Old English for Beginners

David Parry



English literature spans a period of around one thousand five hundred years. The earlier half, unrivalled as a vernacular literature in its day, is almost unknown to the modern reader, and if known, only in paraphrase. Knowledge of our literature is seriously incomplete without Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon,The Wanderer and half a dozen other poems, and without King Alfred’s prose, which did as much to unify the kingdom as his victories over the Danes. The prime source for any knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England, the Chronicles, was itself groundbreaking in using the vernacular, and ought to be common knowledge. But the earliest poetry and prose is written in Old English, and the modern reader is scared off.
     To get a reading knowledge of Old English does require some effort—though nothing like as much as Latin. We have a flying start. Much of what we say in English uses words either the same as or closely related to the words they used a thousand years ago. Using this book you can be reading Old English after about 40 hours of work!
     Many Introductions to Old English are available, some of them excellent. David Parry found in years of experience that they are all unnecessarily difficult for the modern student who may have little time and less knowledge of grammatical terms, so he made his own Old English for Beginners. In this book grammar is not shirked, and one by-product will be to give any reader who needs it a working knowledge of the grammar of modern English, but grammar is introduced step by step in alliance with reading, and the student begins reading even before starting the grammar.
     Anyone who has gone seriously through this little book will be well equipped to read further and/or to study Old English academically. Its forerunners have been proved in practice to achieve these aims.
     Mr Parry’s own readings are themselves a first-rate introduction to Old English, a language that needs to be heard. To download them free, click on the buttons below.

Mr Parry, a graduate of the universities of Leeds and Sheffield, lectured for many years in Dialectology and English at Swansea University, and has written Dialects in Gwent and edited A Grammar and Glossary of the Conservative Anglo-Welsh Dialects of Rural Wales.

ISBN 978 0 907839 73 6‚ paperback‚ 162 pp.‚ 6.00



TOEBI Newsletter XVII, Autumn 2003

Englisc: Old English for Beginners
David Parry
Edgeways Books, Brynmill Press 2003 162pp. paperback 0907839738 £6.00

Parry’s aim in this book is to provide an elementary course in Old English for students coming to the subject with little prior knowledge of either Old English literature or modern English grammar. He aims to have students, by the end of this short book, able to read extracts from prose and poetry in the original and to be enthusiastic to continue their study. He prints some 185 lines of prose and 330 lines of poetry from texts such as Phoenix, Maldon, Husband’s Message and Genesis B. It certainly seems likely that those who work conscientiously through the book will be able by the end to read the extracts given.
      This book has some excellent qualities. Above all. Parry’s enthusiasm for Old English literature, coupled with his clear belief that it is easy to learn, is always evident. Throughout, the book proceeds from the known to the unknown. For example, some of the early exercises use modem English to lead the student into Old English grammar. In §24 students are asked to give various inflexional endings of cyning, but only after stating what the case and number would be of modern English words had these sentences been in Old English. (Example: “Jane’s cat was asleep on the top of the wardrobe. The officers’ mess is located underneath the canteen”.) Some of the later revision exercises are useful and the final chapter (entitled “Can These Bones Live?”) poses some thought-provoking questions.
      The style of the book could be described as “chatty”. That is, the reader is addressed directly, in a colloquial style, with extensive use of dashes and italics. For example: “ ’Ugh, now he’s going on about grammar. I don’t know any grammar.’—Is that you speaking? Well, the answer is ’Yes he is and yes you do.’ Let’s see if I can convince you ... True, I shall be using some grammatical terms in later chapters of this book—for in the long run, they are useful.” (pp. 12–13). Such a style may well appeal to many students; but might others consider it a shade patronising?
      The present reviewer has a few more important caveats. It seems less than helpful to students to hide essential pieces of grammar and phonology (for example present tense contracted verb endings and i-muta.tion vowel changes) in a chapter on sound changes, a chapter that readers are told they might want to read only “out of curiosity” (p. l07). Again, why spend a lot of chapter 1 on pronunciation, including the letter æ, and yet only replace the letters th by þ and ð in chapter 13?
      Nevertheless the good qualities of this book easily outweigh the less good. Above all, Parry’s book radiates enthusiasm. Having worked through it, most students should have a basic knowledge of Old English and more than a few may well be inspired to continue their study further. After all, of what other elementary Old English book could the same be said?

Elisabeth Okasha
University College Cork


Downloadable Readings

If you have a PC (running Windows), click the buttons below to download the readings that accompany David Parry’s book. The titles match sections of the book. We believe that, in some versions of Windows, Media Player won't work with these files. When that is the case, download another player that will. We suggest, perhaps, a free version of RealPlayer, obtainable at http://uk.real.com/?mode=rp. If you have a Mac using OSX, download the files and then drag them to your DropStuff icon. If you have any difficulty, email us at edgewaysbooks@gmail.com
     Although freely downloadable, these readings are, nevertheless, still under copyright.

copyright © 2003 The Brynmill Press Ltd

Pp.1-4    Pp.5-7    P.8, sec.5    P.9, sec.6 and p.14, sec.10

Text 1    Text 2, ll.1-27    Text 2, ll.33-59

Text 3A    Text 3B, ll.30-56    Text 3B, ll.56-72    Text 3C

Text 4A, to 449 A.D.    Text 4A, 473-851 A.D.    Text 4B, 994 A.D.

Text 4B, 999 A.D.    Text 4C, 1003 A.D.    Text 4C, 1048 A.D.

Text 5A, ll.1-24    Text 5A, ll.25-41    Text 5A, ll.42-61    Text 5B

Text 5C, ll.185-201    Text 5C, ll.202-215    Text 5C, ll.309-325

Text 6, ll.28-34    Text 6, ll.35-58    Text 6, ll.59-77    Text 6, ll.78-89

Text 7    Text 8

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