Bayeux Tapestry

Feeling somewhat like Dr. Who in his tardis, we began our final unit for the year by whirling  through the mists of time from Germany and the Holocaust to land in England and the Middle Ages. While this is a backward leap of some magnitude, we will still be considering leadership, power and control. We are about to begin with ‘The Battle for the Throne’ –  a tale of ‘king wannabes’  touching on motifs of family dynasties, heirless monarchs, sibling rivalry, betrayal and broken promises, astrological signs, bastards ( and there’s word worth looking at!), waiting and windless weather, and in the erstwhile a long march northwards, a dramatic wind change and a battle for the throne at Hastings. This is the year of 1066!

I wanted the students to be aware that 1066 marked a turning point in the shaping of the English language and from this period – well, at least 1100 A.D. on- I’m sure the Anglo-Saxons did not wake up the following morning after their defeat in Hastings with a spontaneous spouting of words that ultimately derived from Latin. Nevertheless, this moment did mark the opening of the gates to a flood of Latinate words to be absorbed into the English lexicon. 

While we have in our word studies found words of Old English origin, I am not convinced students have a strong enough ‘feel’ for these words. So today as many small pieces of paper fluttered across the tables, students matched synonymous pairs of words. These words may share a loose similarity in meaning but are born into English from either Old English or Latinate roots. Today students located the corresponding pairs. Tomorrow they will research the origins to gain, as Douglas Harper had suggested recently in an inspirational etymology conference, a ‘mouth feel’ of the words of Old English.

We listened to the opening passage of Beowulf before beginning the task to experience the sounds. Several students had read the modern versions of Beowulf. Go to this article below to listen to the arresting opening of Beowulf:


Below are a few examples of the word pairs students are exploring:

Love-adore, appreciation of; seethe-boil; hate-despise; lunacy- month-sickness; head- chief; ask – beseech, demand, question; freedom- liberty; evil- nefarious, malevolence ( and way too many more- forever a problem of overload!)

In the between the chaos of fluttering pieces of paper, the two relatively simple tasks of sorting into synonyms then grouping based on the roots, students are engaged.

Watch this group sort and speculate as to Old English and Latinate origins:

And listen as this group discuss what they instinctively feel may be differences in the words from Old English and Latinate roots:

Behind every person there’s a story, not always apparent but a life force, a store of memories and moments that have shaped a personality. And so it is with words. All too frequently we talk- obviously using words but just uttering or blathering on without a moment’s recognition and appreciation of their subtle flavours, quirky personalities, their relatives, and without knowing their stories. For me most recently, the etymology weekend with Gina Cooke and Douglas Harper ( the ‘Word King’ of The Online Etymology Dictionary) has emphasized this. (For more on the impact of this weekend read Dan Allen’s blog Wordstock.)

Harper is a word collector extraordinaire, perhaps to be remembered and linked with the Johnsons, the Murrays, the Grimms and the Jones– philologists and/or dictionary makers quite remarkable.  I can only be amazed and grateful for Douglas Harper’s online word hoard. He has collected, researched and woven into his Online Etymology Dictionary 40, 000 words- a remarkable feat that does not bind, tie or preserve in formaldehyde and stab words with little pins as is the want and ways of entomologists. Rather he lovingly, respectfully collects and lays words before us as in a wordy photography album ( white, a blank tablet ) …. and in doing so he breathes and mutters their stories, their shady pasts once more.

It is this I want my students to understand. Words shape a person. You are the words you utter- they feed and nourish your soul and mind. This is what  I want for my students- not to dive in to dictionaries to track and tick, fill in and be graded on sterile exercises but to encounter and swim and luxuriate in the ocean of words around us,  to use them well and wisely, to marvel and play with words in order to think.

This is what we have been doing so far this trimester… collecting words, analyzing them carefully, learning to look for the elements, to find relatives both close and distant, those so close they share the same base and the cousins that have sprung from the same root.. I want my students to hear this whisper from the past, sometimes stamped strongly on the physiognomy of the word, sometimes a mere hint. All this adds richness when reading and interpreting an author’s words. I want my students to see words as the colours that give subtle hues to the tapestry of the text. And so on to taste and feel and glimpse the words of Old English, to have a sense of the change in the lexicon occurring with a battle in a small field in southern England. Tomorrow after investigation, we will ‘taste’ the words that stem from Old English, consider the effects of Latinate words- the difference in register, the effect on a reader.

For those as I am entranced by the visual recording of this battle in 1066 in amazing tapestried detail ( 55 dogs, 202 horses, 506 other birds and animals, 49 trees and 623 people!) watch this: