skip to content


Early Middle English for today

full menu

simplification of adjective paradigms in eME

Comparing Early Middle English (eME) to Old English (OE), we note these key changes to adjective paradigms:

Note: unless specified otherwise, eME denotes the normalised early East Midland used in this site.

core vs optional grammar

The changes to noun paradigms which were complete by 1150 pass to both the core grammar and the optional grammar of eME. Changes to noun paradigms which were underway in early Middle English pass to the core grammar but not to the optional grammar. For a detailed discussion, see Normalisation 3: grammar.

The core grammar, which has fewer anomalies and exceptions, is aimed at the beginner. This is the grammar that appears in Audrey and the attercop, book 1 of Englisc buten taeres (the first 800 words). The optional grammar, which inherits more of OE's anomalies and exceptions, appears in normalised versions of OE and ME texts, and in the weblog of this site.

"a single trace" in PC2 and Orm

The extremely complex declension of the OE adjective has left only a single trace - the ending ~e. This is evident in both PC2 and Orm:

In PC2 "definite adjectives generally end in -e (or -ae) whatever their case, singular and plural, while indefinite adjectives have -e in the plural, though sometimes even this is lost in adjectives of more than one syllable."1 Note that here, 'indefinite' corresponds to the strong declension of many OE grammars while 'definite' corresponds to the weak declension (see below).

In Orm "The only inflection that the adjectives retain is the e of the plural and of the weak declension, as in mine wordess, þatt laþe flocc, the hateful multitude. oþerr, other is always strong: þatt oþerr bucc, the other he-goat."2

back to top

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_de 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_dra/ go_dena go_dra/ go_dena go_dra/ 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 singular vs weak or plural:

In eME, go__d "declines" like so:

sg pl
strong go__d go__de
weak go__de go__de

wa-, wo_-stems in OE

In OE there was alternation in u/o/w throughout the paradigm of a handful adjectives including nearu (narrow) and g`earu (ready, prepared). According to Wright: "§ 435 ... w became vocalized to u (later o) when final and before consonants in prehistoric OE. (§ 265); whence masc. nom. sing., neut. nom. ace. sing, gearu from [PGmc] *garw-az, -an ... § 436. Like gearu are declined basu, beasu, purple; calu, bald; cylu, spotted; fealu, fallow; geolu, yellow; hasu, heasu, grey, tawny ; mearu, tender; nearu, narrow; salu, sealu, dusky, dark."

These adjectives had stem endings that fluctuated between <u> (or <o>) and <w> throughout the strong declension paradigm:

The Strong Declension
masculine, neuter and feminine forms; in singular then plural
masculine neuter feminine masculine neuter feminine
  Singular Plural
nom nearu (-o) nearu (-o) nearu (-o) nearwe nearu (-o) nearwa (-e)
acc nearone nearu (-o) nearwe nearwe nearu (-o) nearwa (-e)
gen nearwes nearwes nearore nearora nearora nearora
dat nearwum nearwum nearore nearwum nearwum nearwum
inst nearwe nearwe - - - -
The Weak Declension
masculine, neuter and feminine forms; in singular then plural
masculine neuter feminine masculine neuter feminine
  Singular Plural
nom nearwa nearwe nearwe nearwan nearwan nearwan
acc nearwan nearwe nearwan nearwan nearwan nearwan
gen nearwan nearwan nearwan nearora/ nearwena nearora/ nearwena nearora/ nearwena
dat nearwan nearwan nearwan nearwum nearwum nearwum

The paradigms for basu, calu, cylu, fealu, g`earu, g`eolu, hasu, mearu are similar.

back to top

wa-, wo_-stems in PC2 and Orm

Both PC2 and Orm have reflexes of OE nearu. PC2 has nareu sg strong while Orm has naru sg strong and narrwe pl. Lmn and AW mirror the PC2 form with nearow AW sg strong, nearewe AW sg weak, narewe Lmn sg weak.

Note that PC2 doesn't use the character <w>. The sound /w/ is routinely rendered as <u>. Given that the MED contains a few examples of strong singular forms with final <ew> (or <ow>), including AW nearow, the appropriate transcription of PC's final <eu> in eME is <ew>.

The reduction in complexity for the reflexes of adjective like nearu in eME, will produce a similar paradigm to that of go__d (see above). If we follow Orm, the sole difference we can expect for this type is that in the strong singular, the final <-w> of the stem becomes a <-u> (in the absence of a following <e>). If we follow PC2, Lmn & AW on the other hand, the resulting paradigm will not differ at all from the standard paradigm:

sg pl
strong naru narwe
weak narwe narwe
sg pl
strong narew narewe
weak narewe narewe

In the next section I'll investigate the reflexes of wa-, wo_-stem adjectives recorded in the MED prior to 1250, together with a few examples from later East Midland sources, e.g. Ch, before deciding the final shape of the paradigms in question, for both the core and optional eME grammar.

back to top

wa-, wo_-stems in the MED

The following is a list of extracts from the MED, one for each of the wa-, wo_-stems found in OE (see above). These extracts focus on pre-1250 sources. I've inserted notes which I'll unpack in the following section.

basu, baswa
no MED entry
calu, calwa (caluw)
MED calwe
1230 Henricus..Willelmum le Calewe acc, weak (as expected) - name or term of address, NB -ewe; [1327 Gilbertus Calwe post-1250 but note weak (as expected)]
> ModE callow
cylu, cylwa (cylew)
no MED entry
MED related forculien darken by scorching
AW related forculet, forculiende not forcwul~ - supports kile as weak?
fealu, fealwa (fealewe)
MED falwe
Lmn ueldes falewe nom pl strong; Owl 1300 falew icumeþ of grene leue nom sg strong, NB -ew; [Ch falow nom sg strong, post-1250 but note -ow, twigges, falwe, rede and grene pl]
> ModE fallow
g`earo, g`earwa (g`earu, g`earowes)
MED ya_re
VH 1150 gearewe acc pl? NB -ew; BH 1175 y`earu nom sg strong; LH 1225 y`aru nom sg strong; AW y`arow nom sg strong, y`arowe pl?; 1250 y`eruh nom sg strong; Lmn y`eaerwe nom sg strong?, y`arewe/y`aerewe pl, y`aeru/y`aru/y`are/y`ar nom sg strong; 1250 gere/gare nom sg strong; PC1 gare nom sg strong; Owl y`arewe pl, y`are pl; NB - removal stem alternation pre-1250; Ch yare pl
> ModE yare
g`eolu, g`eolwa (g`elewum, g`ealewe)
MED yelwe
HA 1200 y%eoluwe blostma strong pl, NB -uwe; AW t`enne is hit y`eolow nom sg strong, NB -ow; LH 1225 t`e y`eolewe clad` weak, NB -ewe; TH 1200 hire winpel … maked geleu mid saffran nom sg strong, NB -eu - cp PC2 nareu; LH 1225 y`eluwe froggen pl, NB -uwe; 1175 Florentius: Geolofincg note -o where weak expected - combining form?; [Ch yelowe gooldes, nayles yelwe pl, post-1250 but note -owe]; 1159 Yolegreue note -e where weak expected - combining form?; 1221 Christina la Gelewe weak (as expected) - name, NB -ewe
> ModE yellow
hasu, haswa
no MED entry
MED related haswed dark in color, dusky,
ME *haswy, *hasi > ModE hawsey naut. > hazy?
mearu, mearwa (mearuwe)
MED meruw(e) no forms with stem vowel <a>
HA 1200 y%if t`anne t`e lichama mearuw si nom sg strong, NB -uw, hi beod` mearuwran cmp pl, y%enim t`a wyrt swa mearwe pl acc; AW hwil ha beod` mearewe nom pl strong, NB -ewe
nearu, nearwa (nearewe, nearewum, nearuwe)
MED narwe
PC2 caest t`at was... nareu nom sg strong, NB -eu; Orm Þatt illke child... wass ley%y%d inn an full naru cribbe (f acc) sg strong, note -u where -we might be expected for f acc but all cases are merged in nom, narrwe stiy%hess pl (strong); PM 1175 Go we þane narewe pad` acc sg weak, NB -ewe; Lmn i þon weie narewe (m acc) sg weak, NB -ewe; AW t`e parlurs least & nearewest nom pl (weak?), NB -ew-, Þet sterke dom... & se nearow nom sg strong (se = swa__), NB -ow te nearewe nom sg? weak, NB -ewe, t`ah y`e nearowe beon nom pl strong, NB -owe; 1250 þene neruwure ende of þe horne acc sg cmp weak, NB -uw-; [Ch This clyfte was so narw sg strong, NB -w, narwest sup]; Tristrem 1300 Þe way was naru sg strong, NB -u
> ModE narrow
sealu, sealwa
MED salu
1400 salowe nom sg strong - earliest entry in MED
> ModE sallow


What can we conclude from this?

  1. Keep in mind that what we are looking for is either:
    1. <w> appearing at the end of the stem in a singular noun in a strong context, i.e. in the absence of a definite article, demonstrative adjective or possessive pronoun; or
    2. <w> dropped from a plural noun (in any context) or from a singular noun in a weak context, i.e. in the presence of a definite article, demonstrative adjective or possessive pronoun.
  2. There is corroboration beyond PC2, AW and Lmn for the type narew narewe, i.e. a strong sg form ending in <-ew> and a weak/pl form ending in <-ewe>. This removal of stem alternation in found in six adjectives in pre-1250 sources.
  3. Forms with an epenthetic vowel before <w> such as calewe, falew, falow, y`eoluwe, y`eolow, y`eolewe, y`eluwe, yelowe, Gelewe, meruw(e), mearuw, mearewe, narewe, nearewe are very common5. In fact they predominate. And they appear in the earliest MED examples, which is not surprising since the epenthetic vowel dates from the OE period: caluw, cylew, fealewe, g`earowes, g`elewum, mearuwe, nearewe i.a.
  4. The case of y%are y%are in which the <w> is dropped entirely, appears to be unique. 6

back to top

loss of alternation in wa-, wo_-stems in eME

The key, particularly in regard to the early stages of learning a language, is to offer the simplest route. This is where principles 3 & 4 come into play. The upshot is that while OE wa-, wo_-stems have a dual stem, their reflexes in the core grammar of eME, have a single stem.

In normalising the reflexes of wa-, wo_-stems, the approach is as follows:

  1. we start with an adjective paradigm that we would expect to exhibit stem alternation, e.g. naru nar(e)we or y%aru y%ar(e)we;
  2. in a pre-1250 text we find a form which removes the stem alternation for either the sg strong or weak/pl; e.g. naru sg strong > narew sg strong and y`ar(e)we pl > y`are pl;
  3. via principle 3 the stem levelling of one form (e.g. pl) is extended to the remaining form (e.g. sg weak) within the paradigm; so y`are pl is extended to y`are sg weak;
  4. courtesy of principle 4, the paradigm levelling of the majority of wa-, wo- stems can be extended to the remaining few words in that group; e.g. the narew narewe pattern is extended to salew salewe etc;

Thus we have:

pre-1250 removal of stem alternation:
1. <w> absent throughout: y`are pl
2. <w> in all forms: falew nom sg strong, y`eolow nom sg strong, [geleu nom sg strong], mearuw nom sg strong, nareu nom sg strong, [nerewe acc sg strong]3, caluw, cylew nom sg strong
via principle 3 - extend removal of stem alternation throughout paradigm:
y%are y%are, falew falewe, y%elew y%elewe, marew marewe, narew narewe, calew calewe, kilew kilewe4
via principle 4 - extend pattern of simplified paradigm to entire group:
salew salewe
special cases - via principle 4 but without ModE reflex:
basew basewe, hasew hasewe

The precise form of the ending in the reflexes of wa-, wo_-stems in the core grammar, i.e. <ew-> rather than <ow-/uw-> is determined by PC2, one of the two primary eME sources, with the support of Lmn, AW and Owl.

And that leads us back to the paradigms presented above for Orm on one hand and for PC2, Lmn and AW, on the other. This time they are rebranded as optional grammar and core grammar:

Optional grammar
sg pl
strong naru narwe
weak narwe narwe
Core grammar
sg pl
strong narew narewe
weak narewe narewe

Similarly: falew, y%elew, marew, calew, kilew, salew, basew, hasew

The sole exception is:

Optional grammar
sg pl
strong y%aru y%arwe
weak y%arwe y%arwe
Core grammar
sg pl
strong y%are y%are
weak y%are y%are

See also the closely related wa- and wo_-stem nouns.

back to top

  1. Burrow and Turville-Petre. A Book of Middle English Second Edition, Blackwell Publishers, 1992, pp 75-6
  2. Sweet, Henry. First Middle English Primer, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1909; p.45; online version »
  3. In the Trinity Homilies (1200) we find t`ureh nerewe hole (through narrow hole), in which the adjective ends in <-we>, which is interesting. hol was a neuter noun and t`urh always preceded acc in OE. So in OE we would expect t`urh nearu hol with a strong adjective, given there is no definite article nor possessive adjective. This example from the Trinity Homilies may indicate a confusion of acc with dat, but it could also indicate a merging of strong and weak forms.
  4. kilew is the sole member of this group without a reflex in ModE. The rest qualify as additional eME forms via principle 2 - ModE reflex plus appearance before 1250. Note that principle 3, which allows the removal of stem alternation (and other complexities) from a paradigm, only requires a pre-1250 source.
  5. Ch narwe is an interesting exception here, though the epenthetic vowel does appear in other words in Ch, e.g yelowe.
  6. y%are strong sg qualifies as an additional eME form via principle 2 - ModE yare (ready, prepared) plus a pre-1250 source (Owl y`are). Given that the wa-, wo_-stem adjectives and nouns can be considered as a block, we could also extend the pattern of nouns such as bale bales which drop the <w> thoughout the paradigm, to y%are y%are, without relying on the support of Owl y`are pl.