The Anglo-Saxons totally ‘got’ teaching

So I’m teaching Old English again. And I’m doing it in a quasi-flipped way which requires the students to do a lot of intellectual heavy lifting before they come to class, which, for the moment, has some of them freaked out. But I’ll report on how that has actually worked when more of the course has gone by.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a sentence from one of the exercises on Peter Baker’s terrific, interactive web site, “Old English Aerobics.” And I want to share it because I’m kind of fascinated by it and I think it says something about conceptualizing teaching and what teachers do.  First, a bit about this web site: I’ve been using this site in its various incarnations over the years, but it recently got even better when Baker turned his old PDF exercises into interactive online exercises compatible with multiple platforms (and especially nice looking on an iPad). Students (and I!) can now do the exercises and immediately find out if they’re wrong or right, and sometimes, if the answer is “it’s complicated,” a little pop-up gives a further grammatical note. [Note: when I first started teaching the course 10 years ago, he had an older version of these exercises with technology that had its problems even in 2003 — it was very browser-dependent. I think it was made with Java? I don’t know enough about applet programming to know, but I do know it seemed already a little creaky and dated already in 2003. Great concept, but it took the latest version to work out the execution problems.]

Anyway, there was a question and answer recently that gave me such a hard time that I actually had to contact Baker about it. It was an exercise on pronouns and case, and here’s what the sentence looked like:

Se lārēow onfēng þone esne and lǣrde ________ þā Engliscan sprǣce.

For those of you who don’t read Old English, it says:

The teacher took (or received) the young man (or slave or servant) and taught _________ the English language (lit: the English speech).

OK, in Modern English, the blank would be filled with “him” and I think we should analyze that as the indirect object and “the English language” as the direct object. (Although I should say that syntax is *not* my greatest strength.) Here’s how I think of it: Taught what? Taught the English language. Taught it to or with respect to whom? Taught it to him. Are you all with me now?

Let me explain a little more. Bear with me — this is necessary for the point I’m trying to make (although those of you who know Old English can skip this paragraph). Old English had cases — inflectional forms of nouns, pronouns, and adjective that marked their grammatical function in a sentence (subject, object, possession, indirect object, object of a preposition, etc.). We still have this in Modern English pronouns, although (in standard English) we use the same form for both direct and indirect objects (and also for objections of prepositions) and generally call it the “objective form” — me, us, you, him, her, it, them. Old English had a few more distinct forms (although not in first person — those look much like ours) especially in the third person. In the third person, “him” is the dative form of the masculine singular — used for indirect objects and objects of most prepositions, among other uses — and “hine” is the accusative form for masculine singular, used for direct objects.

Still with me? OK, given that little bit of knowledge, would you chose “him” (the form for indirect objects) or “hine” (the form for direct objects) for that blank? I chose “him”….aaaaaand the system told me I was wrong. The correct answer, according to the computer, was “hine.” What? But isn’t “þā Engliscan sprǣce” the direct object?? (It’s feminine accusative singular, for those who care.) Stymied, I contacted Baker, and even he agreed it was odd, but a check of the Bosworth-Toller dictionary showed an example sentence for the verb “lǣran” (to teach) with both the person taught and the content taught in the accusative case. So Old English does it differently and “hine” was indeed the correct answer.

And that got me to thinking: maybe Old English does it *right*. The Modern English possibility of saying “…taught the English language *to* him” sounds a lot like the “banking” model of education, as if we take a student and fill him or her up with the content of what we’re teaching. But the way Old English expresses it, the student receives the action of “to teach” directly, not indirectly. What do we teach? We teach students. And actually, this sense of direct object *is* still there in Modern English in the very sentence I just wrote: we teach students.* We shape students, educate students (draw things *out* of them rather than depositing knowledge into them), and influence students. The *students* are the object of education, in more ways than one. This especially makes sense if/when you realize that “lǣran” also means to exhort, advise, and persuade, which we also often do where students are concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that the content of what we teach isn’t important, whether it’s “þā Engliscan sprǣce” or something else. It is *also* the object of education. Both the student and the content area are our objects. We teach students but we also teach [fill in your specialty]. And our teaching lives, from syllabus design to what we do each day in the classroom to creating assignments and grading them, is often dominated by trying to maintain a balance between those two objects — what we want them to learn (or what the skill or topic requires to be learned) and what the students can reasonably achieve in a given setting.

So, the Anglo-Saxons got it. They understood that the student and the content of what we teach are both our direct objects, and cannot be easily divided.



*The more I think about it, maybe in the sentence “I teach students medieval literature,” both “students” and “medieval literature” are direct objects even in Modern English. But since we don’t have cases, it’s not obvious. Eh, the Old English still got me thinking about this and that’s what matter for the rest of this post.

10 thoughts on “The Anglo-Saxons totally ‘got’ teaching

  1. I’m a long-time lurker, but this is fascinating in terms of comparing with other languages. My native languages is in a Slavic family and we have six cases and yes, in this sentence I would use accusative for both objects. I think it is the same in German, 2x accusative. How is it in Latin, does anyone know?

    • Oof, my Latin is too rusty to know off the top of my head (and my Wheelock grammar, etc., aren’t handy) but I’m willing to bet that in Latin it’s a double accusative, too. And like I realized as I was writing the post (and put in my footnote), arguably we have two accusatives in the modern English, too (for whatever that’s worth, since we only have a trace of case left in the pronouns). Usually, though, in OE, if you can replace the noun or pronoun with “to [x],” that calls for the dative — so hence my initial confusion.

      And yeah, I keep telling students that four cases is easy! (The ones who’ve done Latin agree!)

  2. Yes, though my German is rusty, it’s a double accusative as well, mostly: ich unterrichte ihn das Buch und ich lehre ihn es, aber ich zeige ihm es–instruct, teach, and show to, respectively. One could split the distinction in modern English as “I teach her about x subject” versus “I teach x subject to her.”

  3. So interesting! And something I’ve been thinking a good bit about — the pedagogy part, not the linguistics part — since D. is starting her new job teaching sixth-grade. She’s teaching a class of 11 kids three different subjects (English, social studies, and math), but the school philosophy is clearly that she’s teaching *the kids*; the content of the courses is secondary. Some of that is just about the age of the students and the relative lack of academic specialization in middle school, but it’s been interesting to have a school be explicit about this emphasis.

    • Oh yes, WN, I totally get that sixth-grade-teaching *would* be all about teaching the students and not the content. But at the college level, in the major, it’s got to be about both. (Historically, I suppose, it was largely about the content, but that’s been changing, and clearly that’s not *my* pedagogy.)

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