Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

Forward to Navigation

How to Study Old English (or Latin or any other dead language) for a Test or an Exam

Posted: Oct 08, 2007 19:10;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05



Students who study Old English need to call on skills and learning techniques that they probably have not had much opportunity to use in other university-level literature classes, especially if this literature was in their native language. They need to know and keep in the front of their minds the grammar of both Old English and Modern English; they need to do intensive work with dictionaries and glossaries; and they are working with texts that can seem quite alien to modern sensibilities.

So how should you study in Old English class? Here are some tips I’ve compiled from personal experience and asking other scholars of my generation who have studied ancient or medieval languages (e.g. Latin, Greek, Old English, Old Frisian, etc.).

There is one principle running through them all: the point of an Old English class is to learn Old English. In everything you do you should keep the Old English at the centre of your work.

1. Do not write in your text book

The first tip is to avoid writing in your text book. When you come to study for a final exam, you will find a clean text book is much more useful for self-testing than one that has all your glosses marked on the page.

2. Write out the original text (in Old English) in your note book (1 side of the page, triple or quadruple spaced)

Writing out the target language is a useful habit to get into in the early days of your language study. It gets you used to the spelling conventions and trains your eye as to standard linguistic and lexical patterns. You may even find by the end of the semester that you are beginning to recognise unusual forms (particularly morphology) as you copy them out.

Triple or quadruple space your text in order to give you plenty of space for glossing, arrows, and corrections from your seminar.

You should write out your text on one side of the page only so that you can use the back of the previous page for additional notes: writing down words you find yourself looking up constantly (I used to write out every word I looked up), explanatory notes or idiomatic translations.

3. Gloss both sense and syntax.

As we’ve mentioned in class, translating from Old to Modern English involves two distinct types of translation: lexical/semantic and syntactic. It is not enough to know what a word means, you also need to understand what its inflections and position tell you it is doing in the sentence. Get in the habit early of writing both the meaning and information about grammatical form of words in the specific context you are translating—e.g. case, gender, number, person, tense, part of speech, etc. as applicable.

When you are glossing words, be sure to reflect the Old English syntax in your gloss. If you discover that a form like scipes is genitive singular, for example, gloss it as “of a ship” or “a ship’s” not as “ship”—this will help you put the sentence together in your head by preventing you from placing the form in the wrong place in your sentence.

This approach is particularly important with personal pronouns: the dative singular third person plural personal pronoun should be glossed initially as “by/with/to/for them” and not as “they” (which would be nominative, after all).

4. Leave the words in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to indicate the correct order for your translation.

While it is tempting, especially in the early weeks of a class, to bring a finished running translation to class, this is less useful in the end than a glossed text. If you make a mistake in a finished translation, it can be difficult to correct—you need to rewrite your translation and this can be very difficult to do quickly in class. The problem is worse if you bring only a modern English translation to class: you’ll end up having no idea what went wrong because you won’t have a glossed Old English to consult.

If you leave the text in Old English word order and use arrows or numbers to help you figure out the order you should be using in your Modern English, you’ll find in-class correction much easier. Made a mistake in word order? Just scratch out the wrong arrows and add new ones showing the correct order.

5. Study by rereading everything—Two or three times!

The best way of studying for a translation exam is by rereading everything several times.

This may seem like an impossible task—how could you possibly reread in reading week or the week before an exam texts that took the entire class an entire semester to translate the first time?

In actual fact, you’ll find the translation goes much fast the second and third and fourth times:

  1. You know a lot more than you did at the beginning of the semester
  2. Your notebook has all the dictionary work and syntactic information and arrows you need, so you don’t need to look everything up again
  3. You know what the texts are about now, and, if you’ve been attending class, should recognise the difficult passages as soon as they show up in your reading.

I recommend the following approach to rereading your material

  1. On your first pass, read the Old English from your text book (fortunately you’ve not marked it up!). Keep your notebook open beside you. Consult your notebook as often as you need, but focus on your text book: you are trying to retranslate everything, not study your previous translations.
  2. On your second pass, try to read the Old English from your text book. This time, try not to consult your notebook except when you are really stuck. If you find yourself looking up words that you know you should know, write down these words and their translations on a list that you can use to study/memorise later.
  3. On your third and fourth passes try to read the Old English from your textbook with your notebook closed. If you really need to look something up, go ahead (either in your notebook or using the gloss at the back of the book), but push yourself not to. If you are stuck, try guessing before you look things up. Guessing is also a good skill to practice before you go into the exam!

By the time you’ve completed your third or fourth pass you are as prepared as you are ever going to be: get a good night’s sleep and come to the exam with a clear head!


Back to content

Search my site


Current teaching

Recent changes to this site


anglo-saxon studies, caedmon, citation, citation practice, citations, composition, computers, digital humanities, digital pedagogy, exercises, grammar, history, moodle, old english, pedagogy, research, student employees, students, study tips, teaching, tips, tutorials, unessay, universities, university of lethbridge

See all...

Follow me on Twitter

At the dpod blog