the strong masculine

o      some variation with new of­-phrases

o      zero-genitives tend to be relics of other OE classes

§       e.g. MW 175 Hevene Kyng (OE heofone, -an)

o      you’ll find the –s moving into the genitive plural

o      but is this from the other plural cases or from the



o      in early ME, you usually find –e as “a general post-prepositional marker”, but it’s ‘available’ but not ‘obligatory’

o      MW 162: i burtherne of bearne

o      in late ME, it’s virtually disappeared: if it survives it tends to be at line ends in verse: to ship-e, fro yer to yeer-e

o      once final –e has stopped being a grammatical inflection, it’s available for other functions

o      e.g. OE on lífe (-e -> alive (now a diacritic)


 Personal pronouns


o      this is “the only word class that consistently … maintains inflection not only for number and non-/genitive, but also for other cases and gender as well”


What happened?


o      new pronouns: they/their/them, she

o      eventual loss of number distinction for second person once plural ye started to be used as a polite singular (cf. French vous)

o      accusative and dative distinction lost (usually leveled under dative)

o      OE ðæt middan-eard sy gehæled þurh hine

o      ME that the world be sauyd by hym (MW 142-3, v. 17)

o      new forms of the genitive: ourour(e)s



Context for new pronouns

o      in OE, remember that could be

o      singular: feminine accusative

o      plural: nominative or accusative

o      in OE, remember that

o      feminine sg. héo

o      masculine sg.

·       by ME, feminine héo would have been converging with masculine


They, their, them

o      from Scandinavian: þeir, þeirra, þeim

o      appear first in the north

o      in the other dialects, we find

o      “a gradual southward movement of the þ- paradigm, the native h- type remaining longest in the conservative south”

o      nominative þ-forms appear first, then the genitive, then the objective case

§       C14th Chaucer has þei, her(e), hem

§       genitive next:

·       C15th London texts vary between her(e) and their

§       objective last:

·       C15th: Caxton has hem and sometimes them

o      Why do you think the nominative form hi ‘they’ was replaced first?


Some examples from the Millward workbook


p. 171: Barbour’s Bruce (1376)

And thair fais thame presit fast,

Thai war, to say suth, all agast ...


p. 174: Chaucer’s “Second Nun’s Tale” (1370s)

And thise ymages, wel thou mayst espye

To theee ne to hemself ne mowen noght profite,

For in effect they been nat worth a myte.”


p. 163: Hali Meidenhad (c.1200)

we ne edwiteth nawt wifes hare weanen ...

we not reproach not women their woes


... ah we schawith ham forth forte warni meidnes

but we show them forth for to warn maidens


thet ha beon the leasse efterwart swuch thing

that they be the less afterward such things


“The origin of she is one of the great unsolved puzzles of the history of English.” (Lass 118)



o      turning héo into she

o      you can turn héo into he or ho

§       cf. fréosan and céosan

o      and héo and maybe séo into sho

§       via /hj/ and /sj/ (/e/ becomes /j/)

o      but not into she

§       the /e/ needs to have turned into a /j/

·       so that /hj/ or /sj/ can turn into /š/



o      the Peterborough Chronicle has a very early form: scæ

o      for most of ME, sche is east midlands, scho is north, and the south keeps hēo or its descendants (ho, etc.)



Examples from the Millward workbook


p. 164 (c. 1200, SW Midlands:

ha is heardre iheortet then adamantines stan ...

she is harder hearted than adamantine stone


p. 170 (Sir Orfeo, c. 1335)


Sche froted hir honden and hir fet

she rubbed her hands and her feet


More than you want to know about she


o      “One early view is that it descends from the feminine nominative singular article sēo: [seo] -> [seo] -> [sjo:] > [šo:] > northern scho

o      problem: sēo died out too early

o      problem: doesn’t get us to she (analogy with he?)


o      “A more likely account is what is sometimes called the ‘Shetland Theory’, since it assumes a development parallel to that of Old Scand. Hjaltland > Shetland

o      hēo ‘she’ [heo] > [heo] > [hjo:] > [ço:] > [šo:]

§       analogy: cēosan > choose, not *cheese

§       problem: Scandinavian parallel

·       chronologically inconvenient

·       attested only in a few non-English placenames

§       problem: also requires sho -> she

·       the [e] in hēo has to become [j] in order to get from [hj] to [ç] and then to [š]

From OE genitive to ‘possessive adjectives’


o      in OE the genitive could occur as

o      object of verbs: fanda mīn ‘try me’

o      object of partitives: ān hiora ‘one of them’


o      eventually they “became exclusively noun attributes”

o      mīn sunu ‘my son’


o      “new forms of min and þīn were also created by deletion of final n

o      distinction first phonological: thin enemyesthi fyngris

o      now syntactic: Give me my book! That book is mine!


o      your(e)s, her(e)s, our(e)s are new forms of the genitive

o      myn hous … or elles … your-es, al this good is our-es (Ch)




In OE adjectives belonged to two declensions, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’

o      depends on the ‘definiteness’ of the noun phrase the adjective appears in

o      “the ‘weak’ declension was used where categorial information was carried by a determiner”

§       þā ealdan ceorlas

o      “the ‘richer’ strong declension tended to be used after … items poor in case/number/gender information, or when the adjective had no premodifiers

§       ealde ceorlas


In ME, this distinction was lost;

o      by late ME you find inflections only on monosyllabic adjectives

o      boiled down to an opposition between forms with and without –e

o      in attributive plurals: long-e nyghtes, shoures sot-e

§       one of the last native adjectives to inflect for number was OE enoh, enog-e -> enough, enow

o      after determiners: the cold-e steele, this good-e wyf

o      texts often show ‘incorrect’ forms

o      sometimes exploited for metrical purposes!

o      some adjectives of French origin could be

o      postposed: knight errant (cf. governor general)

o      inflected for number: letters patents












So: Adjectives were weak if

o      after a determiner (definite article, demonstrative, possessive pronoun or noun)

o      in direct address

Adjectives were strong if

o      without a determiner

o      in predicate adjective position (“the man is old”)

Gender: from ‘grammatical’ in OE to ‘biological’ in ME


Gender: predicts what adjectives and pronouns will occur with the noun

o      anaphora:

o      PDE: the wife … her

o      OE: þæt wīfhis ‘its’…

o      concord:

o      OE: þæt wīf ‘the woman’


Grammatical gender in OE:

o      conflicts with biological gender, e.g.

o      þæt wīf ‘wife, woman’ is ‘neuter’

o      sēo duru ‘door’ is ‘feminine’

o      “in most cases nothing in the form of the noun itself to indicate it”

o      “overtly realized only in … the concordial relation between a noun and its modifiers and anaphors.”

o      “the richest and most distinctive marking for nominal categories is on determiners, the strong adjective declension, and pronouns”

o      and we’re about to see what happened to them...

o      was relaxing even in OE, “the further an anaphor was from its governing noun”


Ða on þam ehteoðan dæge hi comon þæt cild ymbsniðan,

(Then on the eighth day  they came to circumcise the child


and nemdon hyne his fæder naman Zachariam.

and called him his father’s name Zacharias.)


Biological gender in ME:

o      “now a system in which sex (or the lack of it) became the primary or sole determinant”: ‘SEX’ (M or F) vs ‘NON-SEX’ (neut.)

o      as early as the 10th century the change begins in the north and moves south

o      by 1300, pretty much complete, except in Kent (SE)

the odd interference from French and Latin
From OE se, sēo, þæt ‘that’ and þis ‘this’ to ME the, that, and this


OE sē, sēo, þæt

o      PDE definite article the (indeclinable)

o      PDE demonstrative pronoun that, those (number)











(all genders)


sē -> þe

þæt -> þat


þā -> þō,



























(all genders)

OE Nom

þēs (masc.)

þis (neuter)



after C13th ME

þes (south)




þas, þos

even later ME


this (everywhere)











NB: the most exciting developments:

§       notice how –s is being used as a ‘plural’ in those

o      cf. youse

§       notice how the ‘plural adjective ending’ –e functions in those, thise  and these

§       how ðá became thó and then tho-s-e

§       how this and thes competed with each other to mean ‘this’

§       and how plurals formed from them (thise and these) competed with each other to mean ‘these’