Beowulf and Inflections: Verbs, Nouns and Word Order
This activity will be more useful if topic Origins: Beowulf has been worked through first.
Some verbs in the poem have final inflections that have since changed (Middle English) and then partly or completely disappeared.
standeð > standeth > (he she or it) stands
hongiað > hangeth > (he, she or it) hangs
Only the 's' at the end of 'stands' and 'hangs' shows that it is third person singular (he, she or it stands). All the other forms of the verb in the present have no inflections (I stand, you stand, we stand, they stand..).
'Come' is similar; it has a final 's' today in the third person ('it comes') but 'you come' (second person) has none. 'Cymest' changed into you (or thou) comest, and then into 'you come'.
cymest. > (you/thou comest) > (you) come … >
It was not only the verbs that had inflections in Old English. The nouns changed endings too, in ways depending on whether they were masculine, feminine or neuter nouns, and according to the job they were doing. They could be:
- the subject (nominative case) or
- the object (accusative) of the sentence, or
- have some ownership (genitive) or
- be indirect objects (dative/ instrumental)…
'Bearn' (child) is written bearna in the Beowulf passage and 'guma' (man) is written gumena because they are both in the possessive (genitive) plural case. Together 'gumena bearna' means of the children of men in two words only.
So Old English was more compact, needing fewer smaller, supporting words. Because of these inflections, or inflected endings, words could go in different places in the sentence and still be perfectly clear
Look at this example of what can happen when we change word order today:
- Gillian gave the woman a coin (This is clear)
- The woman gave Gillian a coin (Same words: different meaning)
- Gillian the woman a coin gave (Gillian - who was a woman- gave a coin but not to anyone in particular)
- A coin the woman Gillian gave (Perhaps: It was a coin the woman called Gillian gave, not a bean. Unclear)
- The woman a coin gave Gillian (The sentence becomes more and more confusing)
This could not happen in the same way in Old English (as it can not in Latin) because of the inflected endings of words which show what job the word is doing in the sentence.
List any examples you can find of inflections in modern English nouns and verbs.
Invent a sentence of your own and experiment with the word order. How many meanings could it have?