https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1

Old English course: seeking contributors

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In order to seek out contributors for a potential Old English course, I intend to contact a number of professors of Old English/Anglo-Saxon, introduce them to Duolingo, and ask if they would consider helping to build the course.
Pronunciation in ancient languages, however, is always a difficult discussion. With Latin for example, do you use standard church Latin or the reconstructed pronunciation of Cicero; with ancient Greek, do you use the Byzantine (modern) pronunciation (as they do in Greece and in Orthodox seminaries all over the world), or do you use the "reconstructed pronunciation" favored in Western Europe and the United States? My impression is that for Old English there is pretty much a standard accepted pronunciation, although I may be missing something.
At any rate, is there anything you all can think of that we should keep in mind or does anyone want to consolidate our efforts to promote the Old English course?

3 years ago

48 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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The Duolingo crowd is awesome. Many comments here have raised excellent points; exactly the details we want to consider in moving forward and in convincing the Duolingo management that Old English is worthwhile. I wanted to take a minute and respond to some of the comments. Boiling down this issue leads us to the question "Is Duolingo the proper venue for studying any ancient language?" I strongly answer yes! and I would argue that because of the methodology, Duolingo is probably the best introduction to any ancient language, and would speed up the learning process, although Duolingo cannot be expected to provide the road to fluency by itself.

Given that all ancient languages are by definition not the mother tongue of anyone, how can we expect to provide any "native" idiomatic expressions? How can the contributors provide cultural context in the grammar descriptions? Given that dead languages are restricted to whatever manuscripts exists, are we not limited in vocabulary? The language of poetry, by definition, is often contrived for the sake of style and/or beauty, so how can we use poetry as the basis of normal, common syntax? This are very fair questions.

In the case of Old English, let me start by saying "Old English is second only to Old Norse in the volume and variety of texts" (Robinson, "Old English and Its Closest Relatives," Stanford University Press, 1992). Old English, while not on the level of Latin or Classical Greek, is one of those exceptions where the manuscripts are so plentiful that a solid grammar of how the language functioned and what was typical is fairly easy to write, even with the number of dialects that were in existence. In the 1967 edition of Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader (originally 1876), there are no fewer than 109 pages of glossary; an estimated 5,230+ words in the glossary). That's a lot. I point that out to argue that it is very possible to master a sufficiently large vocabulary to run a Duolingo course, albeit the subjects will not include cars, email, electricity, post offices, etc. . . . but then, folks don't learn Old English or Latin to talk about post offices or electricity. :)

Pronunciation is very important in that standardized forms make learning the words somewhat easier. That said, my impression is that the phonology, syntax, and grammar is very well established, arguably best represented by Late West Saxon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Saxon_dialect).

But moving forward will likely require a lot of conferencing team work among the would-be contributors, so this could really affect the roll out time of the course. But I would argue that it is in academia's interest to support the Old English course because Duolingo is uniquely placed to make Old English accessible to a much, much wider audience. I suspect the majority of people who would study Old English, if they could, outnumber by far those who can afford to pay for or spend time in Old English at university. This could also directly impact enrollment and/or demand for Old English course work at the university level in a positive way. This, in turn, may lead to other partnerships between Duolingo and other institutions.

so we'll see. let's keep reaching out and see where we get.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Klaudialk
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In the meanwhile, this is a good existing resource for learning Old English: http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/OEA/index.html

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/oskalingo
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For people interested in Old English, may I recommend the following podcast (if you haven't found it already).

http://historyofenglishpodcast.com/

Episodes 28 to 63 (each podcast 45 minutes to an hour) are the ones that mostly deal with Old English but the whole podcast series is excellent.

Warning: the podcaster really, really loves etymology so if you don't you might end up not being a total fan :)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/timetraveller13

Fabulous podcast. Kevin Stroud is erudite and has the enthusiasm to make the presentation nothing less than engrossing.

It's hardly feasible, but Kevin Stroud, Michael Drout, and Kevin Crossley-Holland would be in my 'dream team' of contributors to the hypothetical Old English course.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/flootzavut
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This looks great, thanks for sharing!

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/garpike
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The Latin and Greek pronunciation taught in (English) schools and universities is usually neither ecclesiastical nor reconstructed: it is what might be called academic pronunciation, in which pitch accent is ignored in Greek, and the vowels modified to be more familiar to English-speakers, but the consonants not pronounced as they are in modern Greek. Considering that the purpose of learning these languages is to read literature, and not to communicate with long-extinct speakers, I don't find authenticity of pronunciation a great concern. Let Latin for English use the common English pronunciation of Latin; and Latin for Italian would probably choose something much nearer the ecclesiastical pronunciation.

I think you're right that Old English pronunciation is pretty well understood, however (although there were various different dialects and vintages of it, so there might well be some disagreement among historical phonologists). But considering that I greatly doubt the existence of an Old English TTS programme, the audio in a future duolingo course will depend on on whoever records it and however he or she thinks it ought to be pronounced, so the whole question is likely to be a hobson's choice.

Anyway, good luck in your professor-hunting! I'd love to see Old English on here one day.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/underwood.jones
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Well said-no pun intended. ;)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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I know what you mean. When I studied Latin and Classical Greek in France, the professors simply read through the Latin/Greek letters but with French intonation, syllable stress, phonology, etc.. . . it was horrific. But you're right that that is what we often find, so pronunciation of an ancient language may not be worth the heart burn of trying to figure out. One point of difference, I would argue, is that pronouncing Classical, Koiné, or Byzantine Greek with the Byzantine (modern) accent has been done for over a thousand years. Because Greeks never stopped reading ancient texts, and because both koiné and Byzantine texts are still read liturgically every week, all year long, in the Orthodox church, there has been a long, long practice of reading those Greek texts with the modern pronunciation. It was this practice that caused Erasmus and others to question if Greek were pronounced differently in Homer's time since the many vowel combinations to get [i] are evidence of the difference. At any rate, reading early Greek texts in a modern Greek accent is a much more organic, honest, reading of the texts, and has been done continuously since Byzantine times. This is very, very different from trying to read through the gospel of John in reconstructed pronunciation. I mean, it really does sound ridiculous, whereas reading that same text in Byzantine pronunciation makes the text sound like a real language. Just food for thought.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Kappa_Bird
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As a native Greek speaker i tottaly agree with you. In Greece we first learn to read "Classical" Greek (or dialect of Athens) from the first year of high school (7th grade in USA). We always do that with the Common Modern pronunciation(Ofcourse there were problems with some "new vocabulary" and grammar but it was easy to read it) When i learn about the "Erasmian" pronunciation,that language was so alien to me that i couldn't understand it(also i heard audios from "foreigners" who were using their english or german pronunciation,which was really funny to hear it if you know the language.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/RobertColumbia

This is actually a major issue with Middle English! Many people pronounce Chaucer using Modern English phonology. That's not really accurate! The Great Vowel Shift happened after Chaucer and really did a number on English pronunciation. Here's a reconstructed pronunciation rap version of part of the Canterbury Tales prologue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4E-0PaK4RtI . The pronunciation feels somewhat Spanish-like.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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I agree. The reading of Middle English (although closer in time to us than Classical/Koine Greek) has had a different history. I think the long and short of it is that most people who can read Middle English, tend to do so in Middle English pronunciation. We have never had a long tradition of reading Middle English for literature publicly, or liturgically (in Church) so the pronunciation has not been quite the issue that Greek or even Latin is.

A course on Middle English, I would think, would be easier than for Old English. Basically learners need to learn to pronounce every vowel!

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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additionally, learning to pronounce Middle English is significantly easier than learning to pronounce modern English . . . so there is that bit of hope. :)

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/underwood.jones
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I am all for an Old English course! I have been pushing for a Gothic course and have a team lying in the wait, though I am afraid my hopeful team and I may not be much help for an Old English course, but there is a facebook group of OE enthusiasts that has many super capable would-be contributors! I think OE has a better chance of being approved sooner than Gothic does due to a larger learner base, perhaps when an OE team reaches beta we will more likely to follow!

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/AmareloTiago
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I would eagerly take a Gothic course were one developed but is there enough attested Gothic vocabulary to build a DuoLingo tree?

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/underwood.jones
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Not necessarily enough attested vocabulary, but there is a lot of proto-Gothic reconstruction going on...have you seen "Alice in Wonderland" in Gothic?

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1782010971/evertype-20

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/slogger
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> have a [Gothic] team lying in wait . . .

Lying in wait for what? Have you applied to Duolingo to develop the course?

. . . And thanks for the link to "Alice" in Gothic. There were several other interesting books found through browsing the links on the page.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/underwood.jones
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Yes, we have applied but it's probably going to be a while before we are added. There are many living languages that have ready, willing, and able teams anxious to hit the ground running, I believe we are in queue behind a backlog of languages that have a bigger potential student base at the moment.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/slogger
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> Yes, we have applied . . .

That's super!

> . . . but it's probably going to be a while before we are added.

That's too bad. Let's hope it will not be too long.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Mundgeirr
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That's great! Thanks a lot for your efforts. It sounds very good that you have already a team for Gothic. The best thing would be to start lobbying explaining the importance of Gothic creating a facebook page, trying to contact and get support from the most eminent scholars of the language. Team Welsh did something similar and it went very good. The same goes for Old English.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/underwood.jones
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Those are pretty good ideas :) We don't mind patiently waiting our turn, mind you, but it would be good for us not to be forgotten either!

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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Hi, thanks for the comment. Could you share the Facebook page name? There might be some folks there who have some ideas we haven't thought of, or have some comments that could help guide us.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/underwood.jones
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Sure! It's literally just called Old English, here is the group link:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/6072484486/

The Gothic language group is "Gothic-L" because "Gothic" means sooooo many things...so we use the L to differentiate that it refers to the language specifically :-)

Here's it in case anyone is curious:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/GothicL/

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/jgstcd
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As a course contributor I see a few problems with this idea. Here I'll just describe what I see as the main obstacle. I spend quite a lot of my time considering the question "Is this suggestion idiomatic?", i.e. "Would a native speaker really say this?". That can be surprisingly difficult to decide even in one's native language. Old English has no native speakers. The written texts which have survived are rather limited, both in number and genre. I doubt there's really anyone who could answer the "Would a native speaker really say this?" questions reliably. You might learn something from such a course, but it wouldn't really be Old English.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/chilvence
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There aren't any native old English speakers left to complain about your ability to speak old English... we all moved on comfortably to modern English, apparently without really noticing. So let me turn your question upside down: what if someone just wants to be able read the language comfortably, or understand it as it was spoken? Is it worth agonizing over such things? Shall we just go with our best guess, and consider that enough, considering anyone who would be in charge of the course would have had a lot more time to think about it than the rest of us?

I think anyone who wants to learn it and anyone that teaches it is grown up enough to admit that we can't ever be completely accurate teaching a language that nobody uses to students that wont even be able to use it with native speakers. We can only fill in the blanks with our imagination. But I don't see anything wrong with that at all, because as I said, there is no one alive that could tell us any different, we can only really guess the answers. We can only teach what we think it would have been like. You can argue about what that really is forever, but the only people that will lose are those who just want to learn what they can about the language.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/mizinamo
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This is also a problem in Cornish, being as it is a revived language. So for authentic "how did native speakers say this?" we only have the surviving texts, which of course do not cover 100% of the grammar. Also, many of them were written in verse so it's hard to say whether a changed word order was for reasons of rhythm and/or rhyme or whether that word order would have been natural in everyday speech as well.

So there are some things which people say "Cornish probably used different word order here than English would", but many people use the English word order anyway. Or word choice where it's hard to say under what circumstances this word or that might have been preferred.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/DamonLordAuthor
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You have a good point, mizinamo. Perhaps I'm going off topic here, but I'd like to see a Cornish course on here too, as an aside. The Cornish orthographic civil war raged for decades from the 1980s between Ken George's Kernewek Kemmyn (Common Cornish) and Nicholas Williams' Unified Cornish, until the Standard Written Form was introduced in 2008, and that was just over spelling. The point is, with revived languages, we often just have to admit we don't know, and just go with it.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/mizinamo
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Nicholas Williams introduced Unified Cornish Revised (UCR) -- Unified Cornish is much older and was devised (IIRC) R Morton Nance.

And yes, you have to decide whether we're trying to speak like a 15th century Cornishman, or like the majority of current-day speakers... language changes, so perhaps eventually even in Revived Cornish, what used to be a mistake will eventually have to be considered standard.

So as the language gets spoken, it will gradually move away from the language of the texts, just as the language of the text changed throughout the course of the centuries :)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/mizinamo
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And yes, Cornish on Duolingo would be fun :)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JimKillock
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This is something which has struck me on occasion as a Welsh speaker; the idiomatic use of Cornish (where I can see what has been used) sometimes looks like English transliterated.

Cornish is very close to Breton, so isn't it possible to look at Breton or Welsh to see how words, phrases or idioms might be used?

3 weeks ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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Thank you for pointing this out. This is a very valid point.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/DamonLordAuthor
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I have heard tell that Stephen Pollington is one of the best speakers of Anglo-Saxon/Old English, so you might want to try to get in touch with via his publisher http://www.asbooks.co.uk/index.htm or via the Anglo-Saxon interest group http://www.tha-engliscan-gesithas.org.uk/

As far as I am aware he is not a Professor but an incredibly talented AS/OS enthusiast who is highly respected in this field.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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These are all good links. Thanks. Simply the networking/ reaching out to these other groups may turn up some unexpected treasure, some other ideas we haven't explored, or some solutions we haven't thought of.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/timetraveller13

An Old English course is being discussed? Christmas comes early this year. :) Have a Lingot.

If this happened, it would be a dream come true.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/GregoryCasteel
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I would be very interested in an Old English course on Duolingo. If you're looking for contributors, you might want to try Mark Atherton at Oxford. He is the author of "Teach Yourself Complete Old English (Anglo-Saxon)" which comes with audio CDs that feature Atherton and others speaking Old English. If Dr. Atherton himself is not available, some of his more advanced students might be willing to contribute. It wouldn't hurt to contact him and find out. Here is his faculty bio page from Oxford which includes his e-mail address: http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/about-faculty/faculty-members/medieval/atherton-dr-mark

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/TheQueenZerelda

Yes, I'm going to learn Latin next year (for school, but I want to anyway) and so I've become very interested the accent problem. I can't give you any advice about older languages, but good luck! (Or rather; eat, sleep, work hard.) :)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/DaleFavier
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It will be a challenge finding people who can do the vowel quantities properly! Back when I studied Old English (many decades ago now!) I could have done it, but all I remember now is a few examples (which are fossilized in the poetry I memorized): In "Anhaga," (solitary) all the 'a's have the same quality, more or less like a German 'a', but you hold the initial 'a' for two or three beats, while the last two come as quick single beats. It takes some training to do that properly, and not mistake it for stress or quality. (Whether most learners would care about that, I don't know, but you can't really understand the complex metrical rules of Old English poetry without it.)

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/DamonLordAuthor
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I have a great interest in this language, and although my level in it is exceedingly basic and thus I don't feel I will be of use to you, I do however wish you every success I this endeavour and I will be keen on trying the course.

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/guthbrand

I'd certainly help!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/ISpeakAlien
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I would love an Old English course! Sadly, English was ruined by French, so Old English is very different from Modern English.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Anaphasiy

I am about a year late to this discussion, but I really hope to see this project manifest itself in the near future and hope some ideas are still being considered. I have been teaching myself seo ealde tunge Ænglisces for about a few weeks now add I just wanted to address the part about your exclusion of modern terms and technologies as cars and electricity. Have you considered using neologisms or kennings, as in the way the Old English folk used to do? Granted, only a few known kennings are part of the language proper and any new coinage would probably not be used by everyone in the community, but I see this as the only viable option. If we just ignore the possibility of new Ænglisc words, then we are left with a truly dead and inefficient language. My suggestion would be a) calquing the words from their original language, b) calquing the words as they exist in more conservative Germanic languages, such as German (or may personal favourite) Icelandic, or c) calquing the words as they already exist in the Anglish Wikia (http://anglish.wikia.com/wiki/English_Wordbook), which is a really good resource and tool for me. Also, old English itself had a wealth of affixes that can be used to construct new words as well. I have based the vocabulary I learn according to the Spanish Duolingo and so far I have:

se tē - the tea (already attested)

sēo fōdalīste - the menu (food + list)

se sūræppel - the lemon (sour + apple)

se wæġn - the car (already attested; literally 'wagon')

sēo tealgōs / sēo smeorgōs- the penguin (suet/lard + goose - calque of Icelandic mörgæs).

sēo slæġhearpe - the piano (beat + harp - calque of Icelandic slagharpa)

se corbīġ / sēo corbīġu - the crow (in contrast to se hræfn {the raven}, which is based off of dialectal English 'corbie', admittedly of French origin but a cute word).

All except se tē are declinable. Wikibooks' Old English Phrasebook also offers really great Ænglisc neologisms (https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Old_English/Old_English_Phrasebook) and I am all for putting them in the course. I hope you like the idea; wesaþ ġē hāle.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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that's a good idea. I support it. Until the developers have a large enough core of volunteers to work on a potential Old English course, though, we're not likely to see much movement. We'll see. That said, another route they may want to take is to keep the vocabulary period-consistent; i.e. simply use attested vocabulary in a course that deals with issues/objects that were common during the Anglo-Saxon period. Most text books in fact take that route; putting together neologisms (which I support) may slow down the development too much to make it worth while. We'll see. But thanks for your interests and let's keep pushing this idea. A Duolingo course in Old English would open up interest in the discipline to millions of people.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Anaphasiy

How could I get involved? I would like to volunteer; I've constructed a few Old English practice sentences that may be valuable to the course. Can I get in contact with some of your developers? How far along are they?

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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sounds great. note: I am not a Duolingo developer or manager, but you want to go to Add a New Course, and then towards the bottom, look for the link to volunteer to be a "Contributor". In that space, you'll be able to suggest a language since Old English is not listed. Hope this helps!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/AppoloBlackblood

Bit late reply, but, maybe an idea for the "Modern" vocabulary could just be a couple skill trees while the majority of the course is period-consistent/focused? Or, the end of the course can introduce these modern words?

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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I fully agree. The point of Old English learning - or at least the place where the language comes most alive - is arguably in the documents of the Anglo-Saxon period. Neologisms, while important and fun, should not hold up the course, as it were.

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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note: there is another thread, with some excellent comments and content and arguments, on Old English for Duolingo here: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/14097913

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Anaphasiy

Update: I've completed an application for a Duolingo Old English course minutes ago. I'll let you guys know if it passes! Cheers!

1 year ago

https://www.duolingo.com/JasonR-1
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awesome!

1 year ago
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