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Review of  An Outline of Anglo-Saxon Grammar

Reviewer: Penelope Thompson
Book Title: An Outline of Anglo-Saxon Grammar
Book Author: James W Bright
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Subject Language(s): English, Old
Issue Number: 23.4147

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TITLE: An Outline of Anglo-Saxon Grammar
AUTHOR: Bright, James W.
YEAR: 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 found
in an appendix to the third edition of An Anglo-Saxon Reader (1906, first
edition printed in 1895). It is a short book of 79 pages, numbered in Roman
numerals. The volume is divided into un-numbered chapters, and is further
divided into numbered sections (which will be referred to as §1, §5 etc. in this
review). The volume begins with an introductory remark, which explains the focus
of the text. Specifically, that focus is the West Saxon dialect, and in
particular, the Early West Saxon of Alfred. An overview of Old English phonology
is then provided, beginning with the sounds of Old English vowels and
consonants. The pronunciation of the phonemes is described with reference to
Present Day English and Modern German words. The phonology chapter moves onto
descriptions 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 for
the nouns, adjectives, adverbs, numerals and pronouns. This is followed by a
section: ‘inflection: conjugation’ focussing on the verb paradigms. The ablaut
of the seven classes of strong verbs is first described, followed by the three
weak classes and finally the anomalous verbs, termed the ‘special verbs’, which
include bēon ‘to be’, willan ‘to will’, dōn ‘to do’, gān ‘to go’. This ends the


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

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

Within the noun declensions, the inflected forms are disturbed by unstressed
vowel deletion. This has been examined in many analyses (see, for example,
Campbell 1959, Hogg 2000, Bermúdez-Otero 2005 etc.). In contrast to the
treatment found in many of the later grammars (e.g. Campbell 1959), Bright
assumes nouns like ''wæter'' (‘water’) to be disyllabic stems. A cross-reference
to 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 radical
syllable.'' Hence, forms such as ''wætrum'' are common, as opposed to ''wæterum.''
Since this cannot be the result of high vowel deletion, which only affects
unstressed vowels following a heavy root syllable, the ''wæter'' type nouns have
often been assumed to be monosyllabic stems (Campbell 1959, Bermudez-Otero 2005
etc.). In Old English, there was also a process of non-high vowel deletion,
which removed historically non-high medial vowels following either light or
stressed root syllables, though it is not made clear whether Bright assumes this
to be the cause of the deletion in ''wætrum.'' Non-high vowel deletion is not
mentioned in the section on adjectival inflection in the past participles (§61).
High vowel deletion, which has been much debated in more recent years (see
above), removes light unstressed vowels that were historically high, when
following a heavy root syllable or two light root syllables. The process is not
introduced in Bright’s section on phonology, but is instead briefly described in
the section on noun declensions §25 and §27, and is said to generally affect
vowels following a long radical syllable. The description for medial high vowel
deletion merely terms it ‘syncope’ and no reference to the height condition is
made. Bright goes on to mention that ''usage is not uniform in the treatment of
either the middle vowel [high vowel syncope] or the case ending -u [high vowel
apocope]'' (§26, my brackets). Bright also mentions some of the exceptions to
syncope, such as ''nieten'' (‘beast’). This description successfully prepares
those intending to read Old English texts for the unstressed vowel-related
alternations that they will be faced with. It does not, however, provide enough
information for those interested in the process itself, as the exceptions are
not explained. This of course follows from the intended purpose of the grammar
as an appendix to a reader and its brevity.

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

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

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


Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo (2005). The life cycle of constraint rankings: studies
in 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 Aditi
Lahiri (ed.) Analogy, Levelling, Markedness: Principles of Change in Phonology
and Morphology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 353-376.

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

Wright, Joseph & Elizabeth Mary Wright (1925). Old English Grammar. Students'
series of Historical and Comparative Grammars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Penelope J. Thompson has recently completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral research, sponsored by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, focussed on the morphophonology of Old English, in particular in West Saxon and in the Lindisfarne Gospels. Her research interests 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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