A Short History of Nouns
A noun is a word that represents a person, place, thing, or idea. In English, nouns can be categorized as proper nouns, common nouns, or collective nouns.
Proper nouns are the specific names of people, places, or things (e.g., Sarah, Mount Everest, or iPhone). Common nouns are general names for people, places, or things (e.g., woman, mountain, or phone). Collective nouns are groups of people, places, or things (e.g., colony, team, jury).
Nouns have been part of the English language since the days of Old English. The history of nouns is a fascinating one that sheds light on the evolution of the English language.
The Old English Period (450-1100)
During the Old English period, there were three grammatical genders in the English language: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Nouns were also inflected for case (i.e., they had different forms depending on their function in a sentence), number (i.e., singular vs. plural), and possession (i.e., whether they were owned by someone or not). For example, the Old English word for “house” was “hus,” which could be inflected as “hys” (masculine accusative case), “huse” (feminine dative case), “husum” (neuter plural genitive case), and so forth.
Interestingly, the vast majority of Old English words that are still in use today are masculine or feminine— very few neuter words have survived into Modern English. This is likely because during the Old English period, almost all animate objects were considered either masculine or feminine (even inanimate objects were often given a grammatical gender—think of how we refer to a ship as “she”).
The Middle English Period (1100-1500)
The Norman Conquest of 1066 marks the beginning of the Middle English period. After the Normans conquered England and introduced French into the country’s lexicon, many words that had previously been inflected for grammatical gender began to lose that distinction. For example, the Old English word for “cow” was “cū,” which could be inflected as either “cūn” (feminine accusative case) or “cūene” (feminine dative case). By contrast, the Middle English word for “cow” was “cowe,” which could only be inflected for number and possession—the concept of grammatical gender had all but disappeared from the language by this point.
The Early Modern English Period (1500-1700)
During the Early Modern English period, plurals began to be formed in a variety of ways—not just by adding an -s or -es at the end of a word as is common today. For example, some plurals were formed by changing the spelling of a word entirely (“child” became “children”), while others were formed by changing the vowel sound in a word (“man” became “men”). This led to an increased level of irregularity in plural formation during this period.
Today’s English speakers likely don’t give much thought to how plurals are formed—we just know that most words add an -s at the end to indicate plurality. However, it wasn’t always this way; throughout history, plurals have been formed in a variety of ways depending on what time period you’re looking at. The history of nouns is a fascinating one that sheds light on how Complex our language has become over time . . . and how much simpler it once was!