How to start learning Old English

Hana Videen offers some tips and tricks on learning Old English.

I decided to learn Old English on a whim in college. In my first undergraduate year, I attended an information session on potential foreign language modules, and was quite surprised to learn that a version of English, my mother tongue, made it part. I signed up for a class taught by a wonderful teacher who made me fall in love with the subject, even assigning us grammar exercises. The first half we worked our way Bright’s Old English Grammar & Reader, edited by Cassidy and Ringler. Come to think of it, it’s not the most user-friendly manual, but it’s comprehensive. The second semester we read Beowulf in the original Old English (over 3,000 lines!), going through it bit by bit in classes that met three times a week. (As with learning any foreign language, the most effective study is regular and frequent, even if for shorter periods.)

It always helps to have a good larēow (teacher), but thanks to libraries and the Internet, you don’t have to be enrolled in university to learn Old English. Below are tools and books to help you get started on your own English journey.

Where to start

If you want to learn Old English grammar (beyond a few words and phrases), you’ll probably want to invest in a good guide or textbook. You may be able to find them at your local library. Textbooks can be expensive, but you can also look for used copies – having the most recent edition of a teaching guide is not essential. Both of these guides include chapters on the history of the language, pronunciation and grammar, as well as various Old English texts for reading practice. Even after going through all the lessons, they work well as reference books:

by Peter Baker Introduction to Old English

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson A Guide to Old English

If you prefer a less grammar-focused approach, there’s Mark Atherton’s. Complete Old English, which is part of the Teach Yourself series. This book may be a more accessible option for self-study, but it’s not as good to use as a reference or grammar guide. Carole Hough and John Corbett start old english also has a less traditional approach and focuses on explaining and demonstrating how language works.

More training

The second edition of Richard Marsden Cambridge Old English Reader (2015) is a good resource once you’ve learned grammar (or to supplement a book that teaches you grammar). Although it has a handy reference guide to Old English grammar (which I refer to regularly – a copy is on my desk), it works best as a reader. It contains much more text than other Old English grammar guides, and that is its main purpose. This is a useful book to use with your Old English grammar course.

You can also practice more on Peter Baker’s old english aerobics website. The site has additional material for users of Baker’s book Introduction to Old English, but the website says it’s currently (temporarily?) free for everyone. It includes an anthology of texts from Baker’s third edition, as well as other “minitexts” and texts removed from earlier editions. There’s a glossary to look up words, a “training room” that has over 50 interactive exercises, and a link to Old English text readings on Youtube.

Peter Baker also published an Old English translation by Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland (Where Æðelgyðe Ellendæda on Wundorlande, as he calls it). It’s a fun way to practice non-medieval text once you’ve mastered the grammar and vocabulary.

Tools

I no longer have a physical dictionary of Old English. It is not necessary, everything is online. Bookmark these websites to have them at your fingertips when studying.

  • Bosworth-Toller: A comprehensive dictionary of Old English, originally written by Joseph Bosworth in 1838, with additions and revisions by Thomas Northcote Toller in 1898. The online version of the dictionary is maintained by scholars at Charles University in Prague .
  • Dictionary of Old English (University of Toronto): Much more comprehensive than Bosworth-Toller, though so far only includes words beginning with letters A-I. You can get 20 free connections a year, or if you’re affiliated with a university, check if the library has a subscription. The word of the week is accessible without a subscription, and you can sign up to get it in your email every week (all L-words right now, since that’s what they’re working on right now).
  • Old English Thesaurus (University of Glasgow): Search for Old English words by subject rather than alphabetically.
  • Old English translator: Translate Old English word into Modern English or vice versa.

There are also several Bosworth-Toller dictionary apps for iOS and Android devices. This one for Android has great reviews, although I don’t have an Android device so I’ve never tried it. I recently tried this one for iOS (when Charles University’s server was down), but I found it less useful if I didn’t spell words exactly as they appear in the dictionary. (Old English has no “standard spelling”.)

Want more Old English in your life? (shameless self-taking)

I’ve been tweeting the Old English Word of the Day for over 8 years. You can find me on Twitter (@OEWordhord) as well as Facebook and instagram. I also write weekly articles for Wordhord Wednesday on Old English topics, which you can subscribe to at Patreon.

If you have an iOS device, you can download for free Old English Wordhord app. Not only can you put the old English word of the day on your home screen, but you can also hear the pronunciation of words and save your favorites to your own. horde of words.

And…I recently published a book called The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English. I explore everyday life in early medieval Britain: food, weather, work, religion, friendship, education and many other topics. I do this by digging into the words of the time, Old English words.

Hana Videen has been hoarding Old English words since 2013, when she started tweeting one a day. She holds a PhD in English from King’s College London and is now a Toronto-based writer and blogger. His book The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English was published by Profile (2021) and Princeton University Press (2022). You can get the Old English Word of the Day at Twitter, Facebook Where instagramvisit oldenglishwordhord.comor download free iOS Old English Wordhord app. Hana also writes Wordhord messages on Wednesday on Patreon.

Top image: Cotton MS Claudius B IV fol. 1r

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