Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 5.1. Quick Start
5.1.1. Personal pronouns 5.1.2. Possessive adjectives 5.1.3. Demonstrative pronouns
5.2. More about personal and demonstrative pronouns
5.2.1. The dual number 5.2.2. Common spelling variants
5.3. Interrogative pronouns 5.4. Indefinite pronouns 5.5. Relative pronouns 5.6. Reflexive pronouns 5.7. Reciprocal pronouns

5. Pronouns

5.1. Quick Start

Before you read any farther, download the “Magic Sheet” (a one-page summary of Old English inflections) and print it out on the best color printer you can find. Keep this sheet by your side as you read Old English.

The pronouns you will meet with most often are the personal pronouns (with the closely related possessive adjectives) and the demonstratives.

5.1.1. Personal pronouns

You will find the personal pronouns easy to learn because of their resemblance in both form and usage to those of Modern English.

Table 5.1. First-person pronouns
  singular plural
nominative ‘I’ ‘we’
accusative mē, mec ‘me’ ūs ‘us’
genitive mīn ‘my’ ūre ‘our’
dative ‘me’ ūs ‘us’

The first-person pronouns (table 5.1) are quite similar to those of Modern English, especially in prose, where you will generally see accusative singular rather than mec.

The second-person pronouns, on the other hand, have changed radically since the Old English period (table 5.2). Modern English does not distinguish number or any case but the possessive; in fact there are now only two forms of the pronoun, you and your. By contrast, the second-person pronouns of Old English look a lot like the first-person pronouns, distinguishing number and at least three of the cases.

Table 5.2. Second-person pronouns
  singular plural
nominative þū ‘you’ ġē ‘you’
accusative þē, þec ‘you’ ēow ‘you’
genitive þīn ‘your’ ēower ‘your’
dative þē ‘you’ ēow ‘you’

Old English does not use the second-person singular as a “familiar” form, the way Middle English, French and German do: þū is simply singular. Like mec, accusative singular þec is mainly poetic.

The third-person pronouns, unlike the first- and second-person pronouns, are inflected for gender, but only in the singular (table 5.3).

Table 5.3. Third-person pronouns
  masculine neuter feminine plural
nominative ‘he, it’ hit ‘it’ hēo ‘she, it’ hīe ‘they’
accusative hine hīe
genitive his hire hira
dative him him

Notice that several of the forms in table 5.3 can represent two cases or genders. As you study the pronouns, nouns and adjectives, you will find that forms repeat themselves in the same pattern:

If you learn these patterns you will save yourself some of the labor of memorizing paradigms.

The third-person plural pronouns may cause some difficulty at first, because they don’t start with th- the way their Modern English counterparts do. Also confusing is that dative plural him is exactly the same as the masculine/neuter dative singular pronoun. You will need to take extra care in memorizing these plural pronouns.

5.1.2. Possessive adjectives

Possessive adjectives are the pronoun-like forms we use with nouns to signal possession:

my sword
the sword is mine
your shield
the shield is yours
her spear
the spear is hers

These are closely related to the genitive personal pronouns, but we call them adjectives because they modify nouns. In Old English the third-person genitive pronouns are used as possessive adjectives:

his hring
[his ring]
hire healsbēag
[her necklace]
hira fatu
[their cups]

These work like Modern English possessives in that they agree in gender and number with their antecedents, not with the nouns they modify. To make first- and second-person possessive adjectives, strong adjective endings are added to the genitive pronoun forms; these agree with the nouns they modify, not with their antecedents:

mīnum scipe
[my ship (dative)]
þīnne wæġn
[your wagon (accusative)]
ēowru hors
[your horses (nominative plural)]

5.1.3. Demonstrative pronouns

There are two demonstrative pronouns, se/þæt/sēo (table 5.4) and þes/þis/þēos (table 5.5). The first does the job of Modern English that/those and also that of the definite article the. The second does the same job as Modern English this/these. As with the third-person pronouns, gender is distinguished only in the singular.

Table 5.4. Demonstrative pronoun ‘the’, ‘that’, ‘those’
  masculine neuter feminine plural
nominative se þæt sēo þā
accusative þone þā
genitive þæs þǣre þāra, þǣra
dative þām þām
instrumental þȳ, þon  
Table 5.5. Demonstrative pronoun ‘this’, ‘these’
  masculine neuter feminine plural
nominative þes þis þēos þās
accusative þisne þās
genitive þisses þisse, þisre þissa
dative þissum þissum
instrumental þȳs  

Modern English that comes from the neuter nominative/accusative form. Notice that the same patterns occur here as in the third-person pronouns: neuter nominative and accusative forms are the same, masculine and neuter forms are the same in the genitive and dative cases, and feminine genitive and dative forms are the same.

The instrumental case is distinguished only in the masculine and neuter singular; elsewhere you will see the dative instead.

5.2. More about personal and demonstrative pronouns

5.2.1. The dual number

The first- and second-person pronouns have dual as well as singular and plural forms (table 5.6). Dual pronouns are used to refer to two things: ‘we two’, ‘you two’.

Table 5.6. Dual pronouns
  first person second person
nominative wit ‘we two’ ġit ‘you two’
accusative unc ‘us two’ inc ‘you two’
genitive uncer ‘of us two’ incer ‘of you two’
dative unc ‘us two’ inc ‘you two’

Use of the dual is optional: the plural will do just as well. It is used to emphasize that two persons or things are being discussed, as in Riddle 85:

Ġif wit unc ġedǣlað,   mē bið dēað witod
[If the two of us part from each other, death is ordained for me]

There is no dual verb form; dual pronouns agree with plural verbs.

5.2.2. Common spelling variants

Personal and demonstrative pronouns receive relatively little stress in most sentences, and as a result they may be pronounced somewhat indistinctly. Long vowels are frequently shortened (though this book always marks them with their etymologically correct lengths), and i, ie and y are frequently confused. Thus you will see not only hine (for example), but also hyne and hiene, and not only hīe, but also and . For hīe you will also see occasional hiġ and hēo. For him you will see not only hym, but also, in the plural, heom.

In þām, ǣ varies with ā. In late Old English you will also see þane for þone. You may expect to see occasional y or eo for i in forms of þes (e.g. þysne, þeossa), and also occasional variation between -s- and -ss-.

5.3. Interrogative pronouns

There are three common interrogative pronouns: hwā (table 5.7), the ancestor of Modern English who/what; hwelċ/hwilċ/hwylċ, which gives Modern English which; and hwæþer ‘which of two’. Hwā has only a singular form; there is no distinction between masculine and feminine. The instrumental form is the ancestor of Modern English why, and is used to mean ‘why’.

Table 5.7. Interrogative pronoun ‘who’, ‘what’
  masculine and feminine neuter
nominative hwā hwæt
accusative hwone, hwæne
genitive hwæs
dative hwām, hwǣm
instrumental hwȳ, hwon

The other two interrogative pronouns mentioned above are inflected as strong adjectives.

5.4. Indefinite pronouns

The interrogative pronouns can also be used as indefinite pronouns: you must judge which is intended from the context. The addition of the prefix ġe- to these pronouns alters the meaning somewhat:

hwā ‘anyone’ ġehwā ‘each, everyone, someone’
hwelċ ‘any, anyone’ ġehwelċ ‘each’
hwæþer ‘either, both’ ġehwæþer ‘both’

These pronouns can also be modified by placing them in the phrases swā hwā swā ‘whoever’, swā hwēlċ swā, swā hwǣþer swā ‘whichever’. Yet another indefinite pronoun may be made by prefixing nāt-, a negative form of the verb ‘to know’: nāthwelċ ‘someone or other’, ‘something or other’ (literally ‘I don’t know who’, ‘I don’t know which’). Here are a few examples:

wite ġehwā þæt þā yfelan ġeþōhtas ne magon ūs derian
[let everyone know that those evil thoughts may not harm us]
Swā hwylċe swā ne woldon hlāfordas habban
[Whoever did not wish to have lords]
þāra banena byre nāthwylċes
[the son of one or another of those killers]
(Beowulf l. 2053)

Other indefinite pronouns are inflected like adjectives.

5.5. Relative pronouns

There are several ways to make a relative pronoun. One is simply with the indeclinable particle þe:

Þā bēoð ēadiġe þe ġehȳrað Godes word
[They are blessed who obey God’s word]

Another is to use a form of the demonstrative se with þe:

Hē lifode mid þām Gode þām þe hē ǣr þēowode
[He lived with that God whom he earlier had served]

A third way is to use a form of the demonstrative pronoun alone, without þe:

Danai þǣre ēa, sēo is irnende of norþdæle
[the river Don, which flows from the north]

When a demonstrative is used, its case and number will usually be appropriate to the following adjective clause. That is the case with both of the examples above, since þēowian takes the dative and nominative sēo is the subject of the clause that it introduces. Sometimes, though, the demonstrative will agree with the word that the adjective clause modifies:

Uton wē hine ēac biddan þæt hē ūs ġescylde wið grimnysse myssenlicra yfela and wīta þāra þe hē on middanġeard sendeð for manna synnum.
[Let us also entreat him that he shield us from the severity of various evils and punishments that he sends to the earth because of men’s sins.]

The relative pronoun þāra þe agrees with the genitive plural noun phrase myssenlicra yfela and wīta, which lies outside the adjective clause (þāra þe . . . synnum).

5.6. Reflexive pronouns

The personal pronoun can be used by itself as a reflexive, and self/sylf can be added for emphasis. Examples:

Iċ ondrēd
[I was afraid]
Iċ ðā sōna eft mē selfum andwyrde
[I then immediately afterwards answered myself]

Old English sometimes uses a reflexive pronoun where it would make no sense to use one in Modern English: when this happens the translator may simply ignore it.

5.7. Reciprocal pronouns

There are several ways to express what Modern English usually expresses with the phrase each other. One may simply use a plural personal pronoun where we say each other, optionally adding self to the pronoun for emphasis. Or one can use a construction such as ǣġðer . . . ōðer or ǣġhwylċ . . . ōðer ‘each . . . other’. An example of each style:

þæt ðā āglǣcan   eft ġemētton
[that the contenders met each other again]
(Beowulf, l. 2592)
ǣġðer hyra ōðrum   yfeles hogode
[each of them intended harm to the other]
(The Battle of Maldon, l. 133)

In the first sentence you must rely on context to tell you that the pronoun is reciprocal.