October 13: The Battle of Hasting Day

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The year 1066 marks the most important year in the history of the English language.  The most important single day that year was October 13th. It’s a date that might have signaled the beginning of the extinction of English; instead, it marks the beginning of a remarkable evolution and enrichment of the language.

At Hastings in Sussex, England, on this date, the Saxon army of King Harold confronted an invading army of French-speaking soldiers from Normandy, a province of France just across the English Channel. The Battle of Hastings was fought from approximately 9 am to dusk. Thousands of soldiers died that day, and the Norman army, led by William, Duke of Normandy, prevailed.  Harold was killed, shot through the eye with an arrow, and William marched his victorious army to London, where he was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.

Scenes from the bloody battle are depicted in the colorful Bayeux Tapestry, a 229 feet long embroidered cloth, which was commissioned by William’s brother not long after the battle (1).

William the Conqueror was now King of England.  The French-speaking Normans thus ruled England, and Norman-French as well as Latin became the language of government.  The Saxons were defeated, but their language did not die.  The conquering Normans were outnumbered by the Saxons, who continued to use English in their common, everyday activities.  So instead of being stamped out by French, English adsorbed French words, enriching its lexicon over the next two hundred years.

The Norman Invasion of 1066 marks the end of the Old English period of the history of English and the beginning of the Middle English period.  One of the rich legacies of this period is the great variety of words and rich well of synonyms that are characteristic of English.   We can see this difference illustrated by the Anglo-Saxon words ask, end, fear, and dead and their synonyms of French derivation, question, finish, terror, and deceased.  Some writers argue that we should favor the short, precise words of Anglo-Saxon origin over the longer words derived from French, Latin, or Greek.  Winston Churchill, for example, expressed his bias when he said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

Today’s Challenge:  Saxon Short Short Story

Is it possible to tell an effective story or give an effective speech using words of only a single syllable?  One way to test Churchill’s claim is to try your hand at writing using words of only one syllable.  It’s also an excellent way to learn to pay careful attention to your word choice.  In general, the foundational Anglo-Saxon words in English are one-syllable words, unlike words from French, Latin, or Greek, which tend to be more than a single syllable.  Write a narrative of at least 200 words and make sure to use only one syllable words. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Bayeux Museum. The Bayeux Tapestry.

October 12:  Hero or Villain Day

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On this day in 1492, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) landed on the shores of San Salvador, an island in the Bahamas. There is no doubt that his “discovery” changed the course of history. There is also little doubt that Columbus and his crew of ninety men demonstrated great courage and perseverance, venturing into the vast unknown.  As we reflect on history, however, we should not ignore its dark side, acknowledging that not everything about Columbus’ exploration was positive. We know, for example, that many of the native people Columbus encountered were either killed or enslaved.  It’s hard, therefore, to see Columbus as either exclusively a hero or a villain of history.

Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus.jpgColumbus Day was first declared a federal holiday by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937.  As with all federal holidays, the president issues an official proclamation to honor the day each year. The careful wording of the following excerpts from President Barack Obama’s 2014 proclamation reflects the two points of view concerning Columbus’ influence on history:

In a new world, a history was written. It tells the story of an idea — that all women and men are created equal — and a people’s struggle to fulfill it. And it is a history shared by Native Americans, one marred with long and shameful chapters of violence, disease, and deprivation. . . .

Columbus’s historic voyage ushered in a new age, and since, the world has never been the same. His journey opened the door for generations of Italian immigrants who followed his path across an ocean in pursuit of the promise of America. Like Columbus, these immigrants and their descendants have shaped the place where they landed. Italian Americans have enriched our culture and strengthened our country. They have served with honor and distinction in our Armed Forces, and today, they embrace their rich heritage as leaders in our communities and pioneers of industry.

On Columbus Day, we reflect on the moment the world changed. And as we recognize the influence of Christopher Columbus, we also pay tribute to the legacy of Native Americans and our Government’s commitment to strengthening their tribal sovereignty. We celebrate the long history of the American continents and the contributions of a diverse people, including those who have always called this land their home and those who crossed an ocean and risked their lives to do so. With the same sense of exploration, we boldly pursue new frontiers of space, medicine, and technology and dare to change our world once more. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Hero or Villain? Your Verdict on History

When we study history, it’s easy to sometimes oversimplify, labeling individuals as either great heroes of history or infamous villains.  An interesting exercise is to explore historic individuals, like Columbus, who don’t fit so easily into either camp.  Who is an individual from history who is not seen as purely a hero nor a villain? Once you have selected your individual, do some research, gathering evidence on which side of the hero/villain continuum the individual should sit.  Don’t put him or her in the middle; instead, argue your verdict like a judge, stating your case for whether the person is a hero or a villain.  If you’re working with a number of people, have a debate, so that both sides are presented.

For an example go to the website for Intelligence Squared where you can see a 2014 debate entitled “Napoleon the Great?” which argued the historical legacy of France’s leader (2). (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-The White House. Presidential Proclamation – Columbus Day, 2014. Public Domain. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/10/10/presidential-proclamation-columbus-day-2014.

2-Intelligence Squared.com. Napoleon The Great? A Debate with Andrew Roberts, Adam Zamoyski, and Jeremy Paxman. 8 Oct. 2014. http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/napoleon-the-great-andrew-roberts-adam-zamoyski/.