“WIST YE NOT…”

Language is not natural but a young child’s love of language, of words, of rhymes, of rhythms seems to be part of who they are, as essential to their development as learning to eat, to walk, or to explore. They absorb the words spoken to them and seek to repeat those words. They are taught nursery rhymes and told fairy stories. This love of rhythm or desire to explore words is not something that children should be weaned away from, as babies from the breast, to be replaced by sturdier more prosaic studies it is something that should be fostered through all levels of schooling.

“Wist ye not that I must be about my father’s business” said the twelve year old Jesus to his bemused parents when they lost him and rediscovered him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the clerics there. When I first heard the word “Wist”, no doubt read out from the pulpit, I was puzzled and fascinated. What could this word mean? I loved the sound of the word. It caught my attention, made me wonder.

“Wist” is of course, now I can put it in more learned words is the past participle of the verb “to wit”. It is an ancient word deep rooted in Anglo-Saxon. “To wit” was the verb to know; from “witan” (cognate with German wusste, past tense “wissen” to know”). So I learn from an etymological dictionary .

It has been a disastrous error of both churches and schools to say “We must simplify the language of possibly difficult texts so that they are within the easy understanding of all children, especially the less bright”. Good language read with feeling will attract children even when they do not understand particular words. From the context, given age-careful choice of reading, they will grasp enough of the meaning and will find pleasure in seeking to feel their way into what the word might mean.

The important thing that teachers should instil into children is a love of language and from that a readiness to follow unfamiliar language because the sound of it awakens something in them, that makes them keen to follow. There are many stories of gifted teachers able to teach supposed limited learners Shakespeare with amazing success.

I will always be grateful that I emerged from school with a varied knowledge of Shakespeare plays and some acquaintance with the major English poets. I also was fortunate as a church-going youngster of hearing the Authorised Version of the Bible read every week.

Making the word alive for children does not mean keeping close to the language that is familiar to them and relevant to their lives but leading them into places they would otherwise not know about .

So love your language, find what is deepest in it and pass the love on to the children in your care!

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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