Cognate Concerns? It Must Be January…

This year’s Annual Criticism of Latin, or ACL for short, is about a month early. It’s been the same old gripes with the same old assumptions going back to 2018 or so. Almost every concern rests on the assumptions that a student will continue Latin in college and will be negatively impacted somehow by the decisions modern Latin authors have made. That’s two biggies: continue Latin, and be negatively impacted.

Truth is, catering to the ridiculously few who study Latin in college is unprofessional and promotes inequity. Even then, we’ve heard from at least one prominent NYC Classics professor (Ancona) that the goal of undergrad programs is often not to prepare all its students for translating ancient Latin (i.e., that’s what grad school is for, not 3rd or 4th year high school Latin). But more to the point, there’s absolutely no proof—still—that students have been negatively impacted by any of the choices modern Latin authors have made, and that’s what makes these concerns—still—merely conjecture. Honestly, if someone can show me that students who read my books lack fundamental reading skills to the point their mental representation is all wonky and further Latin study is compromised, I’ll gladly cease and desist. Otherwise, it’s a choice to use things like cognates that were mostly post-Classical. That’s my choice.

So this year, concerns over cognates have resurfaced. Here we go again. The basic idea is that they’re not Latin…enough (despite appearing in post-Classical Latin texts…no big deal), or they’re used non-natively in a bad way. Of course, anyone responding to the latter concern points out that most students take Latin for a couple years, which is not enough time for any potential negative effects to make much difference at all. In other words, this is not a problem teachers have to worry about, especially if the benefit is students reading more Latin.

Let’s not ignore that.

My Latin might not be someone’s cup of tea, but more students are reading way more of it than some other kind of Latin of the past. Again, prove this to be a fool’s endeavor and I’ll retreat into the shadows. Otherwise, at least in my context, students who are reading more of my Latin are out-reading older students who are translating more ancient authors (re: ALIRA scores, spreadsheet to be shared soon once more teachers set aside ~10 minutes to share their scores anonymously).

So this year’s big cognate concern is that they’re being used so far from how Latin would naturally be expressed (by…whom?) that using cognates violates some kind of language teaching principle. Again, considering the two big assumptions, even if this were reality, it doesn’t matter. There’s also The Latin Problem governing all this. Also, cognate concerns represent a MUCH smaller percentage of the whole text in question, yet get most of the attention. Unhelpful. Now, when I started the clear cognate list, I was adamant that the English meaning appears *at least somewhere* in a dictionary entry. As far as I know, this has been maintained. In fact, I often go looking for Latin words that I really wish held the same English meaning, but sometimes they just don’t. For example, “mystēriōsum” as an adjective doesn’t seem to exist. Its noun does. Other words do exist, but none of the dictionary meanings match. I don’t use those, and I’m not sure who does. Again, the concerns are hyperbolic.

Another concern? Using these cognates takes time away from high frequency Latin. Once again, consider the big assumptions. The student who does not continue Latin is in no way impacted, and the student who does will see more of the more frequent anyway…that’s why things are considered frequent. Oh well, right? At this rate, I have every reason to believe I’ll be writing again on the topic next year. For now, ciao!

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