The University of Texas at Austin; College of Liberal Arts
Hans C. Boas, Director :: PCL 5.556, 1 University Station S5490 :: Austin, TX 78712 :: 512-471-4566
LRC Links: Home | About | Books Online | EIEOL | IE Doc. Center | IE Lexicon | IE Maps | IE Texts | Pub. Indices | SiteMap

Old French Online

Lesson 1

Brigitte L.M. Bauer and Jonathan Slocum

La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is a so-called Chanson de Geste, one of the major genres of French medieval literature in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the Chansons de Geste the deeds (Latin gesta) of the great heroes of Christian lineage are described. As the oldest Chanson de Geste, the Chanson de Roland is generally dated in the early 12th century (ca. 1100-1120) and traces back to an historical event.

In 778, when Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees returning from a campaign in Spain, the rearguard of his army was attacked and massacred by the local population. Toward the end of the 11th century, leading up to the First Crusade (1096-1099), this event developed legendary characteristics and the historical figures were interpreted as Christian heroes whose faith, loyalty, and courage in the battle against the pagan Saracens is continually praised, as in the Chanson de Roland.

In this epic two characters stand out: Charlemagne, king of the Franks, and Roland, his nephew and most prominent adviser and knight, who is the epitome of Christian heroism and sacrifice and who accepts martyrdom on the battlefield against the enemies of Christianity. The poem relates the events that lead to the betrayal and massacre as well as the battle itself; it describes not only the battle, in great detail, but also the deliberations that precede the decisions made by the main characters.

Reading and Textual Analysis

The text is divided into laisses, stanzas of varying length. For this lesson two laisses have been selected, numbers I (lines 1-9) and VIII (lines 96-121), which present Charlemagne as one of the main characters of the work and show his military strength.

Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes
set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:
Tresqu'en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.

  • Carles -- proper name; nominative singular <Charles> Charles, Charlemagne -- Charles
  • li -- definite article; nominative singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • reis -- noun; nominative singular <roi> king -- king
  • nostre -- possessive; first person plural nominative singular masculine <nostre> our -- our
  • emperere -- noun; nominative singular <empereor> emperor -- emperor
  • magnes -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <magne> great -- great
  • set -- numeral; <set> seven -- seven
  • anz -- noun; oblique plural <an> year -- years
  • tuz -- adjective; oblique plural masculine <tot> all, every, completely -- ...
  • pleins -- adjective; oblique plural masculine <plein, plain> full -- full
  • ad -- verb; third person singular present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- has
  • estet -- verb; perfective participle nominative singular masculine <ester> stand, remain, be -- been
  • en -- preposition; <en> in, into, on, on top of -- in
  • Espaigne -- proper name; oblique singular <Espaigne> Spain -- Spain
  • tresqu'en -- preposition; <tresqu', trusqu'> up to, until + preposition; <en> in, into, on, on top of -- up to
  • la -- definite article; oblique singular feminine <li> the -- the
  • mer -- noun; oblique singular <mer> sea -- sea
  • cunquist -- verb; third person singular preterite <conquerre, cunquerre> conquer, capture -- he conquered
  • la -- definite article; oblique singular feminine <li> the -- the
  • tere -- noun; oblique singular <terre> land, country, earth -- land
  • altaigne -- adjective; oblique singular feminine <altain> high, deep -- high

N'i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne;
Mur ne citet n'i est remés a fraindre
Fors Saraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.

  • n'i -- negation; <ne, nen> not + particle; <i> there -- there... no
  • ad -- verb; third person singular present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- is
  • castel -- noun; oblique singular <chastel, castel> castle -- castle
  • ki -- relative pronoun; subject <qui> that -- that
  • devant -- preposition; <devant> before, in front of, in the presence of -- ...
  • lui -- personal pronoun; third person singular direct object masculine <il> he -- him
  • remaigne -- verb; third person singular subjunctive present <remanoir> stay, remain, resist -- resists
  • mur -- noun; nominative singular <mur> wall -- wall
  • ne -- negation; <ne, ni> nor, and not -- or
  • citet -- noun; nominative singular <cit, citet> city, town -- town
  • n'i -- negation; <ne, nen> not + particle; <i> there -- no... there
  • est -- verb; third person singular present <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- is
  • remés -- verb; perfective participle nominative singular masculine <remanoir> stay, remain, resist -- left
  • a -- preposition; <a, ad> to, up to, against, in, on -- to
  • fraindre -- verb; infinitive <freindre, fraindre> break -- conquer
  • fors -- preposition; <fors> except -- except
  • Saraguce -- proper name; oblique singular <Saraguce> Saragossa -- Saragossa
  • ki -- relative pronoun; subject <qui> that -- which
  • est -- verb; third person singular present <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- is located
  • en -- preposition; <en> in, into, on, on top of -- on top of
  • une -- indefinite article; oblique singular feminine <un> a -- a
  • muntaigne -- noun; oblique singular <montaigne> mountain -- mountain

Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen amet,
Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:
Nes poet guarder que mals ne l'i ateignet. AOI.

  • li -- definite article; nominative singular masculine <li> the -- ...
  • reis -- noun; nominative singular <roi> king -- king
  • Marsilie -- proper name; nominative singular <Marsilie> Marsilie -- Marsilie
  • la -- personal pronoun; third person singular direct object feminine <il> he -- it
  • tient -- verb; third person singular present <tenir> hold, keep, seize, consider -- holds
  • ki -- relative pronoun; subject <qui> who -- he who
  • Deu -- proper name; oblique singular <Dieu, Deu> God -- God
  • nen -- negation; <ne, nen> not -- not
  • amet -- verb; third person singular present <amer> love -- does... love
  • Mahumet -- proper name; oblique singular <Mahumez, Mahun> Mahomet -- Mahomet
  • sert -- verb; third person singular present <servir> serve -- serves
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • Apollin -- proper name; oblique singular <Apollin> Apollo, Satan -- Satan
  • recleimet -- verb; third person singular present <reclamer> call upon, invoke, beg -- invokes
  • nes -- negation; <ne, nen> not -- not
  • poet -- verb; third person singular present <pooir, poeir, poier> can, be able -- can
  • guarder -- verb; infinitive <garder> watch over, guard -- prevent
  • que -- conjunction; <que> that -- that
  • mals -- noun; nominative singular <mal> evil, disaster, illness -- disaster
  • ne -- negation; <ne, nen> not -- ...
  • l'i -- personal pronoun; third person singular direct object singular masculine <il> he + particle; <i> there -- him...there
  • ateignet -- verb; third person singular subjunctive present <ataindre> reach, regain, catch -- reaches
  • AOI -- interjection; <AOI>... -- ... # unknown element, possibly a war cry, typical of the Chanson de Roland

Li empereres se fait e balz e liez:
Cordres ad prise e les murs peceiez,
Od ses cadables les turs en abatied;

  • li -- definite article; nominative singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • empereres -- noun; nominative singular <empereor> emperor -- emperor
  • se fait -- verb; third person singular present <se faire> be -- is
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- ...
  • balz -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <balt> happy, full of fervor -- ebullient
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- as well as
  • liez -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <lié, liet> happy, joyful -- joyful
  • Cordres -- proper name; oblique singular <Cordres> Cordres -- Cordres
  • ad -- verb; third person singular present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- he has
  • prise -- verb; perfective participle oblique singular feminine <prendre> take, take hold of, seize -- taken
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • les -- definite article; oblique plural masculine <li> the -- the
  • murs -- noun; oblique plural <mur> wall -- walls
  • peceiez -- verb; perfective participle oblique plural masculine <pecier> smash to pieces -- smashed to pieces
  • od -- preposition; <ot, od, of, o> with -- with
  • ses -- possessive; third person singular oblique plural masculine <son> his -- his
  • cadables -- noun; oblique plural <cadable> catapult -- catapults
  • les -- definite article; oblique plural feminine <li> the -- ...
  • turs -- noun; oblique plural <tor> tower -- towers
  • en -- pronoun; inanimate <en> of it -- its
  • abatied -- verb; third person singular preterite <abatre> knock down, destroy -- he destroyed

Mult grant eschech en unt si chevaler
D'or e d'argent e de guarnemenz chers.

  • mult -- adverb, adjective; <molt, mult, mout> many, much, very -- ...
  • grant -- adjective; oblique singular masculine <grant> great, large, tall -- ...
  • eschech -- noun; oblique singular <eschec> booty, loot -- booty
  • en -- pronoun; inanimate <en> of it -- its
  • unt -- verb; third person plural present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- are laden with
  • si -- possessive; third person singular nominative plural masculine <son> his -- his
  • chevaler -- noun; nominative plural <chevalier> knight -- knights
  • d'or -- preposition; <de> of, from + noun; oblique singular <or> gold -- gold
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • d'argent -- preposition; <de> of, from + noun; oblique singular <argent> silver, money, riches -- silver
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • de -- preposition; <de> of, from -- ...
  • guarnemenz -- noun; oblique plural <garnement> decorative object -- objects
  • chers -- adjective; oblique plural masculine <cher> beloved, expensive -- precious

En la citet nen ad remés paien
Ne seit ocis u devient chrestien.

  • en -- preposition; <en> in, into, on, on top of -- in
  • la -- definite article; oblique singular feminine <li> the -- the
  • citet -- noun; nominative singular <cit, citet> city, town -- town
  • nen -- negation; <ne, nen> not -- no
  • ad -- verb; third person singular present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- is
  • remés -- verb; perfective participle oblique singular masculine <remanoir> stay, remain, resist -- left
  • paien -- noun; oblique singular <paien, pagien> pagan, heathen -- pagan
  • ne -- negation; <ne, nen> not -- not
  • seit -- verb; third person singular subjunctive present <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- has been
  • ocis -- verb; perfective participle nominative singular masculine <ocire> kill -- killed
  • u -- conjunction; <o, u> or -- or
  • devient -- verb; third person singular subjunctive present <devenir> become -- become
  • chrestien -- noun; nominative singular <chrestien> christian -- christian

Li empereres est en un grant verger,
Ensembl'od lui Rollant e Oliver,
Sansun li dux e Anseis li fiers,
Gefreid d'Anjou, le rei gunfanuner,
E si i furent e Gerin e Gerers;

  • li -- definite article; nominative singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • empereres -- noun; nominative singular <empereor> emperor -- emperor
  • est -- verb; third person singular present <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- is
  • en -- preposition; <en> in, into, on, on top of -- in
  • un -- indefinite article; oblique singular masculine <un> a -- a
  • grant -- adjective; oblique singular masculine <grant> great, large, tall -- large
  • verger -- noun; oblique singular <vergier> orchard, garden -- orchard
  • ensembl'od -- preposition; <ensemble od> together with -- together with... (are)
  • lui -- personal pronoun; third person singular direct object masculine <il> he -- him
  • Rollant -- proper name; nominative singular <Rollant> Roland -- Roland
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • Oliver -- proper name; nominative singular <Oliver> Oliver -- Oliver
  • Sansun -- proper name; nominative singular <Sansun> Sansun -- Sansun
  • li -- definite article; nominative singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • dux -- noun; nominative singular <duc> duke -- duke
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • Anseis -- proper name; nominative singular <Anseis> Anseis -- Anseis
  • li -- definite article; nominative singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • fiers -- adjective; nominative singular masculine <fier> fierce, strong, proud -- proud one
  • Gefreid -- proper name; nominative singular <Gefreid> Gefreid -- Gefreid
  • d'Anjou -- preposition; <de> of, from + proper name; oblique singular <Anjou> Anjou -- of Anjou
  • le -- definite article; oblique singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • rei -- noun; oblique singular <roi> king -- king
  • gunfanuner -- noun; nominative singular <gunfanuner> standard bearer -- standard bearer
  • e si -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and + particle; <si> so, and moreover -- and also
  • i -- particle; <i> there -- there
  • furent -- verb; third person plural preterite <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- were
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- ...
  • Gerin -- proper name; nominative singular <Gerin> Gerin -- Gerin
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- as well as
  • Gerers -- proper name; nominative singular <Gerer> Gerer -- Gerer

La u cist furent, des altres i out bien:
De dulce France i ad quinze milliers.

  • la -- adverb; <la> there -- ...
  • u -- relative pronoun; <ou, u> where -- where
  • cist -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative plural masculine <cest, cist> this -- these
  • furent -- verb; third person plural preterite <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- were
  • des -- preposition; <de> of, from + definite article; oblique plural masculine <li> the -- ...
  • altres -- indefinite adjective; oblique plural masculine <altre> other -- others
  • i -- particle; <i> there -- there
  • out -- verb; third person singular preterite <avoir, aveir> have, be -- were
  • bien -- adverb; <bien> well, many, much, really -- many
  • de -- preposition; <de> of, from -- from
  • dulce -- adjective; oblique singular feminine <dolz, dous> sweet, gentle -- our beloved
  • France -- proper name; oblique singular <France> France -- France
  • i -- particle; <i> there -- there
  • ad -- verb; third person singular present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- are
  • quinze -- numeral; <quinze> fifteen -- fifteen
  • milliers -- numeral; oblique plural <millier> thousand -- thousand men

Sur palies blancs siedent cil cevaler,
As tables juent pur els esbaneier
E as eschecs li plus saive e li veill,
E escremissent cil bacheler leger.

  • sur -- preposition; <seur, soure, sur, sor> on, over, to, above -- on
  • palies -- noun; oblique plural <paile> precious cloth -- precious clothes
  • blancs -- adjective; oblique plural masculine <blanc> white -- white
  • siedent -- verb; third person plural present <seoir> sit, be seated -- are seated
  • cil -- demonstrative; nominative plural masculine <cil> that -- the
  • cevaler -- noun; nominative plural <chevalier> knight -- knights
  • as -- preposition; <a, ad> to, up to, against, in, on + definite article; oblique plural feminine <li> the -- ...
  • tables -- noun; oblique plural <table> game -- games
  • juent -- verb; third person plural present <joer> play -- play
  • pur -- preposition; <por> for -- to
  • els -- personal pronoun; third person plural direct object masculine <il> they -- themselves
  • esbaneier -- verb; infinitive <esbanir> amuse -- amuse
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • as -- preposition; <a, ad> to, up to, against, in, on + definite article; oblique plural masculine <li> the -- ...
  • eschecs -- noun; oblique plural <eschecs> chess -- chess
  • li -- definite article; nominative plural masculine <li> the -- the
  • plus -- adverb; <plus> more -- most
  • saive -- adjective; nominative plural masculine <saige, saive> clever, educated -- clever men
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • li -- definite article; nominative plural masculine <li> the -- the
  • veill -- adjective; nominative plural masculine <vieil, veil> old -- old men
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • escremissent -- verb; third person plural present <escremir, escrimer> fence -- are fencing
  • cil -- demonstrative; nominative plural masculine <cil> that -- the
  • bacheler -- noun; nominative plural <bacheler, bachelor> young man, young knight aspirant, page -- pages
  • leger -- adjective; nominative plural masculine <legier, ligier, loigier> light, supple, light-hearted -- athletic

Desuz un pin, delez un eglentier,
Un faldestoed i unt, fait tut d'or mer:
La siet li reis ki dulce France tient.

  • desuz -- preposition; <desos, desous> under -- under
  • un -- indefinite article; oblique singular masculine <un> a -- a
  • pin -- noun; oblique singular <pin> pine tree -- pine tree
  • delez -- preposition; <deles, delé, deleiz> next to; beside -- next to
  • un -- indefinite article; oblique singular masculine <un> a -- a
  • eglentier -- noun; oblique singular <aiglent> wild rose -- wild rose
  • un -- indefinite article; oblique singular masculine <un> a -- a
  • faldestoed -- noun; oblique singular <faldestuel, faldestuef, faldestoed> folding chair for important person, throne -- throne
  • i -- particle; <i> there -- ...
  • unt -- verb; third person plural present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- they have
  • fait -- verb; perfective participle oblique singular masculine <faire> make -- made
  • tut -- adjective; oblique singular masculine <tot> all, every, completely -- entirely
  • d'or -- preposition; <de> of, from + noun; oblique singular <or> gold -- of gold
  • mer -- adjective; oblique singular masculine <mer, mier> pure -- pure
  • la -- adverb; <la> there -- there
  • siet -- verb; third person singular present <seoir> sit, be seated -- is seated
  • li -- definite article; nominative singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • reis -- noun; nominative singular <roi> king -- king
  • ki -- relative pronoun; subject <qui> who -- who
  • dulce -- adjective; oblique singular feminine <dolz, dous> sweet, gentle -- our beloved
  • France -- proper name; oblique singular <France> France -- France
  • tient -- verb; third person singular present <tenir> hold, keep, seize, consider -- holds

Blanche ad la barbe e tut flurit le chef,
Gent ad le cors e le cuntenant fier:
S'est kil demandet, ne l'estoet enseigner.

  • blanche -- adjective; oblique singular feminine <blanc> white -- white
  • ad -- verb; third person singular present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- he has
  • la -- definite article; oblique singular feminine <li> the -- a
  • barbe -- noun; oblique singular <barbe> beard -- beard
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • tut -- adjective; oblique singular masculine <tot> all, every, completely -- entirely
  • flurit -- verb; perfective participle oblique singular masculine <florir> flower -- greyish white
  • le -- definite article; oblique singular masculine <li> the -- the
  • chef -- noun; oblique singular <chief> head -- head
  • gent -- adjective; oblique singular masculine <gent> fair, handsome, beautiful -- fair
  • ad -- verb; third person singular present <avoir, aveir> have, be -- he has
  • le -- definite article; oblique singular masculine <li> the -- a
  • cors -- noun; oblique singular <cors> body -- body
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • le -- definite article; oblique singular masculine <li> the -- a
  • cuntenant -- noun; oblique singular <contenant> demeanour, expression, appearance -- appearance
  • fier -- adjective; oblique singular masculine <fier> fierce, strong, proud -- strong
  • s'est -- conjunction; <si> and, and thus + verb third person singular present; <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- and if... were
  • kil -- relative pronoun; subject <qui> who + personal pronoun; third person singular direct object masculine <il> he -- someone... him
  • demandet -- verb; third person singular present <demander> ask, ask for -- to ask for
  • ne -- negation; <ne, nen> not -- not
  • l'estoet -- personal pronoun; third person singular indirect object masculine <il> he + verb; third person singular imperfective <estre, iestre, aistre> be -- him... it is necessary
  • enseigner -- verb; infinitive <enseignier> teach, inform, point out -- point out

E li message descendirent a pied,
Sil saluerent par amur e par bien.

  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • li -- definite article; nominative plural masculine <li> the -- the
  • message -- noun; nominative plural <message> messenger -- messengers
  • descendirent -- verb; third person plural preterite <descendre> descend, dismount -- came down
  • a -- preposition; <a, ad> to, up to, against, in, on -- ...
  • pied -- noun; oblique singular <pié> foot -- ...
  • sil -- conjunction; <si> and, and thus + personal pronoun; third person singular direct object masculine <il> he -- and... him
  • saluerent -- verb; third person plural preterite <saluer> salute, greet -- greeted
  • par -- preposition; <par> through, by, by reason of -- out of
  • amur -- noun; oblique singular <amor> love -- love
  • e -- conjunction; <e, et, ed> and -- and
  • par -- preposition; <par> through, by, by reason of -- out of
  • bien -- noun; oblique singular <bien, ben> good, good fortune, well-being -- respect

Lesson Text

Carles li reis, nostre emperere magnes
set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:
Tresqu'en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.

N'i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne;
Mur ne citet n'i est remés a fraindre
Fors Saraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.

Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen amet,
Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:
Nes poet guarder que mals ne l'i ateignet. AOI.


Li empereres se fait e balz e liez:
Cordres ad prise e les murs peceiez,
Od ses cadables les turs en abatied;

Mult grant eschech en unt si chevaler
D'or e d'argent e de guarnemenz chers.

En la citet nen ad remés paien
Ne seit ocis u devient chrestien.

Li empereres est en un grant verger,
Ensembl'od lui Rollant e Oliver,
Sansun li dux e Anseis li fiers,
Gefreid d'Anjou, le rei gunfanuner,
E si i furent e Gerin e Gerers;

La u cist furent, des altres i out bien:
De dulce France i ad quinze milliers.

Sur palies blancs siedent cil cevaler,
As tables juent pur els esbaneier
E as eschecs li plus saive e li veill,
E escremissent cil bacheler leger.

Desuz un pin, delez un eglentier,
Un faldestoed i unt, fait tut d'or mer:
La siet li reis ki dulce France tient.

Blanche ad la barbe e tut flurit le chef,
Gent ad le cors e le cuntenant fier:
S'est kil demandet, ne l'estoet enseigner.

E li message descendirent a pied,
Sil saluerent par amur e par bien.

Translation

Charles the king, our great emperor,
has been in Spain a full seven years:
he conquered the high land up to the sea.
There is no castle that resists him;
there is no wall or town left to conquer,
except Saragossa, which is located on top of a mountain.
King Marsilie holds it, he who does not love God,
serves Mahomet and invokes Satan;
he cannot prevent that disaster reaches him there.
The emperor is ebullient as well as joyful:
he has taken Cordres and smashed the walls to pieces,
with his catapults he destroyed its towers;
his knights are laden with its booty
gold and silver and precious objects.
In the town no pagan is left
who has not been killed or become Christian.
The emperor is in a large orchard,
together with him are Roland and Oliver,
Sansun the duke and Anseis the proud one,
Gefreid of Anjou, the standard bearer of the king,
and Gerin as well as Gerer were there also;
Where these men were, there were many others:
from our beloved France there are fifteen thousand men.
The knights are seated on white precious cloths
to amuse themselves the most clever men and
the old men play games and chess,
and the pages, athletic, are fencing.
Under a pine tree, next to a wild rose,
they have a throne, entirely made of pure gold:
there the king is seated, who holds our beloved France.
He has a white beard and the head entirely greyish-white,
he has a fair body and a strong appearance:
if someone were to ask for him, it is not necessary to point him out.
And the messengers came down
and greeted him out of love and out of respect.

Grammar

Nouns, adjectives, and definite articles in Old French are marked for gender (masculine or feminine), number (singular or plural), and case.

1. Gender

Whereas the transition from Latin to French is characterized by the loss of the neuter, gender distribution itself is not fundamentally different in Old French: natural gender prevails for animate nouns, as in li uem vs. la feme ('the man' - 'the wife'), le filz - la fille ('the son' - 'the daughter), li tors 'the bull', la vache 'the cow', la jument 'the mare', and so forth. Inanimate nouns are either masculine or feminine and this so-called grammatical gender is unpredictable, with a few exceptions. Nouns in -or, for example tend to be feminine (e.g. la dolor 'the pain'). Because of wide-spread agreement patterns, gender marking is found in articles, demonstratives, possessives, adjectives, and participles.

2. Case: Nominal Declensions, Class I and Class II

Old French differs from all other stages of the language in that is still has declension of nouns. In the declension system of Old French, number and case are closely connected. The very large majority of nouns have a singular and a plural form. A limited number of nouns have a so-called collective singular: the singular refers to a single referent and to a group of persons or objects, as in fruit 'fruit' and 'fruits', or feuille 'leaf' and 'foliage'.

In Old French only two cases survive of the rich Latin nominal inflection. With Old Occitan, Old French differs fundamentally in this respect from from most other early Romance languages, which no longer have case marking on nouns; an important and well-known exception is Rumanian, where even today two nominal cases survive, a nominative-accusative and a genitive-dative.

The two cases that are found in Old French are the nominative and the so-called oblique case. The Old French nominative goes back to the Latin nominative, whereas the oblique case traces back to the Latin accusative, which assumed many functions from the other cases when they gradually disappeared in the development from Latin to Romance. Although Old French still distinguishes between the nominative and the oblique, these cases are not explicitly marked on all nouns. The majority of masculine nouns have distinct case forms; for feminine nouns the distinctions are primarily limited to number. It is possible to distinguish various classes.

Nominal Declensions, Class I

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   fame 'woman'   fames
Obl.   fame   fames

The majority of these nouns are feminine and go back to the Latin first declension in -a; they therefore end in -e in Old French, by regular phonological development. The class includes nominalized adjectives and participles as well, cf. force 'strength' from the Latin neuter plural fortia 'strong things'.

Note that for these nouns there is no formal distinction between cases, because the nominative is formally identical to the oblique case. The only formal distinction is between singular and plural.

The majority of Class II nouns are masculine and they have formal marking, represented by the ending -s, which follows the stem in the nominative singular and the oblique plural.

Nominal Declensions, Class II

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   murs (from La. murus) 'wall'   mur (from La. muri)
    reis 'king'   rei
Obl.   mur (from La. murum)   murs (from La. muros)
    rei   reis

Most of these nouns go back to nouns of the second declension in Latin, which were primarily masculine nouns as well. When the fourth declension disappeared, these nouns in -us became second declension nouns. This class of nouns further includes nominalized infinitives (li mangiers 'the meal') and nominalized participles and adjectives (Latin adj. diurnus 'daily' became Old French li jorz 'day').

3. Case: Hybrid Declensions

While not all feminine nouns end in -e, some masculine nouns do. This is the basis of what some scholars call "hybrid" declensions. Nouns in these classes have a declension pattern that does not correspond to what one might expect on the basis of the gender of the noun.

In practice this means that the case ending -s is used for feminine nouns that do not end in -e and that it lacks in some masculine nouns that do end in -e:

Nominal Declensions, Class Ia (feminine nouns)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   flors 'flower'   flors
Obl.   flor   flors

Words in this class most often in origin belonged to the third declension in Latin, such as amor 'love', mer 'sea', color 'color', dolor 'sorrow', loi 'religion', gent 'people', fin 'end', honor 'honor', main 'hand', valor 'worth', and others.

In the next class of nouns, the ending -s may or may not follow the stem.

Nominal Declensions, Class IIa (masculine nouns ending in ustressed -e)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   pere(s) 'father'   pere
Obl.   pere   peres

This declension includes nouns such as frere 'brother', gendre 'son-in-law', mestre 'master', arbre 'tree', ventre 'belly', livre 'book', archevesque 'archbishop', ermite 'hermit', and others.

Hybrid declensions are the result of the on-going breakdown of the case system, which started in early Latin. The development resulted not only in the loss of cases (compare the six cases of Latin to the two cases in Old French), but also in the disappearance of entire declensions (see the five declensions in Latin). Many nouns therefore moved from one declension to another on the basis of form or gender. Sometimes form and gender characteristics did not parallel, which led to declensional inconsistencies. In time the irregularities of declensions Ia and IIa disappeared, for example when the ending -s of the masculine singular spread, as in livre:

Nominal Declensions, Spread of -s

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   livres 'book' (earlier: livre)   livres
Obl.   livre   livres
4. Case Marking: Definite Articles and Adjectives

Case marking is also found in definite articles and adjectival elements, among them adjectives and participles.

4.1. Definite article declension

Case Marking, Definite Article

Masculine   Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   li 'the'   li
    li murs 'the wall'   li mur
Obl.   le   les
    le mur   les murs

Case Marking, Definite Article

Feminine   Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   la 'the'   les
    la fame 'the woman'   les fames
Obl.   la   les
    la fame   les fames
4.2. Adjectival declension

Like articles, adjectival elements agree with the noun in gender, number, and case. Adjectival inflection shows different patterns according to gender and to the declension the adjectives belong to.

Latin adjectives were divided into two groups or declensions. One included adjectives that distinguished a masculine, feminine, and neuter form (La. bonus, bona, bonum 'good') and the other declension -- the oldest one -- included those adjectives that distinguish between a masculine/feminine and a neuter form (La. fortis [masc./fem.] and forte [neuter] 'strong'). In Old French the first type of adjective follows the pattern of nominal Declension I when the adjective is feminine, and the pattern of nominal Declension II when the adjective is masculine. Past participles typically follow these patterns as well.

Adjectival Declension, Class I (feminine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   bone 'good'   bones
    dure 'hard'   dures
    entree 'enter' (Pf. Part.)   entrees
Obl.   bone   bones
    dure   dures
    entree   entrees

Adjectival Declension, Class II (masculine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   bons   bon
    durs   dur
    entrez   entré
Obl.   bon   bons
    dur   durs
    entré   entrez

Adjectives that follow these patterns include, e.g., sains 'holy', bruns 'brown', clers 'clear', fiers 'proud', legiers 'light, souple', tot 'all'.

Adjectives in -e follow the declension patterns of Class I feminine nouns when they are feminine and those of the Class II masculine nouns when they are masculine.

Adjectival Declension, Adjectives in -e (feminine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   sage 'wise'   sages
Obl.   sage   sages

Adjectival Declension, Adjectives in -e (masculine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   sages   sage
Obl.   sage   sages

Examples of adjectives of this category include e.g. amable 'amiable', foible 'feeble', riche 'rich'.

Adjectives in -re (e.g. povre 'poor') form a special group. The declension for feminine adjectives is regular, that of masculine adjectives lacks the -s suffix in the nominative singular.

Adjectival Declension, Adjectives in -re (feminine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   povre   povres
Obl.   povre   povres

Adjectival Declension, Adjectives in -re (masculine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   povre   povre
Obl.   povre   povres

Adjectives that follow this pattern include, among others: autre 'other', maigre 'thin', tendre 'tender'.

The archaic adjectival declension in Latin that originally distinguished animate (masc. or fem., e.g. fortis 'strong') vs. inanimate (neuter, e.g. forte ) survives in Old French in a declension pattern that does not include a suffix -e for feminine forms:

Adjectival Declension, Class III (feminine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   fort (forz) 'strong'   forz
Obl.   fort   forz

Adjectival Declension, Class III (masculine)

    Sg.   Pl.
Nom.   forz   fort
Obl.   fort   forz

Adjectives that are included are: brief 'short', cruel 'cruel', grant 'great', prod 'bold', vert 'green', fol 'foolish', and others.

5. Case Functions

The nominative primarily is the subject case and is used when addressing people, as in:

  • li reis tient la citet 'the king (Nom. Sg.) holds the town';
  • li empereres se fait balz (CdR 96, this lesson) 'the emperor (Nom. Sg.) is happy';
  • respunt li reis 'the king (Nom. Sg.) replies';
  • Deus, fet il 'God (Nom. Sg.), he said'.

The oblique case is used for all other functions, among them:

  • direct object of transitive verbs, as in
  • gent ad le cors (CdR 118, this lesson) 'he has a handsome body (Obl. Sg.)';
  • indirect object, as in
  • li nums Joiuse l'espee fut dunet (CdR 2508) 'the sword (Indir. Obj.) was given the name Joyeuse',
  • se Deu plet 'if it pleases (to) God (Indir. Obj.)';
  • genitive in combination with another noun, as in
  • la fille le rei 'the daughter of the king (Obl. Sg.)',
  • le rei gunfanuner (CdR 106, this lesson) 'the standard bearer of the king (Obl. Sg.)';
  • object of prepositions, as in
  • e dist al rei (CdR 27) 'and he sayd to the king (Obl. Sg.)';
  • li empereres est en un grant verger (CdR 103, this lesson) 'the king is in a large orchard (Obl. Sg.)';
  • adverbial expressions (e.g. space, time, direction), as in
  • set anz ad estet en Espaigne (CdR 2, this lesson) 'he has spent seven years (Obl. Pl.) in Spain'.