Tag Archive | gender

Language switching and “Empress Matilda of England”


As Matilda prayed King Henry quietly slipped into the chapel, “You are still in mourning, Matilda.”

Matilda turned to him and bowed her head respectfully, “Mein König!”

“You are not empress and this is not Germany.”

“Ja, mein König.”

“Stop calling me that and speak English, Matilda,” growled King Henry sternly.


“Parce que je suis le roi d’Angleterre et vous êtes ma fille!”

“Oui, sa est ta fille, Henri,” confirmed Queen Adeliza as she strode out from behind one of the chapel’s many columns. Adeliza curtsied to Matilda, “Guten Morgen, meine Kaiserin. Fröhliche Weihnachten.”

“Fröhliche Weihnachten,” smiled Matilda before switching to English, “You must be my step-mother.”

If you are a fan of the Legendary Women of World History Series, you are probably familiar with quick language switching from the above except from “Empress Matilda of England” that hallmarks the series. Historical persons speak many languages in the Legendary Women of World History, a reflection of their personal histories and the world around him. Speaking in one’s native tongue, at least occasionally, helps us remember who people are.  Language is a core part of our identity, our psychology, even when we are not conscious of it. Words carry not only their direct meaning, but a cultural subtext that literally alters how we think.  One of the many benefits of speaking multiple languages, at least partially, is the way each language forces us to work from a different point of view.

Chinese, for example, uses the same verb form regardless of singular, plural, or when something happened.  In Chinese things these are signaled through nearby words. For example 我说中文 means “I speak Chinese.” 说 is the verb “to speak.” 她们过说中文 means “they [female] used to speak Chinese. In spoken Chinese the words “he” and “she” are pronounced exactly the same. The ideas of “he” and “she” are contextual in Chinese. 她们过说中文 and 他们过说中文 sound exactly the same and in English are translated the same since English does not distinguish gender in the third person plural unlike French which does (ils sont verses elles sont).

Specific traits from our native language shape our view of the world. Gender is not immediately obvious in spoken Chinese (only in written Chinese) unlike many Western European languages where gender is instantly recognizable. Welsh often begins sentences with the direct object and puts the subject last. A famous example of that from Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd is my favourite line, “Cymraes dw i,” which means I am a Welsh woman. Cymraes means Welsh (person) in the feminine form (the masculine is Cymraeg which is the same word as you use for the Welsh language). Dw i means “I am.” Welsh often mutates. “Gymraeg” is the same word as “Cymraeg” and which one you use depends on context — and is one reason why the language is best learned in person with native Welsh speakers.

It is this massive role that language plays in our lives that requires the persons in the Legendary Women of World History series to occasionally speak a few words of her or his native tongue.  When Baron William Fitzgerald calls Matilda, “F’arglwyddes!” she and you along with her immediately know that William is Welsh. F’arglwyddes, if you haven’t guessed, means “Milady.” Incidentally “Fitz” in a name means “son of” and is the French equivalent of Welsh “ap” in a name.

Fortunately, most of the non-English in the LWWH can be figured out through context. Contextual reading is not usually the way Americans are taught to read, but it is critical skill to develop and one more reason why the LWWH make excellent texts for home schools. Contextual reading means you are working not only on the word level, but the sentence and paragraph level to discern meaning. In chapter one of Empress Matilda, I kick this up a notch in a single scene.

“Guten morgen. Sie müssen Matilda sein. Ich bin Heinrich, der römisch-deutsche Kaiser.” Smiling Emperor Heinrich looked into Matilda’s grey eyes, the blankness on her face making clear to him that she did not understand what he just said. Slowly Heinrich knelt beside her to meet her eyes, his voice soft and reassuring. “Ich werde dich nicht verletzen. Hab keine Angst. Ich bin derjenige, der dein Mann sein wird. Ich bin jetzt dein Kaiser und wenn du alt genug bist, wirst du meine Kaiserin.”

Here we are confused and meant to be confused. Matilda is eight years old and suddenly ripped from her home and family in London to be presented to Kaiser (Kaiser means “emperor” in German) Heinrich V to whom she is to be wed. Like most royal brides of the middle ages and early renaissance, she does not speak a word of her future husband’s language. Because we do not understand on a sentence level what he is saying to her, we share in her terror and confusion and in her relief when, soon after in the scene, the English ambassador steps forward and summarizes what Heinrich just said, telling her that this is the emperor to whom she is to be wed and conveying to her his reassurances that he means her no harm.

This is context on the scenic level which is the level that we operate on when in social situations. For example, a simple “Merry Christmas” can express completely different ideas and intentions depending on who we are speaking to, when, our tone of voice, and our histories with the person or persons we are saying it to.

This is the level you are sometimes asked to work on when reading Empress Matilda of England. This is a major reason why Matilda is for ages twelve and up; it requires a more advanced reading proficiency than the six previous books in the series.

Whether Empress Matilda of England becomes your next favourite book or not, it is my sincerest wish that you will never stop reading, never stop learning, and never stop seeking to make tomorrow better than today. Let’s roar!




The Economics of Domestic Violence

 The Economics of Domestic Violence

July, 2012


“Why don’t you just leave?” asked numerous acquaintances of mine in my living history group when I came to events after serious, abusive tongue lashings from my alcoholic boyfriend at the time. To them, it was irrational that I was tolerating his abuse — mostly verbal, but sometimes physical, depending on how much he had to drink that night.

Why women stay in abuse is a mystery to most people who have not lived it. But speaking to my own mother on the subject and comparing our experiences, a single common denominator showed up: women stay in abuse out of economic necessity.

It is a cruel fact that women are underpaid in the work place. Single mothers are put in the catch 22 of needing care for their children while at work, yet not making enough to pay for housing, utilities, food, and basic clothing – let alone childcare. Employer attitudes still regard female incomes as supplementary to male incomes; we seem stuck in a 1940s and 1950s idea of why women work and how children are provided for.

A lot has changed over the past few decades. Women now have the right to vote, marry later, divorce when they feel they need to, and raise children all by themselves. In other words, we are much more independent of men than we used to be. Now, instead of working to supplement a husband’s pay, we work to support ourselves and any children we might have – without a man paying most of the bills.

Our pay rate has not kept up with the changes.

The result: we do not have enough money from our jobs to pay for the necessities needed to live on our own without men. When the men in our lives become abusive, women are put into a horrible conundrum: live on the street, starve, or tolerate the abuse. For every single person I know, the first two are not an option. Are there shelters for women trying to get away? Sometimes, but as I found out first hand, they have rules that can be very discriminatory. In 1998, I was trying to get away from a violent relationship I had tolerated (for economic reasons) for three years. I asked a nearby pet store I was volunteering at to please take care of my birds for a few days because the shelter would not admit them and I did not trust my boyfriend at the time not to kill my birds. When I arrived at the shelter, they refused to help me. Why? Because I was an incest survivor from childhood and they worried I might somehow harm the other residents with “my emotional baggage.” Incredibly, the other reason they denied me: I had been raped by another student my senior year as an undergrad after accepting a ride from him during a harsh Nebraska blizzard; the weather was too deadly to walk the mile home from campus and public transit had stopped hours before. You would think a battered woman’s shelter would not blame a woman for being raped; this one did!


The idea a shelter might refuse women trying to leave is probably inconceivable to most people.

That puts us back to the original problem: if you cannot afford to leave because your job doesn’t pay enough for housing, food, and utilities, let alone any child care you have, and if shelters are not an option, what does a woman in an abusive situation do?

The answer is exactly what most women have to do: TOLERATE, WAIT, and LOOK FOR WAYS TO SAFELY LEAVE. In the meantime, many women die from the abuse or are injured for life.

I have been fortunate in that my patience, persistence and intelligence in the heat of the moment have paid off for me. In each case, it took years to find that window out; but inevitably I found it, though often at serious financial loss, particularly when getting out has meant running up high credit card balances put on food, housing, and utilities.

I am still over $10,000 in debt from the last situation. It could have been worse; I could have lost my life.

Money drives domestic violence. Never think otherwise. The women with the highest net worth are the ones who spend the least amount of time in unhealthy and abusive relationships. The work place is our first line in the sand against domestic violence. Women need equal pay and better pay! The 19th century is over; let’s earn 21st century wages!