Review of The Earliest English
|AUTHORS: McCully Chris; Hilles, Sharon
TITLE: The Earliest English
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Old English Language
PUBLISHER: Pearson Education
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
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
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
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
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
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.
| 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).