Declension in English

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The English language once had an extensive declension system similar to modern German or Icelandic. Old English distinguished between the nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, and instrumental cases. Declension fell into disuse during the Middle English period, when accusative and dative pronouns merged into a single objective pronoun. Modern English no longer uses declension, except for remnants of the former system in a few pronouns.

"Who" and "whom", "he" and "him", "she" and "her", etc. are remnants of both the old nominative vs. accusative and also of nominative vs. dative. In other words, "whom" serves as both the dative and accusative version of the nominative pronoun "who". In Old English (and in modern German, Icelandic, etc.), these cases had distinct pronouns. The word "whom" itself began falling into widespread disuse in the 20th century, and is being replaced by merely "who".

This collapse of the separate case pronouns into the same word is one of the reasons grammarians consider the dative and accusative cases to be extinct in English — neither is an ideal term for the role played by "whom". Instead, the term objective is often used; that is, "whom" is a generic objective pronoun which can describe either a direct or an indirect object. The nominative case, "who", is called simply the subjective. The information formerly conveyed by having distinct case forms is now mostly provided by prepositions and word order.

Modern English morphologically distinguishes only one case, the possessive case — which some linguists argue is not a case at all, but a clitic (see the entry for genitive case for more information). With only a few pronominal exceptions, the objective and subjective always have the same form.

Contents

Evolution of English declension

Interrogative pronouns

Old masculine/feminine to the modern person

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative hwā who who
Accusative hwone / hwne whom whom
Dative hwām / hwǣm
Instrumental hwȳ / hwon
Genitive hws whos whose

Old neuter to the modern thing

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative hwæt what what
Accusative hwæt what / whom what
Dative hwām / hwǣm
Instrumental hwī
Genitive hws whos whose1

1 - Usually replaced by of which, except where it would produce an intolerably clumsy form.

First person personal pronouns

Singular

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative I / ich I
Accusative mē / meċ me me
Dative
Genitive mīn min / mi my, mine

Plural

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative we we
Accusative ūs / ūsiċ us us
Dative ūs
Genitive ūser / ūre ure / our our, ours

Second person personal pronouns

n.b. is a letter from Old English, roughly corresponding to th.

Old and Middle English singular to the Modern English archaic informal

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative þū u / thou thou
Accusative þē / þeċ / thee thee
Dative þē
Genitive þīn i / īn / īne / thy /thin / thine thy, thine

Old and Middle English plural to the archaic formal to the modern general

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative ġē ye / ȝe / you you
Accusative ēow / ēowiċ you you
Dative ēow
Genitive ēower your your, yours

You in the nominative case was used in Middle English only as a formal but not as a plural pronoun. So there was a difference between You are (singular formal) and Ye are (plural informal).

Third person personal pronouns

Feminine singular

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative hēo heo / sche / ho / he / ȝho she
Accusative hīe hire / hure / her / heore her
Dative hire
Genitive hire hir / hire / heore / her / here her, hers

Masculine singular

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative he he
Accusative hine him him
Dative him
Genitive his his his

Neuter singular

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative hit hit / it it
Accusative hit hit / it / him it
Dative him
Genitive his his / its its

Plural

Case Old English Middle English Modern English
Nominative hīe he / hi / ho / hie / ai / ei they
Accusative hīe hem / ham / heom / aim / em / am them, 'em
Dative him
Genitive hiro here / heore / hore / air / ar their, theirs

External link

  • The Magic Sheet (http://www.engl.virginia.edu/OE/courses/handouts/magic.html), one page color PDF summarizing Old English declension
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