A Guide to Old English: Seventh Edition

I’ve used 3 different Old English grammar books, and A Guide to Old English: Seventh Edition by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson has one very important thing that no other book has—an assumption that the reader does not have a teacher. In fact, that’s the first statement in the book after the table of contents and a note on abbreviations. Mitchell and Robinson begin a quote on how lectures are not any better than reading the books from which the lectures were taken, so unless experiments are involved, students are better off reading for themselves. How seriously Mitchell and Robinson intend this comment to be taken is unknown, but it is encouraging for an ānhaga[1] like me.

Table of Contents

  • Orthography and pronunciation (including examples for comparison in ME as well as explanations in formal linguistic terms)
  • Inflexions
    • pronouns
    • adjectives
    • numerals
    • verbs
  • Word formation
  • Syntax
    • word order
    • sentence structure
    • clauses
    • parataxis
    • concord
    • use of cases
    • articles, pronouns, and numerals
    • verbs
  • History
  • Bibliography
  • Practice sentences
  • Practice texts
  • OE to ME glossary

I extensively tabbed my edition so I can easily find my way around the book. I like that the introduction gives a number of paradigms, the order in which to learn them, and the order in which to attempt the practice translations once the paradigms are learned. Readers can have the satisfaction of completing some translations before memorizing all the grammar rules.

A Guide to Old English does not give translations of the practice sentences or the texts. However, the glossary includes declensions and conjugations for most words, as well as the text and line in which that use can be found. Troublesome phrases are translated in footnotes. This, coupled with the ease of finding full translations from other sources, makes practice translation an achievable goal.

A Guide to Old English does not contain a ME to OE glossary. I have never heard of an edition that does since these books are intended for translation, not for generating new sentences, but I thought this worth noting. It’s my only complaint. However, the authors offer suggestions for further reading to perfect one’s OE skills.

My copy of A Guide to Old English was a gift, and the price is not printed on the cover, so I don’t recall the exact price. It was around $50, which is what Amazon shows for the non-discounted non-special-Amazon price. If buying locally, it’s worth waiting for Barnes & Noble to put out a discount coupon, but this book is easily worth the cost. Amazon shows that the 8th edition is out. You can buy it here. Since the 7th edition was great, I can only assume that the 8th is even better.

[1] I expect you to look that up.


A Guide to Old English: Seventh Edition — 3 Comments

  1. I dearly love my 6th edition Mitchell and Robinson, but I found it a little overwhelming for a first pass. Quirk and Wrenn (combined with the readings from M&R) was much more helpful: I felt they did a better job of paring down the grammar and telling you which bits you absolutely have to know on a first approach. This is probably a personal matter, but the directions on “learning the inflexions” in the “How To Use This Guide” section of M&R didn’t do it for me.

  2. This is a very well done review – I’ve been a little hard and M&R sometimes, but really probably shouldn’t be. As you say, they do a good job of basically offering lecture notes that explain things very well. I still think they’re probably best used in conjunction with another more paradigm oriented book like Sweet’s, but taking a flip back through my copy in light of your review has made me a bit more appreciative of the things they do well (in particular, offering resources to a beginning student who doesn’t have anyone to ask about things).

    Though books like Sweet or Quirk & Wrenn do have one very clear advantage (different approaches to content aside): they’re cheap!

    • Your comments have given me a much better idea of where M&R’s usefulness ends. We all have to start somewhere, but it’s equally important to know where to proceed next. :)

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