________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 5. . . .October 2, 2009.


Say What? The Weird and Mysterious Journey of the English Language.

Gena K. Gorrell.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2009.
146 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-0-88776-878-1.

Subject Heading:
English language-History-Juvenile literature.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Vikki VanSickle.





English isn’t just the speech of one nation; it’s the memory of thousands of years of history. It tracks the places people came from and the places they went to; the adventures they had; the friends and enemies they made; the battles they won and lost. It marks the days when legions of Roman soldiers stomped onto England’s shore—the days when Viking warriors sailed their dragon boats across the sea to plunder British villages—the day a king of England was felled by an arrow on the battlefield and a foreigner seized his throne. As English changed and grew it became a jumble of sounds and words and rules from countless languages and lands. And it’s still changing, still growing, every day.

 This description of the English language, found in the introduction to award-winning Gena K. Gorrell’s newest book, Say What?, breathes excitement and danger into a subject many students find tedious and staid: English.

     The history of the English language is a long and complex journey, but Gorrell presents her information in clear, concise chapters that never leave the reader feeling overwhelmed. The text is broken up by maps, images, activities, and sidebars of etymological goodies that will delight even the most seasoned of word nerds.

     Following the main text, Gorrell has included a variety of appendices for those readers who wish to delve more into the history of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Old English. This stroke of structural genius allows Gorrell to flesh out the history of the language without disrupting the flow of the book. A time line and detailed bibliography are also included.

     Say What? is a gold mine for teachers who are looking for a way to teach grammar, spelling, sentence structure, or just a general understanding of the language. Gorrell provides accessible definitions and examples of common sore spots in the study of English (apostrophe usage, dangling participles and verb conjugation, to name a few) in addition to fun activities and word challenges to spice up the dreaded study of Language Arts.

     Not only is Say What? a wonderful tool for teachers, it is also extremely kid friendly. Gorrell uses popular children’s texts to illuminate many of her points, pointing out the Latin roots of Harry Potter’s spells and the echoes of Classical Greek in Gandalf’s grand speeches. In one particularly cheeky sidebar related to exclamations, Gorrell includes a discussion of the words “hell” and “damn,” a sure-fire way to win the hearts of even the most reluctant of students. Throw in a great selection of games and riddles, and you’ve got an informative book that all ages will enjoy. Look for Say What? to garner many nominations during award season.

Highly Recommended.

Vikki VanSickle has an MA in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia. A resident of Toronto, she is a writer, a bookseller, and a self-professed word nerd.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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