Cognate Over Classical & Translation Shaming

High frequency vocab? Yes, of course, although one’s context and goals are important considerations. This posts looks at why we might choose cognates over the kind of vocab more frequently found in unadapted ancient Latin (i.e. Classical Latin), and how that decision can be inhibited by a bit of elitist baggage.

What’s the best reason to use cognates? So the learner who doesn’t read outside of the classroom can understand Latin—in class—more easily. Cognates increase the likelihood of comprehensibility. Even given the range of learner vocabularies in English, the likelihood still increases. That is, there’s more of a chance that a Latin to English cognate will be understood than the chance that a completely unrecognizable Latin word will be understood. Of course, students still misunderstand cognates all the time (re: Mike Peto’s “béisbol” routine), but that’s not the point. The point is to make Latin more comprehensible, and cognates help. N.B. the only cognate-use claim here is a greater likelihood of comprehension. This has a pedagogical impact, to be sure. Choosing cognates over Classical Latin can create a learning environment more like what English-speaking students in Spanish classes experience. Why does this matter? There’s no enrollment problem with Spanish classes—something we cannot say about Latin programs.

When you start from that fundamental position of making Latin more comprehensible for all learners, there’s no “but…” that needs to be addressed. Sure, any student headed for a B.A.+ in Classics will read Classical Latin. However, everyone else just won’t, and there are a lot more “everyone else’s” to keep in mind. To briefly quote John Bracey from his latest Eidolon article:

This sounds very lovey-dovey, but shouldn’t you be preparing your students for college level Latin/grad school level Latin?

The short answer is no.”

Reading Classical Latin isn’t everyone’s goal, nor is it very realistic, either. I don’t share that unrealistic goal. So, given my context when deciding cognate or high frequency, I’m going cognate. Despite what people have told us, or what our personal goals might suggest, as pre-collegiate Latin teachers, our job isn’t to prepare the 1% of 1% of students interested in Classics to read Distinguished level Latin, nor is it our job to expose students to the Latin of only dead white men of Cicero’s era. In fact, the more post-Classical Latin I read, the more I’m reminded how there are nearly 2,000 years of largely ignored voices. This also happens to be the kind of Latin with the most cognates, which makes sense given its proximity to modern languages…

Modern Languages & Cognates
When most of the Spanish (or French, etc.) that students encounter on a daily basis is filled with cognates, that learning experience is quite different from your typical study of Latin. Consider your own experience for a moment. As an English speaker yourself, have you been in a Spanish class, and/or read a Romance novel with sheltered (i.e. limited) vocabulary? I just thumbed through a few beginner Fluency Matters novels and found that nearly every sentence had at least one cognate, and sometimes two to three! That’s very much unlike the Classical Latin experience. Imagine reading Latin that’s 75%, 60%, or even 50% immediately recognizable and understood! That would mean building more mental representation of the language faster and more easily (due to less cognitive demand place on what words mean), and time better spent on clearing up the remaining “noise” (i.e. incomprehension) in the input. But how possible is it to achieve higher levels of immediately recognizable Latin?

Terry Waltz has written that there are about 3,000 Spanish words that English speakers don’t have to learn because their meaning is clear to transparent. These are cognates, and that’s a lot of them. In comparison, the crowd-sourced list in existence for over three years now has just about 600 Latin to English cognates. That’s 20% of what Spanish has. N.B. surely, there are more than just 600 cognates, but that kind of Latin has been tucked away by curricula favoring Classical Latin, which **Updated 8.19.20** according to DCC core list of top 1000 Latin words has just 100 cognates. As we unearth more of them, please contribute to the list, and help spot any false-cognates! Those figures mean that Spanish students could be exposed to about 80% more recognizable words than Latin students. That’s a lot. Then again, that’s only if teachers are writing Latin with those available cognates.

But availability isn’t everything. Despite having the cognate list as a tool for making Latin more comprehensible, Latin cognates are generally frowned upon, most notably for their non-Classicalness. Of course, that’s mostly coming from the assumption that a student’s goal is to read Classical Latin, but added to that assumption is the toxic idea that anything but Classical Latin is less-valuable (or worse). That toxic idea places obstacles to the kind of Latin that has the most cognates, and would otherwise be more likely understood by students more easily. Sadly, then—by design—most curricula don’t include any post-Classical authors. The result is a club that keeps Latin more-exclusive, and less-obvious to learners who otherwise must do “the work,” and this has been a systemic issue for a while. Hence, that baggage…

Translation Shaming
When it comes to translating Latin in college, my experience was with two broad types of professors. There were those who heard a student’s fancy translation, and replied with “sure, or just X,” drawing attention more to the English cognate, and there were those who upon hearing the English cognate in a translation replied with a “surely, you can do better than that” message.

I’m willing to bet that most of us have had more experience with the latter. It might not have been expressed aloud, either, but there’s a common sense that a straightforward translation with clear meaning is of lower quality. Students have been encouraged to “do better” for a long time. However, this has merely added to the incomprehensibility and elitism of Latin. Instead of reading “plain Latin,” less-recognizable and more-complex Classical Latin has been valued over cognatey and simple Latin for centuries. There’s no reason that has to continue, though, especially when we have more diverse classrooms filled with different learners, and teachers are drawing from more diverse authors across time.

Super Classical Highest Tier
Consider reserving the highest level of tiered or embedded readings for super Classical synonyms, phrases, idioms, expressions, etc. that replace cognate-laden and more-comprehensible texts.

I can see this being an additional fourth level to the usual three, or fifth if you typically write four levels, but if practices are streamlined, that shouldn’t add much to your writing time. Personally, I might not get around to this since a) the school year looks like it’s going to be bananas, b) I teach first year Latin students, and c) I also don’t share the unrealistic goal of them reading Classical literature.

However, if that’s your goal, keeping the most-Classical Latin at the highest level tiers that the fewest students will read is actually more-aligned 1:1 in terms of our Classics-bound-student reality. Most kids won’t read beyond the first two or three versions of a text, and that’s fine. We need to give ourselves that.

Still, if we’re hell-bent on handing out Cicero’s Latin—instead of anything else—let’s realize that we can still do that in a highest tier while also making Latin more comprehensible for all students in previous tiers. Those are good reasons for why we might choose cognate over Classical.

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