Introduction to Old English

oldenglishreviewTitle: Introduction to Old English
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Author: Peter S. Baker
Pages: 416 pp
Price: $36.00 US
ISBN: 978-0470659847

This book is one of very few in-depth, traditionally-designed textbooks for Old English that I was able to find in my quests through libraries and linguistics departments. With this book, you can self-teach yourself Old English to the point of enough fluency to read Old English literature, some of which is included in the end of the book, featuring classic staples such as “The Wanderer”, “The Wife’s Lament”, and “The Life of St Aethelthryth,” just to name a small sample.

The book is extremely detailed, comprehensive, and well-designed. It encompasses sixteen chapters, several thick appendices, the Old English anthology mentioned above, a glossary of vocabulary terms, and a section on further reading for interested pupils. The introductory chapter offers a brief and engaging history of the Anglo-Saxons and the rise of their language, a nice way to begin, and the text starts off quickly with a basic rundown of Old English syntax, grammar, and cases. These grammar lessons are neatly explained, featuring conjugation/declension tables for memorization and plenty of Old English exercises —all of appropriate length for the chapter and difficulty level — for pupils to read through, translate, and check against provided Modern English answers. (The book is also accompanied by an online supplement, where you can freely listen to Old English being read aloud.)

As the book progresses, the difficulty and complexity of the lessons increases, building on the simpler, basic lessons of the first chapters. By the end of the book, the text consists mostly of raw Old English literature itself, and lessons are drawn from these readings alone. That said, the pace of the textbook is indeed fast — the book demands work, time, and attention; it does not make Old English a cakewalk — but the language is presented in a simple and straightforward manner, with a clear glossary and plenty of exercises, charts, and drills, such that anyone with the dedication and desire to learn Old English should be able to do so soundly with this book.

One of the best parts of the book is its section on reading, understanding, and translating Old English poetry. Reading and translating any language’s poetry is always a test of skill and an impressive feat, often something learned slowly through failure, success, and practice; here, students get a huge help from their text’s detailed overview of the literary style, techniques, and tricks of Old English poetry. We see themes, syntax, word order, formulas, and abbreviations covered in detail, as well as a ripe discussion of the purpose carried by the work of Old English bards. (The author loves Old English poetry — it hums in his words!)

Thus, I would recommend this book to those seeking to expand their knowledge of the Middle Ages and of their own language — the similarity between Old English and the aptly-named Modern English being very apparent in this text — with one utterance of caveat discipulus. (And yes, that’s Latin, not Old English.) Sometimes the declension/conjugation tables are difficult to understand. The text can be placed tightly within the chart and the charts are not always labelled clearly, so I had to do a lot of staring on some of them before I understood which declensions/conjugations were which. For this reason, I would give the book a rating of four out of five. However, the tight and at times ambiguous charts are a minor issue for an otherwise strong text.

[Belle DiMonté is an avid reader of fantasy and linguistic texts.]

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