When English Isn’t

In my former role as a high school English Language Arts instructor, I would teach the students a (brief) lesson on the history of the English language. After all, students ought to know the origins of the language they use and change and edit and manipulate on a daily basis. Some of the students found the origins of the language from native Britons to the introduction of Latin via the Romans to the influence of the conquering Germanic tribes to French in the court of William the Conqueror worth their while. Almost all of the heads on the desk (of which there weren’t many; I ran a tight classroom) paid attention, however, when they realized that words they commonly used weren’t English or even European in origin.

The lesson usually went something like this:

Me: “Hey Johnny, do you like pancakes? Yes. Alright, what do you pour on them?”

Johnny: “Syrup.”

Me: “Where’d you think the word syrup comes from?”

Johnny: “I dunno. Canada?”

Me: “It’s from the Arabic word, sharab, which was then adapted by the French and possibly the Italians to sirop.”

Class, somewhat disbelieving: “Really?”

Me: “Yep. I’m not making this up. And what about ketchup? Where’d you think that word comes from?”

Class, thinking hard: “Here?”

Me: “Nope. It comes from a Chinese or possibly a Malay word that sounds like catsup.”

Class: “Whhaaa?”

I’d then proceed to list off other words that the students were very familiar with but had never given much thought: magazine (Arabic, again), shampoo (Hindi), zombie (West African and then the Caribbean) and dollar (German). This was news to them. Of course, they knew that words such as taco or pizza weren’t English in origin, but had entered the English language due to common use. Magazine has an origin that was often more difficult to follow: Arabic to Italian to French to English.  The students associated Seventeen or People with the word, so the idea that magazine isn’t of modern American origin was hard to grasp.

This enlightening lesson ran a close second in interest level to the “discovery” that Shakespearean English isn’t Old English, but is, in fact, considered the onset of Modern English. I’d play a recording of Beowulf, which is Old English, and the Canterbury Tales, which is Middle English. Then I’d watch as their minds were blown: “That doesn’t even sound like English!”

I’d like to think that these lessons opened the minds of the students to the notion that English really contains a mix of many words of different origins. It is an ever-changing, adaptable language, one that they adapt and change themselves. Selfie, anyone?

Now, go read the dictionary. It’s a good book.

(Taken from my RitatheWriter website.)

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One thought on “When English Isn’t

  1. I taught high school English as well and would play an audio clip of Beowulf in Old English! I always introduced it by asking if they thought Shakespeare wrote in Old, Middle, or Modern English. I always got a resounding, “old!” Yep, their minds were blown when I played the audio clip. :)

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