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English from Caedmon to Chaucer: the literary development of English.

English from Caedmon to Chaucer: The literary development of English. By S. Terrie Curran. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 290.

One of the doubts which are likely to befall a potential reader of the publication under review is whether "the world needs another history of the English language" (p. ix). Firstly, many, publications on the subject already rest on the shelves of libraries. Secondly, as the author of the book herself observes in the "Preface" (pp. ix-xi), the study of the history of English has steadily been falling into decline. Given the above, a new history of English should take "a new approach" (p. ix) towards its subject matter. The new approach would consist in offering something more than or something different from the books already in circulation. With this view in mind, the author presents the reader with English from Caedmon la Chaucer, a book delineating the history of English through the prism of its culture, particularly its literary legacy. The underlying thought of the book is to show how the literature found itself under the influence of the language and, on the other hand, how the language itself came to be affected by the cultural vicissitudes of the day. In such a light, literature is seen as being directly moulded by the available linguistic resources and indirectly influenced by its cultural context. It is thus the intention of the author to explore the samples of literature "not merely as linguistic specimens, but as products of speakers who marshaled their talents to record something of their lives and times in chronicle, story, and song" (p. x).

Curran's discussion of the literary development of English covers a stretch of approximately 1000 years, from the 5th to the 15th century, thus embracing two of the so-called "periods" in the history of the English language, i.e. Old English and Middle English. The main body of the book, introduced by the "Preface" (pp. ix-xi), consists of a total of twelve chapters, each ending with suggestions for further reading, a series of questions/exercises and, occasionally, an appendix. Chapters 1-6 discuss the relevant aspects of Old English whereas chapters 7-12 focus on Middle English. The volume is supplemented with the "List of Primary/Original Language Works Cited" (pp. 275-277), the "Selected Bibliography" (including print sources as well as URLs; pp. 279-286) and the alphabetical "Index" (pp. 287-290).

Chapter One, entitled "The Historical Context of Old English" (pp. 1-31), introduces the reader to the early stages of the English language, succinctly reporting on the circumstances of its inception. By and large, the presentation of the Anglo-Saxon era revolves around two textual accounts, namely Bede's History of the English Church and people (731) and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 890-1154). Bath sources recount well-known historical events from two essentially different perspectives: religious and political. Thus, for instance, Bede's History depicts the arrival of the Germanic tribes as "part of God's plan" (p. 4) whereas the Chronicle, though largely drawing on Bede's account, "reduces [his] central Christian concerns to peripheral status" (p. 17). In order to acquaint the reader with the first-hand account of these events, the relevant passages from both sources (partly in Old English, partly in Modern English translations) are amply provided (pp. 6-29).

The next two chapters focus on early English spelling and phonology. Chapter Two, "The Writing Systems of Old English" (pp. 33-53), after offering a few remarks on the state of literacy among the Anglo-Saxons, proceeds to elaborate on the Germanic runic alphabet as well as its Latin equivalent. As regards the former, the author's examination of runes centres upon the description of the standard Germanic futhorc (c. 300 C.E.) and is illustrated by excerpts from "The husband's message" and, above all, the analysis of inscriptions on the famous Ruthwell Cross. The discussion of the Latin alphabet, on the other hand, revolves around the reasons for its eventual triumph over the runic writing system (e.g., clarity, flexibility, prestige, lack of pagan associations). Finally, a few paragraphs describe the commonest scribal practices observable in the surviving Old English manuscripts.

Since "[t]he written forms of Old English tell only part of the language's story" (p. 55) the closely connected area of phonology is accordingly given attention in Chapter Three, "The Sounds of Old English" (pp. 55-83). Here, the author addresses the question of what the Anglo-Saxon speech sounded like. Two ways of reconstructing Old English sounds are examined, namely the evidence provided by the written record and the evidence from articulation. The former relies on both diachronic and synchronic range of spellings recorded in the extant manuscripts, on the basis of which changes in the sound system can be inferred. The latter, in turn, consists in examining the possible repertoire of distinctive sounds articulated by speakers of a given language. The section on the reconstruction of sounds is followed by concise tables schematically itemising the phonetic values of Old English consonants, vowels and diphthongs. The chapter concludes with an overview of stress patterns, an area of phonology whose role in fully appreciating the language of literature, poetry in particular, can hardly be overestimated. An outline of Old English prosody introduces the crucial terminology (e.g., linguistic stress, metrical stress, alliteration, caesura) and illustrates it with lines of Caedmon's Hymn (c. 680) as well as those by Modern English poets, e.g., Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gerard Manley Hopkins or Richard Wilbur, who showed a leaning towards rediscovering the possibilities of Old English cadence. A better insight into Old English metrical patterns can be gained by consulting the appendix at the end of the chapter (pp. 77-80).

The essentials of Old English morphology and syntax are dealt with in Chapter Four, "The Grammatical Structure of Old English" (pp. 85-109). After a few introductory remarks, the author proceeds to familiarise the reader with basic information about grammatical categories and their functions. Since the book has been tailored to those not necessarily au fit with linguistics, the presentation of the data ignores numerous details in favour of presenting a general picture of how Old English grammar was organised and on what principles it functioned. The standard declensions of articles, nouns and pronouns (personal, demonstrative, interrogative) are accordingly set forth and followed by separate sections devoted to inflection of adjectives, adverbs and verbs. The nomenclature used throughout relies on the traditional labels (e.g., the division into "strong" and "weak" paradigms).

The idea underlying Chapter Five, "The Language of the Literature" (pp. 111-138), is two-fold. Firstly, it raises the issue of the possible implications that the grammatical structure of Old English may have for the literature composed in this linguistic medium. For instance, "[w]hat difference does it make for literature that OE grammatical function is signified in case endings of words whereas in ModE, word placement is the key to grammar?" (p. 111). Secondly, it ponders upon the question to what extent, if at all, the actual speech used by the Anglo-Saxons found its reflection in the language of literature, be it poetry, prose or poetic prose. Assuming that "the poet's verbal choices ... reveal the creative capacities of the poet's language" (p. 118), the author elaborates on how Old English composers achieve their specific artistic goals by utilising the linguistic means at their disposal. The remainder of the chapter is devoted to the beginnings of Old English prose, which seem to be dominated by King Alfred's instructional style, characterised by clausal equality (parataxis) and a balance between SVO/SOV word order patterns. By contrast, a somewhat later hortatory style, "aimed toward arousing an aural audience to action" (p. 134), makes use of subordination (hypertaxis) and the SVO order.

The scrutiny of the Old English period comes to an end in Chapter Six, "The Dialects of Old English" (pp. 139-148). Here, the author confines herself to a handful of general remarks about the origins of the four traditionally distinguished dialects. Following are a few representative samples illustrating the distinctive features of the Northumbrian (Bede's Death Song, Caedmon's Hymn, Leiden Riddle), Mercian (Vespasian Psalter) and Kentish dialects (Kentish Psalm). For ease of reference, a simplified list of the basic Old English dialect characteristics is appended at the end.

Chapter Seven, "The Struggle for Survival: 1066 and Its Aftermath" (pp. 149-166), introduces the reader to the condition of the English tongue at the outset of what is conventionally labelled the Middle English period. As a starting point, the historical background of the Norman Conquest, together with its immediate consequences, are outlined. The inclusion of passages from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, describing the appalling events of King Stephen's reign (the entry for 1137), serves to exemplify the early written records of Middle English. The new linguistic picture of England is presented as being "rooted in political power" (p. 157). On the whole, however, the author appraises the impact of French, especially its lexicon, as enriching rather than damaging to the English tongue. An account of the linguistic conditions in the post-Conquest England is provided by excerpts from, e.g., Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle of England and William of Nassyngton's translation of Speculum Vitae (1375).

The contents of Chapter Eight, "The Sounds of Middle English" (pp. 167-186), and Chapter Nine, "The Grammatical Structure of Middle English" (pp. 187-204), align neatly with the corresponding chapters on the sounds and grammar of Old English. That is, the description of Middle English phonology starts with a brief discussion of the possible ways of gaining knowledge about what Middle English or, strictly speaking, Chaucer's London dialect sounded like. Sections devoted to the major characteristics of Middle English vowels and consonants as well as the qualitative/ quantitative sound changes follow. Further, an attempt is mode to describe the potentials created by the newly emerging stress patterns, in which "rhyme and syllabic meter [were] possible and desirable" (p. 180). The opening lines from Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, juxtaposed for comparison, illustrate the most conspicuous differences between the rhythms of Old English and Middle English. Chapter Nine constitutes a general report on the grammatical framework of Middle English, with a focus on its reorganisation against the Old English system. Shifting ground a bit, the chapter ends with a section on Middle English prose, which elucidates its language in terms of form, style and, to a less extent, content. The textual material is adduced to demonstrate, for instance, the manifestations of linguistic conservatism (Ancrene Wisse, c. 1230) or the continuation of rhythmic style enhanced by alliteration (Life of Margaret, from "The Katherine Group", c. 1200).

Chapter Ten, "The Dialects of Middle English" (pp. 205-217), focuses on a range of Middle English dialectal features. Having acknowledged that the seemingly uniform picture of Old English dialects may result from the paucity of surviving texts, the author presents a short survey of Middle English dialects, which are substantiated by "ample linguistic evidence ... for all regions and centuries from the eleventh to the fifteenth [century]" (p. 205). The division into five dialects (Northern, West Midlands, East Midlands, Southwestern and Southern/Kentish) basically mirrors the traditional accounts (e.g., Fisiak 1996: 11-12; however, cf. Mosse 1952; Baugh and Cable 1993: 190; Pyles and Algeo 1993: 141), yet, a proviso is mode that the actual number of dialects depends on how fine a linguistic sieve has been used (p. 206). Another caveat pertains to the restricted utility of literary works for dialect study, which stems from the fact that dialectal variants present in original manuscripts do not always find their way into the edited versions of texts. On the other hand, the evidence derived from local records or place names is not devoid of limitations as well. The author chooses to concentrate on the three broad areas: North, South and Midlands. Additionally, two "sub-dialects" of the Midlands are singled out, on account of their importance in the sphere of literature: the Southeast Midlands, the dialect of, e.g., Sir Orfeo (c. 1330) or John of Trevisa's translation of Polychronicon (1385) and the North and West Midlands, the dialect of, e.g., the Gawain poet or Pearl (c. 1380s). The chapter closes with text samples illustrating the dialects of the North (lyric "Lament", c. 1272) and the South (The Owl and the Nightingale, c. 1200 and lyric "Christ's reproach", 14th century).

There are two main issues presented in Chapter Eleven, "Middle English Prosodies" (pp. 219-248). First of all, there is a question of the native alliterative tradition in Middle English, which may be construed as continuing and at the same time breaking away from typical procedures employed by Old English scops. Thus, although alliterative prosodies undoubtedly appear in Middle English texts, a highly consistent regularity of Old English cadence is almost entirely gone. Instead, a variety of alliterative patterns other than the standard three alliterations per line can be observed. The employment of such "aural unifiers" (p. 222) as assonance or end rhyme, in turn, series as a means of compensating for the loosened verse integrity. Another shift away from a typically Old English poetic line consists in a Middle English line no longer being neatly divided into two semantically equal and syntactically independent units separated by a caesura. Rather, a general tendency is that "the a-verse needs the b-verse for metrical fulfilment, and the b-verse needs the a-verse on metrical and semantic grounds. The dependency is such that we can no longer discuss the Middle English verse apart from the whole line" (p. 226). The second issue discussed in the chapter, albeit less extensively, concerns the syllabic rhyme tradition. Notwithstanding the sporadic use of rhymes in Old English (sec, e.g., "The riming poem", p. 59) it is only in the Middle English period that the rhyme form, accompanied by the adoption of French stress patterns, came to the fore. Thus, for instance, the French form of octosyllabic couplets was introduced but, as Curran implies, it was net always skilfully handled by those writing in the vernacular. On the other hand, however, "English poets had to begin somewhere, and ... they could do no better than to look to the literary leaders in French" (p. 245). In the course of time the initially foreign syllabic pattern underwent gradual assimilation and was naturalised onto the English ground.

Finally, Chapter Twelve, "Chaucer and the London Standard" (pp. 249-274), is entirely devoted to the language used by Geoffrey Chaucer. On a preliminary note, the author comments on Chaucer's most significant linguistic contributions to the development of the English tongue. Then, she broadly examines the most crucial grammatical features of the poet's language, such as the problematic value of the final -e (in grammatical as well as syllabic terms), the use of pronouns with (and without) regard to gender or various ways of expressing negation. This is followed by a section on Chaucer's literary and linguistic models, connected with the three periods of influence in the poet's career. That both the matter and manner of his writing owe a great deal to French and Italian is far from disputable. Yet, what is emphasised is that the crux of Chaucer's genius seems to test on his exquisite flair for transforming the foreign models into "poetry that captures the natural rhythms of English that chickens, priests, cooks, knights, and churls spoke" (p. 260). The prosody of Chaucer's poetic line, stretching from octosyllabic rhythms of his early works (e.g., The Book of the Duchess, c. 1368-1369) to the eventually prevailing decasyllabic verse (e.g., The Canterbury Tales, c. 1387-1400) is brought under scrutiny. The final part of the chapter discusses Chaucer's social registers, which were connected net only with a with spectrum of his characters but, equally so, with the breadth of his audience.

The literary approach of the book counts as an unquestionable merit, allowing the reader to trace the development of the language on the basis of the texts preserving the spirit of the past. Throughout the volume, the author provides fragments of literary works (in original and, where relevant, accompanied by glosses) but at the same time encourages the reader to refer to complete texts, either in printed form or available on the Internet. What seems significant, however, is that, in accordance with the author's intentions, the literary material is not meant to be merely read and admired. Rather, the texts are to serve as a basis for miscellaneous linguistic explorations. To this end, each of the twelve chapters is followed by a series of questions and exercises whose nature ranges from typically descriptive (e.g., Exercise 5, p. 217, in which one is asked to describe William Caxton's prose style) through comparative (e.g., Exercise 5, p. 204: "Compare the prose of Ancrene Wisse with the selection from the Life of Margaret ...") to those requiring more creativity on the part of the tender (e.g. Exercise 14, p. 138: "Write a polished translation of the OE excerpt of Wulfstan's "Sermon of the Wolf to the English' staying as close to his language as possible").

The book is written in a clear and precise language, thus not running the risk of being unintelligible for readers with no linguistic expertise. Whenever specialist terminology appears, every attempt is made to offer as simple an explanation or definition as possible. Although this definitely counts as an advantage for beginners, more advanced readers may sometimes view the author's strive for simplicity (or humour) as somewhat inapt. Thus, by way of example, which expounding on the styles of writing used by Old English scribes she describes the minim style as "looking more like hung spaghetti than alphabet letters" (p. 44). Similarly, in Chapter Four, the discussion of adjectival inflections starts in the following manner: "Adjectives, unlike nouns and pronouns, are inherently characterless creatures (p. 94). On ye another occasion, in the passage devoted to the prosody of Ormulum, the author ventures on a claim that "[w]hatever Orm's full aims were, not many readers have gotten past a few dozen lines before falling asleep" (p. 244). The appropriateness of flavouring the discourse with such interludes seems rather dubious.

As far as the factual information included in the volume is concerned, some slightly confusing statements in Chapter Four deserve a word of comment. At some point of the discussion of the Old English verbal system the following statement can be found: "Note that in OE, there are only two tenses: present and past" (p. 99, italics mine). The statement in itself might perhaps be taken at face value if it were net for the evaluative overtones conveyed by the word "only", suggesting some deficiency of Old English in comparison with Modern English. Indeed, a few pages later it transpires that the author views Modern English as apparently different insofar as Modern English verbs can be conjugated in all tenses, e.g., I will run; I have run; I will have run (p. 105). Surprisingly, the examples cited do not testify to the supposed disparity between the number of tenses in Old English and Modern English, both of which have two tenses (see, e.g., Quirk et al. 1972: 84). This issue, although to some extent a matter of interpretation, should perhaps be given more space (for some remarks on the relation between modal auxiliaries and tense see, e.g., Quirk et al. 1972: 102-104: Lightfoot 1979: 103-105).

When it comes to strictly formal inaccuracies, a few editorial lapses should be mentioned. Thus, for instance, on page 210 the form of the third person plural personal pronoun for Old English is given as his, not the correct hi or, alternatively, hie or heo (see, e.g., Quirk-Wrenn 1957: 38, Welna 1996: 46). On page 192, the third form of the Old English strong verb creopan (Class II) is erroneously cited as cron, instead of the correct crupon. Besides, in the present tense conjugation of the weak verb fremman the second person singular form is given as fremmest in place of the correct fremest (p. 101). The comparative form of the adjective inne appears as innera (p. 96) (innerra, see, e.g., Quirk and Wrenn 1957: 35; Welna 1996: 44), while the superlative of glaed surfaces without retraction as glaedost (p. 96) (gladost, see. e.g., Mitchell and Robinson 1986: 30, Quirk and Wrenn 1957: 34).

Finally, a number of spelling mistakes ought to be pinpointed. Thus, the bibliographical information contains a few misprints in surnames, e.g., Betherum (p. 134) instead of the correct Bethurum, Hadden (p. 57) instead of Madden or Kokeritz (p. 283) instead of Kokeritz. More trifling inaccuracies involve, e.g., Chaucer's Pronunication (Chaucer's Pronunciation) (p. 283) or titlepge (titlepage) (p. 286). Besides, the bibliographical entry for Plummer and Earle's Two of the Saxon chronicles parallel appears in an incorrect alphabetical slot (p. 280). In the main body of the book an erroneous date of William of Normandy's death is given (1187 instead of the proper 1087, p. 157). The technical side of the book could also be improved by consistently employing the letter ae ("ash"), instead of haphazardly interchanging it with ae.

All in all, English from Caedmon to Chaucer by S. Terrie Curran can be treated as an interesting account of the history of English, showing its development not from a purely linguistic angle but taking into account the multi-factored dimension of culture. Thanks to a marked reliance on literary texts from the past, the book allows the reader to come to know the genuine language, as it was used by early English writers. For novices in the field, for whom it has been designed, the publication stands a chance of becoming a highly readable source of information about the early stages of the English tongue.


Baugh, Albert C.--Thomas Cable

1993 A history of the English language. (4th edition). London: Routledge, Kegan Paul.

Fisiak, Jacek

1968 A short grammar of Middle English: Orthography, phonology and morphology. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.


Lightfoot, David

1979 Principles of diachronic syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, Bruce--Fred C. Robinson

1986 A guide to Old English. (4th edition). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Mosse, Fernand

1952 A handbook of Middle English. (Translated by J. A. Walker). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Pyles, Thomas--John Algeo

1993 The origins and development of the English language. (4th edition). Fort Worth: Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich College.

Quirk, Randolph--Leslie Wrenn

1957 An Old English grammar. (2nd edition). London: Methuen.

Quirk, Randolph--Sidney Greenbaum--Geoffrey Leech--Jan Svartvik

1972 A grammar of contemporary English. London: Longman.

Welna, Jerzy

1996 English historical morphology. Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego.

Agnieszka Pysz, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan
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Author:Pysz, Agnieszka
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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