A farmer is returning from a journey. Before arriving home he meets a neighbour.
“So, what happened while I was away?”
“Nothing? There must be some news!”
“Well – your dog died.”
“How did he die?”
“Ate burnt beef.”
“Yes, burnt beef. Ate too much, killed him.”
“Where did he find burnt beef?”
“When your cowshed burnt down. Burnt all your cows, dog got in, ate too much.
“My cowshed? How did my cowshed burn down?”
“A spark from your farmhouse set fire to cowshed. Burnt it. Burnt your cows, dog got in, ate too much burnt beef.
“My farmhouse? How did my farmhouse burn down?”
“Was the candle. Candle set fire to a curtain, set fire to house …
“Candle? What candle?”
“Candle on the coffin.”
“Coffin? What coffin? Who died?”
“Your mother-in-law died.”
“What did she die of?”
“She died of a heart-attack.”
“Why did she have a heart-attack?”
“Had a heart-attack when she heard your wife had run off with your best friend.”
Teaching activity: Past tense – revising questions and statements
After telling the story, write on blackboard:
“Your dog died.”
Ask students how questions are made in past tense and what was the farmer’s next question.
Write their solution: e.g. “How did he die?”
Elicit further answers and questions (in that order):
“Ate burnt beef.” “Where did he find burnt beef?”
“When your cowshed burnt down.” “How did my cowshed burn down?”
“A spark from your farmhouse set fire to cowshed.” “How did my farmhouse burn down?”
“Was the candle.” “Candle? What candle?”
“Candle on the coffin.” “Coffin? What coffin? Who died?”
“Your mother-in-law died.” “What did she die of?”
“She died of a heart-attack.” “Why did she have a heart-attack?”
“Had a heart-attack when she heard your wife had run off with your best friend.” “???”
If wished, the facts that the to be and Who died? questions are not formed with did + infinitive, and that the final sentence contains a past perfect tense can be pointed out.
If not, modify the sentences to make them all fit the did + infinitive pattern.
The grammar activity is © Richard Martin, 2005.
Permission for non-commercial classroom use with citation is granted.
I had seen the story in various printed forms but only heard it once, told as “The Tight-Lipped Man” by an Ulster teller John Campbell on the CD Crosskeys Inn: Tales Across the Ocean (which I got from Liz Weir).
Asking that invaluable storytelling resource list Storytell listserv for background information on the tale, brought the following details within a matter of hours:
- The story in some form has been perpetuated from time immemorial. It has been traced back to India and during the period of earlier French literature was one of the many folk tales. In modern form it has been repeated by after-dinner speakers and upon phonographs, only changed to give a local colour.
- My mother’s mother told me about this. She didn’t tell it — it was more like telling about a movie she’d seen a long time before. I believe she got it from the variety stage — music hall, to you. There is a song, somewhere, too, as there often is with this kind of thing. It’s almost an urban legend.
- This story can be found in the old McGuffey Readers (5th or 6th year – can’t recall which) under the title, “How to Deliver Bad News”. I also read a version of this story in Russian Folklore, by Y. M. Sokolov, published by Macmillan, 1950.
In both of these versions a servant/serf is meeting the nobleman’s son/nobleman and gradually letting him know the entire family fortune is lost.
The Folktellers, Connie Regan-Blake and Barbara Freeman also recorded a version titled “No News.” It is on the album created to celebrate the 10th National Storytelling Festival. According to the album notes: “This humorous answer to ‘What killed the dog?’ was originally created in the early 1900’s by Nat M. Wills. The tale was revived by humorist Marshall Dodge of ‘Burt and I’ fame, who passed it on to The Folktellers…”
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