Years ago, I think it was in Surprised by Joy, I read about the English education of C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, Evernote didn’t exist at the time. As a result, I can’t source what I am about to assert.
Anyway, at some point, and somewhere, I read about the English education of C.S. Lewis.
Here is the short version. In order to master our language downriver, C.S. Lewis studied the headwaters of our language.
As a total aside, the headwaters of the mighty Mississipi river are located in Itasca, Minnesota. Itasca sounds like a Native American word, doesn’t it?
It isn’t. Instead, it is the combination of the Latin word for truth, or true (veritas) and head (caput). Look what happens when you run them together…. verITASCAput. Do you see it? Itasca. The “true head” of the Mississippi.
What were we talking about?
Oh, yeah. C.S. Lewis.
As it turns out, years ago, students who wanted to really master English would study the headwaters of our language.
As you know, English is a disaster. It’s a train wreck. Don’t believe me? Pronounce the word one. Mmmhm. Where is the “w”? Pronounce the word two. There’s the “w”! But, now it has chosen to give us the silent treatment. I blame the French.
English is a combination of Latin, Anglo-Saxon, French, and Greek. Those are just the big guys. We have robbed many other languages as well. Canoe, for example, came from the same people who should have given us the word Itasca. Canoe is a Native American word.
I have long wanted to learn the source languages of English. Part of a long term plan of mine. Every decade I intend to master a new language. In the end, I intend to write a humorous history of the English language. In the year 2065. If man is still alive.
Let’s see if I can get to the point.
Last week, I decided it was time to start Anglo-Saxon.
Gathering dust on my shelf for a long time was a copy of the Rudiments of Anglo-Saxon by Douglas Wilson.
I couldn’t wait any longer. I read the book last week.
Here is where I brag on Latin.
Latin, once again, blazed the trail for me.
If you don’t know this, English used to be an inflected language. I’m looking at you Anglo-Saxon. Because Latin had already taught me almost everything I needed to know about the nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative cases, Anglo-Saxon couldn’t scare me. It tried to. But, it didn’t. Sorry, Anglo-Saxon. (When they were younger, my kids tried to scare me by growling at me. They were too cute to scare me. Same concept here.)
It took me about three days to learn the grammar of Anglo-Saxon. Again. The praise goes to Latin. Latin blazed the trail.
It took about a day to get used the alphabet of Anglo-Saxon. It is mostly the same as ours, which makes sense, of course.
Pronunciation has proven problematic. I am imitating this every day:
Simple. Listen and imitate.
All that is left now is vocabulary. Or, as Mr. Wilson calls it, the word-hoard. I am pretty sure the Anglo-Saxons would approve. Currently, I have a pretty small word-hoard.
I like the way the author wrote the book. The first half covers grammar and much of the Anglo-Saxon word-hoard.
The second half of the book provides readings from the New Testament and from the Saga of Beowulf.
Mr. Wilson admits from the beginning that this is an introduction to Anglo-Saxon. Fair enough. He shows you where to go if you want to learn more. But, remember… this is an introduction.
I really only have one complaint about the book. The vocabulary in the back is not comprehensive enough to include all of the vocabulary that shows up in the New Testament readings. But, then again, people have the same complaint about Visual Latin. So, technically, I can’t complain. Like Joe Walsh, I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.
Okay. Now I have managed to squeeze two classic rock references into a review of an Anglo-Saxon grammar. Feeling pretty good.
By the way, there was a quote in the introduction that I intend to throw at academic purists, pursed-lipped schoolmarms, and YouTube pronunciation trolls.
Here it is:
“In studying any new language – or, as with Anglo-Saxon, an old language that feels strangely familiar – pronouncing things out loud is where we tend to be most self-conscious. This is largely the grammarians’ fault. Grammarians tend to be fussers, and fussers tend to scare ordinary people away from language studies. If you pronounce Beowulf’s tribe the way it looks and say Geet, and the rest of the class laughs, and you discover later to your mortification that you ought to have said Ye-aht, the temptation will be to chuck it all in and take up engineering. But we should keep in mind that languages turn into various dialects and other languages precisely because ordinary people won’t pronounce things the way they are supposed to. With regard to Anglo-Saxon, Stephen Pollington rightly points out the “welter of regional and chronological details” that “are really only worth bothering with for the serious student.”
So perhaps we should lighten up a bit.”
I couldn’t agree more. The same logic applies to Latin. But, then again, Latin pronunciation purists don’t seem to apply the rules of logic.
By the way, I watched a great movie with my kids last night. The Queen of Katwe. If you are a normal human being, check it out. It is worth your time.
If you are a pronunciation Nazi, you probably shouldn’t watch it. They pronounce English with African accents. Probably because they are from Africa. I know you Latin pronunciation purists can’t handle that kind of stuff.
I really enjoyed The Rudiments of Anglo-Saxon. If you have ever wanted to read our mother tongue in the words of our ancestors, this is a great place to start.
I give this book five stars.