Castles, Kingdoms, and Conquerors!

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As a young therapist, I realized a sure way to entice kids to learn was through castles. Maybe it is my own romantic enthusiasm seeping in, but most of my students find the Middle Ages interesting Some aspect of this era can usually engage kids of all ages: weaponry, architecture, clothing, art, social systems, history, fairy tales, literature, dragons, geography, video games, travel, and so on.

A study of castles exposes kids to new vocabulary words, or should I say old vocabulary words, which is a great opportunity for Word Study. I remember once a young student and I studied the word helmet, discovering the word helm, as well as the <-et> diminutive suffix. Castles and kingdoms are great for teaching history, but even better for teaching the history of the English language. Here are a few words that intrigue me for Word Study, all explored through my recent travel adventure.

According to many sources, our language began with a language known as Proto Indo European (PIE). This language souce spread, as people spread, throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, into India, the Baltics and the Middle East. It arrived on an island, now called Great Britain, via a people now called the Celts. These tribes were conquered by the Romans during the Roman Empire. That is where my journey in York begins.

In England last month, we visited the wonderful town of York, which is about a two-hour train ride north of London. Walking the streets of York is like walking through the history of the English language. It is a city built by many, and it still has the city walls and town gates to prove it. At one time, York was the “second city of the realm,” according to one brochure. York began as a fortress, built by the Roman 9th Legion in 71 AD (now referred to as CE). York's earth ramparts were raised by the Romans, and Constantine was pronounced as emperor in York in 306 AD. Constantine spread Christianity through the region.The arrival of Monks brought the Bible, which was written in Latin so those religious words entered our language, as well as other ancient Romans words, such as street, mile, and cheese. York was called Eboracum back then, and ancient Roman foundations are still evident throughout the city.

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When the Romans left England--they had to hurry home since their Empire was collapsing--the area was vulnerable to invasion. Three Germanic tribes (carrying Germanic languages) invaded England, known as the Jutes, the Saxons, and the Angles. We tend to refer to these tribes collectively as the Anglo-Saxons. These tribes pushed the native Celts into Wales, Ireland, and Western Scotland, helping to eradicate that language from English, leaving only the Celtic words London, Avon (meaning river), and crag behind. Since the Angles had more land, the country was named Angle-land, and eventually England. Their Germanic language merged into what we now call Old English. Most of our current, everyday, peasant words are Anglo-Saxon, such as work, house, and the.

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Soon enough, the Vikings from Norway and Denmark arrived on England's shores, and they renamed this Roman fortress town Jorvik or Yorwik, which we now call York. The Vikings conquered and ruled the northern region for a brief period of time, adding a few Norse words to the English Language, such as get, want, and sky. In York, we walked down a main road called Stonegate, an old street in York that once lead to the gate of the old Roman fortress. Gate is a Viking word for street, so we walked along many gates throughout York, such as Castlegate and Monkgate, to name a few.

York survived and thrived through all of this, even when the Normans (from a northern region of France) arrived in 1066 AD. I tell my students we can blame a man named William the Conqueror for adding French, with its complex spelling patterns, to the English language. The Normans fortified York’s city walls, adding their signature to this historic city. During their half- century rule, the French Normans added many government and military words to English, giving us a confusing spelling for the word we now pronounce colonel!

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The city of York flourished during the Medieval period--a time of kings, wars, feudal lords and peasants. During this period, the walls were reinforced so well, that they still encircle York today. By the time the Tutors took control of the throne, York's cathedral was completed. The beautiful York Minster took 250 years to build! Cathedrals were named for the cathedra or throne of the Archbishop. A Minster was a center of learning or ministering, which differentiated it from an Abby. There are remains of an Abby destroyed during the religious wars between the Catholic and Protestant rulers.

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The printing press brought a literary age to all of England during the Renaissance period. The press forced printers to settle on spelling conventions. While the printing press solidified spelling, it did not control the ever-morphing pronunciation of words. Thus the once voiced /gh/ in right and /k/ in knight are now only seen, but not heard. Meanwhile, Shakespeare was wooing audiences in London, adding new words to the English language at a remarkable rate. Classical works were available to all, so Latin and Greek had a profound influence on English language growth.

York shared its name during the Colonial period, as a New York was established in America. Meanwhile, Britain's York was turning into a fashionable resort, with Georgian buildings built in the 18th century. (This is a good time to remember “crazy King George” and the American Revolution.) Loan words entered the English language, through the French, Dutch, and Spanish. Food, animal, and plant names were added to the lexicon, growing English into the largest language in the world.! As English spread to many nations, pronunciations and dialects varied across the globe.

York even had a prominent place in the Industrial Revolution, with its historic train station and train museum. Again we see how industry, and now technology, have added even more words to our ever-growing English language!


Today, the lovely town of York is a popular tourist attraction. Tourists, who continue to share and spread words around the globe, can enjoy York's walk through the history of English. We walked along the ancient city walls and climbed up into the Bars. Bars were four city gateways, each containing a portcullis. One of them still has its barbican, or funnel-like approach, which forced attackers to bunch together if they tried to invade the city. Bars welcomed monarchs and displayed the heads of traitors!

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The words <bar> and <barbican> are perfect examples of how one cannot let assumptions rule in Word Study. I initially thought these two words might be related, but a brief look at Etymonline shows <barbican> comes from the PIE words <per> “around” and <wer> “to cover.” So the word <barbican> is related to the word <cover>.  The word <bar> has different meanings, such as the fastener on a gate, a whole body of lawyers, and a tavern, as well as the verb meaning of “to obstruct.” The word <bar> gives kids an opportunity to practice their doubling rule as they create derivatives:

  • bar
  • bars
  • barring
  • barrage
  • barrier
  • barister
  • debar
  • disbar
  • barroom

The point is, I learned a new word which led me on a Word Study journey . . .

When I educated my children, we didn’t have the money to visit castles and ancient towns, but we visited them in our history, literature, picture books, encyclopedias, myths, and media. I remember we all wondered over the spelling of the word Medieval. Why the <ie> vowel team and the <al> ending? If only we knew then what we know now: investigate words using Structured Word Inquiry!

medi + ev + al → Medieval (I am not sure if the second base word is <ev> or <eve>)

<medi> means “middle” as in <mediate>

<ev> means "age" and is related to the word <eon>

<al> is a suffix

Medieval literally means the Middle Age, and it has nothing to do with being an <evil> time, as I thought as a child!

So you see, castles and Word Study really are good bedfellows!

Rita Cevasco