LINGUIST List 23.5245|
Thu Dec 13 2012
Review: Historical Linguistics; General Linguistics: Wright & Wright (2012)
Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons
From: Lynn Sims <simslapsu.edu>
Subject: Old English Grammar
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-1796.html
AUTHORS: Wright, Joseph and Wright, Elisabeth
TITLE: Old English Grammar
SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Gramatica 21
Reviewer: Lynn D. Sims, Department of Languages and Literature, Austin Peay State
“Old English Grammar” is a reprint of the second edition (1914) of the
grammar by Joseph Wright and Elizabeth Wright (first edition, 1908; third
edition, 1925). The grammar is intended for students whose main focus is Old
English (OE), and its primary goal is to provide students with a comprehensive
understanding of OE phonology and morphology. Its secondary goal is to
introduce students to comparative Germanic grammar, specifically Gothic, Old
Icelandic, Old Saxon, and Old High German.
The book begins with a four-page Introduction that places OE within the
Indo-Germanic (henceforth Indo-European) language family, divides the OE time
period into early OE (700 to 900) and late OE (900 to 1100), and defines the
four major OE dialect regions -- noting that the early West Saxon dialect
receives more attention than the other three dialects in this grammar. The
book is then separated into three unlabelled sections: Phonology (Chapters
1-10), Accidence (Chapters 11-15), Word-Formation (Chapter 16). The book ends
with an Index containing section citations of the OE words and affixes
discussed in the grammar.
Chapter 1 provides an overview of OE orthography and the pronunciation of OE
vowels (short, long, diphthongs) and consonants. The pronunciation of OE
phonemes is described with reference to Modern English and Modern German words
(which Wright and Wright label New English and New High German, respectively).
The chapter ends with an explanation of the difference between pitch and
stress and the consequences of a stress accent system on Indo-European
languages in general and Proto-Germanic and OE in particular.
The continuation of and changes to Proto-Indo-European vowel sounds (including
syllabic m, n, l, r) in the comparative Germanic languages is discussed in
Chapter 2, while Chapter 3 expands on some of the more important vowel
modifications that occurred in Proto-Germanic. This leads logically to the
focus of the next two chapters: Chapter 4 addresses OE and the comparative
Germanic languages and explains the pronunciation of vowels in accented
syllables, the contraction of vowels, the lengthening of short vowels, and the
shortening of long vowels. Additional sound changes such as i-umlaut, u- and
o/a-umlaut, breaking, and the presence of nasals are also explained here. The
pronunciation of vowels in accented syllables is restated and reformatted in
Chapter 5, but the focus is strictly OE and includes non-West Saxon dialect
examples when applicable. Chapter 6 is similar to Chapter 4, but the focus
shifts to vowels in unaccented syllables. The chapter begins with a summary
of changes to consonants in final position.
Chapter 7 moves to vowel gradation, first describing the ablaut of six of the
seven classes of strong verbs together with their four principle stem forms
and next comparing the ablaut of OE strong verbs to Proto-Germanic and Gothic.
While Class VII of strong verbs is omitted from the present discussion of
vowel gradation, the authors do address this class in a later chapter.
Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law are the primary focus of Chapter 8, while
consonantal changes such as rhotacism and gemination are explained in Chapter
9. The phonology section ends with Chapter 10, which contains a lengthy
discussion of the development of OE consonants and includes explanations for
various sound changes such as fricative voicing and palatalization.
In the next five chapters, Wright and Wright address Accidence (henceforth
inflectional morphology). They begin Chapter 11 with a discussion of Number,
Gender, and Case, and then explain the declension of strong, weak, and minor
nouns with reference to these features. The noun declensions are also
explained in terms of syllabic structure and surrounding phonemes. OE strong
and weak adjectives are given a similar treatment in Chapter 12. A summary of
the syntactic (attributive/predicative) behavior of weak and strong adjectives
is also included, as are explanations on the declensions of participles,
comparative, superlative, and irregular forms, and numerals. Chapter 13
describes the declension paradigms for personal pronouns, demonstratives, and
interrogatives, and it also explains reflexive, possessive, and indefinite
pronouns in OE and across Germanic. Chapter 14 begins with a discussion of
athematic and thematic verbs, strong and weak verbs, reduplicated and
non-reduplicated verbs, and the forms of the OE verb. The focus next shifts
to the declension and classification of OE strong verbs, including Class VII
-- which originally formed the reduplicating category. The declension and
classification of weak verbs is then explained, and the chapter ends with the
Minor Group: preterit-present (and sub-groups) and –mi verbs (and
sub-groups). The section on inflectional morphology concludes with Chapter
14: Adverbs, Prepositions, and Conjunctions. Adverb inflections are
explained; Preposition forms are listed in terms of Case; Conjunctions are
given in terms of co-ordinate and subordinate constructions.
The grammar concludes with a summary of word-formation strategies in OE.
Chapter 16 begins with affixation on nouns and compound nouns, moves to
derivative and compound adjectives, and ends with the formation of compound
verbs by affixation.
This edition of “Old English Grammar” is one of the early English-language
books that describes and illustrates Old English phonology and morphology. It
is preceded by Bright (1891) and followed by, among others, Quirk and Wrenn
(1955), Campbell (1959), Mitchell (1964), Lass and Anderson (1975), and Hogg
(1992). Excluding more recent developments in morpho-phonology that challenge
some earlier conclusions, Wright and Wright achieve their intended two-prong
goal with “Old English Grammar” by providing an in-depth discussion of Old
English phonology and morphology (which is further illustrated by numerous
examples) and by placing this discussion in the context of comparative
Because of the grammar’s early date, however, some terms appear outdated and
may be unfamiliar to today’s students. For example, the terms “tenues” and
mediae” (§229) are used for voiceless and voiced consonants, respectively.
Anaptyctic vowels, or vowel epenthesis, are described by the Sanskrit term
“svarabhakti vowels” (§360). When discussing language families, the authors
continually use Indo-Germanic and Primitive Germanic, where today
Indo-European and Proto-Germanic are more common. However, these differences
in terminology are insignificant to the overall goal of the text.
The discussion of Indo-European in §1 is dated and lacks the Tocharian and
Anatolian branches, but does provide the student with a basic understanding of
how the Germanic branch fits into the family. The discussions of Phonology,
Morphology, and Word-Formation are straightforward and include in-section
notes that provide additional details, address debated areas, and/or suggest
study strategies for the student. Copious OE and comparative Germanic
examples are provided, which also makes the text a useful reference tool for
students. While the authors acknowledge that syntax is excluded from their
text, this is a drawback for students of OE.
The descriptions of OE sounds are made with reference to Modern English and/or
Modern German words rather than the International Phonetic Alphabet. Although
not stated by the authors, the ‘Modern English’ words represent early
twentieth-century British English, which today may cause some difficulty,
particularly with vowels, for non-British English speaking students. In terms
of OE vowels in accented syllables, Chapter 5 is particularly helpful because
it focuses on only OE (including dialect variants), with the appropriate
cross-reference paragraphs from Chapter 4 also provided. In terms of
inflectional morphology, the declensional paradigms are presented in an
expected format using standard OE examples. However, for masculine, pure
a-stem nouns (§334), Wright and Wright include “dæg” (‘day’) and “mearh”
(‘horse’) alongside “stān” (‘stone’), whereas Campbell (1959: §574) presents
“dæg” and “mearh” as phonological variants of pure a-stems. Wright and
Wright’s treatment of OE verb declensions is clearly presented and fairly
similar to more recent OE grammars. Finally, the Word-Formation chapter is
rather brief, but it provides the student with an adequate overview of the
Though Wright and Wright also achieve their secondary goal with this grammar
-- providing a foundation for an understanding of comparative Germanic grammar
-- students who plan to expand into comparative Germanic grammars would be
better served by texts such as Prokosch (2009 ) or Robinson (1992). A
book such as Robinson’s covers the territory in a more systematic, balanced,
and up-to-date manner.
To conclude, “Old English Grammar” is user-friendly, presenting the material
in a style that is clear and easy to follow. While today’s students of Old
English will need to keep in mind more recent morphophonological discussions,
Wright and Wright’s grammar remains a useful study guide and reference tool.
Bright, James W. 1891. An Anglo-Saxon Reader. New York: Henry Holt and
Campbell, Alistair. 1959. Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University
Hogg, Richard M. 1992. A Grammar of Old English. Vol. 1: Phonology. Oxford:
Lass, Roger and J.M. Anderson. 1975. Old English Phonology. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Mitchell, Bruce. 1964. A Guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell
Prokosch, Eduard. 2009 . A Comparative Germanic Grammar. Surrey:
Quirk, Randolph and C.L. Wrenn. 1955. An Old English Grammar. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and Its Closest Relatives: A Survey of
the Earliest Germanic Languages. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Lynn Sims is an Assistant Professor in the Languages and Literature Department
at Austin Peay State University, where she teaches linguistics courses and
directs the Linguistics Minor. Her research interests include
grammaticalization, historical linguistics, and morphosyntactic change in
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