Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Teaching Old English Vocab and Vowel Changes

My, there's and exciting title for a post!

At some point soon I will write a post about how great it is to be Department Chair (hint: think of the smallest amount of great you can picture. Then divide it in half. Then divide it in half again. Then divide it in half again... [with apologies to the Mathemagician]).

But now I want to discuss a method I've been testing out for teaching Old English vocabulary and vowel changes.

This weekend I was reading Walter Skeat's Principles of English Etymology (yes, that's the kind of thing I do for my few hours of "fun" on the weekend), and I noticed the way he clusters together a whole variety of words that exhibit the same vowel changes from Old English to Modern English. When he does this, you get pairs of words, like wa = woe, na = no, ga = go. You'll notice that all the words on the left side of the equals sign rhyme with each other and all the words on the right rhyme with each other.

So, I'm sitting on a lawn chair, reading Skeat and watching my son water a bunch of rocks with the hose, and my daughter comes over to ask me what I'm reading. I started reciting: "wa, woe; na, no; ga, go" and then I said "ta" and she said "toe." I tried again with "da" and she said "doe" (I guess it could have been "dough" or "doh!", but it sounded like "doe" to me).

And I realized that if it worked for a 7-year-old, it just might work for college students.

I did try it a bit with college students the next day, and they seemed to get it. So now I'm preparing lists of words for each vowel for them go to over. I'm hoping that they will then have an easier time figuring out Modern English forms in OE words and thus spend less time with the Clark Hall Dictionary (though for most of the class they either use my King Alfred glossary or the glossary in Eight Old English Poems).

My questions:

I don't remember this approach being used in other grammar books, but did I miss one where it was?

This seems like it might be a more effective approach for learning vocabulary than Barney's Word Hoard, which has words in semantic clusters rather than simply in terms of vowels (rhyme).

Do you think this approach will work in the long run?

Below is a list of a few of the words for a few vowels. Feel free to use (after all, I pulled them from Mr. Skeat).

la = lo!
wa = woe
na = no
ga = go
da = doe
ta = toe

swa = so

hwa = who
twa = two

hal = whole
mal = mole

†rawan = to throw
sawan = to sow
mawan = to mow
crawan = to crow
cnawan = to know

ham = home
lam = loam
fam = foam

ac = oak
stracian = stroke
spaca = spoke

rad = road
gad = goad
tad = toad
abad = abode

wrat = wrote
gat = goat
bat = boat

rap = rope
sape = soap
grapian = grope

Papa = Pope
(Pronounced "Pap - a", not like "Poppa"; explains why we say “Pope” but “Papacy,” “Papal.”)[more detail in comments]

he = he
∂e = thee
we = we
me = me

hedan = to heed
redan = to read
steda = steed
sped = speed
fedan = to feed
ned = need
bredan = to breed
bledan = to bleed
creda = creed

swete = sweet
scet = sheet
fet = feet
metan = meet
gretan = greet
bete = beet

wepan = to weep


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Does pap=pope really work? Or is it a Latin thing? (or does that matter?) I think I remember something of this variety in an old Norse textbook, but I can't be sure.

Michael said...

"Pap" gets borrowed directly from Latin very early; we know this because it goes through the vowel shift to become "Pope." Because "Papal" and "Papacy" are borrowed much later, they aren't vowel-shifted.

Michael said...

Ah, posting in too much haste. I should have said that A-S "Papa" = "Pope" is a direct borrowing of Latin "Papa" = father. I was thinking just as I was writing it as "Pap-setl," = "Papal Seat." But I'll change to "Papa" = "Pope" in the list.

highlyeccentric said...


i feel so englightened now :) That's something i've had a feel for for as long as I've been studying this, but I didn't realise there was a set of organising principles.


Thank you, Prof. Drout!

heu mihi said...

Seems like a great idea to me. And it'll have the extra benefit of reinforcing the correct pronunciation of OE vowels!

Tiruncula said...

I think this is an excellent idea!

Of course, Papal and Papacy are vowel-shifted - just a different shift :)

Jason Fisher said...

Mike, I think formalizing this into a sort of learning game is a great idea. After all, it works with a 7-year-old for a reason! Put more bluntly: it’s just like training a dog — conditioned stimulus/response. And a college student has to be at least as smart as a dog (unless that dog is Skidboot). ;)

You asked whether anybody else has taken this approach. I don’t have my full library with me on my back here at work, but I know I’ve seen this technique employed in more than one place — though I’m not sure if it was in a grammar book. Happily, though, I do have one at hand, so I can tell you that right around the same time as Skeat’s book, Henry Sweet wrote something very similar in his History of English Sounds, 1888. In fact, Sweet’s version is a little bit more like your own. Where Skeat writes up just a few examples is a wordier paragraph format, Sweet presents a much more systematic series of tables, organized by vowel, in four columns: Old English > Middle English > Modern English > Modern Pronunciation (because so often unclear from the spelling). For the section on ā which includes most of the first examples from your list, see pp.335–41. The full word-lists run for about a hundred pages near the end of the book.

For reference: Sweet, Henry. A History of English Sounds From the Earliest Period with Full Word-lists. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888.

Keep us posted on how well it works! I expect to hear it’s a real breakthrough. :)

Steve Muhlberger said...

Take care of yourself. My duties as chair helped make me very, very ill.

Unknown said...

Mitchell does this a bit in his _Invitation to OE and ASE_ (see p. 27), but he doesn't include an extended set of tables as you're describing. I do remember doing a bit of that in undergraduate OE. We for instance were given the phrase "hu nu brun cu", and I still use this on my own students!

Ecce Equus Pallidus said...

I think this method would certainly work when teaching Old English to college students - in fact, it's how I first began to learn OE.

The Anglo-Saxonist at my previous institution had made a course packet that included lists of OE words that would undergo the vowel shift, grouped into categories like "familial relations," and "domesticated animals." We would begin every class for the first several weeks by going around the classroom and reading through one of the small lists, and then guessing what the word meant.
I found that starting with a paradigm for interpretation like that meant that as new words that fit the paradigm were introduced, it was very easy for me to figure out what the modern English equivalent was.

Unknown said...

I do this when I teach Old English. The other sound change that helps the most with modern English is OE u > modE 'ow' (cu > cow, nu > now, mus > mouse, etc.)

John Cowan said...

The classical (and Classical) objection to learning words by etymology is that it doesn't allow for semantic shift, and can cause students to mis-learn meanings. As obvious examples, gleaned indeed from Skeat, téam does not mean 'team' (for the most part), cwealm does not mean 'qualm' (which may indeed be a separate word), bót does not mean 'boot' (except in the frozen expression 'to boot'), and so on.

So it may be that what you gain on the roundabouts, you lose on the swings here.

highlyeccentric said...

John- not necessarily. Maybe it's just me, but I *love* the oddities of semantic shifts... The fact that "heap" means "band of warriors" tickles me pink. I have a good giggle every time i think of "a heap of warriors coming down the hill".
Point is, if you *teach* semantic shift as well as sound shifts, if you can convince even a few students that language as a wonderful and slippery thing, then sound shifts will be part of that. If i can tie a word to its descendant, i get a sort of mental chain forming from the original meaning to the modern. And hey presto, because i know what it turned into, i never forget how it started out. Roundabouts *and* swings!

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