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21.09.40 Evans, An Introduction to Old English

21.09.40 Evans, An Introduction to Old English

Every scholar of Old English has a particular mode of teaching the language: a set of short texts they like to assign, a chosen technique to encourage students to remember the four (occasionally five) cases of nouns, a preferred diagram explaining the relationship between Old English and the other languages on the Germanic branch of the Indo-European tree. In An Introduction to Old English, Jonathan Evans has translated his own teaching strategy into an effective, impeccably researched, and highly innovative pedagogical text.

In his preface, Evans explains that the book has three objectives: “to provide an introduction to the Old English language for students and independent scholars; to facilitate an understanding of the general framework of Anglo-Saxon history; and to suggest something of the literary, cultural, and religious traditions to which the Old English historical texts included in the lessons are closely related” (xxv). Evans arguably succeeds in all three aims, though there is not much room in this already hefty and detailed volume to accommodate the third. His Introduction (1-20) articulates the relationships between Old English and other Indo-European languages, explores the merits of different modes of visualizing language families, the development of Germanic language subgroups into the fifth century, and the place of Old English in this linguistic “thicket of tangled underbrush” (9), before offering an overview of English history from the fifth to the early twelfth centuries. Evans’ prose here (and throughout the volume) is lucid and readable, rendering this complex linguistic history accessible without sacrificing quality of content. His history of the Old English period is essentially a military one, with little discussion of cultural or literary developments (e.g., his discussion of the tenth century makes no mention of the Benedictine Reforms), but it provides a clear and usable introduction to the period and its major players for students. Evans uses the term “Anglo-Saxon” to describe this period of history throughout the volume; he provides sufficient context to indicate that he employs this phrase to refer to the speakers of Old English who held cultural hegemony in areas of Britain from around 600-1100 CE, but it should be noted that the term is not a neutral one and many scholars in the field are actively moving away from it.

The majority of the book (23-406) consists of fifty lessons, which, in Evans’ most innovative pedagogical choice, teach the history of England from the Roman invasion to the Conquest and beyond, alongside the grammar and language of Old English. Each lesson provides a passage from the Peterborough Chronicle, supplemented occasionally by the Parker Chronicle, for translation, accompanied by a glossary (for the first twenty-five lessons) and notes. Evans moves chronologically through the Peterborough manuscript, selecting entries that allow for substantial discussion of grammatical features and create a coherent historical narrative. The reading is followed by a grammar lesson (e.g., “Class II Weak Verbs,” “Interrogative Pronouns in hw-”), historical and literary notes on the content of the chronicle entry, etymological and lexical notes on the entry’s vocabulary, a set of grammar questions to be answered as homework or used as an in-class quiz, and an “advanced reading” section of individual prose sentences and verse lines from a variety of sources.

These lessons are evidently the product of decades of teaching work: the linguistic material shows complete command of the language and its grammatical particulars, but is generally pitched accessibly for undergraduates and readers new to the field and is often as entertaining as it is informative. Evans does use grammatical terms (e.g., “subject complement”) that will be familiar to instructors but not to many students without defining them, and spends little time explaining the functions of the different Old English noun declensions, a topic with which students often struggle. His list of “Definitions of Some Linguistic Terms” (605-610) provides some useful context, and the lessons are well-written, so students will be able to grasp the concepts explored therein even if not all of the vocabulary is familiar, but some supplementary grammatical information might be useful. The Chronicle passages are the ideal length for practice translations, and the simultaneous introduction to the Old English language and early medieval English history is bound to encourage interested students and solves the persistent problem of ensuring that Old English language learners receive adequate historical context alongside linguistic instruction. The book introduces students to each class of verbs and noun stems separately and in detail, and its sections on word formation are especially interesting, covering a topic often not included in introductory language courses.

These lessons are designed, as Evans notes, for a semester-length course with approximately three lessons per week; the first twenty-five lessons are essential for language learning, and the remaining twenty-five are supplementary. This in-built structure will appeal greatly to many teachers and to scholars outside a classroom who want to set themselves a rigorous course in Old English, and may be of interest to teaching academics who would like to offer classes on Old English language but have research specialties later in the medieval period. Instructors teaching outside the North American semester model or attempting to incorporate basic language learning into an Old English literature course may need to be selective about the lessons they include, which disrupts the chronological effect Evans has so carefully curated. Evans’ structure is ideal for a language-intensive course, which is his aim, but his parsing out of grammatical features--for example, the separate treatment of different noun stem groups and verb classes--would make it difficult to use this book for a basic overview of noun declensions and verb endings for students primarily interested in literature.

The chronological structure also risks perpetuating a common problem in introductory Old English courses: an over-focus on the history of the migration period, to the detriment of the equally fascinating tenth and eleventh centuries. The “essential” grammar lessons take the reader only to the end of the ninth century. When used in full, the resulting course treats seven centuries of history remarkably evenly, including interesting linguistic and historical post-Conquest material, but, as mentioned above, any deviation from Evans’ course design would limit the book’s effectiveness. Throughout, discussions of cultural and literary developments are limited in favor of military and political events, but Evans has set himself an ambitious task in covering such a long historical period, and further material would weigh the book down. Additional cultural context and other useful material--including, apparently, answer keys for the exercises--will eventually be provided on an associated website referred to throughout the text, but the website itself is not, at time of press, up and running.

Following the fifty lessons are a selection of Advanced Readings (407-486), which provide a thoughtful mix of prose and verse, as well as secular and religious topics. They include oft-anthologized texts like Cynewulf and Cyneheard and The Dream of the Rood, along with less popular, but no less interesting, texts like the Alfredian prefaces and The Ruin. Evans’ choices of Beowulf excerpts are refreshing, moving away from the usual “fight with Grendel” passage to include instead Beowulf’s exchange with the coast guardian and Wealhtheow’s speeches, and he also offers some of the most dynamic passages from the Old English translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. After these readings, Evans provides a Grammatical Appendix (487-604), which includes a summary of the surviving Old English manuscript corpus, a discussion of early medieval English scripts, and summaries of the grammar parsed out lesson by lesson earlier in the book, here supplemented with more paradigms and significant discussion of historical linguistics and the pre-Old English origins for major forms in the language. Evans’ mastery of the material and crisp prose makes this section highly effective: his discussions of Grimm’s and Verner’s Laws, word formation, functional shift/zero derivation, and semantic shift are particularly fascinating. He also offers a neat summary of the variations between different Old English dialects, a useful resource for scholars as well as students. The volume concludes with glossaries of proper names and vocabulary, which are unsurprisingly thorough.

An Introduction to Old English presents a well-designed, substantive, and entirely authoritative course plan for the teaching of Old English in its linguistic and historical context, making it a valuable contribution to medieval language pedagogy. Evans’ thoughtful use of the Chronicle as a teaching tool is an especially commendable innovation that will undoubtedly inspire language instructors and language learners alike.