ENGL6060: Old English (19015)

Evans, Jonathan

MWF 4 :10 PM

Park Hall 145

If you like the history of English words, you'll like this course: you'll learn where many everyday English words came from and how their 6th- to 11th-century speakers and writers used them to write prose and poetry.

If you like J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the RingsSilmarillion, etc., you'll love this course: its subject is the earliest recorded form of the English language, which Tolkien specialized in (or, for pedants, "in which Tolkien specialized") as an Oxford professor.

If you like Beowulf , "The Battle of Maldon," and "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer," you'll really love this course: its subject is the language in which those poems (the first, an Anglo-Saxon epic; the second, a shorter poem about defeat in a battle, and the 3rd and 4th elegiac poems lamenting the brevity of life) were written and (in) which J.R.R. Tolkien specialized (in) as a scholar of medieval literature, and (upon) which he drew (upon) in constructing the elaborate mythologies of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings and other writings. Plus, in the end you'll be able to read and translate these and other works of Old English literature yourself in the original language, freeing yourself from having to use other people's sometimes impressive, sometimes reprehensible, translations.

So. This is a course in the Old English language; in many respects it is similar to courses in any modern foreign language, with vocabulary quizzes, grammar tests, and translation exercises. Students will be invited to learn how to pronounce, read, and translate Old English prose and, at the end of the semester, Old English poetry.  The course is a prerequisite for follow-up Old English literature courses, including ENGL 4210/6210 Old English Literature (Spring 2022), ENGL 4220/6220 Beowulf (Spring 2023), and (for graduate students) any 8000-level seminar in Old English. For undergraduate English majors, ENGL 4060 counts towards the Group I English and American Literature before 1800 requirement as well as for the Group IV Language, Criticism, and Culture requirement for the major. The typical follow-up OE literature courses also count towards Group Ia, Early Literature of the British Isles.

For the first 8 to 12 weeks, the course will be conducted like a course in any language: students will learn to pronounce Old English for reading aloud, memorize essential grammar and vocabulary, and take first steps in translating simple sentences in Old English prose. The bulk of class-time is spent reviewing essential points of grammar and vocabulary and translating -- first, sentences; later, paragraphs -- from Old English to Modern English. No attempt is made to learn conversational Old English, however, and in this sense ENGL 4060/6060 is less like a course in modern German or Japanese, say, but is more like a course in classical Greek or Latin. Most of the in-class activity is devoted to presentation and discussion of the functions of various categories of the Old English parts of speech, with students reading aloud their translations of sentences in the lessons and in-class discussion of translation difficulties encountered. It is anticipated that by the beginning of Fall Semester 2021 classes will be once again fully on campus and in person; but, given the university's growing emphasis on online learning activities, from time to time there may be elementary components of the course designed to be executed online asynchronously outside class-time or -- even more occasionally -- online synchronously via Zoom in lieu of in-person class meetings.

For the second time in recorded memory, this course will not be cross-listed with its counterpart in the Linguistics curriculum (LING 4060/6060) but will be taught exclusively to English majors and majors in other fields besides Linguistics.  As a result, less emphasis will be given to topics of strictly linguistic interest, and more emphasis will be given to literary and cultural topics. It's still the case that non-Linguistics majors who have had a general linguistics course or courses in more highly-inflected languages will have something of an advantage over those who have not; but English majors should have no fear that they'll be required to become linguists in order to read Old English.  We'll be learning enough Old English to translate annals from the Peterborough Chronicle, a record of Anglo-Saxon history, along with passages of OE literary prose and -- later in the semester -- some poetry.  In this way, insight is afforded into the nuts and bolts machinery with which J.R.R. Tolkien constructed the languages and cultures of Eriador, specifically the nomenclature and related on-the-ground realities of life in the Shire and the Kingdom of Rohan (i.e., the "Rohirrim" or -- in the nomenclature adapted from Old English -- the "Eorlingas").


The text for the course is An Introduction to Old English (New York: Modern Language Association, 2021), ISBN #978-1603293112, published at last after a 27-year gestation period of annual revisions with student input, feedback, and suggestions, and a 5-year period of editorial revisions and and page-proof checking with the MLA scholarly publication division. The epigraph for the book is:

Stæfcræft is seo caeg þe þara boca angit unlicð. 

A translation of that sentence, which is found in an 11th-century treatise on Latin Grammar written in the Old English language, is: “Grammar is the key that unlocks the meaning of books.”  That's the theme of the course.


The syllabus will be developed in detail later, but in general: starting with August 18, we will work through the 45 lessons in the book at a pace of 2 or 3 lessons per week, concluding with the final exam in early December.


The final course grade is cumulative, drawing from frequent, short, in-class quizzes over grammar and vocabulary, several smaller exams here and there over nouns and verbs, a few translation exercises submitted for a grade, and a final exam testing for translation ability and recognition of grammar.  Grade averages tend to be on the high side.  Last year's final grades for individuals in the course, cited here in no particular order, were:

B+, B+ D, B, B, A-, B, A, A-, A, B, A-, A, C+, B, A, A, C, B+, A, A, A.  There were 11 grades of A or A-, 8 grades in the B range, 2 C's, and 1 D. 


Attendance is required, though if the coronavirus is still circulating there may be accommodations made for some distance-learning; otherwise, we will all meet in the same classroom at the same time (but, if we're instructed to, we'll wear masks). Absences are excusable for valid reasons.