Developing Vocabulary, III

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we’ll continue with our focus on vocabulary, looking specifically at the last three elements in our list from Wednesday:

  • homophones and near-homophones;
  • prefixes, suffixes, and such; and
  • connections to English and other languages

Of these three, the second and third are probably common tools among Latin teachers, but we actually think the first one is the most important. All language learners tend to struggle with homophones, and near-homophones can be even more confusing, especially if your pronunciation of your new language is a bit imperfect. In Latin, where vowel quantity is phonemic, near-homophones with different vowel quantities can be especially problematic … and particularly so if the learner doesn’t normally pay attention to fine details. In my face-to-face classes, I like to address the importance of quantity early with some dramatic examples like

  • occidere (to fall or go down, like the sun) vs. occīdere (to kill, rather violently)
  • malus (bad) vs. mālus (apple); and of course everyone’s favorite
  • anus (old lady) vs. ānus

My students are always appropriately horrified at the thought of accidentally calling someone’s elderly grandmother a … body part, especially if that someone is a large, volatile Roman, probably armed! 🙂

In the Tres Columnae system, our first experience with near-homophones is pretty dramatic, too:

quid novī?

You probably noticed that the verbum in these sentences is almost but not quite the same.

  • Caelius paterfamiliās est.
  • mustēla mūrem ēst.

The only difference is the e-brevis vs. ē-longa … but it’s a big difference! est (short e) is a form of the verb esse (to be), but ēst (long ē) is a form of ēsse (to eat). It’s important to be careful … you wouldn’t want to be dinner when you thought you were going to have dinner, would you?

Fortunately, not all the forms of these two verbs are as similar as est and ēst or esse and ēsse … but some are.

  • “ego paterfamiliās sum,” inquit Valerius. “ego cēnam edō.”
  • “tū es Caelia,” inquit Valerius. “tū cēnam ēs.”

We’ll compare the plural forms (and the forms that refer to the past or future) of these two words in later Lectiōnēs.

On our traditional scale from 1-5, how well do you think you could distinguish the forms of esse and ēsse?

You can probably imagine the exercises that will follow. We’ll use a similar process with other pairs of strikingly-similar words … and with a few not-so-similar pairs that students tend to confuse, like solēre and sōlus or (I don’t know why this happens to my students, but it does … every year!) laudāre and laetus.

Of course, it will be up to the learner (with his/her teacher’s guidance, in the case of school-based subscribers) to decide whether or not to explore a particuar quid novī or to use a particular exercise. Remember, we are all about Ownership of learning at Tres Columnae … and that includes the learner’s right to choose to disengage from learning for a while, if necessary. We obviously don’t want any of our learners to exercise that right, but we honor their freedom to do so … and ironically, when you do honor a child or teenager’s freedom in this way, they’re a lot more likely to regulate themselves and a lot less likely to disengage. So it’s a win-win situation for everyone – another core value of ours! 🙂

Returning to our topic of vocabulary development, I want to look at the ways that Tres Columnae builds word-attack skills (in both Latin and the learner’s native language) by helping learners see the prefixes, suffixes, roots, and other word parts that go together to make up words. Most Latin teachers, especially in English-speaking countries, doubtless spend a lot of time helping their students with vocabulary development in this way, but the focus tends to be on the first language (“Today, children, we’ll learn about English prefixes that derive from Latin”) rather than on the second. The sad result, in many cases, is young learners with a lot of confusion!

At Tres Columnae, we plan to keep the focus of our “word-parts” study firmly on the Latin, and we also plan to include more types of word-parts than just the “traditional” scattering of prefixes and suffixes (really, mostly prefixes) encountered in English derivatives. In John Read’s terms (as summarized by Professor Robert Cape at this link to which I referred yesterday, we’re hoping for a more embedded and comprehensive approach even to the study of word parts. So, for example,

  • when we address diminutive endings, we’ll be able to refer to our character Caeliola;
  • we’ll look specifically at the formation of frequentative and inchoative verbs, not just present them in a vocabulary list as many Latin textbooks do;
  • we’ll pay as much attention to suffixes (especially the ones that change a word from one part of speech to another) as we do to prefixes; and, in the process,
  • we’ll resist the idea that a suffix (or prefix) has “a” single meaning … in John Read’s terms, we’ll show that even prefixes and suffixes are context-dependent to some degree.

This last point may need a bit of amplification if you haven’t recently worked with students on word-building with prefixes and suffixes. If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know that I have happily used one of the “Big Three” reading-method Latin textbook series for many years; the one I use, quem nōmināre nōlō, happens to do a very good job, overall, with inductive word-building exercises. For example, it presents a list of adjectives and corresponding nouns ending with –tās or –tūdō and asks students to figure out (1) the meanings of one column or the other and (2) the pattern of formation.

Unfortunately, my students often struggle with these exercises – not because they don’t see the pattern, but because they want the suffix to mean one thing … that is, they always want –tās to correspond exactly with English –ty or –ness, and they get frustrated when it doesn’t. I used to think it was a student problem, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a formatting problem: they see a vocabulary list and automatically assume that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between the words on the lists. After all, they’ve spent years in other classes doing the kinds of mindless vocabulary work that I described (a bit mockingly) in this post from early January!

I’ll talk a bit more about English (and other language) connections next time, and there will be a story that I hope you enjoy. In general, though, similar considerations apply:

  • we want to keep the focus on the Latin, rather than on the other-language derivatives or cognates;
  • we want the English (and other language) connections to feel like a joyful bonus rather than a drudgery-filled chore;
  • we particularly do not want to put learners at any kind of disadvantage if they happen not to know a lot of Latinate English words already! That’s just not fair! Besides, if one benefit of studying Latin is an increase in English vocabulary – and we as a profession are always claiming that this is so – shouldn’t we be aiming our efforts at students with smaller vocabularies? After all, they need us more!

So, now that you have an overall view of our approach to vocabulary, quid respondētis? I’m especially interested in your responses to the points about lists and students with small vocabularies. There’s an unfortunate (meā quidem sententiā) idea in some circles that Latin is “for” the “best and brightest,” and that others need not apply … and at Tres Columnae, we utterly reject that idea.

Tune in next time to witness Lucius, Caius, and Cnaeus’ first day at a new school, with a slightly unusual teacher (for first-century C.E. Herculaneum) who says he only beats students when they deserve it! 🙂 intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus legentibus et respondentibus! There’s still time (and space) to sign up for a Trial Subscription to the Tres Columnae project if you’re interested.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting that you kids are “horrified” when they confuse ānus with anus. A colleague of mine calls words that are near homophones, horronyms: names that cause horror when they appear because students get confused. 🙂

    • I will have to steal the “horrornym” term! 🙂 What a great idea!


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