A noun is the name of a person, place or thing. The "thing" need not
be concrete: for example, it can be a thought, an activity, or a
In Modern English, nouns have only a few inflections. The plural
is usually made by adding -s, and a possessive is
made by adding -'s. These inflections come to us from
Old English. But Old English had many more inflections than Modern
English has, for nouns were marked in these categories:
The number of different inflections can cause difficulty as you come
to terms with (for example) the dozen or so ways of making a plural.
The best way to cope is to look for resemblances between Old English
and Modern English inflections and to look for redundancies within
the inflectional system.
- Gender. Every noun was masculine, feminine or neuter, and the
gender of a noun did not depend on its "natural" gender. Thus
scip ship and wif woman were neuter, wærscipe
prudence and wifman woman were masculine, and snotornes
wisdom and mægð maiden were feminine.
- Declension. The manner in which a noun was inflected. In Modern
English we have one major declension consisting of nouns that make
their plural by adding -s; this comes to us from the Old English
strong declension. But some nouns make plurals by adding -en
(e.g. oxen), and these are descended from the weak declension;
still others make plurals by changing their vowel (e.g. mice),
and these are from the athematic declension. Old English had other,
minor declensions as well.
- Case. The Modern English possessive is descended from the Old
English masculine/neuter genitive, but otherwise Modern English nouns
are not marked for case, which expresses a noun's function in the sentence.
Old English had four cases, nominative, accusative, genitive and
dative, and traces of a fifth, the instrumental.
- Number. This is the easiest inflectional category, since we
still inflect nouns for plurality. But Old English had both singular
and plural endings, and these varied depending on a word's gender,
case and declension.