An introduction to Old English

An introduction to Old English. 2nd edn. By Richard Hogg. Revised by Rhona Alcorn. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012. Pp. 176. ISBN 9780748642397. $104 (Hb).

Reviewed by Jean-François Mondon, Minot State University

Richard Hogg works through the various aspects of Old English in a very readable ten-chapter book. While not having the depth of an introductory book with respect to countless grammar or reading exercises, this book does offer a unique approach to getting one’s feet wet in this fascinating language. Since it explains a variety of linguistic concepts so lucidly, absolute beginners could certainly work their way through this book, acquiring basic linguistics at the same time as Old English.

Ch. 1, ‘Origins and sources’ (1–13), places Old English in its genetic position in the Indo-European family, discusses its extant texts, and closes with a tour of its phonetics and orthography. Ch 2, ‘The basic elements’ (14–27), introduces basic concepts dealing with nominal inflection and introduces three major declensions as well as pronominal and demonstrative forms. H concludes the chapter with a brief discussion of a few sample sentences and a handful of exercises, including an excerpt from Maccabees. Ch. 3, ‘More nouns and adjectives’ (28–40), continues exploring the nominal system, focusing on minor declensional patterns, and extends the discussion to adjectives, explaining strong and weak forms. The chapter ends with a passage from Aelfric’s Life of St. Mary of Egypt.

Chs. 4 (‘Verb forms’, 41–55) and 5 (‘Strong verbs’, 56–69) fluidly work through the entire verbal system. In its discussion of weak verbs, Ch. 4 naturally introduces i-umlaut and its effects both on verbs and adjectival gradation. It ends with an excerpt from the story of Caedmon. Ch. 5 masterfully works through the seven classes of strong verbs as well as preterite-present verbs. A brief necessary discussion of Verner’s Law is interspersed. A hiatus is taken from reading passages, with final exercises dealing with verbal morphology and the differences between Old and Modern English.

Ch. 6, ‘Noun phrases and verb phrases’ (70–87), delves into various particulars of Old English. With respect to nouns, it touches on the use of various cases, including the genitive and rare instrumental. With respect to verbs, it discusses the aspectual and modal system of the language. The chapter ends with an excerpt from Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. Ch. 7, ‘Clauses’ (88–104), highlights important topics such as the position of the verb in main and subordinate clauses, negative concord, and the different strategies for linking clauses together. The reading excerpt comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.

Ch. 8, ‘Vocabulary’ (104–16), explores the various morphological processes observable in Old English, including affixation and compounding. It also introduces the notion of register in relation to Latin borrowings. The reading excerpt again comes from Wulfstan. Ch. 9, ‘Variety’ (117–29), introduces the unique metrical system of the language along with its dialectal diversification. Caedmon’s hymn rounds out the chapter. Finally, Ch. 10, ‘The future’ (130–39), discusses morphological and lexical developments that send Old English on its way to Middle and Modern English. The chapter ends with six suggestions for essay questions. This short book also contains an Old English glossary, a glossary of linguistic terms, a recommended reading section, references, and an index.