skip to content


Early Middle English for today

full menu

declension of the adjective in eME

Comparing the Early Middle English of the East Midlands c 1200 (eME) to the Old English of Wessex c 1000 (OE), we note that the extremely complex declension of the OE adjective has left only a single trace - the ending ~e. The rules for the addition can be reduced to just two (see below). The changes between the two varieties of English can be summarised as follows:

  1. the adjective is no longer marked for case or gender;
  2. ~e is added before plural nouns or when an adjective represents a plural noun or pronoun;
  3. ~e is added after 'the', demonstrative adjectives and possessive pronouns;
  4. alternation of ~u/~we~ in the stem disappears and is replaced either by final ~e or ~we throughout the paradigm;

Declension of the adjective in OE

OE has a strong declension and a weak declension. And within each, endings vary for case and gender. Most adjectives decline in the same way as go_d:

The Strong Declension
masculine, neuter and feminine forms; in singular then plural
masculine neuter feminine masculine neuter feminine
  Singular Plural
nom go_d go_d go_d go_de go_d go_da
acc go_dne go_d go_de go_de go_d go_da
gen go_des go_des go_dre go_dra go_dra go_dra
dat go_dum go_dum go_dre go_dum go_dum go_dum
inst go_de go_de - - - -
The Weak Declension
masculine, neuter and feminine forms; in singular then plural
masculine neuter feminine masculine neuter feminine
  Singular Plural
nom go_da go_de go_d go_dan go_dan go_dan
acc go_dan go_de go_dan go_dan go_dan go_dan
gen go_dan go_dan go_dan go_dena go_dena go_dena
dat go_dan go_dan go_dan go_dum go_dum go_dum

Declension of the adjective in eME

Case ceases to be of any significance for adjectives in the East Midland dialect of eME. The only variables are strong vs weak and singular vs plural:

In eME, go_d "declines" like so:

sg pl
strong go_d go_de
weak go_de go_de

OE adjectives ending in -u in nom sg:

In OE there was alternation in u/o/w throughout the paradigm of two adjectives - nearu and g`earu.

sg pl
nom nearu nearwe
acc nearone nearwe
gen nearwes nearora
dat nearwum near(w)um
inst nearwe -

This complexity is absent in eME. In eME, the strong singular forms are narwe and y`are respectively. The weak and plural forms of both are identical.

sg pl
strong narwe narwe
weak narwe narwe

For both narwe and y`are, strong singular variants with final ~u are found in eME sources, including Orm (naru). However, the same principles of consistency and simplicity, which are applied to noun paradigms, are applied here. (See for example cne_/cne_s, tre_/tre_s and straw/strawes rather than cne_/cnewes, tre_/cnewes and strae_/strawes in simplification of nouns). The ModE (and Ch) forms are decisive. Ch has narw(e) s sg and yare pl, while ModE has narrow and yare. MED has as headwords - narw(e) and yare. It should also be pointed out that there was a certain amount of confusion and interchangeability between w and u in eME, so that for example, PC2 nareu s sg could be read as narew. (The same can be said for v and u. See narv and bitven below). Also worth noting is that final -u is an anomaly in eME. The fact that OE final -u regularly becomes -e in eME, suggests that there is something odd about the u in naru forms. In sound, that u may have been much closer to /w/ than /u/. Given that interchangeability, it would seem inappropriate to insist on final ~u in the strong singular forms.

Nevertheless, since naru is found in Orm, naru and y`aru are perfectly acceptable alternatives. In that case, final ~u would change to ~w when ~e is added. (Orm has narrwe pl.)

For eME narwe, many of the examples cited in the MED are either weak or plural - AW nearewe, PM narewe, Lmn narewe, Owl narewe, HA nearuwe, TH narewe i.a. However, strong singular examples are also found, in v or u - c1300 SLeg.Mich: And t`ar-of Imaket ane hul narv and long; c1330 Tristrem: Bitven t`e bour and t`e halle T`e way was naru and lite. Slightly more numerous are instances of nare, which is not surprising, given that OE final -u regularly becomes -e in eME - c1350 Shoreham Poems: He auanget` a crowet eke And a towaylle nare; c1300 SLeg.Mich.: ..for is sumdel nare; c1325 Glo.Chron.A: Entreiebote on t`er nis..& so nare wey it is. Finally, forms with w can be found in (a1398) Trev. Barth.: In t`e coppe of t`e stalk honget` a flour dounward t`at is narow by t`e stalke; a1400 NVPsalter: Ilka sparw Findes him hous, wide or narw; a1225 Trin.Hom.: ...and crieped` nedlinge t`ureh nerewe hole; a1300(a1250) Bestiary: An wirm..Seked` a ston d`at a d`irl is on, Narwe, buten he neded` him; c1325 Glo.Chron.A: At a narwe brugge t`er adreintte monion; T`er ofscapede vewe aliue, so narw t`e brugge was; (c1384) WBible(1): How streit is the y`ate, and narewe the weye, that ledith to lijf; Y`if þe entringe of þe hyue is to large t`ey makeþ hit narewy`e and straite; c1150(OE) Hrl.MQuad: Wid` nearwe sworetunga foxes lungane y`esoden; Ch (c1390): A poure widwe som del stape in age Was whilom dwellynge in a narwe cotage.

The latter group - with final w(e), outnumbers the others. However it should be noted that in some of these cases, especially early southern and west midland texts, dative case rather than the lack of a definite article may have been responsible for final w(e).

For eME y`are, the MED gives the following strong singular instances: PC1 (1121) gare, BH (1175) gearu, Lmn (1200) y`eaerwe/y`aeru/y`aru/y`ar/y`are, LH (1225) y`aru, AW (1230) y`arow, Cristes milde moder (1250) y`eruh, Gen.&Ex. (1250) gare, Spec.Guy (1300) gare, Glo.Chron.A (c1300) y`are (x2), Havelok (1300) yare, Guy (1300) y`are, SLeg.Magd. (1300) y`are, Tristrem (1300) y`are, SLeg. (1325) y`are (x2), Gamelyn (1350) y`are, St.Alex. (1350) y`are, WPal. (1375) y`are, Firumb. (1380) 3eare, Gow (1393) yare (x2).

Weak or plural instance are as follows: VH (1150) gearewe, SW (1200) y`arowe, Lmn (1200) y`arewe (ae) y`aru, Owl (1216) y`arewe/y`are, Gen.& Ex. (1250) y`are, SLeg.Becket (1300) y`are (x2), KAlex. (1300) y`are, Glo.Chron.A (1300) y`are, SLeg.Juliana (1350) y`are, Ch (1386) yare, Gow (1393) yare.

Support for eME y`are as the strong singular form is... strong. Not only does the lone early East Midland example end in e (PC1 gare), but the majority form (prior to 1400), is y`are. w is also absent in weak and plural forms of y`are from the mid 13th century on. Notable also is the absence of w in the superlative form y`arest in WPal. (1375).

The upshot is that in the East Midland dialect c 1200, a regular pattern of stem alternation in the reflexes of OE naru and g`earu had probably begun to break down. We don't know for certain because we don't have East Midland sources from the year 1200. What we do know is that around 1160, that alternation of final ~u in the strong singular form with ~we in the weak and plural forms, still existed, at least for the author of Orm. We also know that narwe appears as a strong singular form in 1250 and then increasingly so, until by the time of Ch, there is little trace of naru. This is a mirror image of what happened with g`earu. y`are appears as a weak or plural form in the early 13th century then becomes progressively more common until by the time of Ch and Gow, y`ar(e)we is a thing of the past.

Since written forms are generally more conservative than spoken forms, it's not unreasonable to assume that around 1200, the assimilation of strong singular and weak/plural endings in narwe and y`are was already a fact for many EME speakers in the East Midlands.