08.06.20, Baker, Introduction to Old English

Main Article Content

Megan Hartman

The Medieval Review baj9928.0806.020


Baker, Peter S.. Introduction to Old English. Malden, MA:Blackwell, 2007. Pp. xv,388. ISBN: 978-1-451-5272-3.

Reviewed by:

Megan Hartman
Indiana University

Most introductory texts to Old English are primarily linguistic and highly technical works. Books such as Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer, Mitchell and Robinson's A Guide to Old English, or The Elements of Old English by Samual Moore, Thomas A. Knott, and James R. Hulbert center on a comprehensive grammar explores in minute detail sound changes, grammatical constructions, and the other technical aspects of the language. For the dedicated scholar of the Old English language, such books are effective guides and reference tools. While they provide varying degrees of background information, all focus primarily on giving readers a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the language and an ability to analyze it in depth.

But while such book are quite useful for the scholar who wants to delve into intense linguistic study, they are less useful for the undergraduate or less philologically oriented student who would simply like to be able to read Old English literature. Peter S. Baker's Introduction to Old English, which has recently been published in a second edition, provides an alternate text for students who have a literary and historical interest in Old English rather than a linguistic one. Baker assumes little knowledge of linguistics and does not attempt to impart any more linguistic information than is absolutely necessary for translation. Students can therefore learn the basics and turn immediately to the readings.

He also designs the book to allow for quick access to the texts by starting each chapter with a "quick start" section and by including many "minitexts," which are short passages selected to emphasize a particular grammatical point and provide examples that are easier to translate than the texts in the anthology. As Baker explains in his section on how to use the book, this approach allows novice translators to begin translating right away, for they can read through the quick start sections to get an idea of the fundamentals necessary for translation and then begin with the minitexts while returning as necessary to the longer explanations that take up the bulk of the chapter.

The book is laid out in sixteen chapters, plus three appendices and an anthology of eighteen short prose and poetic texts. The first three chapters provide the basics. Chapter One gives a very brief history of the Anglo-Saxons and their literature and then moves on to the language, explaining where it comes from and how it may be differentiated from other Indo-European and Germanic languages. Baker offers a few technical details here, such as Grimm's Law and i- mutation, but he mostly keeps his discussion simple. The next chapter details Old English pronunciation, providing both lists of common sounds and explanations of the phonetic values of the more variable letters, explaining, for instance, the different contexts in which c and g should and should not be palatalized. Baker then turns to an explanation of grammar in Chapter Three. Except to specify a few places in which Old English varies from Modern English, this chapter, which Baker tells his readers they may skip if they already have experience learning languages, does not focus on Old English at all, but instead covers the basics of English grammar in general, giving the least experienced translator the knowledge necessary to understand the rest of the book.

Following these three chapters on basics, Baker presents nine chapters of grammatical information. These chapters cover all the introductory material that most grammars cover, starting with case and all the specific parts of speech and then moving to the broader construction of sentences, with chapters on concord and word order. In addition to the background information, the chapters have a few features that are useful to beginning students, oftentimes set aside in a highlighted text box for easy reference. First, Baker provides explicit comparisons to Modern English to illustrate most of his points. In some cases, Baker does this to demonstrate unusual traits of Old English that students will have to be careful to learn, such as its much larger number of verb forms. But many of these comparisons serve to familiarize students with seemingly foreign topics, for example by showing that different declensions of nouns are not entirely unfamiliar to Modern English speakers since irregular nouns show remnants of those declensions. In other, more complicated cases, the comparison can be more extended, as when he defines concord means by a short passage from Jane Austen and showing how we know which pronoun refers to which person.

Baker also points out several patterns that might be useful in memorization, such as places in which case endings will always be the same, regardless of what part of speech the ending is attached to, or what types of vowels tend to appear in the different principal parts of strong verbs, so that students can more easily guess which principal part they are dealing with and what the options for the infinitive might be even if they do not immediately recognize which class of verb they are trying to look up. He also points out several possible sources of confusion, such as identical pronouns in the singular and the plural or unusual word orders, and he gives advice on how to avoid the problems these present.

Lastly, Baker also gives some specific translation tips. Some help the student to work through difficult parts, as when he points out that even though adjective endings tend to be redundant, students should learn them and pay attention to them because sometimes the adjective will be split off from the noun it modifies. Others help with a fluent translation, as in the case of his advice not always to translate literally, because, for instance, Modern English has lost many uses of the subjunctive, so that an Old English subjunctive verb should not always be translated as subjunctive in Modern English. Such patterns and tips are quite useful for the student who is not used to translating or specifically to translating inflected languages.

Once he finishes with grammar, Baker turns specifically to poetry. He starts with a chapter on the meter itself. The chapter is quite useful in explaining the elementary features of meter so that students can appreciate the unfamiliar form of the poetry. However, the goal of this chapter is not entirely clear. At the end, Baker explores in detail the features of Sievers's five types, which would not be necessary unless he expects students to be scanning the poetry on their own. Yet he does not give background on the different classes of words and which words should be stressed, so scanning poetry with the guidance of only this chapter would be difficult. If Baker wishes only to provide background for appreciation of the poetry, he could probably shorten this chapter. But a small explanation of word classes and what variable types of stress can fall on what words would not make the chapter overly complicated and would then allow students to try their hand at the scansion.

The subsequent two chapters describe some broader features of poetry. Again, Baker starts by using an example from Modern English literature to demystify the features of the older poetry. He cites the first two stanzas of Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and demonstrates that the poem uses figurative language, unusual word order, and special poetic diction. From there he explains in his chapter on style the non-metrical features that distinguish Old English poetry from prose, namely the frequent and creative compounding, including kennings, and the formulaic approach that is manifested on the level of the line and of the scene. After reviewing these features, Baker also gives some analysis of how they can be used effectively, thereby emphasizing how the reader can appreciate these poems not just as exercises in translation but as literature. From style, Baker proceeds to grammar, showing both how the syntax can vary in poetry and in what ways it will not. This chapter, therefore, gives insights into how to translate the poetry more effectively.

Baker ends his explanation of Old English with a chapter on manuscript studies. He begins by offering background on ways to access manuscripts and what students need to know to read them, presenting such tools as a list of graphemes and an explanation of abbreviations. The emphasis of the chapter, however, is on how manuscripts differ from edited texts. In addition to providing several images of manuscripts, Baker explains how the lines are written as prose, where there is punctuation and where there is not, and the various ways in which words can be divided. In this way he challenges his readers to think about how manuscripts might have been perceived differently from the way in which we perceive our edited texts, and warns readers not to become complacent when reading an edition.

The book ends with an anthology of eighteen texts, beginning with simpler prose texts, followed by more difficult works, ending in eight poems. Each of these selections begins with a head-note that gives a brief context for the text; most of these head-notes are short, though in some cases Baker expands his treatment to give a history of the work's reception and an interpretation of some of the more important details. Before the anthology, however, Baker also includes three quite useful appendices. The first is a list of common spelling variants. This list serves both to aid students in determining where in the glossary to find the strangely spelled words from the text, and to remind them that while many variations are possible, it is not the case that anything goes. This tool is especially useful because the book does not focus on sound changes, so students would have difficultly figuring out these changes if left to their own devices.

The second appendix gives phonetic symbols and terms. The first half of this appendix lists the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a list that is useful as a reference. However its use is limited because Baker provides Old English words for most of the examples. Therefore, the student would either need to know the IPA or else to know Old English pronunciation to be able to use the table effectively. It would be have been more helpful if Baker had included Modern English examples for each sound. The second half of the appendix provides a glossary for the types of phonetic terms students would expect to see in this book and elsewhere. Finally, the third appendix lists of further readings, organized by topic. This section provides, for students with a wide range of interests, other possible avenues of inquiry.

The second edition of Baker's book does not differ significantly from the first. The major change is the addition of four new texts: Ælfric's homily on the Book of Job, an obituary of William the Conqueror from the Peterborough Chronicle, the voyages of Wulfstan and Ohthere from the Old English Orosius, and The Battle of Maldon. Apart from the additional texts, most of the changes come in the form of added clarification in the grammar portion, though only one full section has been added: on "anticipation" in the chapter on word- order. The other addition is a section called "On-line amusements" in the appendix on further reading, which gives students fun ways to play with their Old English knowledge. Unfortunately, Baker had to omit several of the other on-line references in the text because he says that his site on "Old English Aerobics" has "aged poorly" (xiii). But he still gives references to on-line worksheets from this site that teachers could use for extra practice.

As a whole, then, Baker's Introduction to Old English is an excellent introduction designed to provide reading knowledge for the beginning student. It is probably not detailed enough for an Old English specialist, but it is very useful for someone who wants to gain just enough access to the language to read and appreciate the literature. Baker uses many comparisons to engage the reader not accustomed to language study and to demystify unusual texts, he constructs the book to encourage beginning students to start translating almost immediately rather than becoming bogged down in the grammar, and he provides additional instruction in some of the literary aspects of Old English studies. It would therefore be an especially useful tool to teach undergraduates.

Article Details

Author Biography

Megan Hartman

Indiana University