Students will develop an understanding of the evolution of English by listening to a small excerpt of Beowulf read in Old English. This lesson is part of a larger unit on the teaching of Beowulf alongside traditional Native American stories from the Assiniboine and Lakota tribes of eastern Montana.
I begin class without saying anything, starting the YouTube video once student have settled in:
Students are often a little confused, "What are we listening to?"
I explain, "This is what English sounded like over a thousand years ago."
There are often dumbfounded looks, reactions of surprise as I hand out copies of Beowulf and have them compare the different texts.
We discuss the differences in the way the text looks and the way it sounds. Students are surprised by the way Old English sounds, they think it will sound like Shakespeare, with lots of "thees" and "thous". They compare it to Scandinavian languages, some say it sounds like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. Almost always they want to hear it again because they are listening for words they think sound English. I explain to them how language changes over time, how the Norman invasion brought French to England, and how the two languages co-existed for centuries. Then I talk about all the ways language changes, asking them to think about how
Next I play the You Tube video of Seamus Heaney reading Beowulf. What a contrast to the earlier reading!
For homework I assign the Old English etymologies worksheet asking students to find ten examples of old English words from the text, compare to dictionary words and write down the modern word, Old English spelling and O.E. definition.
Ex.: shield - scyld - 'shell'
Students like this assignment, the first written assignment of the year, because it's a bit like a treasure hunt, and because they try to see how many of the words they guess correctly.
Now I have students look at the small section in the introduction to the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf called "A Note on Names". First I go over the tougher names, leading students in a choral pronunciation of the names, then I have someone read the section aloud.
Next we look at an excerpt from chapter 13 of the novel Fools Crow by James Welch. In this brief excerpt the protagonist, White Man's Dog, has his name changed to Fools Crow by his own people. This is a change that White Man's Dog accepts and it reflects the power and cunning his people believe he possess.
Next I ask students to write briefly about their own names: Does there name have a special meaning? Who gave them their name? Do they like it or not? Have they assumed a nickname that they took or was given to them by someone else?
We discuss the different ways children are named, and the different ceremonies attached to naming a child or even an adult.
Finally at the end of class I read the first 80 lines of Beowulf aloud. The students have already heard Seamus Heaney read the lines once, but now they are better prepared to follow the story. If time permits at the end of class I ask them what they think of the story so far. Most students like the fast-paced action and the blunt poetry of the opening lines, there isn't too much to absorb or sort through, they understand that the poet is establishing a timeline and setting up the problem. I assign them the next 100 lines to read on their own, instructing them to stop around line 195. This is the section where Grendel first arrives and there is a lot of action and terror, students typically have no trouble getting into the story.