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Review of  Old English Grammar

Reviewer: Lynn Diane Sims
Book Title: Old English Grammar
Book Author: Joseph Wright Elisabeth Wright
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English, Old
Issue Number: 23.5245

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AUTHORS: Wright, Joseph and Wright, Elisabeth
TITLE: Old English Grammar
YEAR: 2012

Lynn D. Sims, Department of Languages and Literature, Austin Peay State University

“Old English Grammar” is a reprint of the second edition (1914) of the grammar by Joseph Wright and Elizabeth Wright (first edition, 1908; third edition, 1925). The grammar is intended for students whose main focus is Old English (OE), and its primary goal is to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of OE phonology and morphology. Its secondary goal is to introduce students to comparative Germanic grammar, specifically Gothic, Old Icelandic, Old Saxon, and Old High German.

The book begins with a four-page Introduction that places OE within the Indo-Germanic (henceforth Indo-European) language family, divides the OE time period into early OE (700 to 900) and late OE (900 to 1100), and defines the four major OE dialect regions -- noting that the early West Saxon dialect receives more attention than the other three dialects in this grammar. The book is then separated into three unlabelled sections: Phonology (Chapters 1-10), Accidence (Chapters 11-15), Word-Formation (Chapter 16). The book ends with an Index containing section citations of the OE words and affixes discussed in the grammar.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of OE orthography and the pronunciation of OE vowels (short, long, diphthongs) and consonants. The pronunciation of OE phonemes is described with reference to Modern English and Modern German words (which Wright and Wright label New English and New High German, respectively). The chapter ends with an explanation of the difference between pitch and stress and the consequences of a stress accent system on Indo-European languages in general and Proto-Germanic and OE in particular.

The continuation of and changes to Proto-Indo-European vowel sounds (including syllabic m, n, l, r) in the comparative Germanic languages is discussed in Chapter 2, while Chapter 3 expands on some of the more important vowel modifications that occurred in Proto-Germanic. This leads logically to the focus of the next two chapters: Chapter 4 addresses OE and the comparative Germanic languages and explains the pronunciation of vowels in accented syllables, the contraction of vowels, the lengthening of short vowels, and the shortening of long vowels. Additional sound changes such as i-umlaut, u- and o/a-umlaut, breaking, and the presence of nasals are also explained here. The pronunciation of vowels in accented syllables is restated and reformatted in Chapter 5, but the focus is strictly OE and includes non-West Saxon dialect examples when applicable. Chapter 6 is similar to Chapter 4, but the focus shifts to vowels in unaccented syllables. The chapter begins with a summary of changes to consonants in final position.

Chapter 7 moves to vowel gradation, first describing the ablaut of six of the seven classes of strong verbs together with their four principle stem forms and next comparing the ablaut of OE strong verbs to Proto-Germanic and Gothic. While Class VII of strong verbs is omitted from the present discussion of vowel gradation, the authors do address this class in a later chapter. Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law are the primary focus of Chapter 8, while consonantal changes such as rhotacism and gemination are explained in Chapter 9. The phonology section ends with Chapter 10, which contains a lengthy discussion of the development of OE consonants and includes explanations for various sound changes such as fricative voicing and palatalization.

In the next five chapters, Wright and Wright address Accidence (henceforth inflectional morphology). They begin Chapter 11 with a discussion of Number, Gender, and Case, and then explain the declension of strong, weak, and minor nouns with reference to these features. The noun declensions are also explained in terms of syllabic structure and surrounding phonemes. OE strong and weak adjectives are given a similar treatment in Chapter 12. A summary of the syntactic (attributive/predicative) behavior of weak and strong adjectives is also included, as are explanations on the declensions of participles, comparative, superlative, and irregular forms, and numerals. Chapter 13 describes the declension paradigms for personal pronouns, demonstratives, and interrogatives, and it also explains reflexive, possessive, and indefinite pronouns in OE and across Germanic. Chapter 14 begins with a discussion of athematic and thematic verbs, strong and weak verbs, reduplicated and non-reduplicated verbs, and the forms of the OE verb. The focus next shifts to the declension and classification of OE strong verbs, including Class VII -- which originally formed the reduplicating category. The declension and classification of weak verbs is then explained, and the chapter ends with the Minor Group: preterit-present (and sub-groups) and –mi verbs (and sub-groups). The section on inflectional morphology concludes with Chapter 14: Adverbs, Prepositions, and Conjunctions. Adverb inflections are explained; Preposition forms are listed in terms of Case; Conjunctions are given in terms of co-ordinate and subordinate constructions.

The grammar concludes with a summary of word-formation strategies in OE. Chapter 16 begins with affixation on nouns and compound nouns, moves to derivative and compound adjectives, and ends with the formation of compound verbs by affixation.

This edition of “Old English Grammar” is one of the early English-language books that describes and illustrates Old English phonology and morphology. It is preceded by Bright (1891) and followed by, among others, Quirk and Wrenn (1955), Campbell (1959), Mitchell (1964), Lass and Anderson (1975), and Hogg (1992). Excluding more recent developments in morpho-phonology that challenge some earlier conclusions, Wright and Wright achieve their intended two-prong goal with “Old English Grammar” by providing an in-depth discussion of Old English phonology and morphology (which is further illustrated by numerous examples) and by placing this discussion in the context of comparative Germanic grammar.

Because of the grammar’s early date, however, some terms appear outdated and may be unfamiliar to today’s students. For example, the terms “tenues” and mediae” (§229) are used for voiceless and voiced consonants, respectively. Anaptyctic vowels, or vowel epenthesis, are described by the Sanskrit term “svarabhakti vowels” (§360). When discussing language families, the authors continually use Indo-Germanic and Primitive Germanic, where today Indo-European and Proto-Germanic are more common. However, these differences in terminology are insignificant to the overall goal of the text.

The discussion of Indo-European in §1 is dated and lacks the Tocharian and Anatolian branches, but does provide the student with a basic understanding of how the Germanic branch fits into the family. The discussions of Phonology, Morphology, and Word-Formation are straightforward and include in-section notes that provide additional details, address debated areas, and/or suggest study strategies for the student. Copious OE and comparative Germanic examples are provided, which also makes the text a useful reference tool for students. While the authors acknowledge that syntax is excluded from their text, this is a drawback for students of OE.

The descriptions of OE sounds are made with reference to Modern English and/or Modern German words rather than the International Phonetic Alphabet. Although not stated by the authors, the ‘Modern English’ words represent early twentieth-century British English, which today may cause some difficulty, particularly with vowels, for non-British English speaking students. In terms of OE vowels in accented syllables, Chapter 5 is particularly helpful because it focuses on only OE (including dialect variants), with the appropriate cross-reference paragraphs from Chapter 4 also provided. In terms of inflectional morphology, the declensional paradigms are presented in an expected format using standard OE examples. However, for masculine, pure a-stem nouns (§334), Wright and Wright include “dæg” (‘day’) and “mearh” (‘horse’) alongside “stān” (‘stone’), whereas Campbell (1959: §574) presents “dæg” and “mearh” as phonological variants of pure a-stems. Wright and Wright’s treatment of OE verb declensions is clearly presented and fairly similar to more recent OE grammars. Finally, the Word-Formation chapter is rather brief, but it provides the student with an adequate overview of the affixation process.

Though Wright and Wright also achieve their secondary goal with this grammar -- providing a foundation for an understanding of comparative Germanic grammar -- students who plan to expand into comparative Germanic grammars would be better served by texts such as Prokosch (2009 [1939]) or Robinson (1992). A book such as Robinson’s covers the territory in a more systematic, balanced, and up-to-date manner.

To conclude, “Old English Grammar” is user-friendly, presenting the material in a style that is clear and easy to follow. While today’s students of Old English will need to keep in mind more recent morphophonological discussions, Wright and Wright’s grammar remains a useful study guide and reference tool.

Bright, James W. 1891. An Anglo-Saxon Reader. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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.

Lass, Roger and J.M. Anderson. 1975. Old English Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, Bruce. 1964. A Guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Prokosch, Eduard. 2009 [1939]. A Comparative Germanic Grammar. Surrey: Tiger Xenophone.

Quirk, Randolph and C.L. Wrenn. 1955. An Old English Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and Its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lynn Sims is an Assistant Professor in the Languages and Literature Department at Austin Peay State University, where she teaches linguistics courses and directs the Linguistics Minor. Her research interests include grammaticalization, historical linguistics, and morphosyntactic change in early English.