Sunday, August 03, 2008

Pragmatic Reasons to Study Old English

Every so often, I'm called upon to justify the study of Old English. Whenever Old English is offered at Troy, the question (from students, not from faculty) is "Why? What use is that?"

Of course, if you're a medieval scholar, the answer to that question is easy -- you've got to be able to read the language to understand the primary documents of your field. If you rely on translations done by others, you're taking a lot of very dangerous leaps of faith; heck, some scholars won't even rely on the transcriptions of manuscripts by others, let alone the translations of other.

Most people, though, aren't professors, so the above doesn't really apply to them. Nor am I a big fan of the "for the love of learning" argument. Yes, for the love of learning you should learn something, but why Old English? Why not Old Franconian? Or the history of Uzbekistan? Or Fortran? Or animal husbandry?

Of course, non-specialists will sometimes decide to study Old English because of reasons peculiar to them. For example, I've known people who studied for these reasons: they loved Tolkien, and wanted to understand more of the references in his books; they were assigned The Dream of the Rood and were so struck by its beauty that they desperately wanted to read it in the original; they were medieval reenactors; they really liked the professor teaching the class; they needed an upper-division class and it was the only one that fit their schedule; etc.

I've found three general and very pragmatic reasons, though, that a non-professor might decide to study Old English -- reasons that most people haven't considered:
  • You are or plan to be a high school English teacher. The two reasons I hear from high school English teachers for not studying medieval texts are: 1.) the school's anthology doesn't include them, and 2.) the teacher doesn't feel confident in pronunciation of the original language, a short recitation of which is generally part of a good curriculum. The first reason is, I think, a result of the second -- no supply because of no demand. Those teachers who took Old English wowed their colleagues and established tons of authority with the students when they confidently read the opening of Beowulf or the lines in which Grendel first emerges from the mere. Most find Middle English (usually reciting the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales in high school) quite easy on an intuitive level once they've studied Old English. For the high school English teacher, a familiarity with Old English, even with just a single undergraduate course, puts them in a league above their colleagues. Ditto, by the way, for teaching high school grammar, as will become clear below.
  • English is your second language. I have a lecture I give to groups of ESL students and ESL instructors about how an understanding of the history of the English language generally and Old English specifically can help in learning English. I've never had a group that wasn't astounded by what they could learn in my 45 minute talk. So many of the difficult things for foreigners to learn about English -- the so-called irregular verbs, the bizarre exceptions to rules -- follow very regular rules in Old English. By knowing that heritage, they can understand why English works the way it does, and master it more easily. It also helps a great deal in learning vocabulary. Nearly all the approaches to studying English as a second language consider vocabulary building in terms of learning the greatest number of words possible for standardized tests, usually through the use of Latinate stems and afixes: for example, nation, national, nationalism, international, transnational gives you five words. If you look at a list of the most 100 commonly used English words in speech and writing, however, you'll find that nearly all those most commonly-used words come from Old English.* The words that you will actually encounter in spoken and written English, then, aren't the new-fangled Norman imports -- they're the ol' fashioned Anglo-Saxon words.
  • You write or edit for a living. This is connected in a way to the ESL reason -- so many of the guides to style, when they suggest avoiding ornate constructions or pretentious diction -- these are just short-hand ways of saying, "Write in modern English using words and constructions out of Old English." These words and constructions that are the roots of our language resonate deeply with modern English speakers. George Orwell got this; you should too. Understanding Old English can help you become a better writer and editor of modern English, if you'll simply apply it.
Folks out there can probably think of other reasons for non-specialists to study Old English, and I'd be glad to read them in the comment section below.

*because is the main exception to the rule, which doesn't come into English until around the early 14th Century.


  1. I'm interested in OE (I'll be following along your class) because it's got some very good things written in it, and I want to read it without wondering how dodgy the translation is.

    BTW, one reason that ESL relies on Latinate origins is that most of those words are shared by other languages, most notably Spanish. Nation, for instance, transposes into nacion; state is estado; behind orange,cavalry, and primary the Spanish speaker can see lurking naranja, caballero and primero. Most --tion words in English can be transposed into Spanish purely by changing the t to c (accion, for example). The most important exception is translation, the word for which in both Spanish and French is the cognate not of "translate" but "traduce"--which may say something about the perils of translation, and why it's better to read OE in the original.
    And while I can't comment on the impact of OE in classroom, I can testify from personal experience that reading aloud the opening of the Canterbury Tales can satisfactorily awe a classroom of high school seniors.

  2. Even material for students from non-Romance language countries focuses on vocabulary with Latinate origins. Even east Asian countries, which have no particular linguistic reason to prefer Germanic or Romance words focus on the Latinate, because it allows you to learn large numbers of words quickly in preparation for TOEFL and other such tests.

    I'm not actually that familiar with ESL materials produced specifically for students from Germanic countries, though ... I wonder their materials prefer Germanic words?

  3. Thanks for this. I don't know Old English, and probably never will, but I often wish I did.

    Orwell's essay goes far beyond the idea of minimizing Latinate words in English prose. I was amazed to read an argument against the turgid (don't say stupid) political writing of the 1940s, that so clearly applies to the unbelievably bad writing I have been forced to read in the academic arena this past year.

    So much of it seems to depend on the vocab[ulary] and (de)constructions of "th[e]ory", which I thank fate more every week I am too old to have studied as an undergraduate. Now I wonder if the original problem is that its manifestos seem to have been written in French, a Latin language? And if so, is this an argument for the compulsory study of Old English by all future students and especially graduate students of English, as a kind of curricular knocking of heads?

  4. Oh great. I was hoping to escape learning Old English because 1) I'm moving 2,200 miles in 5 days and 2) I have 42 other hobbies.

    Now you say it's important for me as a professional editor? Good grief.

    I enjoyed learning a bit of Middle English in my undergrad Chaucer class, and Old English constructions can be so beautiful and evocative (see "wordhoard", "whale road", "raven harvest", etc.). Darn. Now I'm tempted.

  5. "Studying the real-time motion of particles on a subatomic scale? What use is that?!?"

    I know it's the easy way out, but my own personal experiences show that questions like this are best ignored, especially if the asker is above the age of 25 or so.

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  7. Brunella8:55 AM

    Great post. You've inspired me to dust off my paradigms.

  8. Squire (and others),

    "Knowing" a language can seem a Sisyphean task ... as soon as you get the rock rolled partway up the hill, it seems to roll down again. For example, whenever someone asks if I "know" Korean, I usually respond that I know how to butcher it.

    All we can do, any of us, is to try to roll the stone a little further up the hill. Most students of my OE class will not be able to read even prose unassisted after just one semester(unless they've got super kick-butt memories) -- but they'll be able to sit down with a dictionary and a couple of paradigms and work out any prose text. And, of course, almost no one "knows" OE well enough to write an essay in the language, a task that we ask foreign students to do all the time in MnE.

    Follow along with our class, and you WILL know Old English, even if it's just knowing it well enough to understand where our modern pronouns come from (and why they act that way), why we've got all these weird plural nouns like "mice," and why verbs in King James English all seem to end in "-eth." You might not be the greatest OE Master of the Cosmos, but you'll be further along than you were before.

    Every time I teach the class, I learn more that I didn't understand before, so if you want to learn but feel like it isn't possible, don't worry. We're all "gesithas," a word that means something like "companions who journey together."

  9. I just came across your blog when trying to find a translation of "gelicran" for the minitext in Baker :) Lucky for me!

    I like your reasons to study Old English, and I can add a poetic one to your list-- without its roots, a tree dies. Language isn't worth as much if we ignore its history.

    Thanks for the site! I'll be a regular reader this semester :)

    1. Gislam12:28 PM

      Dear Kel,
      I teach OE to KS3 learners and I struggled to find a good simple reason why they should study it. I like your poetic one as it sounds convincible to young learners as well as teachers themselves.

  10. AndrewT10:56 PM

    Maybe I am just weird, but I am learning Old English because I would like to speak it(as best as can be done teaching oneself), although currently I am studying German and I find it alot easier to learn when I understand the different cases and conjugating verbs.
    I do want to be a High School teacher, either German or English, but I didn't have a clue that Old English was offered at any college. And I agree with Kel, a language wouldn't be what it is today without it's history, I see languages as the most important form of art in the world, they develope in ways that people could not predict, and just imagine your life if you couldnt read, write, talk, or listen...
    Just a question though, is it possible to be able to speak any form of Old English?

  11. Anonymous12:18 PM

    what would i say about my old english teacher while she was sucked and fucked up?

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