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Yes Minsiter Illustration by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe

Thank-you to Liam for the title of this post.Here are a few more versions of the Battle of Hastings written using only words of O.E. origin.

Clara: Version 1

Standing in the battle field. Weapons at the ready, the pressure of fighting for our country was so great. The battle was about to begin. I stood there not knowing whether I would survive this or be one of the hundreds taken down yet on the outside I had to be strong, I couldn’t let myself be engulfed by the fear I felt inside. The sounds of the soldiers, of the farmer of the horses filled the still air. Knives and axes were being sharpened- people readying for what lay ahead. With every step closed to the enemy the tension grew greater. However the time had come, we all had to face the opposition and pray we would not go down a failure.

Version 2 OE  

Standing in the war ground, weapons at the ready, the weight put on us to fight for our holy land is so great. The war is about to begin. I stand there not knowing whether I would live through this or be part of the hundreds taken down, yet on the outside I must be strong I will not let myself be swallowed by the fear I feel within. The racket of the fighters and of the horses fill the heavens. Knives and axes are being sharpened- people readying for what lay in the time to come. Every step nearer to those men is unbearable, my worry grows greater. However the time had come, we all had to hope we would not go down without winning. With the last words “Ut, ut, ut!” the war began.

   

Hale Version 1

Fearful and unsure, I look over the hill where I may perish. Although it is my duty to fight for my country, defending my life is not my most desired activity. As thoughts begin racing through my head, feelings overtake my body. Why do these Normans want to fight us? If they desire us dead, why shouldn’t we desire the same? The complete silence gave me a headache. The hateful thoughts of others crowded the air. Some wanted victory, others to fight for those they love, others were forced to participate, but what they don’t understand is if you go looking for death, you will surely find it. As a feeble fyrd, I have never encountered a battle, let alone participated in one, but I would never have expected myself to act so cowardly. My body shook with fear so violently to the point where I could barely stand my ground. Stand up for victory? For the death of those we hate? What are we fighting for? I desire to fight for my country and my people, but to risk my own life to kill others seems greedy and selfish.  

Version 2 Using words of Old English

Fearful and unknowing, I look over the hill where I may fall. Although it is my work to fight for the land of my fathers, I wish the answer would not be the death of us, or of the foe. As thoughts crowd my head, feelings overtake my body. Why do these Normans feel need to fight us? If Normans are hungry for our sleep of the sword, why should we not feel hatred? The stillness makes my head ring with aches. The hateful thoughts of others crowded up to the heavens. Some hoped to win, others to fight for those they love, others take part against their feelings, but what they do not understand is if you go looking for death, you will find it. As a weakly fyrd, I have never come across an iron rain, or have taken part in one, but I would never have thought myself to become so fearful. My body shook with fear so greatly to the length of when I barely stood my ground. What is there to stand up for? What are we fighting for? I wish to fight for my homeland and my friends, but to threaten my life to murder others is greedy and selfish.

I am really pleased with this process of revising writing to words of OE roots . In many cases the OE version has more flashes of poetry. Where to next? Converting text to words of Latinate origin! Look at the impact below as I altered the first few sentences of Hale’s OE text! ( Obviously the function words were maintained.)

Fearful and unknowing, I look over the hill where I may fall. Although it is my work to fight for the land of my fathers, I wish the answer would not be the death of us, or of the foe. As thoughts crowd my head, feelings overtake my body. Why do these Normans feel need to fight us? If Normans are hungry for our sleep of the sword, why should we not feel hatred? The stillness makes my head ring with aches. The hateful thoughts of others crowded up to the heavens. Some hoped to win, others to fight for those they love, others take part against their feelings, but what they do not understand is if you go looking for death, you will find it. As a weakly fyrd, I have never come across an iron rain, or have taken part in one, but I would never have thought myself to become so fearful. My body shook with fear so greatly to the length of when I barely stood my ground. What is there to stand up for? What are we fighting for? I wish to fight for my homeland and my friends, but to threaten my life to murder others is greedy and selfish.

My  alteration to Hale’s version 2 using words of Latinate words:

With trepidation and ignorance, I regard the surroundings from the diminutive mountain where I may perish. Although it is my duty to defend the territory of my ancestors, I desire a response that would not result in the expiration of us or the enemy. As ponderings create turmoil in my cranium, my emotions inundate my anatomy. Why do these Normans desire  the engaging of combative actions with us? If Normans are ravenous for our extermination,  why should we not experience antipathy?.…. and so on!

This is enough to consider the effect and impact of Latinate words. So to whoever reads this blog and works with students,  I encourage you to try this exercise with students. It is a remarkably powerful way of addressing the the skills we endlessly hound our students to consider when writing. In doing this you will be emphasizing:

Purpose: All writing needs a purpose, a context. In this case students needed to understand the events of the battle and the historical events that preceded this. They needed to understand the form/genre, realize this was a narrative point of view snapshot . They had background on the battle for the throne between the three contenders of the time Harold Godwin , a member of the powerful Godwin clan, who had ‘ sold his brother Tostig up the river’ (Schama) in order to ensure northern support for the time when Edward died and Harold made his bid for the crown.

Revision: The whole point of the exercise!

Word choice: The exercise, more than anything I have done with students, focuses completely on word choice- every word has to be considered and  weighed up, discarded if of Latinate origin, replaced by words of OE roots. Is the meaning still clear  when using another OE synonym? If I can’t use this word , how can I rework my sentence/phrase so that the same mood is maintained ? Will this be even better? As Liam discovered, “It opened up my vocabulary. I kind of get stuck with the same pool of words!”

Collegiality: In terms of a collegial classroom environment- again this exercise emphasized this. Students kept running to the board telling each other not to use this word but try this, they added to the list of OE words that they had discovered that might be useful. Without prompting they all read their pieces to others seeking advice when stuck. As soon as Alexis who had been absent for two days returned there was a host of others there to help him locate the OE words  and share their ways of expressing an idea.

Exuberance with Language: This exercise engendered a playfulness, a relishing of language as they accepted the challenge. Lauren and Emma noted how they had fun with this, it made them ‘research words’ to come up with another way of expressing an idea.

Etymological Understandings:  This has consolidated students’  awareness of the etymological layers of the language. They see the Germanic underpinnings- they even discovered that many words of Latin were in use before 1066 . They realized from their research that Edward the Confessor was more Norman than English. (He left as a child refugee for Normandy only returning to be King at 36- of course the words of his court would have been Norman.) This tendency to absorb words into English is part of its structure and the crowning of William was not the initiation of language change but certainly from this period onwards many more Latinate words became part of the English word hoard.

Using References: Students now have had a lot of practice checking the roots of each word and are far more proficient in reading the Online Etymology Dictionary or using the Mac dictionary. They are beginning to see how meanings shift over time. They are beginning to see how language, by using only Latinate words can obfuscate, intimidate or create an aura of expertise.

These are valuable understandings if we want students to have control of language, to be able to shape it to their purpose, to change the register of how they speak or write. Do they want to impress, display an impression of intelligence or erudition or just want to be direct and clear? Is this writing that is reflective and meaningful ? No not necessarily. However the discussion  and reflection about this is very powerful.  “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means” (Joan Didion). This is not a substantial enough piece of writing to be doing this. This paragraph merely focuses in a meaningful way on elements that will I hope be internalized about writing in general and word choice.  By working through the stages of this exercise once, will students absorb this and weigh every word  in future writing? In my dreams only! However, we now have a shared experience to reference when I ask them to consider clarity and word choice. This exercise will be our touchstone: is this particular word the best here? Would it be better to aim for a more powerful possibly OE word or is there an additional sense added by your Latinate choice here? From this point on, I hope students will not just use ‘big’ words because they sound good!!

Of course the ‘obfuscation or Latinate words go wild effect’ has all been displayed with wit and humour in the unparalleled  Yes Minister, a British sitcom written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, satirizing the working relationship of cabinet and the civil service . The series concerns the struggles of a hapless cabinet minister Jim Hacker , played by Paul Eddington, to pass and enact legislation in conjunction with the Civil Service represented by the Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, played brilliantly by the  wonderful Nigel Hawthorne. This series seems as true today as ever.

And one more of particular relevance for those who study etymology:

And so to end with another example of Latinate verbosity and superfluity from Yes Minister ” concerning the language of the Civil Service:

Sometimes one is forced to consider the possibility that affairs are being conducted in a manner which, all things being considered and making all possible allowances is, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps not entirely straightforward.’

Translation: ‘You are lying’.”

Go here to read an article in The Telegraph by Antony Jay one of the writers of Yes Minister and here to Jonathan Lynn’s site  to see more images from the series and read more memorable lines.

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