Call Me Maybe

“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, translated into Old English

The Old English version of Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 hit “Call Me Maybe” was produced by students in the Spring 2014 section of ENG 230: English Historical Linguistics at Grinnell College.  The assignment was inspired by a video of students at the University of Sheffield who performed lines from famous movie scenes in Old English. I designed the “Call Me Maybe” assignment in conjunction with Emily Johnson ’14, who was the Peer Writing Mentor for the course and who had worked on The Grinnell Beowulf.

The assignment uses a multi-media cross-era interdisciplinary approach that allows modern students to make an ancient language and culture relevant to their own experience. Technological advances in online media and video production have created opportunities for new kinds of teaching and learning to be shared with a broad audience. This assignment required students to work with a variety of tools in order to complete the translation and present it to anyone interested in the intersection between higher education and popular culture. As such, it participates in a network of inspiration and application that supports and characterizes pedagogy and learning at Grinnell College.

Because ENG 230 covers the entirety of the English language from its earliest Proto-Indo-European roots up through current linguistic innovations, we can only spend a short amount of time discussing the features of Old English. In previous versions of the course, I had students translate passages from the Old English Genesis or short Anglo-Saxon poems by using handouts that included ample glossing of vocabulary and grammatical forms. Translating a modern text into Old English would offer a different perspective on the language and force students to engage very closely the various forms and word endings that are used to communicate meaning. This allows the language to be understood not simply as a relic or a record of a distance past but as something that once lived and was used by actual people. By translating a song, students would need to work with the sound and rhythm of the language as they explore different ways to translate a particular word or phrase.

We wanted to use a pop song that everyone would know and that was fun and frivolous enough to add a healthy dose of levity to a seriously difficult project. It was important to choose a song that used relatively simply phrases and that communicated ideas that would have been available eleven hundred years ago. Emily and I talked about “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a song that opens with the repetition of “what,” which evokes the “Hwæt” that traditionally began Old English poetry. We quickly realized, however, that there was no equivalent to a thrift shop in Anglo-Saxon England, nor would it be possible to find adequate ways of expressing the names of particular products unique to modern society. “Call Me Maybe” happened to express universal and timeless emotions using short phrases and that largely consisted of Old English-derived words.

Many of song’s lyrics could be rendered in Old English in a rather straightforward way while some concepts, like giving out your phone number, would require that the students imagine what the Anglo-Saxon equivalent might be. Students, therefore, would need to work closely with the nuts and bolts of the Old English language but also think creatively about how to adapt the song’s message into a historical context. Jepsen’s lyrics also include interesting ambiguities that inspired debate and discussion about the meaning of the original song, and these ambiguities would need to be resolved through careful close reading before the translation process could begin. With her provocative and playful use of “maybe” throughout the song, what exactly is Jepsen trying to say?

The lyrics to “Call Me Maybe” were divided into three sections and assigned to groups of four students who would collaborate on the translation. Students had been introduced to the grammar and basic structure of the Old English language through lecture, readings in Barbara A. Fennell’s A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach (Wiley, 2001), and classroom exercises translating short selections from Old English texts. Emily and I prepared a list of online resources where students could find Old English vocabulary and word forms. Students were also given access to a database of Old English words and their modern English equivalents that was complied during the translation of The Grinnell Beowulf. Emily and I encouraged students to use the Geordie cover of “Call Me Maybe” as a model for their own translations (Geordie is a dialect of English spoken in north-east England).  The resources for the project included both traditional learning tools (textbook, lecture, exercises) as well as online databases and videos, which allowed the students to engage with a variety of media in order to achieve their learning goals and complete the assignment.

Students were given a few days to translate their section of the song and work with their group to agree on how they wanted each line to read. A full class period was dedicated to sharing the translations with the whole class and reaching consensus on how certain words or phrases should be expressed. For example, each group proposed different Old English terms of affection to be used in place of Jepsen’s repeated “baby” (deorling, min heort, luflice) and the class debated which worked best. The discussion was lively, with groups ardently defending their translation decisions, considering whether the appropriate forms of each word had been used, and proposing alternative phrasings to best meet the needs of the song’s rhythm. This class period involved serious intellectual work on a relatively silly subject, and it was easily the most productive and entertaining class meeting of the semester. Because the translation turned out so well, we decided to take the assignment one step further.

I challenged the students to produce a music video that would showcase their translation and I offered the video project as an alternative assignment for a short paper. I had originally assigned five two-page papers on various linguistic topics (the papers required two very dense and concisely-written pages that would be subject to multiple revisions), and I allowed students to choose to participate in the video production rather than writing one of the papers. Students who preferred a more traditional assignment could choose to write the academic essay. Ten out of fourteen students worked together to come up with a narrative and visual concept, sing the Old English lyrics, and produce the music video. Emily helped to coordinate the first few meetings of the group, and the students did everything else themselves. They used video equipment available on campus, and we were fortunate enough to have one student who knew how to use the camera and editing software. The group spent about four weeks producing the video and they shared a first cut with the rest of the class. The class provided feedback to that scenes could be added or reshot, and the final version of the video was uploaded to YouTube just after the end of the semester, where it has been viewed almost 10,000 times. An instructor at New York University showed the Old English “Call Me Maybe” to her class (she writes about it here), and they were inspired to produce their own Old English version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

The assignment helped students understand the grammatical structure of Old English, a synthetic language that relies on changes to word forms to communicate meaning, by constructing sentences in that language. Both the translation and the video required teamwork and creative problem solving in an interdisciplinary context. This project met the immediate goals of the course by helping students learn about the Old English language, and it also allowed them to apply and share that knowledge through creative expression and the use of technology. Each student contributed his or her own unique set of skills and perspectives, including those accumulated during the course, to produce a single product to be shared with a public audience. This was also one of the most fun activities I’ve done with a class and I think it fostered a great sense of community in the course.

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