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Review of Old English: A linguistic introduction

posted April 5th, 2010

Old English: A linguistic introduction. By Jeremy J. Smith. (Cambridge introductions to the English language.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 199. ISBN 9780521685696. $29.99.

Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Bard College at Simon’s Rock

Several textbook-style introductions to the Old English (OE) language are currently available. Such works are usually written for students who major in English and whose primary aim is to develop necessary skills to read OE poetry and prose. Jeremy Smith’s book approaches this subject with a focus on the linguistic structures. He does not assume any prior knowledge of linguistics, and the result is a great beginners’ text for undergraduate students, to be used in an undergraduate course in conjunction with a collection of OE texts. Successful completion of such an introduction should provide the foundation for reading recent scholarship on OE as well as traditional, long-established reference works on OE.

This book contains seven chapters, two appendices, two glossaries, and a reference section. Ch. 1 serves as a general introduction to the textbook and to the origins of the English language. In Ch. 2, linguistic terminology that is required to describe OE sounds, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary is introduced, and S demonstrates how these terms are used in descriptions of sample words and short sentences. Ch. 3 deals with the structure of OE and analyzes a few longer excerpts in OE prose and poetry.

The first three chapters provide an elementary understanding of the subject matter, and the following four chapters expand on this information. What follows is a discussion of spelling and sounds (Ch. 4), of the OE lexicon (Ch. 5), of OE syntax (Ch. 6), and of OE inflectional morphology (Ch. 7). The material is consistently well explained and illustrated by means of several examples, and S also includes discussions of diachronic and dialectal variation. The only thing that may surprise the reader is the frequent absence of the traditional tables in the inflectional morphology section. Instead, paradigms are presented in one column, and it takes some time to get used to. At the end of each chapter, there is a list of key terms that were introduced and sometimes there are also a few exercises on the topic of the chapter.

The first appendix consists of a selection of OE texts. This section is designed for preliminary study only and should be supplemented with more OE texts from other sources. It is noteworthy that this selection includes runic and nonrunic inscriptions, excerpts from West Saxon and non-West Saxon texts, and a passage from the Peterborough Chronicle that exemplifies the transition to Middle English. Each text is accompanied by a short introduction and a present-day English translation. The second appendix contains discussion questions and a list of recommendations for further reading. At the end of the book there is a glossary of OE to present-day English. A second glossary contains an alphabetical list of key grammatical terms used in the book, along with an explanation for each one. The book ends with a list of references and an index.