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  • Joinings: Compound Words in Old English Literature by Jonathan Davis-Secord
  • Greg Waite
Davis-Secord, Jonathan, Joinings: Compound Words in Old English Literature ( Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series, 20), Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2016; cloth; pp. xi, 245, R.R.P. US $65.00; ISBN 978144263799.

Old English compound words have long been the focus of both linguistic and literary-stylistic study, but in this book Davis-Secord brings to bear new and promising modes of analysis in a wide-ranging and provocative discussion. Key to the approach is the view that compounds are central to understanding the intersection of grammar, style, and culture in Anglo-Saxon literary tradition.

'As the joining of two words, each compound involves fundamental processes of grammar and semantics, while simultaneously forming an essential stylistic feature of Old English literature that produces meanings in culturally specific ways. No other Old English linguistic feature bridges the supposed divides between basic word formation, rhetorical traditions, and cultural practices' (p. 4). In his introductory chapter Davis-Secord confronts the problem that we have no direct expression of an Anglo-Saxon theory of vernacular language and literature. He suggests that we can compensate for this gap by examining the Latin grammatical tradition in Anglo-Saxon England, and — more problematically — the rather later Old Norse treatises on grammar and poetics, which, it is claimed, are rooted in earlier traditions transmitted to and known in tenth-century England. We move back to firmer ground with the introductory outline of psycholinguistic and cognitive approaches to the mental processing of compounds. The focus upward to stylistic and cultural issues which this cognitive process entails (of a kind specific to compounds, as opposed to monemes on the one hand and larger syntactic structures on the other) is then examined through the lenses of 'Oral Theory, historical inquiry, Jakobsonian theory of linguistic functions, theories of Old English metre, translation theory, Bakhtinian genre theory, modern rhetorical theories, and even film theory' (p. 29). Underpinning the psycholinguistic evidence is that to be derived from the metrical patterns of Old English poetry that indicates the distinct status of compound forms. [End Page 190] For some readers, it may be that Davis-Secord takes too much within his grasp, but if there are gaps and under-studied areas in the book, these are compensated for by fresh and insightful readings of the texts focused upon.

Chapter 2 examines compounds as translation tools through usage in the Alfredian Boethius and the Cynewulfian poems Juliana and Elene. In the use of compounds like anweald for Latin potestas and potentia Alfred reveals his concern to adapt his source for his audience's expectations and world-view. Given Davis-Secord's focus on a small number of illustrative examples, one might probe the evidence further. On the one hand, the orthographically predominant form anwald in the text seems a deliberate marking of the word as one of the 'waldend' group (originally identified by E. G. Stanley), where the broken form — weald — is the expected one in West Saxon. Furthermore the spelling of the first element as an- seems to emphasize its full status as an initial-stressed compound, where scribal spellings as onwald/onweald in other texts of this widely-attested word suggest that the vowel of the first element was often shortened and nasalized, perhaps disqualifying it as a compound, were it not for Alfred's or his scribes' emphatic spelling. Davis-Secord interestingly continues, demonstrating how compounds in Cynewulf's Juliana are markedly prosaic, and underscore a very different approach to the authority and cultural capital of the underlying Latin source. These two texts are further explored in Chapter 4, where Bakhtinian speech genres and the registers of Oral Theory are the primary tools of analysis, supplemented by the methodologies developed by Michael Drout in his Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Chapter 3, 'Compound Interest', in the meantime provides stimulating discussion of compounding in Beowulf, The Wanderer, and The Seafarer for the purposes of narrative retardation and foregrounding of key thematic concerns: respectively weapons, the enclosing mind, and the sea-journey. The use of this technique in Wulfstan's prose rounds off the discussion...


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pp. 190-191
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