Declensions and Cases 

As in Latin, Old French writers used a system of declensions to modify nouns.

Much like the conjugation of verbs, declensions provided a set of endings to individual nouns according to the grammatical function of the noun in a given sentence. By the time of Chrétien’s literary career, this declension system had largely been reduced to two cases (or patterns for declining nouns). While scholars use different names to describe these cases, we follow Kibler’s use of the terms nominative and oblique. The former case was used to decline nouns that served as the grammatical subject of their sentence, whereas the oblique case was used for all other purposes (direct and indirect objects, objects of prepositions, etc.)

While these two cases are far fewer in number than, for example, the six case system of classical Latin, it can still be challenging for students of Old French to distinguish between the two when reading texts such as the “Philomène.” Consider the following pairs of examples:


suer (1286) : feminine nominative singular [sister]


les deus serors (1429) : feminine nominative plural  [the two sisters]


In both examples, the word for sister (suer, serors) is the grammatical subject of the sentence in which it appears; however, notice that the ending and the stem change their spelling depending on whether the noun is singular or plural.

sa seror (52) : feminine oblique singular [his/her sister]

In the case of sa seror, the word for sister is the direct object of the verb in the sentence. Therefore, it is declined in the oblique case.

Consider this second example, this time with a masculine noun group.

uns rois (7) : masculine nominative singular [a king]


As with the example of les deus serorsuns rois is the grammatical subject of the sentence.

li roi (1155) : masculine nominative singular [the king]


Note that nouns can take definite or indefinite articles and still be grammatical subjects. “The two sisters” and “a king” are both the subjects of their sentence, and their articles are declined as well as the nouns that they modify.

Sometimes, the declension endings for nominative and oblique can be the same. This is where it becomes important to observe the declensions of the articles that accompany a noun. For example…

le roi (84) : masculine oblique singular


Since the nominative and oblique singular endings for roi are the same (le roi, li roi), the declension of the article (li vs. le) is the key information that distinguishes one declension from the other.