LINGUIST List 23.4147

Fri Oct 05 2012

Review: Historical Linguistics; General Linguistics; Ling & Literature: Bright (2012)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <>

Date: 05-Oct-2012
From: Penelope Thompson <>
Subject: An Outline of Anglo-Saxon Grammar
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TITLE: An Outline of Anglo-Saxon GrammarAUTHOR: Bright, James W.SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Gramatica 148PUBLISHER: LINCOMYEAR: 2012

Penelope J. Thompson, Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh


''An Outline of Anglo-Saxon Grammar'' is a reprint of the grammar that was foundin an appendix to the third edition of An Anglo-Saxon Reader (1906, firstedition printed in 1895). It is a short book of 79 pages, numbered in Romannumerals. The volume is divided into un-numbered chapters, and is furtherdivided into numbered sections (which will be referred to as §1, §5 etc. in thisreview). The volume begins with an introductory remark, which explains the focusof the text. Specifically, that focus is the West Saxon dialect, and inparticular, the Early West Saxon of Alfred. An overview of Old English phonologyis then provided, beginning with the sounds of Old English vowels andconsonants. The pronunciation of the phonemes is described with reference toPresent Day English and Modern German words. The phonology chapter moves ontodescriptions of the major changes, including Breaking, i-umlaut, palatalisation,West Germanic gemination, contraction etc. The next section, 'inflection:declension' focusses on inflectional morphology and provides the declensions forthe nouns, adjectives, adverbs, numerals and pronouns. This is followed by asection: 'inflection: conjugation' focussing on the verb paradigms. The ablautof the seven classes of strong verbs is first described, followed by the threeweak classes and finally the anomalous verbs, termed the 'special verbs', whichinclude "bēon" ('to be'), "willan" ('to will'), "dōn" ('to do'), and "gān" ('to go'). This ends thegrammar.


As is usual for grammars of Old English, this volume is centred on the WestSaxon dialect. It is a short volume that provides a useful reference forstudents of Old English, though it must be noted that this grammar does not dealwith Old English syntax. The descriptions of Old English paradigms are logicallylaid out, and are accompanied by glossed lists of examples in bold. Theparadigms themselves are clearly laid out, and bracketed numbers next to formsof interest are used to direct the reader to relevant descriptions foundelsewhere within the volume. Little prior knowledge of Old English would berequired to make use of the volume. Phonological descriptions of Old Englishsounds are made without reference to the International Phonetic Alphabet,instead using comparisons to Present Day English (PDE), where possible, or toModern German. Phonological terminology describing sounds (e.g. diphthong,spirant etc.), and sound changes (e.g. palatalisation) is employed, though deepphonological detail is not included. The volume should therefore be of interestto students interested in the grammar and phonology of Old English, as well asthose seeking to read and translate Old English. Is must be noted, as suggestedby the title, that this is only an outline, and that the length and depth of thevolume precludes any detailed treatments of morphophonological processes.

This grammar is one of the earlier publications in English dealing with OldEnglish morphology and phonology, preceding Wright & Wright (1925), Campbell(1969), and Mitchell (1985), Hogg (1992), etc. The volume therefore has someterminology that may be unfamiliar to some students of Old English. For example,the change most commonly referred to as West Germanic gemination is describessimply as 'gemination before j.' Also, some of the assumptions regardingmorphophonological phenomena are distinct from some of the later grammars. Someof these will be described briefly in this review.

Within the noun declensions, the inflected forms are disturbed by unstressedvowel deletion. This has been examined in many analyses (see, for example,Campbell 1959, Hogg 2000, Bermúdez-Otero 2005 etc.). In contrast to thetreatment found in many of the later grammars (e.g. Campbell 1959), Brightassumes nouns like ''wæter'' ('water') to be disyllabic stems. A cross-referenceto another section (§23.2) reveals that ''certain of the themes in -el, -ol, -er,-or almost regularly do not retain the middle vowel after a short radicalsyllable.'' Hence, forms such as ''wætrum'' are common, as opposed to ''wæterum.''Since this cannot be the result of high vowel deletion, which only affectsunstressed vowels following a heavy root syllable, the ''wæter'' type nouns haveoften been assumed to be monosyllabic stems (Campbell 1959, Bermudez-Otero 2005etc.). In Old English, there was also a process of non-high vowel deletion,which removed historically non-high medial vowels following either light orstressed root syllables, though it is not made clear whether Bright assumes thisto be the cause of the deletion in ''wætrum.'' Non-high vowel deletion is notmentioned in the section on adjectival inflection in the past participles (§61).High vowel deletion, which has been much debated in more recent years (seeabove), removes light unstressed vowels that were historically high, whenfollowing a heavy root syllable or two light root syllables. The process is notintroduced in Bright's section on phonology, but is instead briefly described inthe section on noun declensions §25 and §27, and is said to generally affectvowels following a long radical syllable. The description for medial high voweldeletion merely terms it 'syncope' and no reference to the height condition ismade. Bright goes on to mention that ''usage is not uniform in the treatment ofeither the middle vowel [high vowel syncope] or the case ending -u [high vowelapocope]'' (§26, my brackets). Bright also mentions some of the exceptions tosyncope, such as ''nieten'' ('beast'). This description successfully preparesthose intending to read Old English texts for the unstressed vowel-relatedalternations that they will be faced with. It does not, however, provide enoughinformation for those interested in the process itself, as the exceptions arenot explained. This of course follows from the intended purpose of the grammaras an appendix to a reader and its brevity.

The section on the strong verbs is easy to follow, with four principle partsgiven for the six classes, plus the 'Reduplicating verbs,' which in manygrammars, including Campbell (1959: §745), and Mitchell & Robinson (2002: 153),are termed 'Class VII.' Lists of example verbs are provided for each class, andthe conjugation of the strong verbs is provided at the end of the section, andis followed by information about the morphology and phonology.

On an editorial note, the review copy appeared to lack one leaf (containingpages lxiv-lxv), and I am unable to comment on whether this is an anomaly orwhether more copies have been affected.

In sum, this is a well laid out and easy to use Anglo-Saxon grammar, which willprovide a quick-reference tool for students of Old English phonology andmorphology, and also for students intending to translate and read Old Englishtexts. Scholars interested in the history of Old English Philology are alsolikely to be interested in the volume, as some of the treatments contradict someof the later grammars. Due to the size of the volume, and its original functionas an appendix to an Anglo-Saxon Reader, it is not a comprehensive grammar, andof course makes no such claim.


Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo (2005). The life cycle of constraint rankings: studiesin Early English morphophonology. Retrieved Oct. 3, 2012 from

Campbell, Alistair (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hogg, Richard M. (1992). A Grammar of Old English. Vol. 1: Phonology. Oxford:Basil Blackwell.

Hogg, Richard M. (2000). On the (non-)existence of high vowel deletion. In AditiLahiri (ed.) Analogy, Levelling, Markedness: Principles of Change in Phonologyand Morphology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 353-376.

Mitchell, Bruce & Fred C. Robinson (2002, first printed in 1964). A Guide to OldEnglish. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wright, Joseph & Elizabeth Mary Wright (1925). Old English Grammar. Students'series of Historical and Comparative Grammars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Penelope J. Thompson has recently completed her PhD at the University ofEdinburgh. Her doctoral research, sponsored by the Arts & HumanitiesResearch Council, focussed on the morphophonology of Old English, inparticular in West Saxon and in the Lindisfarne Gospels. Her researchinterests include Old English morphophonology, Old English dialectology,the interaction between phonology and morphology, and phonological theory,in particular Stratal Optimality Theory.

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