Shades of Meaning, II

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Today we continue exploring the vocabulary-related issues that are raised by this story from the Tres Columnae project, in which young Cnaeus Caelius, as so often, behaves badly … but this time his sisters are really involved in provoking him. Yesterday, we looked at opposites, synonyms, homophones, and near homophones; today we’ll focus on some concepts that probably do have to be formally presented, as well as on prefixes, suffixes, and connections to English and other languages.  We’ll continue with more of those connections in tomorrow’s post.

First, though, a quick reminder about subscription access, prompted by a question from our friend Anita W on the Latin-BestPractices listserv.  Like many of us, she is a busy teacher who doesn’t have time to look at new materials during the school year.  I told her that, while the current Free Trial subscription offer for the Tres Columnae project does end on June 1, 2010, free access to stories and other static content (and the free subscription that permits you to comment on stories) will, of course, continue.  (And I also explained the various categories of subscriptions in my response, if you’re interested and would like a short summary.)   So, even if you don’t have a chance to use the Free Trial subscription, you can still check us out … for free … at  your convenience.

At the end of the last quid novī? explanation I quoted yesterday, I noted that the word sōlus is (at least according to Lewis & Short) quite probably related to and suus … this was actually news to me, and I was excited to learn it! (I was also excited to quote that Sanskrit word the other day, because I know almost nothing about Sanskrit … perhaps we can add a Joyful Learning Community for Sanskrit at some point if the Latin version of Tres Columnae takes off.) Anyway, and suus, and the special ways that Romans use , are another important vocabulary issue in this story:

quid novī?

For a while now we’ve seen the Latin word (and its dative form sibi). sē and sibi are called “reflexive” words because they “reflect” (or refer or relate to) the nominative word in their sentence or clause, the way that English words like himself or herself or themselves do. Sometimes sē functions in a way that seems completely natural to an English speaker:

Prīma et Secunda inter iocōs faciunt – and we might also say they joke “among themselves.”

Cnaeus in lectum iactat – and we would also say he “throws himself on the bed.”

But Romans also used the word in some ways that seem unusual to an English speaker.

For example, in Lectiō VII, one story is called Lūcius pessimē sē gerit, and in this story the servants ask num Cnaeus umquam bene sē gerere vult? An English speaker would probably say “Lucius behaves badly” rather than “Lucius carries or conducts himself badly,” and would definitely not ask whether Cnaeus ever “carries or conducts himself well.”

If you’ve ever insisted that “literal translation” shows a student’s understanding of a passage (and, to be honest, most of us have … at least at some point in our lives), please just take a moment and ask yourself what “carrying or conducting oneself” (well or badly) demonstrates! 🙂 Now let’s return to the quid novī?

And in this story, we see Prīma et Secunda cachinnibus sē trādunt. An English speaker would definitely not say that someone “handed themselves over to laughter” – or “to tears” (or sleep, or laughter, or jokes) later on, when Cnaeus lacrimīs et somnīs, servī cachinnīs et iocīs sē trādunt.

As for prefixes and suffixes, there are more prefixes than suffixes in this story; the obviously prefixed words include abī, dēsinit, commemorāre, contendit, and effundit. are the obvious words. We already will have had quid novī? explanations for THE common prefixes, but will provide links back to the con/com one since commemorāre and contendere involve slightly different nuances of the prefix. In it, we’ll note that the root meaning is with (since com and con are the prefixing forms of cum), and that, in general, we can see com words where the com means “together with or as one” (like commemorāre, where you are bringing things to mind together) and ones where it means “all together or completely” (like contendere, where you are stretching/hurring all together or completely).

In any case, please note how we’ve deliberately taken pains not to imply a one-to-one correspondence between the Latin and the English! One-to-one correspondences are rare, and language learners need to grasp this important concept! If you don’t, you can experience a lot of sad frustrations, as a recent exchange on the Latinteach listserv revealed. The teacher’s students were convinced that dīcere “means” to say or tell (i.e., that it has the exact same range of meanings as the English say and tell do), so they insisted that a sentence like dīcunt Cnaeum canem vexāre “could be translated” as “They tell Cnaeus to bother the dog.” Their poor teacher valiantly attempted to correct their misconception, but said she still felt that they had difficulty understanding the point.  My guess (and that of several list members who responded) was that the students had fallen into the “Latin is just a special code to represent English” trap, rather than realizing that Latin (or any other language) has distinctive modes of expression, and that there usually isn’t a one-to-one correspondence!

In the interest of time, I think we’ll pause here and pick up tomorrow with a point about the pragmatics of a particular expression. Of course, pragmatics can be a bit tricky when you’re dealing with a language whose native speaker population is no longer alive … but fortunately we can tell a lot about pragmatics from the more “everyday” Latin writings that have survived – things like comedy, farce, and satire in particular. Not that these aren’t a high literary form (except possibly for farce!), but they’re a high literary form that takes its inspiration, and much of its language, from daily life. So tomorrow we’ll consider why Prima and Secunda are so insulted by one thing that Cnaeus tells them.

intereā, quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Do you want to see more sample vocabulary explanations, or do you get the idea?
  • What do you think of our desire to avoid the “one-to-one equivalent” concept?
  • How well do you think we’re doing with this goal?
  • And what about pragmatics, anyway?

Tune in next time for more. grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.  Please keep those comments, emails, and Trial Subscription requests coming.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Nice posting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?

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