Academics, News

Language class draws medieval enthusiasts

While most students dread the thought of a Friday afternoon class, eight head to the Oscar E. Dooly Memorial Building to learn Old Icelandic, or Old Norse, the language spoken by Vikings.

Taught by professor Thomas Goodmann, this class serves as an elective option to a literature class titled “Viking, Myth and Saga,” an upper-level course in which students read translations of Old Norse stories about gods and goddesses, or sagas.

Students learning the language earn one credit in addition to the three-credit English class. Old Icelandic is a Germanic-based dead language, according to Goodmann, who specializes in medieval studies.

For Goodmann, learning a language, even a dead one, is a worthwhile pursuit.

“It’s kind of intellectually and ethically incumbent on us to understand cultures and identities different from our own,” he said. “Some of those cultures happen to be dead ones.”

More than half of the students taking the Old Icelandic class already have knowledge of other languages.

Senior Beatriz Barros is adding Old Norse to her long list of languages, which include fluency in Portuguese and English, proficiency in Spanish, and some working knowledge of German, French, Japanese and Chinese.

“Language helps me think in different ways,” she said.

Barros, a double major in history and biology, also gravitated toward the language class because of her interest in the medieval period. She dreams of becoming a medieval historian some day.

A main challenge in learning Old Icelandic is that the pronunciation of a word is not apparent from the spelling, according to Goodmann. In some cases, the sound of a word can change its spelling.

“It’s a bit of puzzle solving,” Goodmann said.

Many of the students taking the Old Icelandic class also meet with Goodmann on Thursdays to read and practice Old English as a reading group.

Old English is a Germanic-based dead language, too. Despite its name, Old English is far removed from modern-day English and has to be studied as a foreign language, according to Goodmann.

Students like sophomore Nick Bej participate in the reading group for no credit to continue honing their skills. The group serves as additional practice for those who enrolled in Goodmann’s Old English language class during fall 2014.

“After the class was over, I wasn’t quite satisfied,” Bej said. “I wanted to keep on reading.”

According to Goodmann, it takes about eight weeks before one starts to feel comfortable reading Old English, which he describes as a “simplified German.”

Junior Nicole Torek, who participates in the reading group and is enrolled in the Old Icelandic class, found Old English difficult at first.

“The word order was challenging, much looser than our English today,” she said.

Regardless of the challenge in learning these languages, Torek, Bej and Barros have taken multiple classes with Goodmann. Barros says that Goodmann’s dedication is a major reason to keep enrolling in his sections.

“He is willing to go as far as his students are willing to go,” said Barros, who took an honors English class with Goodmann where he allowed students to select the semester’s readings.

Goodmann hopes to offer the Old English class again next year and possibly make the Old Norse language class into a three-credit course that encompasses literature and culture.

Featured image courtesy Hans Splinter via Flickr

January 25, 2015

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Alexander Gonzalez

Assistant Editor


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