The idea for this lesson comes from the Tolkien’s Week which is happening at the LMCS Discussion List. On Day 2, the focus was on Tolkien’s essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’
Level: language & literature students / TESOL students Length: 50 min Aims: language analysis/ semantic change
Task 1: Contextualisation. Look at the pictures below. In pairs, make a list of words and/or expressions you would use to describe the creatures in the images.
Task 2. Reading. Match the extracts below to the works in the list.
1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare 2. ‘The Fairy’ by William Blake 3. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie 4. ‘The Stolen Child’ by W. B Yeats 5. A description of a scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
A. So a Fairy sung.
From the leaves I sprung;
He leap’d from the spray
To flee away;
But in my hat caught,
He soon shall be taught.
Let him laugh, let him cry,
He’s my Butterfly;
For I’ve pull’d out the sting
Of the marriage-ring
B. Really, he thought they had now talked enough about fairies, and it struck him that Tinker Bell was keeping very quiet. “I can’t think where she has gone to,” he said, rising, and he called Tink by name. Wendy’s heart went flutter with a sudden thrill.
“Peter,” she cried, clutching him, “you don’t mean to tell me that there is a fairy in this room!”
C. Through the house give gathering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier;
And this ditty, after me,
Sing, and dance it trippingly.
D. The Great Hall is decorated with twelve towering Christmas trees, festoons of holly, mistletoe, and other Christmas-oriented accents. In addition to this, the school has been known to be decorated with real live fairies, which fly around the trees.
E. Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.
Task 3. Think About Language. Fairies have been a constant theme in English literature. They appear in old Celtic folk tales and also in Chaucer. However, through ages the concept of fairies has greatly changed. Check the entry for Fairy in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first 3 definitions are marked with a +, which means they are obsolete and thus no longer in use. The dates mark the first use registered in the OED and the second late entries.
Forms: ME feiri(e, feirye, feyri(e, feyrye, (ME fery, 15 feirie), ME faierie, faierye, fayerie, fayerye, (ME fayryȝe), ME–15 fairé, fairey, fairie, fairy(e, fayré, fayrey, fayrie, fayry(e, (15 fayere, 15–16 pharie, 16 farie, phairie, pherie), ME– fairy; farie
Etymology: < Old French faerie, faierie (modern French féerie ), < Old French fae (modern French fée )
+ 1. The land or home of the fays; fairy-land. (c1320 – 1612)
+ 2. A collective term for the fays or inhabitants of fairyland; fairy-folk (c1320 – 1603)
+ 3. Enchantment, magic; a magic contrivance; an illusion, a dream (c1300 – 1533)
4. One of a class of supernatural beings of diminutive size, in popular belief supposed to possess magical powers and to have great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man. (1393…)
“fairy, n. and adj.”. OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press.
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the Lord of the Rings, was a philologist, a person who studies language in written historical sources, and a Professor of Old English. Tolkien defends the use of the word in its more obsolete meanings. For him,
The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.
However, words always change meaning; this is technically called semantic change.
Task 4. Speaking. Discuss the questions below in pairs or small groups:
- Why do words change meaning?
- Why do words change spelling?
- Can you think of words that people have recently used with new meanings? Make a list.
Task 5. Homework
For language & literature students: Choose at least two of the texts you read for Task 2. Use complete poems or longer extracts. Compare the fairies in the texts with Tolkien’s idea of Fairy. How different are they? Is there any of the old concept of fairies still remaining in the texts? Write a short essay (1,000 words).
For TESOL Students: check the professional literature and write a short essay (1,000 words) on semantic change and its implications for the way we teach vocabulary to our students. You will have to do your own library search, but you can start with the titles below:
- Cowie, A., Semantics (OUP Oxford, 2009)
- Crystal, David, How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die (Penguin, 2007)
- Crystal, David, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (OUP Oxford, 2009)
- Hatch, Evelyn Marcusen, and Cheryl Brown, Vocabulary, Semantics And Language Education (Cambridge University Press, 1995)