Hana Videen offers some advice and tips about learning the Old English language.
I decided to learn Old English on a bit of a whim in university. As a first-year undergrad, I sat in on an informational session about potential foreign language modules, and I was quite surprised to learn that a version of English, my mother tongue, was one of them. I signed up for a course taught by an amazing professor who made me fall in love with the subject, even while assigning us grammar drills. The first semester we worked our way through Bright’s Old English Grammar & Reader, edited by Cassidy and Ringler. Looking back at it, it’s not the most user-friendly textbook, but it’s thorough. The second semester we read Beowulf in the original Old English (all 3,000+ lines!), working through it bit by bit in classes that met three times a week. (As with learning any foreign language, the most effective studying is regular and frequent, even if for shorter periods of time.)
It always helps to have a good lārēow (teacher), but thanks to libraries and the internet, you don’t need to be enrolled in university to learn Old English. Below are some tools and books to get you started on your own englisc journey.
Where to start
If you want to learn Old English grammar (beyond a few words and phrases), you probably want to invest in a good guide or coursebook. You might be able to find these 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. These two guides include chapters on language history, pronunciation and grammar, as well as various Old English texts for practice reading. Even after you’ve done all the lessons, they work well as reference books:
If you prefer an approach that’s less heavily focussed on grammar, there’s Mark Atherton’s Complete Old English, part of the Teach Yourself series. This book may be a more approachable option for self-study, but it’s not as good to use as a reference or grammar guide. Carole Hough and John Corbett’s Beginning Old English also has a less traditional approach and focuses on explaining and demonstrating how the language works.
The second edition of Richard Marsden’s The Cambridge Old English Reader (2015) is a good resource once you’ve learned some grammar (or to supplement a book that teaches you grammar). While it does have a handy reference guide to Old English grammar (which I regularly refer to – a copy sits on my desk), it works better as a reader. It contains far more texts than other Old English grammar guides, and that is its main focus. It’s a helpful book to use alongside your Old English grammar course.
You can also get more practice on Peter Baker’s Old English Aerobics website. The site contains supplementary materials for users of Baker’s book Introduction to Old English, but the website says it’s currently (temporarily?) free for all to access. It includes an anthology of texts in Baker’s third edition, plus some other ‘minitexts’ and texts that were retired from earlier editions. There’s a glossary for looking up words, a ‘workout room’ that offers more than 50 interactive exercises, and a link to readings of Old English texts on Youtube.
Peter Baker has also published an Old English translation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (or Æðelgyðe Ellendæda on Wundorlande, as he calls it). It’s a fun way to practice on a non-medieval text once you’ve got some grammar and vocab under your belt.
I don’t actually own a physical Old English dictionary any more. There’s no need – it’s all online. Bookmark these websites so you have them to hand when you’re studying.
- Bosworth-Toller: A complete Old English dictionary, 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 academics at Charles University in Prague.
- Dictionary of Old English (University of Toronto): Much more thorough than Bosworth-Toller, although it only includes words beginning with letters A through I so far. You can get 20 free logins per year, or if you’re affiliated with a university, check to see if the library has a subscription. The Word of the Week is accessible without a subscription, and you can sign up to receive it in your email every week (all L words right now, since that’s what they’re currently working on).
- Thesaurus of Old English (University of Glasgow): Search for Old English words by subject rather than alphabetically.
- Old English Translator: Translate an Old English word to modern English or vice versa.
There are also several Bosworth-Toller dictionary apps for both iOS and Android devices. This one for Android has great reviews, although I don’t have an Android device so have never tried it. I recently tried this one for iOS (when Charles University’s server was down), but I found it to be less useful if I didn’t spell words exactly as they appear in the dictionary. (Old English doesn’t have ‘standardized spellings’.)
Want more Old English in your life? (shameless self-plug)
I’ve been tweeting the Old English Word of the Day for more than 8 years. You can find me on Twitter (@OEWordhord) as well as Facebook and Instagram. I also write weekly posts for Wordhord Wednesday on Old English topics, which you can subscribe to on Patreon.
If you have an iOS device, you can download the free Old English Wordhord App. Not only do you get to put the Old English word of the day on your home screen, you can hear the pronunciations of words and save your favourites in your very own wordhord.
And… I recently published a book called The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English. In it I explore daily 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, words in Old English.
#OldEnglish #WOTD: bōc-cist, f.n: a repository for books, either for reading or for sale. (BOAK-CHIST / ˈboːk-ˌtʃɪst) Look for THE WORDHORD: DAILY LIFE IN OLD ENGLISH at your local bōc-cist – the @PrincetonUPress edition is out in the US & Canada today! https://t.co/jPNGqeUTEb pic.twitter.com/N1YtIYAgnD
— Old English Wordhord (@OEWordhord) May 10, 2022
Hana Videen has been hoarding Old English words since 2013, when she began tweeting one a day. She holds a PhD in English from King’s College London, and is now a writer and blogger based in Toronto. Her 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 on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, visit oldenglishwordhord.com, or download the free iOS Old English Wordhord app. Hana also writes Wordhord Wednesday posts on Patreon.
Top Image: Cotton MS Claudius B IV fol. 1r