Monday, November 14

Studying Old English with J.R.R. Tolkien

“Remember what punishments befell us in this world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men.”
                             ~ King Alfred the Great

“No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.”
                              ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest recorded form of the English language.  It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the mid-5th century, and spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages.  The Norman conquest of 1066 is regarded as marking the end of the Old English era, since during this period the English language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman, developing into a phase known now as Middle English.

Why Learn Old English?

  • Historic reference -- When you're reading an old manuscript or looking at historic documents, it helps to be able to understand what is written.  Being able to understand these historic texts can also provide better historic context of this age.
  • Language acquisition -- Whether you're wanting to better understand modern English, or learn a completely different language, the study of Old English helps you to see and comprehend the linguistic roots.  You can then apply this methodology to learning other languages for better mastery.
  • Love of Tolkien -- This is why our son chose this elective in the first place, and there's some truth to it.  He loves all things Tolkien, and was inspired to study the author and his methods BECAUSE he also wants to be a writer, create new worlds, and inspire others in the future.  We study the ones we admire.
  • Individuality -- The language is kind of quirky.  The Old English alphabet includes three characters no longer used in Modern English: ð (eth/edh), þ (thorn), and æ (ash/aesc).  The poetry is full of kennings (conventional figurative phrases), like whale road = sea, world’s candle = sun, and ring-giver = king.

Evolution of Old English

Is Old English a dead language?  Not as much as you'd think.  Many of its words still exist, albeit in a different form:
  • Old English: Blōd             Modern English: Blood
  • Old English: Consul         Modern English: Consul
  • Old English: Flyht            Modern English: Flight
  • Old English: Hunta           Modern English: Hunter
  • Old English: Panne           Modern English: Pan
  • Old English: Wæter          Modern English: Water
Similar to classical Latin - which evolved into the romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian) - Old English went through many evolutions before becoming what we think of as English today.  Much of our core vocabulary derives from Old English, though many have altered spellings from their original form.  But did you know that most of our 'silent letters' (like the k in knight or the b in numb) also come from this earlier form of the language?

During the Anglo-Saxon period of England, Viking invasions helped to usher in the Old Norse language.  This new system relied heavily on word order to determine a sentence's meaning, whereas the Anglo-Saxon language used case structure to determine meaning (so the words could go in a variety of order, similar to classical Latin).  This was an early change to Old English.  

With the Norman conquest, in 1066, the language changed even further.  Many French words were incorporated into the language, and other words dropped out of use.  With further conquests by Germanic tribes, the language shifted even further over the next millennium, eventually evolving into the modern English we use today.  What do you think it will sound like five hundred years from now??

It is important to recognize that the loss of the case system, right around the turn of the second millennia, makes it necessary to approach Old English today as a foreign language.  However, similar to studying classical Latin, there are no native speakers to consult for pronunciation and grammatical difficulties. Our knowledge of Old English will always be incomplete, but this is one of the things that make it such a fascinating field of study!

The unit study below focuses specifically on Beowulf.  Download the ENTIRE, year-long curriculum plan for the Old English course here!

  • Beowulf
    • J.R.R. Tolkien completed his translation of Beowulf in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition includes an illuminating written commentary on the poem by the translator himself, drawn from a series of lectures he gave at Oxford in the 1930s.
  • Download the ENTIRE CURRICULUM PLAN for the Old English course here.  (The full-year plan covers Old English grammar, vocabulary, Tolkien's etymology, archetypes, movie connections, comprehension, and more!)


Make / Do
  • Having trouble understanding the text?  Check out this site for layman's descriptions of each scene.
  • Complete the comprehension questions as you read.
  • What makes someone a monster? Write a poem titled "The Beowulf in Me" or "The Grendel in Me." (Or perhaps write about your duality.) Be specific.
  • Write a resumé for Beowulf. Include name, origin, height, weight, experience, skills, position applied for, etc. Avoid anachronisms.
  • Write an original episode for Beowulf. Create some new foe for him to fight. Try to follow the Anglo-Saxon style.

  • resolute
  • vehemently
  • infallible
  • furled
  • lavish
  • assail
  • extolled
  • apid
  • mead
  • reparation
  • solace
  • prow
  • shroud
  • vex
  • reprisal
  • scabbard
  • scop
  • kenning
  • alliteration
  • caesura
  • Celts
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Pagan
  • How do works like the Bible and Beowulf determine our definitions of the nature of good and evil?
  • What kind of a society did the characters of Beowulf live in? What did they value, and what was the role of women, represented here by Hildeburh, during the Anglo-Saxon period?

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