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In the Indo-European languages, adjectives are closely related to nouns in terms of their inflection. When learning Latin adjectives, for instance, you have to memorize declensions on a word-by-word basis, just as you do with the nouns. If your Latin adjective is class 3, you will find the genitive singular form -is and the accusative singular ending -em when the governing noun is masculine or feminine, just as they are for class 3 nouns of those genders. The other class of adjectives is a mixed class 1/2: with feminine nouns its inflection overlaps with that of class 1 nouns, most of which are likewise feminine (puella nova, puellae novae), but masculine and neuter nouns force their class 1/2 adjectives into a declension pattern strongly resembling that of class 2 nouns, which are masculine or neuter (dominus novus, dominī novī). What we see at work here in the Latin is a transitional stage between the Proto-Indo-European configuration, where each adjective was associated with a particular stem and grouped with a declension accordingly, and the system as found in Germanic languages such as Old Norse and Old English, where adjective declension has merged with gender, so each adjective declines according to the gender of the associated noun rather than according to its stem vowel.

If the preceding paragraph made little sense to you, at least remember that one axis of adjective declension is gender: when supplying an adjective to an Old Norse noun, its ending will be different for a masculine noun than for a feminine or neuter noun.

Another hugely important factor of adjective declension is strength. With adjectives as with nouns and verbs, this is a somewhat arbitrarily named Germanic category. With Old Norse adjectives, a strong adjective is one that is not accompanied by a demonstrative pronoun or article, such as inn, , or þessi. In English, large is in strong position in the phrases “large hall” and “large halls”, but it is weak in “the large hall” and “the large halls” because the noun it modifies — hall or halls — is modified by another word — the — before we even get to the adjective. While the English word large remains identical across all four examples, the adjective would be declined differently in German, Old English, or Old Norse if a demonstrative precedes: in stóra hǫll as opposed to stór hǫll, das große Haus versus großes Haus.

Adjectives in positive grade — large, fast, yellow — are thus declined according to context as well as gender, case, and number. The same is true of superlatives, since these can be used with or without a demonstrative: Egill var manna vænstr “Egill was [the] most handsome of men” lacks a demonstrative, so vænn is declined strong; Egill var inn vænsti maðr “Egill was the most handsome man” has the article, so vænn is declined weak. Adjectives in comparative grade, by contrast, — larger, faster, more yellow — are always declined weak, as are present participles (syngjandi “singing”). Past participles, by contrast (sunginn “sung”), are declined strong.

The main formal characteristic of weak adjectives across the Germanic languages is that they are comparatively homogenous through the paradigm, making them easy to memorize but not very helpful when trying to determine the case of the governing noun. Fortunately, in these cases the demonstrative provides the information otherwise encoded in the strong adjective. In Old Norse, another difference between strong and weak adjectives is that the former ends in a consonant in most forms, though not all; the weak adjective always ends in a vowel a/i/u except in the dative plural.

Strong declension (monosyllables)

nom. djarfr djǫrf djarft
acc. djarfan djarfa djarft
gen. djarfs djarfrar djarfs
dat. djǫrfum djarfri djǫrfu
nom. djarfir djarfar djǫrf
acc. djarfa djarfar djǫrf
gen. djarfra djarfra djarfra
dat. djǫrfum djǫrfum djǫrfum

Weak declension (monosyllables)

nom. djarfi djarfa djarfa
acc. djarfa djǫrfu djarfa
gen. djarfa djǫrfu djarfa
dat. djarfa djǫrfu djarfa
nom. djǫrfu djǫrfu djǫrfu
acc. djǫrfu djǫrfu djǫrfu
gen. djǫrfu djǫrfu djǫrfu
dat. djǫrfum djǫrfum djǫrfum

A good number of adjectives are dissyllabic, meaning their root consists of two syllables. In forms whose endings start in a vowel, these dissylabic stems are subject to syncope: the unstressed medial vowel is lost. This has consequences especially for the weak paradigm, which exclusively has endings beginning with vowels. In the strong paradigm, we find syncopated forms mixed in with unsyncopated forms, as the genitive and dative plural, as well as some genitive and dative singular positions, undergo syncope while the rest of the paradigm remains unchanged. Compare the following dissylabic adjective with the above:

Strong declension (dissyllables)

nom. auðigr auðig auðigt
acc. auðgan auðga auðigt
gen. auðigs auðigrar auðigs
dat. auðgum auðigri auðgu
nom. auðgir auðgar auðig
acc. auðga auðgar auðig
gen. auðigra auðigra auðigra
dat. auðgum auðgum auðgum

Weak declension (dissyllables)

nom. auðgi auðga auðga
acc. auðga auðgu auðga
gen. auðga auðgu auðga
dat. auðga auðgu auðga
nom. auðgu auðgu auðgu
acc. auðgu auðgu auðgu
gen. auðgu auðgu auðgu
dat. auðgum auðgum auðgum


djarfr djarfari djarfastr
auðigr auðgari auðgastr

With most adjectives, the comparative grade is formed by adding -ar- plus the weak ending. The superlative is then formed by adding -ast plus the strong or weak ending as determined by context. In certain cases, the vowel in these endings can itself be syncopated under the influence of a following personal ending (see lengri below), but in cases like auðigr, auðgari, it is only the dissyllabic stems themselves that are contracted before -ar, -ast, as further elision would result in undesirable consonant clusters.

langr lengri lengstr
góðr betri beztr

There are, however, also verbs that modify the stem — either through front mutation or by providing an entirely new stem, as with English good, better — and suffix only -r- plus the weak ending. The superlative is then based on the comparative rather than the positive stem. In the table on the left, lengri is an example of a comparative formed by front mutation (and syncope); betri is a comparative formed on a new stem, the same used for English better. Note that the z in the superlative form beztr represents the sequence /ts/, i.e. it includes both the t of the stem bet- and the s added by the -ast superlative suffix.

© Paul Langeslag 2016