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AUTHORS: McCully Chris; Hilles, Sharon TITLE: The Earliest English SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Old English Language PUBLISHER: Pearson Education YEAR: 2005
Michael Moss, PhD, University of Gdansk
I thought this would be just another 'introduction to Old English' type book, with a standard grammar and texts. I am delighted to say that I was quite mistaken. Although the aim of the book is the same as many other 'introductions', this book manages to organize and present the material in such a way that the topic really does come alive. More than just a grammar, this book brings together information about the language, the prose, the poetry and the general culture and history of the time to give the reader a holistic picture of the study of what is commonly known as Old English. Furthermore, as a textbook, the authors provide various exercises throughout the text to illustrate and provoke the reader to grasp more than just the language itself. Finally, by combining historical and cultural facts with the texts used in the exercises, the reader is encouraged to understand this distant historical period as a real time, with real dynamics, and not a dead or static set of facts. So much praise is probably not expected in an academic appraisal and I myself am surprised at my response. Of course the points that I have found to be positive can also illustrate some weak points, when compared to other handbooks. The grammar is not terribly detailed. Historical information concerning the background of various linguistic facts is slight or not present at all. At points the text moves from being appropriate for a novice, to being highly technical and dense, making the book somewhat uneven to read. I recognize these weaknesses, but still appraise the book as a welcome addition to the handbooks on Anglo-Saxon literature and culture.
The table of contents is as follows: Unit 1: Thinking about the earliest English; Unit 2: History, culture, language origins; Unit 3: Nouns; Unit 4: Verbs; Interlude: Working with dictionaries; Unit 5: OE Metrics; Unit 6: Standards and crosses; Unit 7: Twilight; Unit 8: Rebuilding English. There are also two appendices with tables outlining OE inflectional morphology.
Textbooks are a surprisingly complicated academic work. On the one hand, the author needs to include information about a topic which has generally been agreed to be necessary for the student. On the other hand, the author wants to add his or her point of view on certain topics and steer the student to conclusions that might be new and innovative in the field. In a field like formal linguistics this is not so challenging; the technology of the theory is developing at such a pace that new textbooks are needed regularly. A topic such as Anglo- Saxon, however, has been covered many times before, and opinions have not changed so radically in this field as the are changing in other areas of linguistics. Nonetheless, this book does several things that distinguish it from the other books currently available.
The main difference between this book and many others that are commonly used in the classroom to teach Old English is that it includes information about the culture of the time and the linguistic information necessary to read the texts that represent the period. Further, the book pays special attention to the poetry and the poetic structure of all stages of Old English and the beginnings of Early Middle English. This wider scope is argued for in an attempt to break the stereotypical image of the history of the English language in which Old English is a dark and fearful time which is enlightened by the Norman Invasion and the contact with continental tradition. Here it is argued first that Old English was culturally very advanced and that this culture was actually destroyed during the 10th and 11th centuries and, second, that the changes visible in Early Middle English poetry and language were actually the result of internal language change. Far from an innocent introduction to the grammar, we are now dealing with a strong statement about the development of the English language.
How is this accomplished physically? The book is divided into units, which can be further grouped together thematically. The first two units provide an introduction to the study of historical linguistics including language change, Indo-European, dialect as well as information on how to pronounce Old English and the structure of OE poetry. Units three and four cover Nouns and Verbs respectively. However, they also include information about the things and activities of the OE period as well as historical information about the early days of English and the development of Christianity in England. This is the end of what one might call the 'grammar' section of the book. Accordingly, this break is marked with an 'interlude' which discusses dictionaries available for both the Old English and Middle English periods. The second half of the book deals with larger issues such as metrics and the influence of socio-economic events on linguistic change. Units six and seven deal specifically with OE metrics and how this influences OE prose as well as the influence of the Danish invasions. Units eight and nine deal with what is traditionally called Early Middle English and the 're-emergence' of English as a literary language in the 12th century. These last two chapters also deal with the important question of how much change which is usually associated with Middle English was actually present in Late Old English and therefore how much influence can actually be attributed to the Norman invasion itself.
I will now turn to some points that must be critically addressed. Technically speaking, the grammar is weak in grammar itself. Information about specific grammatical phenomena including verbal and nominal inflectional morphology, and derivational morphology is minimal. Classic topics of OE phonology such as i-mutation are mentioned in passing and not really explained. Strong verbs are covered quickly, hinting at the amount of work needed, but not going into detail. It seems that the authors recognize this, since they regularly refer the reader to other handbooks such as Mitchell and Robinson (2001). On the one hand the lack of such information makes the book seem less than it should be. On the other hand, there are many reputable handbooks available including Mitchell and Robinson, Baker (2001), and Hasenfratz and Jambeck (2005), not to mention such classics as Quirk and Wrenn (1957) and Hogg (1992). The authors seem not to want to repeat information that is not strictly necessary to read begin reading OE and which can be found in other sources. This is supported by the constant reference to such works throughout the text.
Having said that I must return to one of the strong points of the book. This point is so strong, in fact, that I think it changes the tenor of the entire work and even excuses the critical points mentioned above. One of the main points of this book is to introduce the student to the beauty of Anglo Saxon poetry and meter. The authors present the topic in full, covering theoretical background in detail and illustrating it with practical examples and exercises. Furthermore, the topic does not just cover the conventional period, but extends the analysis into the Early Modern English period.
As a result, my opinion is mixed. As a standard grammar, I find the book 'lacking' in the coverage of traditional grammar points and detail. But the coverage of poetry and metrics is better than any of the other handbooks that I am familiar with, making the book unique in the field. Furthermore, the inclusion of information about history and culture of the time makes the book very comprehensive. My conclusion is thus that this is a very good handbook to be used in conjunction with one or more of the other handbooks available to fill in particular aspects of grammar.
Hasenfratz, Robert and Thomas Jambeck. 2005. Reading Old English. Morgantown WV: West Virginia University Press.
Hogg, Richard M. 1992. A grammar of Old English. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. 2001. A guide to Old English, 6th Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Quirk, Randalph and C.L. Wrenn. 1957. An Old English Grammar. London: Methuen.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Michael Moss, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Gdansk. Research and teaching interests include Syntax and Historical Linguistics in the Chomskyan generative model (Government and Binding and Minimalist Program).