When I see high school students raising protest signs and chanting in support of their teachers, as in the strike (earlier this year) by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, I’m heartened. And when I see that the student chants are poetic in form (We ain’t shy./We ain’t timid./We are angry./We are livid.) I’m more than heartened: I’m delighted. Students are using their knowledge and understanding, as well as poetry, to fight for what’s right. This definitely reminds me of my student days during the Sixties.
Many different teachers have earned the love and support of these bold students: math teachers, science teachers, history teachers. Music, art, and theater teachers. Most of all, I hope, English teachers.
There are two reasons I hope this. The first is that my high school English teacher inspired me to become what I secretly longed to be (a writer). Thus it is an English teacher who inspires the main character of my YA novel to write poetry and fight against injustice.
The second reason I hope that students love and support their English teachers is that my college English instructors taught me the history of the English language, word origins, and the power of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) words — all of which play a role in The F Words, my most recent novel.
Before delving more into the history of the English language I need to explain the premise of The F Words. The story begins with Cole Renner tagging his high school wall with the F word. Fifteen times. Maybe if he’d have been less enthusiastic he wouldn’t have been caught. But just as he’s finishing the fifteenth rendition of his protest, he is caught in the act — by Mr. Nachman, his English teacher.
Cole is writing on the wall because that morning his father began serving a four-month sentence in Cook County Jail for “inciting to violence” while leading a peaceful neighborhood demonstration against the closing of Euclid Grade School. (Chicago is where Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools launched an unprecedented attack on public education by closing 54 neighborhood schools — more closings than in any other city, including New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit.)
Furious that his father is in jail, Cole is also afraid: afraid of what might happen to his father in lockup. Fully understanding Cole’s anger and frustration, Mr. Nachman suggests there are better ways of protesting — but Cole isn’t ready to hear them. He’s even less ready when Mr. Nachman assigns him the task of writing two poems a week for the rest of the school year, each about a word that starts with the letter F.
Although I’ve authored many different kinds of books over the course of my writing life, I had, until now, never written a YA. Which is odd because, first, I read a lot of YA fiction. Among my favorites are The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas); Long Way Down (Jason Reynolds), and I’m Not Dying With You Tonight (Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal). And, second, I’ve written scores of children’s books for ages four through twelve; and a dozen or more adult books. So it would seem logical for me to have connected the two by writing for young adults, thus bridging that 14-to-18-years-old gap.
Once I finally decided that yes, I would write a YA, I definitely wanted it to be contemporary and realistic, focusing on the issues facing young people today. Global warming, racism, deportations of immigrants, war, poverty, the erosion of public education . . . and more. Seeing so many young people in the large immigrant rights marches I participated in during the last few years, plus the attacks on public education, led me to choose the plot and trajectory I did.
Thus as a writer, reader, and fan of novels, I sat in front of my computer and began what I thought would be a customary novel. One full of action, humor, and political issues. In straight prose.
English teachers interfered.
Specifically, Cole’s English teacher interfered by giving Cole that F-word assignment within the first three pages of the book. Even as Mr. Nachman was giving the assignment, I sided with Cole, who protests. “Two!” he shouts. “Poems!” he shouts.
And I was with him in spirit — because the English teacher’s assignment meant that I, writing in the first-person point of view of Cole Renner, would be writing the poems. What happened to my straight-prose book? How many poems would Cole end up writing?
But here’s the interesting thing: while one part of my brain was sorrowfully bidding goodbye to straight prose, the other part was dredging up some powerful knowledge from my college days. Back when English professors introduced me to the history of the English language.
Truth be told, I wasn’t all that interested in the history of the English language way back in the Sixties. But I was interested in getting through my undergraduate courses in three years rather than four. And so, instead of carrying nine to twelve credit hours each quarter, I carried from fifteen to eighteen (eighteen being the maximum an undergrad was permitted to carry). Most classes gave either three credits or five credits (depending, Duh!, on whether they met three days a week or five days a week). If I recall, gym classes awarded students with a mere one-hour of credit.
I remember one quarter in particular in which I selected three five-credit courses. Fifteen hours. But I wanted eighteen hours — and no matter how many times I perused the catalogs, I could not find a three-hour class that interested me. Should I add two or three gym classes? No. I was maxed out on the one-hour gym classes.
What, oh what, to do?
Once more poring through the catalog of English classes, I saw it — a two-hour credit. How odd, I thought. I’d never heard of a two-hour credit before. What was this? I looked more closely and saw that it was a course with a title something like “The History of the English Language.”
How hard could that be?
I signed up for it and carried seventeen hours that quarter.
I don’t remember what those other courses were, but I do remember that two-hour course.
The text book we used was A History of the English Language, by Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, first published in 1951. The book is now in its sixth edition (2012) and still being used in college courses.
During the course of the course, I learned much that I hadn’t known or been exposed to in any of my other English classes. Some of what I learned has stayed with me all this time, buried deep in my consciousness, biding its time. For example: I learned about the revolutionary changes that Old English underwent to transform it into Middle English (which became Modern English, which became Present-Day English). Some time toward the end of the Anglo-Saxon span words dropped their gender, (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and their case endings (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and instrumental).
This profound change meant that word position, not word ending, determined the meaning of a sentence. The knave kicked the horse has a very different meaning from The horse kicked the knave. Before this revolution a speaker could put the words of an Old English sentence in any order whatsoever, because a word’s ending, not its position, would determine who was the receiver of the action, who possessed an item, and so on.
I also learned that after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 the English nobility, under Norman rule, began to use French words instead of Anglo-Saxon ones: to sound more like the French rulers, who felt they and their multi-syllabic, Latin-borrowing language were cultured, while the short-worded, consonant-surrounded words of Anglo-Saxon were not. Slowly but surely Old English words were replaced by French or French-Latinate words. One who sought favors at court would no longer ask: he would inquire. The King would not forgive: he would pardon. And while serfs out in the fields might have noticed the stench of the pig sty, there was no such thing as stench among the Norman nobility: odor was the word they used.
For some reason the class on the history of the English language made me very aware that so many Anglo-Saxon words started with H, W, and F. Hwaet, the first word of Beowulf (regarded by many as the most important work of Anglo-Saxon literature) lacks an F, but is still great fun to say out loud.
The observation that forceful consonants were abundant in Old English burrowed its way into my consciousness — and lived there until, apparently, it had something to contribute.
With the Renaissance, words from Italy and Spain entered the English language, as did more words from German and Latin. Even Serbo-Croatian contributed with the addition of cravat in the 1600s. Later still, under British imperialism, words from Arabic and Persian (coffee, caravan); Hindi (bandana, khaki, shampoo); Malay (amok, rattan) and other languages made their way into English. Even Native American words entered British English through American English: (hickory, toboggan).
When I was taking that little two-credit college course back in the Sixties, so many new words had entered English that only 1-4% of our words were of Anglo-Saxon origin. Today fewer than 4,500 words stem from Old English. If present-day English has a vocabulary of 450,000 to 4700,000 words (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition; Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), this means that less than one percent of our words are Anglo-Saxon.
Should we go into mourning for the adulteration of our vocabulary, its loss of Anglo-Saxon dominance?
Not really. Because something I learned in that little two-hour course is still true today. In the US (and perhaps in other English-speaking nations), the average adult speaks approximately 2,000 different words a day. Over and over. Yada yada yada. But that’s not the point. The point is this: of these 2,000 words, 70 to 80 percent have Anglo-Saxon roots.
Not only that, but of a toddler’s first two hundred words, 70 to 80 percent are words of Old English origin. Mama, Dada, bird, book, tree, milk, me, more.
Anglo-Saxon is at the heart of what we speak.
Equally important is this: Anglo-Saxon words are short and direct and express our feelings. French and French-Latinate words, on the other hand, are multisyllabic and usually express thinking and thoughts, the arts, medicine, and science. I’m reminded of Robert Graves’ poem, “The Naked and the Nude,” which takes a humorous yet cutting look at the difference between two synonyms, one Anglo-Saxon, one French.
How did this knowledge of the history of the English language — which I almost never consciously think about, but which is somehow deeply embedded in my subconscious — influence the poetry that Cole Renner would write in The F Words?
The answer to that is in something I said earlier: Words of Anglo-Saxon origin most often express our feelings. They name the visceral. The deep-rooted. The basic. Teen characters are full of feelings. They’re expressing these feelings, reacting to them or because of them, learning how to control them. In The F Words Cole Renner is under a lot of pressure. His father is in Cook County Jail. His ex-girlfriend is running for class president, a position that his best friend Felipe Ramirez wants to win. The new student Treva is an anarchist and seems to be asking Cole too many questions. The principal, Ms. Delaney, suspects that Cole tagged the school wall, and she’s determined to get him to confess. If he confesses, he’ll be suspended and won’t be eligible to run cross-country. ICE is prowling around Cole’s high school. A lot for a teen to worry about and write about. And Cole does. Worry and write.
The majority of words he chooses to write poems about are words that come from the Anglo-Saxon: far, faze, fist, forego, fight, fear, flanks. But Cole is not a one-note teen. He’s a thinker as well as a doer, and he finds himself writing about fluster, fusillade, fault, and flexibility: words that do not have Old English roots.
It turns out that I need not have worried about my novel leaving the start gate of straight prose and slaloming down the mountain, whipping between prose and poetry — and that’s because the poetry stems directly from what’s happening in the prose. The gates are, I hope, all visible, and the movement between them anticipated and smooth.
Moreover, the design is inviting: City of Light Publishing created a beautiful open look for the story. I like the way the fonts move between prose and poetry, and I especially love the paint-stroke chapter heads, which not only add a note of teen rebellion to the pages, but, more importantly, serve to remind the reader where and why the story began.
Most of all, I owe it to English teachers everywhere to applaud them, praise them, and support them in their efforts to instill empathy, humor, trust, and pattern into the hearts and minds of students. While they may speak in French-rooted words to inspire in their students a wider understanding of things, I know that when it comes time to react from the heart, they will use words of Anglo-Saxon origin.
The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates, writing tips, and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.