Friday, August 10, 2012

Who is King Alfred and What Does He Have to Do With English Anyway?


When I was in college, my major was English. All teachers had to choose a major, and then have a second major in whatever type of education they were going to pursue (Elementary Ed, Middle School Ed, HS Ed). I chose English sort of by default. It's not that I was in love with grammar or writing at that point, though I was dimly aware that I was at least competent with both, but more because I liked books, and English is the stuff of which books (in this country) are made.

I quickly discovered that while I did enjoy reading for FUN, reading for class wasn't nearly as enjoyable. Having to read Frankenstein four times in one semester (so that we could write four different types of position papers about it) was a truly horrifying drag. Multicultural Literature class was positively torturous because every novel we read lamented about the disadvantages and horrors of not being white and/or rich (in graphic and unnecessary detail about many inappropriate behaviors, often by members of the authors' own communities) instead of focusing on overcoming and the virtues of working hard and being the person God made you to be, irregardless of race, class, or gender (if I ever taught English at the college level, that would be the class I'd teach). My poetry teacher hated me (I think because I disliked his dark and devilish poetry and said so not knowing it was his...ooops). I guess my grammar class was okay. Once I learned to look at sentence diagramming as if it were a math problem, with specific, unchanging rules, suddenly, for the first time ever, I GOT it and it turned from confusing to clever and I liked it a little bit.

Still, when you go into a major with the intent of making it the focus of your studies, shouldn't you like it just a little bit more than a little bit? I thought so and I started questioning my choice. That is until finally, in my junior year, I took a course that completely fascinated me and turned my opinion of English around. It was called: History of the English Language. It really sounds kind of boring, huh? But it wasn't. It was impressive. It made sense. It was interesting in ways I could not have predicted. It tied in all of the ideas of every history class I'd taken and all of the information I'd gleaned from various language courses, and made not only language make sense and tie together, but history, too. Wow.

For years, I've been singing the praises of this class to my older boys (and it is not just because my professor said my final exam essay was the best he'd read in all of his years of teaching, though that does improve my memory of the class a bit *smile*). My boys understand that I loved the class, and they've tried to be enthusiastic about learning what I could remember to share with them, but it has been a long time since I took that class. Then, of course, my professor was pretty amazing...and while I remember bits and pieces of the class, it's difficult to reproduce that "amazing-ness" that he had due to his vast scope of knowledge and his love for the topic.

I still have my textbooks: Our Marvelous Native Tongue by Robert Claiborne and The Story of English by Robert McCrum all these years later. They fascinated me. However, when I looked at them, thinking I could somehow use them to teach my boys what I'd thought was so interesting all of those years ago, I ran into the roadblock that actually, both of those books are kind of hard to get into and I'd forgotten too much to do a good job of deciphering the information appropriately and interestingly. The Story of English may be a bit easier to understand, but both are fairly technical, and without the extensive education and familiarity of the topic of my professor, I couldn't see how I might use the books to "turn on" the interest in our language for my boys.

Enter King Alfred's English: A History of the Language We Speak and Why We Should Be Glad We Do by Laurie G. White.


The book is written for ages 12 and up (grades 7-12), but could potentially be adapted for use with younger children (maybe engaged 8 to 12) least they could listen in and I am sure they would pick useful bits of information up here and there as they began taking interest...and I have no doubt they'd find the information interesting.

  • You will find out why saying X-Mas isn't really is a hybridization of Constantine's practice of using the Greek letters for chi and rho to stand for Christ (chi looks like X).
  • You will discover that British and English aren't the same. In fact, they don't even get along.
  • You will understand that English can be overwhelming sometimes because our language has over 615,000 words in the dictionary, while other languages contain between 100,000 and 200,000 words.
  • You will determine the importance of the printing press and learn how the Bible being translated into English, and printed, had such a wide-spread influence.
  • You will learn that many of our words and sound blends were borrowed from other languages and why so many of our words are not spelled the way they sound. 

The author provides student pages with supplementary information that turn what at first glance seems a simple book into a broadly ranging unit study (you will travel through time and all over the map). The resources are helpful, overall, though in the first chapter alone, I did find at least three links that were broken or had changed from free to needing a subscription, so those weren't helpful (and unfortunately, they were the ones I wanted to see most!).

She also provides a teacher's page with worksheets for every chapter, as well as tests for each section. These two supplements (student and teacher's pages) were an excellent addition and helped the book become more of an easily implementable course as opposed to a shorter unit study. I'd feel comfortable counting this course as a half credit high school English course on a transcript, especially when adding one of the video supplements I am suggesting below. I think it would be a fun course and an excellent way to tie together language and history...and don't we homeschoolers just love to tie it all together?? Making connections is one of my favorite things about homeschooling.

Here are a few suggested resources of my own. Perhaps you might take a look at the first one (video), and that will inspire you to want to learn more (from a Christian perspective) about our fascinating tongue and you will take me up on my (time-sensitive) offer (below) of a discount code to buy the book:
  • You can watch the documentary of The Adventure of English (5 hours long) at I watched the WHOLE thing last night and it was fascinating and very easy to understand.
  • The documentary I watched in my class long ago, The Story of English, is also available at this site. I have to be honest and say I found the other one a bit easier to watch and much of the information is the same.
  • We used the book Our Marvelous Native Tongue by Robert Claiborne in my class. It goes into more depth than King Alfred, but it's a lot to wade through. It might make a suitable supplement for an enterprising, interested student...I'd stick with Alfred for most's a lot more readable and easy to understand, plus you get the Christian perspective, which I appreciated.
  • Here's a quick intro to the topic that helped me organize my thoughts before reading.
  • Another suggestion I have, that we tend to do annually, is to watch Akeela and the Bee (about an underprivileged girl who goes all the way to the Washington D.C. Spelling Bee finals) because it does such a good job of showing how a word's origin affects its spelling...that's why the kids are allowed to ask the origin of a word. That movie always seems to get my kids in the mood for word studies.
  • Notebooking Pages has some Latin and Greek word study pages.

Let me tell you about one of my favorite parts of this kind of study...seeing how words from different parts of the world/languages are similar/related/different. I always think about the Tower of Babel story, and how the similarities you find between many languages just make Biblical sense. Then again, there is the part of language that reflects the personality of the people and their situations. Take this example for the word crafty:

Crafty  < Old English
Agile  < Latin
Skillful  <  Old Norse
Undaunted  < Old French
Cardio-kleptic (heart-stealing) < Greek 

Aren't those changes in meaning and understanding for the same word fascinating? It gives you a glimpse into the heart of the people, doesn't it?

I remember in class when our teacher assigned us a research project. We were to take ten different words (he assigned them, I don't remember them all) and interview about fifty people from different areas of the US to find out what they "called" those items. I do remember one of the words was "soda" and one was "sofa." Honestly, it was fascinating to see the diversity and development of the language across the US as influenced by the peoples who settled in different areas. I heard "sofa" also called "couch," "settee," and "davenport" (seriously, davenport?) "Soda" was "pop" in the Midwest, "Coke" in the south, and "soda" in the north. Check out this graph and see for yourself. Of course, we had to discuss our findings and figure out why folks talked the way they do...why do they greet each other in a certain way, call things what they do, have a certain accent. It was a hands on learning experience that applied all we'd learned in the course so far and gave me an appreciation for language I carry with me to this day. 

All of my kids learn Greek and Latin roots, so that they can decode harder words without having to know precise definitions (we don't alwys have a dictionary handy), and all of them learn how languages relate to each other and how the way we speak reveals something about our culture and history. We will definitely be working King Alfred's English into our permanent high school curriculum.

Purchase from:
  • Amazon as a Kindle book for $5.95 (least expensive option)
  • From the author's website $16.95
  • From Rainbow Resource for $14.95
  • From CBD  $14.89 (least expensive print option)
  • BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE!!!!! For the first four folks who comment on my post here and tell me you want to definitely purchase this book in print format, the author has graciously offered a discount code that is good through September 2012. That's less than $8.50 for a book that will provide your child not only with an interesting and solid introduction to the nuances of where our language came from, but will also inspire them into learning more about history and its influence on language, and perhaps even other things, like music, art, and literature. If you'd like a code and you are one of the first four to respond, leave me your email addy so I can contact you with the code.
See what others on the TOS Homeschool Review Crew had to say about King Alfred's English at the Review Crew Blog.

To read some comments on the author's site from other readers, just head over to The Shorter

You can also preview the first chapter or check out their table of contents.

By the way, if you want to learn the story of King will just have to get the book. You will be glad you did!


Disclaimer: I received a downloadable copy of King Alfred's English for the purposes of writing this review. I did not receive any other compensation. The opinions you read here are mine.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

This is a great review of a book that I enjoyed, too. It is interesting looking back and remembering what we liked most when we were in school instead of teaching.

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