Prepositions

Prepositions are words that show how a verb relates to a noun or pronoun. Most Old English prepositions are still recognisable to a modern English reader, as prepositions have changed very little as the language has evolved. For example, 'He æfter deorum men dyrne langaþ - he longs secretly after the dear man'.

He
Subject
Pronoun
æfter
Prep.
 
deorum
Dative
Adjective
men
Indirect
Object
derne
Adverb
 
langaþ
Present
Verb

However, prepositions in Old English govern which case the following noun or pronoun takes. Almost all nouns and pronouns paired with a preposition take the dative case. However, some can also take the accusative or genitive case. The following prepositions almost always precede the dative case.

Old
English
Modern
English
æfter after
ær before
æt to/by way of
be by/about
beæftan behind/after
beforan before/in front of
betweox between/among
butan excluding
eac besides/including
for for/because of
fram from/by
mid with
of of/from
ongean against/towards
to to
wiþ against

There are a few prepositions which change meaning depending on whether they are followed by a word in the accusative or dative. A preposition usually precedes the accusative if the preposition itself specifically relates to motion or time. For example, in the sentence, 'se æresta Frigedæg þe man sceal fæsten is on Hreþmonaþ - the first Friday that a man shall fast is in March', the word 'on' relates to time so 'Hreþmonaþ' is accusative, not dative.

Se
Demon.
æresta
Adjective
Frigedæg
Subject
þe
Pronoun
man
Subject
sceal
Verb
fæsten
Verb
is
Verb
on
Prep.
Hreþmonaþ
Object

Similarly, in the sentence, 'heo hine in þæt mynster onfeng - she accepted him into that monastery', the object 'þæt mynster' is accusative and not dative because she didn't accept him while they were in the monastery, but rather accepted him into the monastery. So the preposition itself carries the concept of motion.

Heo
Pronoun
hine
Pronoun
in
Prep.
þæt mynster
Object
onfeng
Verb

The distinction can be hard to grasp, but you can find a breakdown of the differences in how prepositions should be translated depending on context below.

Old
English
Dative
English
Accusative
English
binnan in/within into
bufan above/upon over(movement)
in/innan in into
ofer abover/over over(movement)
on on/in onto/into
under under/beneath under(movement)

There are four prepositions which only precede the accusative case. These are 'geond - through', 'oð - until', 'þurh - through' and 'ymb - surrounding/about'. Examine the sentence, 'Ðær halga stenc wunaþ geond wynlond - there a holy fragrance rests throughout the pleasant land'.

Ðær
Adverb
halga
Adjective
stenc
Subject
wunaþ
Verb
geond
Prep.
wynlond
Object
Old
English
Modern
English
geond through
until
þurh through
ymb surrounding/about

Some prepositions could be considered false friends, as they look like one word but represent another. For example, the word 'æt' means 'to' and the word 'wiþ' means against. It is common to see 'wiþ' used at the beginning of medical instructions in leechbooks to indicate what the recipe is used for, in which case it might be more correct to translate it as 'for'. For example, 'wiþ aslepnum lic - for a numb body' or 'wiþ nædran flite - for a snake bite'.

Return to Conjunctions Continue to Adverbs, Conjunctions, and Prepositions Overview