Tag Archives: Old English

On Language Learning: Dabbling in the shallows vs. Diving into the deeps.

In Mary Doria Russell’s theological sci-fi novel The Sparrow, one of the main characters, Jesuit linguist Fr. Emilio Sandos, speaks about a dozen languages fluently.  Artificial intelligence researchers spend months with him trying to figure out how he learns languages so easily: what are his methods? With me as with him, every new language learned brings more thoughts on how to learn languages and more experiences with different types of pedagogy.

This summer, I have been continuing two languages I already have a solid grounding in (Greek and Hebrew) while continuing to comprehend three more that I am still shaky in (Old English, Latin, and Qur’anic Arabic).  For the latter three, my learning has been an exercise in extreme contrasts.

Summer love.

Summer love.

I have been doing Latin for a year now.  However, I have primarily been dabbling in it, reading easy texts (e.g. Vulgate) while relying on Perseus way too much.  I decided this summer to get my act together and work through Wheelock’s, which would give me the solid foundation I needed to actually get the language.  It’s tedious, I love Wheelock’s: its aphoristic exercises, its side notes, its bad jokes, its crystal-clear (so far!) explanations of how the Latin language works.  I feel that I am really getting the skeleton of this language.  My goal is to jump into intermediate Latin this fall.

By contrast, Old English and Arabic have been far more playful.  The Arabic course has been taught with Munther Younes’ The Routledge Introduction to Qur’anic Arabic, which begins with whole surahs and lists vocabulary for students to learn for each one.  The grammar is given in small increments throughout the book.  For me it’s been maddening because I want to grasp the structures of the language, structures I already understand from Hebrew.  (Wheeler Thackston’s Introduction to Quranic and Classical Arabic has been staring at me from the shelf for a few weeks now!)  Likewise, Old English has been a very inductive exercise for me, with a similar level of crazy-making.

A part of me says that I am wasting my time dawdling around in languages without getting the grammar down systematically.  But I suspect that without that year of playing with Latin, I would not be enjoying Wheelock’s as much.  When I learned Hebrew, I did not dive directly into the difficulties of Page Kelley’s Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, but first learned highly simplified grammar through Prayerbook Hebrew: The Easy Way.  Getting a panoptic feel for how the language worked made the tough grammar easier to swallow.  With Greek, I dived directly in, and first-year Greek was painful in part because I never got any time to wade at the shallow end before diving twenty feet in.

The conclusion to all of this?  When I start Sanskrit this fall, I will ask the professor if he can explicate some brief prayers or short texts to us before we start the grammar.  For me, it’s useful to have an anchor in how the language works, to play around with a language, before diving straight into the grammar.

Review: A Gentle Introduction to Old English, Murray McGillivray.

When I look back on this summer in 20 years, one of the strongest memories will be the amount of insight I have gained from my Old English study group.  My university does not teach Old English, but a group of five of us — an English faculty, three recent grads hoping to become medievalists, and myself — have been learning this tongue under the tutelage of a husband-and-wife Anglo-Saxonist team.

There is plenty more to say about that — but it will have to wait for another post.

9781551118413We began learning the grammar with Murray McGillivray’s A Gentle Introduction to Old English.  McGillivray’s book is meant to be a primer to get students into the original texts as rapidly as possible.  In twelve brief chapters, he takes students from pronunciation to the meter of Anglo-Saxon verse.  Along the way he includes exercises and brief readings from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Luke’s Gospel, the story of Ohthere, and a riddle.  The back of the book contains extended readings in Luke’s infancy narrative, Abraham and Isaac, the Voyage of Ohthere, and Aelfric’s Colloquy.  The readings have glossaries and notes on tough passages.  McGillivray also has an accompanying website.

I appreciated that he simplified the grammar greatly, making it possible to start in on real texts as soon as possible.  But now that I am starting to read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I find my understanding of the language (particularly thorny issues like strong verbs) lacking.   While he does lead the student into the grammar step-by-step, he primarily wants the student to learn Old English inductively, through reading texts with glossaries.  The chapters do not have vocabulary lists (let alone principal parts of verbs) for the student to learn, and the grammar is not presented as systematically and step-by-step as it is in Wheelock’s Latin.

Is this book useful?

It depends on your goals in learning Old English.  If you want to work with Old English, follow scholarship about the literature, and be able to look up a few words here and there, it is very useful.  But it is not the kind of primer that will build your knowledge of the language deductively.  Nor will it give the finer points of grammar; Bruce Mitchell’s Guide is a necessary supplementary volume for that.  I would have preferred something halfway between the gentleness of McGillivray and the linguistic overload of Mitchell, which is more of a reference grammar.

One of my main frustrations for this book was the readings in the back.  The Bible readings were useful, and Biblical translation is often a good place to start in any language because, well, you know what it’s going to say!  But the Ohthere and the Aelfric readings were very tedious.  The Ohthere reading included a lot of nautical vocabulary that I doubt I will see again — not perhaps the best vocabulary builder.  The Aelfric reading was written as a pedagogical exercise for children — not the most exciting stuff!  I understand McGillivray’s desire to stick to the simpler syntax and smaller vocabulary of prose readings, but he could have included Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle instead, readings found in Mitchell’s text.

Within the next few days, I will explain what I have gleaned about language learning from my experience with Old English.  Stay tuned!