Chasing a Declension: Konungr

by Haukur Ŝorgeirsson 2001

To be revised!

The history of the English language is traditionally split into three periods; Old English, Middle English and Modern English. Old English works include Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Middle English works include The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and modern English is everything from Shakespeare to our days.

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is a West-Germanic language closely related to Old Norse both in vocabulary and grammar. On the way to Modern English the language has picked up a great number of loanwords from non-Germanic languages. The grammar has also changed radically, going from an inflected language to a (mostly) non-inflected one.

It might be instructive to look at the history of one English declension and compare it with its Old Norse counterpart. You should pay attention to the endings rather than to the change in stem.


Old Norse 

nom	konungr		konungar
acc 	konung		konunga
dat	konungi		konungum
gen	konungs		konunga


Early Old English

nom & acc	cyning		cyningas
dat		cyninge		cyningum
gen	 	cyninges	cyninga

As you can see there are differences and similarities. Most notably this Old English declension does not distinguish between nominative and accusative.

What happened now is that all the ending-vowels (a, e and u) collapsed into a weak schwa-sound (Sampa [@]). We will spell it 'e'.


Late Old English - Early Middle English

nom/acc		cyng		cynges
dat		cynge		cyngen
gen		cynges		cynge

There is now less distinction between individual form and some that were previously different have become the same. The final blow of mercy to the case system was when the weak ending vowel ceased to be pronounced. We get something like this.


Late Middle English

nom/acc		kyng		kyngs
dat		kyng		kyng(n->s)
gen		kyngs		kyng(s)

The dative and genitive plural take an s by anology with the other plural forms. We now have the forms we all know.


Modern English

nom/acc/dat	king		kings
gen		king's		kings'

The orthography makes an arbitrary distinction between genitive singular, nominative plural and genitive plural, but that doesn't change the fact that only two forms of the word survive; with and without an s-ending.

You might been wondering what has been happening to the Old Norse declension in the meantime. The mainland Scandinavians went much the same way as the English.


Modern Danish

nom/acc/dat	konge		konger
gen		konges		kongers

The Danes, for some reason, added an ending e here in the singular. Let's look at a more typical word


Modern Danish 

nom/acc/dat	fugl		fugle (English: bird (fowl)  Old Norse: fogl)
gen		fugls		fugles

As you can see nominative, accusative and dative have all fallen together under the accusative form. As in Middle English all the endings have turned into a schwa (spelled e).


Modern Swedish ("kung" also exists)

nom/acc/dat	konung		konungar
gen		konungs		konungars

Swedish has to some extent kept the three inflectional vowels of Old Norse, which it spells a, e and o.

Note that the official name of Sweden "Konunga-riket Sverige" has the older genitive plural of "konunga".

Modern Norwegian is actually defined as two languages. One is "Bokmċl" which is almost exactly the same as Danish (but with another accent) and the other is "Nynorsk" which is more archaic. I don't know exactly how it handles this declension.

Our next stop is the Faroes.


Modern Faroese ("konungur" also exists)

nom. kongur	kongar
acc. kong	kongar
dat. kongi	kongum
gen. kongs	konga

Quite archaic.

Finally we look at the modern Icelandic forms.


Modern Icelandic (kóngur also exists)

nom	konungur	konungar  
acc	konung		konunga
dat	konungi		konungum
gen	konungs		konunga

The only change since Old Norse is that the r-ending has become an ur-ending.