An introduction to the grammar of Old English

An introduction to the grammar of Old English: A systemic functional approach. By Michael Cummings. Sheffield: Equinox, 2010. Pp. xiv, 170. ISBN 9781845533649. $45.

Reviewed by Mikael Thompson, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

The title of this book is misleading, for it is written for an audience that has already been introduced to Old English: Cummings assumes his readers have already studied Old English morphology (3) and restricts himself to syntax. In fact, ‘The primary purpose of this book is to bring the Old English historical dialect into the purview of systemic functional linguistics’ (1). Thus, his treatment of syntax is highly condensed and serves to illustrate the principles of systemic functional grammar, the approach to language pioneered by M.K. Halliday.

Ch. 1 is a concise overview of systemic functional linguistics. In this view, language has three primary purposes underlying three distinct perspectives on language use: as a means of communicating shared experience of reality (the ideational perspective), as negotiating cooperative activity (the interpersonal perspective), and as objectifying itself (the textual perspective) (5–6). Each perspective structures part of the grammar of a language. Ch. 2 discusses the interpersonal perspective, in which each speech act is seen as an exchange: either an offer or a demand for either goods and services or information (34–36). Four fundamental moods are defined thereby, three of which are encoded distinctly in Old English by the order (if the elements occur) of the subject and the finite verb form.

Ch. 3 concerns the experiential perspective, one of the two major divisions of the ideational perspective. All events are classified into six broad types of processes with associated participants; this perspective, thus, underlies case, voice, and role. In Ch. 4, the means of linking units into longer units of text are introduced; the fundamental distinction is between theme and rheme. Ch. 5 treats the structure of groups and phrases (the difference appears to be that modifiers are obligatory in phrases, optional in groups), and Ch. 6 treats complexes, units made up of smaller units of the same class. Finally, Ch. 7 discusses cohesion (anaphora, pronouns, comparison, etc.) and metaphor.

This book will, of course, appeal to linguists who work in or are interested in systemic functional linguistics. It will also be worth reading by students of Old English who seek a more broadly philosophical approach than traditional grammar, and with less technical detail than other schools of linguistics. However, because of its concision and the prerequisite experience it assumes, its appeal to most general readers is likely to be small. It is not suited to serve as a textbook for Old English classes but should be useful extra reading for more advanced students, for it treats a number of issues in a coherent framework, such as the large-scale organization of text, that are less touched on in textbooks.