Which textbook of Old English is best for me?

With so many Old English textbooks now available (more, indeed, than here covered), students and teachers alike may wonder where to start. Here's a quick round-up of some of the more current works.

A work now rarely thought of as a textbook, Campbell remains the standard reference work on Old English grammar. With half the book taken up by the discussion of sound changes, it is heavily geared towards giving students a thorough understanding of the historical development of the language. In the remainder of the volume, which deals with inflection, a wealth of information is provided on dialectal variation. This is the most detailed and best-informed reference grammar of Old English.

Mitchell and Robinson has been the standard textbook for a few decades now, and despite competition from Baker as well as Hasenfratz and Jambeck it remains the most balanced grammar-cum-reader on the market today for those not daunted by traditional linguistics. Although interspersed with unnecessary aphorisms apparently intended to give the work a chattier character, its grammar is more complete than that of any of the works discussed below, and it is accessible despite being based largely on traditional philological principles. It adds helpful appendices on metre, strong verbs, and sound laws, as well as a rudimentary overview of Anglo-Saxon history, archaeology, and literature (the last of which is decidedly less useful than the other sections). The reader, shaped and polished over the course of seven editions, is a smooth sample of prose and verse which will take an undergraduate class the better part of a year to read.

Among the recent additions to the textbook landscape is Baker, intended to serve those who want to learn the language but find the traditional layout and lingo hard to swallow. It is clear in its presentation of the material and a kind but effective teacher. Each major part of speech has a chapter of its own, going into no more detail than is needed for a reading comprehension of the language. The reader is much like those of the other textbooks, slightly shorter perhaps than that of Mitchell and Robinson or Cassidy and Ringler. However, the grammar is somewhat sparse and presented in brief chunks scattered across a chapter, so that I am always disappointed when using it for reference. A good choice of textbook alongside Campbell, but look out for the odd typographical misinformation.

In a bid to teach Old English without the full burden of historical linguistics, Hasenfratz and Jambeck diverges more radically than any of the works here mentioned from the traditional layout of linguistic textbooks. Like Cassidy and Ringler, it distributes grammatical information across learning units, so that each of the important parts of speech is spread out across several chapters. Unlike that work, however, it explains every concept in great detail and provides full paradigms where Mitchell and Robinson tell their readers to construct their own using the rules set out in the relevant section of the grammar. In many ways, Hasenfratz and Jambeck is a Wheelock of Old English, complete with exercises and occasional excerpts from literature. There is no index to the grammar at all, and no reference grammar, which makes it very hard to find anything specific in its 553 pages; I am still looking for its discussion of numerals. The work is certainly not free of errors; oddly, the authors write se with a long vowel throughout. This book may represent the most 'painless' or casual method of learning Old English, but I recommend using it alongside a reference work like Campbell or Mitchell and Robinson.

Cassidy and Ringler is now long out of print, but it was a popular textbook in its time and can still be found second-hand without much difficulty. It presents its grammatical information in bite-sized chunks, but the parts of speech are clustered in adjacent chapters so that reference is possible, despite the absence of an index of terms. It is a product of its age, a much pined-for time when students would come in with a knowledge of Latin. Accordingly, this is the only textbook here mentioned that provides no introduction to grammatical case at all. It is also the only grammar/reader that employs the traditional names for noun-stems with some consistency (even Mitchell and Robinson prefer 'nouns like stān' to 'strong masculine a-nouns'). The reader is perhaps longer than any other, and it even comes with a textual commentary so detailed that Cassidy and Ringler's Acts of Matthew and Andrew is used by the Dictionary of Old English as the authoritative edition of that text.

Baker, Peter S. Introduction to Old English (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Campbell, Alistair. Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Cassidy, Frederic G., and Richard N. Ringler. Bright’s Old English Grammar & Reader (3rd ed., 2nd corrected printing). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Hasenfratz, Robert, and Thomas Jambeck. Reading Old English: A Primer and First Reader. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2005.

Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English (7th ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.