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Review: A Gentle Introduction to Old English, Murray McGillivray.

When I look back on this summer in 20 years, one of the strongest memories will be the amount of insight I have gained from my Old English study group.  My university does not teach Old English, but a group of five of us — an English faculty, three recent grads hoping to become medievalists, and myself — have been learning this tongue under the tutelage of a husband-and-wife Anglo-Saxonist team.

There is plenty more to say about that — but it will have to wait for another post.

9781551118413We began learning the grammar with Murray McGillivray’s A Gentle Introduction to Old English.  McGillivray’s book is meant to be a primer to get students into the original texts as rapidly as possible.  In twelve brief chapters, he takes students from pronunciation to the meter of Anglo-Saxon verse.  Along the way he includes exercises and brief readings from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Luke’s Gospel, the story of Ohthere, and a riddle.  The back of the book contains extended readings in Luke’s infancy narrative, Abraham and Isaac, the Voyage of Ohthere, and Aelfric’s Colloquy.  The readings have glossaries and notes on tough passages.  McGillivray also has an accompanying website.

I appreciated that he simplified the grammar greatly, making it possible to start in on real texts as soon as possible.  But now that I am starting to read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I find my understanding of the language (particularly thorny issues like strong verbs) lacking.   While he does lead the student into the grammar step-by-step, he primarily wants the student to learn Old English inductively, through reading texts with glossaries.  The chapters do not have vocabulary lists (let alone principal parts of verbs) for the student to learn, and the grammar is not presented as systematically and step-by-step as it is in Wheelock’s Latin.

Is this book useful?

It depends on your goals in learning Old English.  If you want to work with Old English, follow scholarship about the literature, and be able to look up a few words here and there, it is very useful.  But it is not the kind of primer that will build your knowledge of the language deductively.  Nor will it give the finer points of grammar; Bruce Mitchell’s Guide is a necessary supplementary volume for that.  I would have preferred something halfway between the gentleness of McGillivray and the linguistic overload of Mitchell, which is more of a reference grammar.

One of my main frustrations for this book was the readings in the back.  The Bible readings were useful, and Biblical translation is often a good place to start in any language because, well, you know what it’s going to say!  But the Ohthere and the Aelfric readings were very tedious.  The Ohthere reading included a lot of nautical vocabulary that I doubt I will see again — not perhaps the best vocabulary builder.  The Aelfric reading was written as a pedagogical exercise for children — not the most exciting stuff!  I understand McGillivray’s desire to stick to the simpler syntax and smaller vocabulary of prose readings, but he could have included Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle instead, readings found in Mitchell’s text.

Within the next few days, I will explain what I have gleaned about language learning from my experience with Old English.  Stay tuned!