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simplification of noun inflexions in eME

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

  1. the OE declensions are reduced to one (based on the masculine a-stems);
  2. the dative becomes optional;
  3. the plural ending for all cases is -es;
  4. in addition to the irregular plurals which have survived to ModE, there are a handful of nouns with plural ending in -en and a slightly larger group with no plural ending;
  5. all reflexes of OE nouns ending in <g>, change the <g> to <h> in nom/acc sg;
  6. there is no stem alternation; the <w> of OE wa- and wo-stems and the final <h> of certain OE a-stems, is either dropped or retained, throughout the paradigm;
  7. the <w> of OE wa- and wo-stems and the final <h> of certain OE a-stems, is dropped where ModE has a reflex without final <w> or <gh>;
  8. the nom form of strong feminine nouns generally gains a final e in eME.

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

"the modern paradigm"

As Henry Alexander remarked in 'The Story of Our Language' (p.90): "Of the many types of nouns in OE, very few are left in ME, and in those that surive the number of forms is scarcely greater than today." Burrow and Turville-Petre in 'A Book of Middle English' (p.23) point out that "this diversity of forms was simplified from an early date in northern and eastern parts of the country. In the mid-twelfth century, The Peterborough Chronicle has what is essentially the modern paradigm":

sg. nom./acc. tun
gen. tunes
dat. tun or tune
pl. (all cases) tunes

"After prepositions the noun in the singular sometimes has the dative -e, but is as often uninflected" (my emphasis).

Irregular plurals

The irregular plurals used in this site are those found in East Midland texts1 - the Peterborough Chronicle (PC2), Ormulum Homily (Orm), Cloud Of Unknowing (Clo), Sir Orfeo (SO), Chaucer2 (Ch), as well as ModE.

ModE has a small number of irregular plurals which aren't formed by adding -(e)s: mice, lice, geese, feet, teeth, men, oxen, children, brethren, sheep, deer.

eME has these same irregular plurals, as well as a few more, which are highlighted in the table below. There are four types of irregular plurals in eME, the first three of which are still found in ModE:

  1. plurals with internal vowel change;
  2. plurals in -(e)n;
  3. no plural ending (i.e. unchanged);
  4. plurals in -re;
eME OE PC2/Orm/Ch ModE
1. plurals with internal vowel change
mi_s my_s mys Ch mice
li_s ly_s - lice
ge_s ge_s gees Ch geese
fe_t fe_t fet PC2, feet Ch feet
te_t` te_t` teeth Ch teeth
men menn men PC2/Ch (mennes Ch) men
wi_fmen wi_fmenn wimmen PC2 (wommennes Ch) women
ki_ cy_ keen Ch cows
2. plurals in -(e)n
oxen oxan oxen Ch oxen
be_n be_on been/bees Ch bees
pisen pisan pesen Ch peas
e_gen eagan ey`h`ne Orm pl.dat., (e)yen Ch eyes
ascen ascan asshen Ch ashes
hosen hosan hose/hosen Ch hose
halgen halgan hally`h`enn Orm, halechen PC2 hallows
beriy`en berian berien AW/SO berries
ta_n ta_n toon/toos Ch toes
(i)fa_n3 g`efa_n foon/foos Ch foes
3. no plural ending (i.e. unchanged)
sce_p sce_ap (e_) sheep Ch sheep
de_r de_or deer Ch deer
nae_t ne_at neet Ch, neat OED = beasts, oxen
bro_t`er/bret`re4 bro_d`or/brod`ra brethren Ch brothers/brethren
dohter/dohtre dohtor/dohtra do(u)ghtren/doghtres Ch daughters
swester/sustre sweoster sustren/sustres Ch sisters
winter/wintre winter wintre PC2, winter Ch winters/years
y`ae_r g`e_ar yeer/yeres Ch years
t`ing t`ing thing(s) Ch things
wunder wunder wunder PC2 wonders/atrocities
hors hors hors(es) Ch horses
mi_l mi_l mile SO miles
pu_nd5 pund pound Ch pounds
niht niht night Ch nights
~nes(se) (e.g. kindenes[se]) ~nes (e.g. cyndnes) kindenes Clo kindnesses
4. plurals in -re
cildre cildru chilldre Orm, children Ch children

wa- and wo- stems and a-stems ending in h

an overview

In eME there is no stem alternation. The <w> of OE wa- and wo-stems and the final <h> of certain OE a-stems, is either dropped or retained, throughout the paradigm.

wa-and wo-stems are dealt with as follows in eME:

  1. <-w-> is dropped from the ending, throughout the paradigm, where ModE has a reflex without final <-w>;
  2. stems which alternated in vowel length in OE, always have a long final vowel;

a-stems ending in <h> are dealt with as follows in eME:

  1. final <h> is dropped, throughout the paradigm, where ModE has a reflex without final <gh> or <w>;
  2. a short stem vowel is not lengthened when <h> is dropped, unless the stem vowel came immediately before the <h>.

wa- and wo-stems

Neuter (and masculine) wa-stems

There are two main types of wa-stems in OE. The first group has an ending in -u for nom/acc singular and plural6 and an ending in -w~ for all other cases.

sg. nom. melu
acc. melu
gen. melwes
dat. melwe
pl. nom. melu
acc. melu
gen. melwa
dat. melwum

Nouns of this type include: bealu bealwes (evil), melu melwes (meal/flour), smeoru smeorwes (fat) and searu searwes (device). The preceding nouns are all neuter. bearu bearwes (grove) is masculine and has nom/acc plural form bearwas.

The second group has a dual stem with alternation of vowel length: -e_o in nom/acc singular and plural6, and -eow~ in all other cases.

sg. nom. cne_o
acc. cne_o
gen. cneowes
dat. cneowe
pl. nom. cne_o
acc. cne_o
gen. cneowa
dat. cneowum

Nouns of this type include: cne_o cneowes gen, tre_o treowes gen, hle_o hleowes gen and stre_a streawes gen. The preceding nouns are all neuter. t`e_o t`eowes (servant) is masculine and has nom/acc plural form t`eowas.

Feminine wo-stems

There are two main types of wo-stems in OE. The first group has an ending in -u for nom singular and an ending in -w~ for all other cases.

sg. nom. sinu
acc. sinwe
gen. sinwe
dat. sinwe
pl. nom. sinwa
acc. sinwa
gen. sinwa
dat. sinwum

Nouns of this type include: beadu beadwe (battle), sinu sinwe (sinew) and sceadu sceadwe (shade). freatwe (ornaments) and geatwe (armour) have no singular form. gearu (equipment) occurs more often as gearwe (in all cases), in OE texts.

A second group is similar but has a long stem vowel and no final vowel in the nominative singular.

sg. nom. mae_d
acc. mae_dwe
gen. mae_dwe
dat. mae_dwe
pl. nom. mae_dwa
acc. mae_dwa
gen. mae_dwa
dat. mae_dwum

Nouns of this type include: mae_d mae_dwe (meadow) and lae_s lae_swe (pasture).

reflexes of wa- and wo-stems in ModE

The reflexes of these verbs in ModE reveal a pattern. This may not be clear at first, since some have <w>, and some don't: bale, meal, smear, sinew, shade/shadow, meadow (mead) arch, (leasow) obs. It is interesting to note however that none of the neuter nouns have retained <w> while all the surviving feminine nouns have a form with <w>. This is no doubt due to the fact that in OE feminine wo-stems, only one case - nom sg is without -w~, whereas in OE neuter wa-stems, four cases are without -w~ - nom/acc sg/pl.

In ModE reflexes of the wo-stems with alternation of vowel length, only one stem has survived. We have knee, tree and straw, but not *knew (in the sense of 'knee'), *trew or *strea.

development of wa- and wo-stems in ME

Not surprisingly, Middle English texts have considerable variation, which goes beyond the two doublets of ModE (shade/shadow and mead/meadow). In fact, all the ME reflexes of the wa- and wo-stems have forms with and without ~w~.

Here is a list of extracts from the MED entries for each of the OE wa- and wo-stems cited above. East Midland examples have been highlighted:

What can we conclude from this? Unfortunately early East Midland (Orm and PC2) examples are scarce. However Ch and Gow clearly indicate a preference for forms without -w- even in the plural (and singular dative), in reflexes of neuter wa-stems. And Orm's smere may be dative. Conversely, Ch has nominative singular forms with -w- in reflexes of feminine wo-stems. Thus the tendency to the pattern observed in ModE is already evident in Ch.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, most reflexes of the wo-stems with alternation of vowel length, still have doublets, as in OE. The difference is that plural forms can be found with and without w. So Orm has both tres and trewwess pl and cnes pl, alongside forms that mirror OE. Ch has singular forms stree and straw 12, as well as a plural stres.

Normalising the reflexes of wa- and wo-stems

In striving for simplicity, we look for forms which any user could produce with only the aid of an OE dictionary, and their own ModE. So, the rule is as follows: a word which has a dual stem in OE, has a single stem in eME. The ModE reflex determines the stem on which the eME form is based. If there is no ModE reflex, the stem with -w- is applied throughout the paradigm. This is the ModE test in action.

Thus bale bales, mele meles, smere smeres, sarwe sarwes, barwe barwes, cne_ cne_s, tre_ tre_s, lewe lewes, strawe strawes, badwe badwes, sinwe sinwes, scadwe scadwes, mae_dwe mae_dwes and lae_swe lae_swes are the preferred forms in this site. In each of these pairs, one is an additional eME form.


For more discussion and background notes, see alternative approaches to wa- and wo-stems.

Masculine ja-stems (and other anomalies)

Only OE here herig`es presents variation in the stem. This variation doesn't survive to the ME period. The MED has no entries with <y/y`/g`>. Orm, Lmn and Owl, for example, all have here dat.

The stem alternation in OE haele haelet`- has been ignored, for the simple reason that haelet` is often found in nom sg as well. Lmn has haeled` nom sg. The MED and OED both give heleth.

OE a-stem nouns ending in h

For OE masculine and neuter a-stem nouns ending in h, the rule set down in most grammars regarding the formation of the plural, is that the h dropped and the vowel lengthened (if short) before (a)s was added. Hence: fearh - fe_aras (pig), mearh - me_aras (horse), seolh - se_oles (seal), wealh - we_alas (foreigner), sco_h - sco_s (shoe), slo_h - slo_s (mire) and wo_h - wo_s (wrong, depravity). Neuter feorh (life, spirit) and feoh7 (money, property) behaved similarly, except that they were unchanged in the plural.

developments in ME

There are a couple of points to note initially. Firstly, OE itself had variants without -h in the nominative singular, for most of these words. And in at least two cases - slo_h and wo_h, there were variant oblique forms with -g-. Secondly, the MED drops final <h> in the headword of the entries for each of the reflexes of the words listed above, but also cites examples with final <h> (or related <g(h)> or even <k>) for each. The early East Midland examples, i.e. those found in Orm and PC2, are somewhat scarce, and inconclusive. Orm has a nom sg with h - fehh, a nom sg without h - sho, oblique forms with y`h - a reflex of OE medial g - woy`h`e dat, and oblique forms without h - fe dat . PC1 has woge dat. Although not early ME, East Midland Ch has fee, mare and sho(o), all h-less nom sg. Early West Midland sources - Lmn and AW have a similar set of forms to Orm.

The ME forms recorded in the MED show two main changes from the standard OE forms. These changes are dealt with below:

retention of short vowel before lost final h

An issue which needs to be investigated a little further is the stem vowel in the oblique cases and plural forms when h was dropped, in OE. If short, was it lengthened, as many OE grammars indicate? Bosworth & Toller gives a short vowel in all its examples of oblique cases and plural forms of mearh, wealh, feorh and seolh. And the fact that we have Wales in ModE - a direct descendant of the plural of OE wealh, would suggest that the ea in OE wealas9 was short. *We_alas would give us ModE Weals. Similarly, OE me_aras and se_olas would give ModE *mears and *seels respectively, while OE mearas and seolas would give the expected ModE forms *mares10 and seals11.

It seems that a short stem vowel was not lengthened when final h was lost, where a consonant preceded <h> in OE. Or, if lengthening did take place, it was short-lived, and had been reversed by the beginning of the 13th century.

final h becomes e

The MED not only drops final <h> in the headword of the entries for each of the reflexes of the words listed above, but also has final <e>, where a consonant preceded <h> in OE.

This feature isn't exclusive to later ME. It begins fairly early. From Body and Soul, one of The Worcester Fragments, ca 1225, we find: "Ic t`in wale iweart`, hu so [t`u wol]dest". From 1300, we we have "T`ar þe child is kinge and t`e cherl is alderman and t`e wale [L Exterus] biscop, wa t`ene lede". From The Proverbs of Alfred ca 1250 we find "Nis no wurt woxsen in wude ne in felde t`at efre muy`e þe feiy`e fere uphelden."

In short, it seems that final h was not just dropped, but also replaced by e, where a consonant preceded <h> in OE.

normalising the reflexes of a-stems with final h

There are three main routes we could take for eME. We could simply work case-by-case, and apply to each word the basic principle for determining the lexicon of eME - that is to adopt the standard OE form, subject to eME sound and spelling changes, and to permit any additional form(s) supported by either Orm or PC2 and at least one other eME source. Or we could try to generalise the patterns observed in later ME and ModE (see above), and apply these to the whole group. A set of rules based on such patterns would reduce the number of irregularities.

Nevertheless, they would be extra rules; something more for the eME user to learn and contend with. Another approach is to apply the ModE test, by simply asking - "Is there a ModE reflex without final gh or w?" If so, eME drops h. If that is our test, then additional eME nom/acc sg forms are sel, wal, mar, fe_ and sco_ with corresponding gen sg & pl forms seles, wales, mares, fe_s and sco_s. That is the approach I have taken with the eME in this site.

OE ferh would remain as eME ferh, since there is no ModE reflex. slo_h, wo_h and farh also retain final h because vestiges of it remain in the ModE relexes. However, according to the existing eME rule that final -h /x/ regularly becomes -g- /G``/ before a vowel, these would have gen sg & pl forms ferges, slo_ges, wo_ges and farges respectively (in line with burh burges i.a.).

All of the discussion in this section can be neatly summarised in the following table:

OE nouns which drop final -h in oblique cases and the plural
OE alt OE PC2/Orm/Ch MED ModE eME
wealh - we_alas we_al, wal-, Walas, Walena, Wala [waelh Lmn] wale Wales (foreigners) wal - wales
mearh - me_aras mear, mearg mare Ch, [meare AW], [mare LH] mere mare - mares mar - mares
seolh - se_olas seol [sele Hav] sele seal - seals sel - seles
feorh - fe_ores gen fe_or, feorg [fere PA] fere [= life/spirit] ferh - ferges
feoh - fe_os fe_o feh Orm, fee Ch fee fee - fees fe_ - fe_s
sc`o_h - sco_s sco_ sho Orm, sho Ch sho shoe - shoes sco_ - sco_s
slo_h - slo_s slo_g, slo_ges slow/slough Ch slough slough - [sloughs] slo_h - slo_ges
wo_h - wo_s wo_g, wo_ges, wo_ge woy`he Orm, woge PC1 wough [= wrong/ depravity] wo_h - wo_ges
fearh - fe_aras   [iferhet AW p ptc] farwen inf farrow - [farrows] farh - farges

For more discussion and background notes, see alternative approaches to a-stems ending in <h>.

Unchanged possessives

A few possessives take no ending. These are mainly nouns of relation, descended from the OE stems in -r: fader, mo_der, suster, bro_t`er, dohter. Three others are descended from weak genitives in -an: lafdi_, herte and sa_wle (which adds an e). All these forms are found in both Gower and Chaucer (e.g. ladi lady gen).

nominative form of strong feminine nouns gains a final e

In OE, the paradigm of strong feminine nouns was unusual in that the nominative form was the only form without a final vowel (apart from the dative plural).

In most other declensions, nominative and accusative were identical. And while nominative and accusative were not identical in the weak masculine and feminine declensions, in both those declensions, the nominative had a final vowel.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that by the year 1200, we find very few examples of reflexes of OE strong feminine nouns, without a final e in the nominative case.

OE glo_f and sa_wel have become ME glo_fe and sa_wle.


  1. Lmn (a West Midland text) had the irregular plural word - word;
  2. however, this site doesn't use Chaucer's plural forms in -(e)n where both OE and ModE have -(e)s, e.g. shoon for eME scho_s (OE sco_s, ModE shoes);
  3. an alternative form to OE g`efa_ was fah, with plural fa_; Lmn had i-fa, i-fo and fo for ModE foe while Sir Orfeo had fo and Ch had fo(o);
  4. The eME equivalent of ModE brothers/brethren is an interesting case. OE had two plural forms - an unchanged bro_d`er and less often - bro_d`ra. This should give bro_t`er and brot`re in eME. But Chaucer has brethren (and brethehed for ModE brotherhood). Possibly there were several competing forms in eME - bro_t`er, brot`re(n), bret`re(n).
  5. in fact most units of measure for time or space were singular in Ch;
  6. applies to singular only for the very few masculine wa-stems; thus bearu bearwas (grove) and t`e_o t`ewas (servant);
  7. OE feoh may not have had a plural; I couldn't see one in Bosworth & Toller; I've yet to see a plural form of eME feh;
  8. indirectly, from ModE farrow (a litter of pigs) and ME farwen (to give birth to pigs);
  9. there are also several OE examples with a rather than ea - Walas/Walena/Wala;
  10. some dictionaries (e.g. the American Heritage Dictionary) give the etymology of ModE mare as OE miere, "influenced by forms of mearh, horse";
  11. in disyllabic words with an open first syllable, the short vowels /a e o/ in the first syllable were lengthened during the first half of the thirteenth century, so cneden > /knE`:d@`n/ > knead, speken > /spE`:k@`n/ > speak and seles > /sE`:l@`s/ > seals;
  12. The MED records only entries with <w> (or <u>) for t`ew (servant).


  1. c1225 Body & Soul.(2) (Wor F.174) :: The Worcester Fragments, ed. D. Moffat (1987). 62-81.
  2. a1300 Þar þe child is (Dgb 53) :: M. Förster, Frühmittelenglische Sprichwörter, ESt. 31 (1900). 15.
  3. a1250 (?c1150) Prov.Alf. (Glb A.19) :: The Proverbs of Alfred, ed. O. Arngart (1955). bottom of even pp. 104-10, bottom of pp. 120, 122, 124, 126-29